Thursday, September 29, 2011

Season Wrap-Up - Giants Drop out of Contention

Radio announcers Jon Miller, Dave Flemming and Mike Krukow have been hinting all season that the new "face of the franchise" in the coming decade is likely to be . . . (pause for effect) . . . not Tim Lincecum . . . but Madison Bumgarner. In a tacit acknowledgement of the young phenom's credentials--he is still only 21, and only in his first full season of work, compared to Lincecum (at 27 he's right in the middle of his career)--they're predicting, in effect, that Bumgarner's importance to this team in the coming years will eclipse the two-time Cy Young Award winner to become the ace of the staff. Why do they say this?

Well, for one thing, it's been obvious to students of the game that Tim Lincecum's mechanics constitute a recipe for physical problems. The windmill motion, and the stress on his slight frame. Traditionally, smaller pitchers who rely on a fastball to conquer opposing batters, usually have short careers. The most famous example is Sandy Koufax, whose Hall of Fame career ended at age 30. Generally speaking, successful long careers aren't built on flame-throwing. Exceptions, of course, are well-known--Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson--but they're as often as not taller men, with efficient, economical wind-ups. Long careers usually are characterized by great control combined with an easy motion (which puts minimal stress on the arm)--Warren Spahn comes to mind (5243.2 career innings pitched!). Up through age 42, Spahn averaged over 25 complete games a year; Lincecum has only thrown 8 in his whole career. So the tendency is to see Lincecum as a short-career star, whose best years may well be already behind him.

In terms of wins, there is no question that on almost any other team in the league, Lincecum would have had at least 2, maybe 3 twenty-win seasons by now. His run support has been historically low, and he's routinely opposed by the other squad's ace starter. But there have been disturbing signs. His velocity has decreased steadily. He rarely throws a fastball over 92 mph these days, and hitters are beginning to figure him out in early innings. In 2008 and 2009, Lincecum seemed capable of a no-hitter on any given day, and frequently would go for 5 or more innings before anyone broke through. His strike-out to walk ratio is declining, and despite having added what has been referred to as a "deadly" change-up, he has a great deal more trouble finishing batters off after two strikes. What does the future hold for Timmy?

Bumgarner, on the other hand, displays the kind of stuff, and mental concentration, normally seen only in veterans. He has an easy sweeping delivery, using all of his 6'5" height (the way Randy Johnson could). He seems not to tire in late innings, and his potential, assuming no unforeseen occurrence, looks to be unlimited. If Lincecum could be washed up at 34, Bumgarner might pitch for 20 more years.

With respect to the 2011 season just ended, there's hardly any reason to despair, much less complain. The team finished just six games under its 2011 record, with a line-up that would have driven most managers nuts.

When Uribe went south to join the Dodgers, he took his big bat with him (24 homers and 85 RBI's in 2010). But his replacement, Miguel Tejada, was a disaster--his career is clearly over. Aubrey Huff's solid 26 homers and 86 RBI's (in 2010) dropped to 12 and 59 in 2011. Andres Torres's great 2010 year (16 homers, 84 runs scored, 63 RBI's, 26 steals) dropped almost out of sight, and spent much of the season on the disabled list as well. Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, two erstwhile free agents, fell back into their relative mediocrity this year (and both had injury-plagued years as well). Rowand pooped out, and young Brandon Belt looked a little over-matched at times, despite being the designated "rookie of the year" at first base on opening day. Zito hit bottom, and probably is nearing his unconditional release, despite that ridiculous contract.

It's amazing to think how well this team might have performed, even given all the above problems, if Posey and Sanchez hadn't gone down with season-ending injuries. Ryan Vogelsong came in to give the team 13 wins (and a 2.71 ERA), picking up the slack left by Zito, and Jonathan Sanchez (a head case, apparently, whose future is beginning to look bleak).

Next year's chances will undoubtedly revolve around the second tier of players the team can field. Right now, the line-up would probably look like this:

Keppinger SS?
Sanchez 2nd
Sandoval 3rd
Beltran 1st
Posey C
Belt LF
Schierholtz CF?
Ross or Huff RF

--with Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Vogelsong as the starting rotation, with Sanchez or someone else (Zito???) the fifth. There's the problem at first base and short, since Brandon Crawford can't hit, and Keppinger can't supplant Sanchez at 2nd base. Could Keppinger play SS? Probably not. This also depends on what the team is willing to spend. Beltran could be very expensive, and Keppinger wouldn't exactly be cheap. Lincecum's contract is up too, as is Bumgarner's and Jonathan Sanchez's.

There's been a lot of talk about trading Sanchez for a top-flight shortstop such as the Mets' Jose Reyes--the quintessential lead-off man with speed and power. But Reyes would be expensive. On the other hand, with Reyes present, Keppinger and Torres would be expendable. And you never know, from year to year, who might blossom suddenly into a star. Belt and Crawford and Pill are each capable of surprising improvements--even Chris Stewart, a brilliant fielding catcher, could turn into a decent all-around catcher, with a little improvement in his hitting--certainly has has more potential than Whiteside. Fontenot may be kept on for utility duties. Cabrera, DeRosa, Burrell are all history. With Huff signed through 2012, Ross (now a free agent again) could be odd man out, assuming Huff can cover the breezy spaces of China Basin's right field (but again, if Beltran could take right field, Huff could stay at first, if he could get back his 2010 swing). Picking players for their hitting puts the outfield in difficulty. Losing Rowand and Torres really hurts us defensively, but we had/have no choice. You can't have an outfield that hits a collective .220, with a combined 20 total homers.

It will be interesting.

My personal pick is the Phillies. They've put it all together this year. I don't see how with their combination of power and power pitching, anyone can beat them. But I might have made--and did--last year, the same prediction. The Yankees look strong. My guess is it will come down to the big pitchers: Sabathia, Kennedy, Verlander, Cliff Lee, Halladay. I don't think Arizona has a prayer in the play-offs. But this year I don't have a dog in the show.

Let the games begin.

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