Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Springtime in Arizona

Spring is here, and that means Spring Training is coming to an end for the big league ball clubs. Rosters are being trimmed, warm-ups and fine-tuning are winding down, and soon the money and the dreams will be placed on the table of a new season. 162 games, a grueling season of 13150 innings (give or take a dozen or so), 25000 pitches, and that doesn't count post-season (or pre-season for that matter). 

Every year, I get a little twinge of curiosity and excitement about the upcoming season, a hold-over I suspect from my childhood, when the Spring semester of the school year began to wind down, and the open spaces and possibilities of Summer appeared on the horizon. Just as vacation time came around, the boys in white cotton were starting the long grind of the Summer Game. As a boy, I played in organized ball between the ages of 7 and 14, stopping after my sophomore year in high school, diverted by the more enthralling demands of philosophy, literature and music. My interest in sports would, over the next couple of decades, take a backseat to an academic adventure, steady work, and forays into serious writing, music and marriage and father hood. I briefly followed the Oakland Athletics and Golden State Warriors during the 1970's, but otherwise had little interest in pro-sports. 

By the time the new Giants stadium at China Basin opened in 2000, Barry Bonds had been installed as the team hero, and its prospects had begun to brighten. Still, it would be another decade before the Giants would win the first of their three championships since moving to San Francisco from New York (2010, 2012 and 2014); and by that time, Bonds was gone, chased out by allegations, and legal troubles involving illegal drug use (steroids). The team's run over the last six years has been phenomenal with a combined record of 608-526 over that span. 

Each year at this time, teams begin to size up their chances and imagine how they may fare against their immediate opponents in their own division, as well as against the rest of the teams they will face during the season. Competition is expressed as a wager of odds, and in pro baseball, much of it's about statistics, since the sport is, if nothing else, almost overburdened by statistical data. Everything that can be measured is measured, and cross-referenced, and tallied and converted into algebraic formulae--all for the simple pleasure of estimating the relative values of individual players, on-field strategies, and the merits of the respective teams.  

I've never been much interested in statistics, but it is fun to speculate about what the Giants might do this year, their "on-year" in the pattern of alternate year championships over the last six campaigns. 

Every year, teams look a little different than the last. Players retire, or are traded, or sign as free agents with other clubs, or are demoted back to the minor leagues. Sometimes, players change positions. Starters go to the bullpen, an infielder moves from short to third, a catcher moves to first base; and in the American League, a position player takes on the Designated Hitter spot in the line-up. Players get older, younger ones arrive, and the complexion of the team changes, sometimes a lot. That illusive quality, "team chemistry" changes too, as the focal point of the team's sentiment shifts to accommodate the inspiring leaders from year to year. 

This year, there are few changes to note, and some of those were expected.

Timmy Lincecum, the team's former phenomenal Cy Young winner in 2008 and 2009, ran his string out, as his contract ended, and his declining fortunes (and failing health) resulted in his being (at least at present) without a contract. It will be strange not thinking of Timmy on the team this year; but his small body and jerky-jerky wind-up finally wore him out, and it may be ultimately the end for him.

We've said goodbye to Ryan Vogelsong, a journeyman who came back from Japan after 4 years, and helped the team as a fifth starter for five good years. He has a one year deal with the Pirates.

Tim Hudson retired, as expected. We liked his experience and dedication, but he had become only a shadow of his former dominant self, and winning a World Series in 2014 made it all worthwhile for him. Happy Trails, Tim. 

Jeremy Affeldt, he of the "scud"-pitch, also chose to call it quits. I was never much impressed with his side-winding delivery style, and uneven performances, so I'm not too worried about losing him. 

Yasmeiro Petit, our resident major-domo of the staff, was signed by the Washington Nationals. Good luck to him, too. He may be missed.

Mike Leake, whom the Giants had considered as one of its regular starters, went to St. Louis for pretty impressive money (six years at 93 million, five years guaranteed!). I'm not sure we would ever have paid him that much, based on how he performed for the partial season last year. 

The stylish lead-off hitter Nori Aoki wasn't offered a contract by the Giants after his one free-agent stint in left field--which rather surprised me--and he signed with the Mariners for two years. That left us with a hole in the line-up, which was quickly filled. 

With respect to acquisitions, the Giants signed Johnny Cueto, the durable starter formerly of the Cincinnati Reds (102-70 in 8 years in the majors)--with the Luis Tiant-wind-up, the long dreadlocks, and the quirky character. We signed him for 7 years, so we can only hope that his future is rosier for us than Barry Zito's was. 

In addition, the team signed another relatively high-profile free agent, Jeff Samardzija. Despite his mediocre won-lost percentage, Samaradzija's strike-out numbers suggest that 2015 was an anomaly. Still, he's one of those journeyman who could have two or three really good years, and he could eat up lots of innings, if he can keep hitters from hurting him with the long ball.  

With Aoki's departure, and Pagan's decline, the team signed Denard Span for four years. Span is a speedster who steals bases, can turn doubles into triples (a big plus at China Basin), and he scores runs. The hope is that his off year in 2015 was just that. The team desperately needs speed.

Returning from injury years are Joe Panik, Pagan, Cain, Belt and Pence. (Parenthetically, it's fun to imagine how much better the team would have performed in 2015, if those injuries hadn't occurred.) Panik, Pence and Belt are all in their prime, and given an injury-free year, they could all play at a superior level. 

At third, Matt Duffy quickly made fans forget roly-poly Pablo Sandoval, who now suffers from the exaggerated expectations of Red Sox fans. 

In the outfield, Pagan will share time with Span, and Gregor Blanco (who had a career year last year as the roving outfielder sub). 

At catcher, we have the reliable anchor Buster Posey, whose Hall of Fame career is unfolding as expected. 

So here's a wild stab at our opening day line-up, insofar as I can deduce it from the team's announcements. 

Span [LF]
Panic [2B]
Pence [RF]
Posey [C]
Belt [1B]
Duffy [3B]
Crawford [SS]
Pagan [CF]

The list of starters seems right now to be Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Peavy, Cain and Heston. That's six, but things haven't really clarified given the performance of this group during Spring training. No one--not a single member of this group--has shown any consistency at all, giving up lots of hits and runs. 

Out of the bullpen, we still have Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Hunter Strickland--any one of whom could end up being the putative closer--with Javier Lopez and George Kontos as set-up men. 

There are the usual group of utility players and spot pitchers: Tomlinson and Adrianza on the infield, Osich and ??? in the bullpen? 

Given pre-season expectations, and the improvements to the other teams in the division, I wouldn't expect the Giants to do as well as they'd like, unless the starting pitching does better than expected. I have sincere doubts about the abilities of Peavy and Cain to pull their weight. And if Samardzija and Cueto have mediocre years, things could get very dicey by mid-season. 

The offense looks good, if Span and Panik and Pence can hit over .260. And if Belt and Posey and Crawford could each hit 20 homers or more, things could be exciting. But Posey is still the only true star player in this group. For a team to succeed, most of the players have to play up to their potential, and though there's a lot of potential here, there's also a big possible downside. 

Expect Bumgarner to win 18 games, but beyond that, no one is a sure thing. Expect Posey to hit .300. Expect Casilla and Romo and Strickland to get 35 saves between them. Hope for a team batting average of .275, a team ERA of 3.40, pray for 200 homers. 

Anything can happen. There are really way too many question-marks about this squad, too many to fuel much optimism. I expect the Giants to fight for second in their division. Arizona looks much better this year, the Dodgers about the same. My expectations are muted, but I'll be rooting for'em nonetheless. 


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