Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Giants Early in 2012

Since their banner Championship season in 2010, the Giants have been in a peculiar limbo. General Manager Brian Sabean's theories regarding the proper structure of a winning combination of offense and defense notwithstanding, the team continues to resemble its post-Bonds Era self--a weak-hitting line-up with superior (but not dominating) pitching. Each year its position-player profile resembles the year before: A combination of slightly over-the-hill veteran free-agents, green rookies, and contingent fill-ins. Sabean's pitching-rich approach was underlined again this year with the contract signings of Cain (8 years), Bumgarner (6 years), Lincecum (2 years) and Vogelsong (2 years)--all but locking up a commitment which borders on the euphoric--especially when you consider that Zito is still in the 6th year of a 7 year contract that pays him $19 million this year, with another yet to come plus the option. Laying out that much cash as a wager against possible injuries and predictable declines looks really imprudent, in this age of fast changing team structures and fluid player movement.

And the evidence of that imprudence is right up there in living color.

Tim Lincecum


The steady decline of Lincecum's numbers since his sophomore Cy Young year is troubling, especially given the stressful delivery, and his reliance on speed to overcome opposing batters' adjustments. Where he once could pour in 97 mph fastballs at will, now his upper limit seems to be about 92. That little difference alone, despite the development of an effective change-up, seems to have been the difference that has led to his declining fortunes. Add to that his new difficulty with control, and my reluctant worrisome predictions of a shortened career last year begin to look positively clairvoyant. As recently as 2009, it seemed probable that Timmy might throw a no-hitter in any game he started. He'd frequently go five or six innings without giving up a hit, until surrendering a weak single. Nowadays, he often has trouble getting out of the first inning; and hitters have been zoning in his fastball, clobbering monster home runs early in the count.

Last year I foresaw a time, soon to come, when Bumgarner would become the ace of the staff. That appears to have happened even quicker than I might have imagined. Still only 22 years of age, the kid from North Carolina is looking more and more mature, unflappable and consistent, and currently leads the team with a 5-1 record, and a 2.31 ERA.

Cain, a hard-luck hurler, who, at age 27, still has yet to reach his prime, has looked dominating so far this year, and if he had had any run support, might well have at least 6 wins.

Injuries have played a big part in the team's fortunes. Last year Posey went down with what I feared might even have been a career ending tragedy, but he's bounced back this year and promises to live up to his RoY glory. Whether his ankle will stand up in the catching position for long, is still conjecture. He's one of the bright spots on an otherwise ho-hum offensive line-up.

Pablo went down again recently with his "other" hamate bone surgery--abbreviating another season, and depriving the team of one of its few decent bats. Despite the fact that this "chronic" injury was not of Pablo's making, the man's weight continues to be a concern. It's difficult not to imagine that his 30-40 pounds of excess gut aren't effecting his abilities on the field. Despite a long promise and some off-season training, Pablo still looks way overweight, and his (and the team's) complacence about this problem is costing the player (and his team) valuable production--at least in my view. Pablo is a lot of fun to watch, is a fan favorite, and seems to have a good attitude. But being regularly out of shape, when you're being paid millions to perform, is a sure sign of immaturity, if not selfishness.

Aubrey Huff, whose 2011 statistical performance may have been as much as result of natural aging, as it was of poor off-season conditioning, went haywire last month, experiencing panic attacks, as his marriage (and his career) were falling apart. Huff's contribution to the team in its championship season of 2010 (26 homers, 867 RBI's, .290 batting average) was not repeated in 2011, and that was a major reason for the team's decline. It remains to be seen whether Huff will even be a part of the Giants' future. The way it looks now, he'll probably be gone by next year.

Meanwhile, speaking of first base, the issue of Brandon Belt's development remains a mystery. Billed as the new Mark Grace, or whoever you want to name, he's not panned out the way management hoped. Now, in his second year in the majors, he's beginning to resemble Marvelous Marv Throneberry or even Damon Minor. He still seems like a kid who can't see a curve, or tightens up under pressure. Holding first base "open" for him is beginning to seem like a sacrifice to someone's pride. If we need a position for Posey, not to speak of Huff, or Bret Pill, for instance, it might seem that Belt's belated maturity could get in the way.

