Thursday, May 1, 2014

2014 Giants Season One Month In

Well, it's May 1st, and the first month of the major league season is history.

It's way too early to make strong predictions, but a few things have already become apparent in the National League West. Here are how the standings look this morning:








The Dodgers, who have packed their squad with expensive free agents, will contend, but they won't by any means be running away with the division. Arizona, which figured to compete, is presently 9-22, and even at this early date, that seems like a lot of ground to make up, especially since they're 3-15 at home (goodness!). Colorado and San Diego are harder to judge. Assuming that Tulo can stay healthy, Colorado could go on an offensive tear, and win 85 games this year. San Diego has less fire power, so I rate them as less than even to win it. Right now, I'd say that the Giants, Dodgers and Rockies will contend for the division, and they're evenly enough matched that a little streak by one player or another could decide the outcome. 

The Dodgers lost Kershaw to injury in the first month, so their pitching has suffered. Greinke's been the ace of the staff, backed up by Hyun-jin Ryu, Don Haron and Paul Maholm. Offensively, they look scary on paper, with Puig, Gordon, Kemp, Ramirez, Gonzalez and Ethier in the line-up, but Gonzalez is the only one living up to his billing at present. I doubt that Gordon and Uribe will be hitting over .300 at season's end, and unless Kemp and Puig and Ethier pick it up, the team could be a real let-down. The logjam of Puig, Kemp, Crawford and Ethier in the outfield isn't likely to work itself out, if none of the contestants is having superior numbers. Puig has come down to earth, and Kemp still seems out of sorts. When Kershaw returns, though, the team will be hard to count out. 

Colorado's team average is .293. Even for Coors Field, that's a frightening number. And the team's hit 38 homers. Six of the starters are hitting over .300. And Cuddyer hasn't really caught fire yet, either. The key for Colorado, as usual, will be their pitching, which each year seems to be their Achilles' Heel. Their present team ERA is 4.19, while their runs per game ratio is 5.41. At that differential, they'll win a lot of games, especially higher-scoring ones. So the question will be consistency. Unlike the Dodgers, the Rockies seem to be peaking early, but if they keep this up, it's anybody's guess. 

The Giants, meanwhile, have been difficult to figure. With Zito finally out of the rotation (and probably due for an early retirement), we had what looked like a pretty fair group of hurlers. Bumgarner looked to be the ace, and Cain and Hudson (the team's major off-season acquisition) and Lincecum looked solid, with Vogelsong a question-mark. As expected, Lincecum's effectiveness continues to decline. His loss of velocity and control (though control seemed to be less important when he broke in) means that he routinely strikes out one per inning, but is giving up 1.44 hits per inning, with frequent home runs. In just 3+ years, he's gone from being a Cy Young pitcher to a journeyman. Bumgarner, on the other hand, until his last start, looked to win 15-18 games, still only 24 and learning. The accepted wisdom would be that he's not yet attained his promise, but this could be a crucial year for him. If he turns in a mediocre season, it might mean he'll never be more than a dream that didn't come true. Hudson, on the other hand, looks every bit as polished and skilled as he did in his best Atlanta years, pitching economically, and staying focused. Romo, now in his second year as lead reliever, is still serving up his magic invisible sliders, and should easily make 30-35 saves. 

Before the season began, the Giants starting line-up was to have been:


--but Scutaro's back condition flared up again, at first "temporarily" but as the weeks have dragged out, it's been hinted that it may be a lot worse, possibly even career-ending. Scutaro's great performances in 2012 and 2013 had led the team management to give him a big new contract, but things have a way of confounding the best laid plans. The team has ended up platooning at second with Brandon Hicks, Adrianza and Arias sharing duties, while spelling Pablo over at third on occasion. Hicks looks to be the lead candidate to replace Marco, but it's definitely a question mark. 

Belt began the season on a tear, but has since fallen into a big slump. Sandoval, apparently, is feeling the pressure of his final, pre-free-agent year. Pablo is an emotional player, who feeds off of encouragement and his own free-wheeling nature; he seems lost at the plate this season, hitting at least 100 points below his usual lowest average. Pagan, returning from an injury-plagued year, is having career-numbers, and if he keeps it up, could raise the team up several notches all by himself. Pence, who also started very slowly, is coming on. Posey, usually Mr. Reliable, also slumped badly after an initial good start, but seems to be recovering. Morse, brought in to provide some much-needed fire power, hasn't disappointed, but again, it's unreasonable to expect he'll be hitting over .250 after the All Star break--which would be just fine, if he were to keep hitting homers and driving in runs. He's playing a part previously represented, for instance, by Pat Burrell (in 2010). Crawford is solid at short. 

The team's middle relief corps of Lopez, Casilla, Machi, Affeldt and Huff is among the best in baseball. The primary question-marks, so far, are  Lincecum, Cain and Volgelsong, each of whom has had very poor outings this year. Cain's been the most disappointing, though as always, he seems routinely to be given poor support.   

If Sandoval and Belt can shake off their early season jitters and perform at anything like their potential, the team should easily win 85 games, but that probably won't be enough to take the division. If I had to choose today, I'd bet on the Dodgers, assuming that Kershaw comes back at full strength. If he doesn't, or if the Giants hitters can come together, I'd give my home team the nod. Here's what I think it would take, in sheer numbers, for the Giants to win the division:

Pagan        .285 - 12 homers - 90 runs scored - 35 steals
Pence         .290 - 20 homers - 80 runs scored - 90 RBI's - 25 steals
Posey         .285 - 20 homers - 90 RBI's
Morse         .255 - 25 homers - 80 RBI's
Sandoval    . 275 - 18 homers - 75 RBI's - 70 runs scored
Belt            .275 - 20 homers - 75 RBI's 
Hicks          .250 - 15 homers - 50 RBI's 
Crawford    .250 - 50 RBI's   

Bumgarner    18-15 3.12 ERA
Hudson         16-11 2.56 ERA 
Lincecum      12-14  3.75 ERA
Cain               10-15  3.40 ERA
Vogelsong     9-9  4.2 ERA
Petit               6-2   2.94 ERA
Affeldt           2.75 ERA 
Casilla           2.20 ERA 
Lopez            1.75 ERA
Romo            36 Saves  1.67 ERA

Looking at these numbers reminds me how unusual it is for a whole team to play at "career year" level numbers at the same time. Right now, it looks as if Sandoval and Posey might be going to end up with comparatively mediocre numbers. If that were to happen, all the other parts of the puzzle would have to work for the team to have a decent chance. 

Is this a group of guys you'd expect to win a championship this year? On paper, they certainly have the potential. But it's all a question of timing--how a team comes together, who happens to be playing well at the right time. Neither of the Giants other two recent championship teams--in 2010 and 2012--were overwhelming teams. They did it with good pitching, and timely, scratching offenses. But with Lincecum and Cain and Vogelsong slumping, the formula can't work, unless at least two of them step up. I'd say it comes down to Cain: If he can return to his usual reliable self, our chances would brighten. 

Will any of these players achieve these numbers? It could be that none of them do; and in that case, I'm afraid we'd do no better than third in the division. But if it all came true, we might win a 100 games. 

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