Monday, August 12, 2013

Whither the Giants ?

2013 has been an off year for our home team, last year's champions, the San Francisco Giants.

After winning it all two out of the last three years, a series of misfortunes and letdowns occurred this year which more or less sealed the team's fate.

Our star lead-off hitter, Angel Pagan, went down with a serious hamstring injury in May requiring surgery, effectively ending his season. Fourth starter Ryan Vogelsong went down with a broken finger for several weeks. Pablo Sandoval had his usual little nagging injuries. The primary set-up man, Santiago Casilla, had surgery on his knee. Affeldt went down for a spell. Scutaro injured a finger, and his back has been giving him problems. Blanco and Crawford were hurt for a while. The back-up catcher, Hector Sanchez, lost much of the year with a shoulder injury.  

All teams have injuries, but the coincidence of so many at one time can deplete a team, forcing it to resort to second-stringers at key positions. Baseball seasons, being so long, can seem like a long march. It's often remarked that just avoiding injuries is a key factor in remaining competitive throughout a 162 game season. Luck plays a part. Unexpected accidents on or off the field may happen. A long-festering condition can finally catch up with a player. 

Baseball is a team sport, in which all the parts of the puzzle have to fit together somehow, to make a coordinated effect. The loss of one key part can cause the whole regime to falter. On any given three game series, the difference over a season, can be expressed as one team winning two, the other winning just one, which is what separates the best from the worst team in any year, the best winning 95 games, the worst losing as many. There's a built-in parity in the major leagues, which can exaggerate the effect of being a winner or a loser. 

But injuries weren't the only reason the Giants' season fell apart. This team was built on good pitching, and opportunistic (not power) hitting. With AT&T Park's long right field wall, the strategy has been to field hitters who can run, turning doubles into triples (hence "triples alley"), and relying on speed and timely clutch hitting. The team's home run numbers have been astonishingly low, especially this year, presently sitting at 69 total. (The Baltimore Orioles, for instance, whom the Giants just played, have hit 156 so far.) That discrepancy is disheartening. But it was the failure of the starting pitching, in particular, which was most noticeable. Lincecum's troubles, and gradual decline, have continued, despite a surprising no-hitter (his first), and a few good outings since mid-season. Cain had problems, and Zito has been tragic away from home, with a road ERA above 9.00. Zito, it would seem, has finally outlived his welcome, and probably will (actually should) be dumped at season's end. He's 62-77 in 6 1/2 seasons with his big free-agent contract, hardly what the Giants dreamed when they signed him. His career is over at 35; or, he might scumble along for another five years, doing garbage clean-up relief for 2nd tier teams, a pretty sad ending to a one-time Cy Young starter. Among present starters, only Bumgarner appears to be performing up to his ability, and he should continue to shine in the coming years. Romo looks good as our stylish closer.  

Looking to the future, there are only a few positions that seem truly secure. Posey is fixed at catcher, doing a few spells at first base. At second, Scutaro clearly had his career year in 2012, but  age appears to be catching up with him (he's 37). In right field, Hunter Pence is having only a so-so year at the plate (for him), but his range and hustle alone make him a worthy choice; if he could hit 25 homers and drive in 90, he'd be terrific, not an unreasonable expectation given his history. Will Pagan return to full health in 2014? Hard to say. If he does, that should take care of the lead-off spot. Crawford is a great defensive shortstop, and his hitting is almost very good. He's still young (26) and if he can hit .280 at the bottom of the order, he's a keeper. 

Otherwise, everything seems up in the air. 

--at Third, Sandoval has been a big disappointment this year. How can a player with his native skills eat himself into mediocrity? There have been different theories on how to approach Pablo's dietary problems, but it seems clear that he lacks the focus, or the diligence, to control his appetite. If he has an eating disorder, addressing it should be his biggest priority. At a playing weight about 40 pounds less than what he presently carries, he could expect to have perhaps a decade more of good playing time. In his present "beached walrus" condition, he might wash out after another season or two. The odds are so great, there has to be a day of reckoning. If I were a Giants general manager, I'd lay it out straight: Either show up next year in condition, or you're outtahere! 

--at First, Bandon Belt, now in his second full year, has shown signs of breaking out, but he still seems to lack the concentration and maturity of a true major league hitter. First base has traditionally been a hitting position. There has been talk of moving Posey to first more or less on a semi-permanent basis, to keep him fit for regular duty with the bat. Whatever the outcome of that, Belt needs to show something now. If he doesn't show some power and savvy with the bat very soon, he may not deserve to stay.

--Left and Center field. People forget that the Giants success in 2012 was to a large extent the result of Melky Cabrera's phenomenal hitting in the first half. When Melky was suspended in mid-season for drug use, it was clear why he'd been so good at the plate. But the fact remains that left field has been only partially filled all this year, with Gregor Blanco  and Andres Torres platooning in both left and center with a handful of rookies and journeymen (Noonan, Abreu, Francoeur, Pill, Tanaka, Gillespie, Kieschnick etc.). I don't think anyone, including Sabean and Bochy, believes that any of those "prospects" really is going to solve the outfield problem. 

--Pitching. Bumgarner and Cain seem like keepers. Both are young, both are strong, with good stuff, and reliable. Lincecum is a conundrum. He seems unlikely to regain his Cy Young stuff, and despite his recent resurgence, he looks to be a very questionable bet as a starter going forward. Management may even decide to let him go this year, despite his big fan draw. Volgelsong, too, seems only an occasional fifth starter now, and may also be gone after this year. That leaves two starters in place, with the team needing two more--a tall order, given that there don't appear to be any big prospects coming up from Fresno. Additionally, the team needs to bolster its middle relief. Kontos, Mijares, Machi, Rosario, Dunning, Moscoso et al, have been mostly disappointing this year. With Casilla, and Gaudin and Lopez and Affeldt returning, we may or may not have the basis for a decent staff. But the real question is the starting rotation.

So, the weak positions that need to be addressed are: Sandoval, Belt, Blanco, and the two holes in the starting rotation. It's hard to see who the Giants could offer in exchange for a quality starter, a slugging left fielder, or a reliable permanent part-time catcher. Belt and Crawford might suffice. Crawford would be hardest to replace, though. Belt and Sandoval would be my bet. Both still have lots of potential, but significant liabilities--any team taking them on would expect them to be "projects under construction." After several years here, neither is worth that risk. I would trade both for one really good starting pitcher, or one slugging outfielder, someone (a right hander) who could plunk 20 homers at AT&T, and maybe more on the road, and give the team a respectable number four clean-up man, which they've lacked ever since Bonds left. 

Without fixing these problem-areas, I suspect the Giants will not finish much better next year than they will this one. Last place feels awfully forlorn, after last year's triumph. To fall from first to worst in a single year doesn't feel right. We weren't as good as we thought we were. And of course we aren't as bad as we seem now. But standing pat isn't an option. 

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