Sabean's moves continue to puzzle me. Last year, the team picked up Miguel Tejada--who turned out to be a complete bust--and later added Jeff Keppinger and Carlos Beltran for add'l offensive punch down the stretch run. Holdovers from the previous year included Cody Ross, Torres, Rowand, Pat Burrell and Mark DeRosa--all of them long-gone now. As none of these figures contributed much last year, it was clear that the team needed to add power in the future. Despite this, both Keppinger and Beltran were not offered contracts, and instead the team acquired Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Ryan Theriot, Joaquin Arias and Gregor Blanco. Aside from one good year in Kansas City, Cabrera could hardly be described as a serious power threat.

Freddy Sanchez's shoulder is only one of many injuries he's had in his career. I speculated previously about his being prone to injury, and Pittsburgh may have seen that coming. If Freddy can't play second base, where else could he play? Without his bat in the order, you're stuck with people like Theriot or a minor leaguer to fill in. It makes one nostalgic for Uribe, who, despite his impulsiveness, was an excellent fielder and a dangerous hitter.

With Belt, Burriss, Crawford, Schierholtz each looking like journeymen utility players--and Sanchez perhaps permanently down with injuries--in the future, the decision not to pursue any power and/or clutch hitters seems positively maddening. Posey will without much doubt have a fine major league career--perhaps in the mold of someone like Carlton Fisk--yet it's doubtful he'll ever be a genuine clean-up hitter, which is where the team has slotted him this year. A .290 hitter with 15 homers and 88 RBI's isn't much of a #4 hitting threat to any opposing pitcher.

The notion that a squad of fleet-footed utility fielders with a combined batting average of .236, and no power hitters to back them up, could score enough runs to win a pennant, is quite naive. Even if Cain and Lincecum and Bumgarner and Vogelsang and Zito were to pitch at the absolute top of their present potential--with records like this--

Cain 15-10
Lincecum 13-12
Bumgarner 16-9
Vogelsand 9-7
Zito 10-11

--the team could still wind up a distant second to the current Dodgers, if they continue to score under three runs a game on average.

With Wilson gone, probably for good, undergoing a second Tommy-John surgery, the bullpen looks a lot more vulnerable than it has in the last five years, especially in middle relief, though middle relief is probably less important to this bunch of starters than it would be on most teams in the league.

On the downside, Lincecum and Zito probably don't have a very bright future, based on current trends. Certainly, Timmy's never again going to regain his former glory, and if that's true, there had better be an adjustment in strategic planning soon, or the team's chances of competing, even in a weakened division, may be decaying.

At 15-15, the Giants expectations for 2012 look anything but bleak, but without power, or speed, or average, it's hard to see how they could overtake the Dodgers, or even the Diamondbacks.

What would have happened if the Giants had signed Beltran and Keppinger, and let Burriss and Belt go? Then the batting order might have been much more effective. Beltran currently has 10 homers and 26 RBI's and is hitting .288 for the Cardinals. Keppinger is batting .313 with the Rays.

But my point here isn't necessarily with Beltran or Keppinger specifically, just with what the team's approach produces on the field. Sabean has shown himself to be quite irrational with respect to the value of journeymen pitchers, like Zito or Vogelsong, but he balks at paying good money to a power-hitting center fielder, preferring instead to focus on the development of minor leaguers, even those without nearly as much promise as they should have. Burriss and Crawford and Schierholtz and Blanco and Huff and Arias are all major league material, but how many pennants can you win with all of them playing at the same time? It's just not an effective line-up for scoring runs.

My verdict is: Trade Belt, Schierholtz and Pill for something better. Send Burriss back to the minors. Get rid of Huff, and Zito. Encourage Wilson to retire. Go shopping for some sluggers, even if they don't hit for average.

Wait until next year.

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