Usually a professional baseball team's chances aren't determined by injuries. The loss of a star player before or during a regular season can influence the course of events, but seldom determine them. In professional football or basketball, the loss of a high-scoring guard or center, or a star quarterback (around whom all the action revolves), may destroy the competitive potential of a franchise. But baseball is nothing if not a team sport. Nine men take the field at any given time. The presence of a star hitter is only 1/9th or 1/8th of a team's offensive strength. A star pitcher only pitches once in every five or six games, and even then, is only likely to account for as many as 18-24 wins in a single season.
But the removal of two key star players from a franchise is probably enough to seriously hamper the performance of a whole team, regardless of when in the year the players are taken down.
This year, the loss of Buster Posey, the Rookie of the Year in 2010, heralded from his arrival as a star catcher destined for great things, who led the team to a World Championship, could have spelled doom for the club. Yet the Giants are a team built around pitching, not a strong offense. Could the team have succeeded without Posey in the line-up? Probably.
But two developments since Posey's season-ending injury have shown that things are probably now worse even than before. It was commonly thought that Posey's value to the club was in his capacity as a good hitter. He even showed some power last year. But less remarked was his mature handling of the team's quality pitching staff. When Bengie Molina was traded away last year, there were moans about the loss of a seasoned veteran behind the plate, a catcher who could "settle down" those raw young arms, and keep games in perspective. Molina was a streaky, unreliable hitter, but he brought stability to the staff at the catching position. It was thought that Posey would not be the catcher Molina had been.
But the experts were proven wrong--again. Not only did Posey take charge in the clean-up spot in the order, he stepped up to the plate defensively, as well, playing his position with nearly error-free performance, throwing out base-stealers, and generally guiding the pitching-staff like a veteran. This was a complete surprise.
The loss of Posey, then, wasn't merely a blow to the offense, but it ripped a big piece of the mainsail out of the team's pitching as well. Posey's replacement, Eli Whiteside, has shown just how important Posey had become to the team--not merely with his bat, by through his strong presence behind home plate. Whiteside (and his back-up, Chris Stewart) comprise a pale shadow of what Posey had become to the team. Batting a combined average of under .200, Whiteside and Stewart look like the career minor-leaguers they clearly are. Stewart has shown skill in throwing in steal attempts, but otherwise the team lacks a major league catcher now.
If all that weren't enough, Freddy Sanchez, our National League batting champion and best clutch hitter on the team, went down 10 days ago with a dislocated shoulder, and is not expected to play again this year. Sanchez had been batting just under .300, but his clutch hitting had been more important than his average indicated. Lacking a true power hitter (Sandoval had been out for several weeks recovering from a broken bone in his hand), with Huff and Ross and Burrell all in power slumps for most of the year, the team had relied on Sanchez to get clutch hits in key situations, and he'd been fulfilling that need with stunning regularity. Huff, Ross, Burrell, Rowand, and Tejada had all been expected to supply more power and RBI production than they have. Even if only one or two of these players had produced as expected (or hoped), the team would have fared even better than they have so far.
With Sanchez gone, and Posey gone, and the rest of the veterans in a lingering power slump, the team's offense has fallen on its ass. Their average with runners in scoring position is the worst in the league. Despite above average pitching for most of the season, the Giants look very vulnerable now. Either Arizona or Colorado could go on a tear and knock them right out of contention.
Championship seasons are often the result of a collaboration of good years by a number of players. The coincidence of that happened last year, as everything came together in the right order, and the Giants peaked in the post-season. A few weeks into the current season, I compared the line-up as it had evolved from the putative starting day line-up as it was proposed at the season's first game.
At the season's beginning, Cody Ross, Brian Wilson and and Mark DeRosa were on the disabled list. That meant that Aubrey Huff had been shifted from first base to right field, and Burrell (platooning with Rowand), was replacing Ross, last season's key late acquisition. First base belonged to very young Brandon Belt, the minor league phenom with high expectations; and shortstop was assigned to new free-agent signee Miguel Tejada. DeRosa returned briefly in early season, but re-injured his wrist, in what now seems a confirmed career-ending condition. Ross returned from the DL, forcing out Burrell and Rowand. Tejada began the year in a deep slump--both at bat and in the field. Then Sandoval went down with a broken bone in his hand, and the Giants platooned Fontenot and Tejada at third and short; and the team called up Burriss, and, later, Brandon Crawford, from the minors, when Fontenot was injured. And Zito too injured his foot. To replace Zito, the team acquired veteran Ryan Vogelsong, who's been a pleasant surprise, pitching much better than could be expected (much better than Zito certainly would have, if he hadn't gotten hurt).
Brian Sabean has refused to trade for any high-priced veterans to replace empty places on the squad. There were calls for the team to hire an experienced late-career catcher (such as Ivan Rodriguez) to fill the gap, but the team has done nothing outside the organization.
Right after Sanchez went down, Pablo Sandoval--who'd been leading the team in hitting when he went down--returned, so some of the slack of Sanchez's loss was tightened up.
But on balance, the team has been playing hurt most of the season, and now that two of its four or five best offensive batters are out for the season, the team's chances of repeating, even at the level of the National League pennant, appear slimmer. A team that can't hit more than 150 home runs, and doesn't have a legitimate challenge or two in the line-up when facing opposing starters, is living dangerously.
When Sanchez went down, that was the last straw. If we make it to the playoffs, as seems within the realm of possibility, I doubt we could be as competitive as we were last year. With this line-up--
--things are looking a little grim. Tejada has been a complete disappointment. Huff and Ross and Torres (just back from injury) have been hitting well below expectations, and seem incapable of picking up the slack caused by the loss of Sanchez and Posey. The whole team is playing below its previous level. This kind of performance chart is nothing new in team sports, but the Giants have had more than their share of bad breaks this year. Even the starters--Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez--have run into a streak of poor starts. Are these failings the cracks in the wall, presaging a long decline in a team that seemed destined for years of glory? The only pitchers earning their money lately have been Vogelsong and Bumgarner, though neither has enjoyed the kind of run support they deserve. Bumgarner's 3-8 record belies his performance.
Only Wilson, and Romo, in the bullpen, have been able to play at last season's level.
With Zito set to return, there's speculation that he'll be relegated to the bull-pen as a medium inning reliever--which wouldn't disappoint anybody. At this point, we could hardly endure another spate of his 3rd rate antics. Zito appears, by all accounts, near the end of his career--unable to raise his velocity above 88, and lacking control and concentration in tough situations. He may never be a regular starter in the bigs again, despite his huge contract.
Will any one of the veterans "step up" to the plate and start driving in runs? It seems unlikely. Hopes are fading. A repeat seems a remote thing these days.