It's a long season.
Back on March 31st, I speculated about the Giants' chances in 2011, after a surprising world championship in 2010. The team's starting line-up--
--has changed, predictably, given injuries and the ups and downs of individual performance. Brian Wilson began the season on the DL, and shortly afterward was joined by Torres and Cody Ross. DeRosa, nursing a bad wrist that didn't respond to treatment, was still in rehab; Freddy Sanchez has had knee problems; Brandon Belt couldn't hit big-league pitching and was sent down for more seasoning in the minors; and Pablo Sandoval broke a tiny bone in his hand, necessitating a month and a half on the disabled list. Barry Zito also managed to hurt himself, apparently for the first time in his career--though there were rumors the team management were actually kind of relieved that they didn't have to worry about him for a while.
Meanwhile, the team's inter-season acquisition, Miguel Tejada, was a flop, batting around .200, and making costly errors in the field at both Third and Short. I will note that I was disappointed when the Giants made no effort to keep Uribe (who signed with the Dodgers), who had been the true glue in the Giants infield in 2010. Bringing in Tejada, whose numbers had been steadily declining for the last three years, at age 37 (Uribe is only 31), looks to have been a really dumb move on Sabean's part. The addition of Mike Fontenot and Burrell for utility fill-in has been, again, predictably unsuccessful.
Throughout the first 35 games of the year, the whole team has been in a batting slump (with the exception of Sandoval, who's unavailable for at least another month). With Torres out, the team led-off with Rowand, who performed in his usual frustrating, streaky, manner. Huff, Burrell and Posey all were hitting in the low two-hundreds for this period, and team "power" simply didn't exist. Without speed, or power, it's hard to see how any team so constructed could long compete.
But pitching has been the story this year, as it was last year. Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez have mostly been very good, with Bumgarner taking over Cain's old "hard luck" position (starting the season presently at 1-6). With Zito out, new arrival (and reconstruction project) Ryan Vogelsong has been a pleasant surprise, winning three of his four starts, with a 2.36 ERA. Among relievers, only Affeldt seems to be underperforming. Wilson has 12 saves, despite 2 terrible outings. And Ramirez, Lopez and Romo have been the brilliant set-up men they were last year. With Ross and Schierholtz (who finally seems to be coming into his own as an all around fine hitting outfielder) in place of Rowand, and Burrell, the line-up looks solid, at least on paper. DeRosa's career--and the Giants' patience with him--seems finally at an end. What would have happened had the Giants put out the cash to keep Uribe (and Ishikawa)--instead of signing Tejada and sticking with DeRosa? Team chemistry is a funny thing. Tejada may seem committed, but his body language and approach seem very compromised--his career is clearly about done. Belt might be brought back up, but there shouldn't be any hurry about that (he's only 23).
Another encouraging sign is Bumgarner, who, despite having very frustrating numbers, has stayed focused and pitched very well last night against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, narrowly missing a shut-out (and his first complete game). Take away Sandoval's .313 average when he went down, and the team's combined average is only .238, compared to last year's total year's figure of .257. Clearly, the team won't be able to hold the line with that kind of offense (especially without any power numbers). Last year the team hit 162 homers; at the current pace, the team would hit only 124).
With 43 games completed, the Giants are 24-19. That would yield 90 wins at a steady pace. Last year, the team was 92-70. You could say the team is performing at about the same efficiency and success as it did in their championship year of 2010. But you'd be wrong. Almost no one on the present team is performing the way they've been expected to. At this point in the season, Lincecum should have at least 5 wins, Posey should be batting .300 with 35 RBI's, Huff should have 8 homers, and so on. When Sandoval comes back, that will help, but it can't cure this present anemic batting.
At least two position players will have to start performing up to skill-level, or the wins will stop coming. Last year's surprising play-off run was the result of the old adage about good pitching prevailing in a short series (5-7 games). This year, if the team continues at its present clip, the play-offs are definitely in the picture. But running on three wheels is always risky. With an improved offense, the pitching would have much more impact. The Phillies are only 2 games better than the Giants, despite a hefty power-laden line-up.
There's only so much tinkering you can do with a fluid line-up; Bochy has been moving players around freely to maximize whatever potential the team can muster. But he's no miracle worker. The guys have got to start hitting. There's been a hint of that lately--we got 13 hits on Wednesday, 10 the day before, and 10 the day before that. But there's a briskness, a friskiness which is lacking. The averages of batters with men in scoring position is woeful. Repeatedly, the team fails to pad leads, or to come through in tight situations when there are runs on the table. Back in 2009, I complained that too many Giants hitters were undisciplined at the plate--Molina, Burriss, Renteria, Sandoval, Fredy Lewis, Rowand, Winn, Uribe, Schierholtz, Velez, Torres--as well over 2/3's of the offense performed like minor leaguers, swinging at balls a foot outside or in the dirt, trying to out-guess the pitchers. That lack of discipline is still evident in Rowand and Tejada this year, though there have been stretches when Huff and Posey (and Belt) were just as sophomoric in their performance. What's the problem? In 2009, I thought it was the hitting coach. But now I'm not sure what the problem is. Are the players still "distracted" by the hoopla over their championship season last Fall?