Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Scrum for the NL West: Giants

The San Francisco Giants won 86 games last season. That is hardly a disaster. But the win total did keep the Giants from returning to the playoffs after the 2010 World Series title. The 86-win total was deceiving. The team actually out-performed their run differential by six games. So, the reality was that the Giants were the equivalent to a 80-win team. And it really was a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde situation. The pitching staff finished second in the National League in ERA, second in strikeouts, and league best in hits and home runs allowed. Meanwhile, the offense finished third from the bottom in batting average and slugging percentage and dead last in on-base percentage. Since the offense was the problem in 2011, this preview for 2012 will start there.

In many ways, the Giants' offense in 2011 was a photographic negative to 2010. After a lackluster offensive start in 2010, Buster Posey came along in the second half for a gigantic boost. Pat Burrell came out of nowhere to hit brilliantly. Aubrey Huff had one of his best seasons as a major league player. In 2011, Posey was great early but was catastrophically injured in May on a play at the plate and was lost the rest of the season. Pat Burrell could not get healthy with a physical problem that caused him to retire before this season started. And Aubrey Huff had the worst season of his career. The Giants scored 127 runs less in 2011 than they did in 2010 and 2010 wasn't exactly an offensive juggernaut.

So what will 2012 bring? Baseball Prospectus predicts the Giants will increase their offensive run total to 637. That is somewhat between the 570 the team scored in 2011 and the 697 the team scored in 2010. That, by no means will be a great offensive machine. But with the way this team pitches, the prediction is that the Giants will score enough runs to again finish the season with 86 wins and according to BP, 86 wins will win the division. 

Aubrey Huff has become the lightening rod for discussions concerning this team. In 2010, he was a low-cost addition that paid off handsomely. The season prompted the organization to make the cardinal mistake of overpaying him based on that one brilliant season. It blew up in their face as Huff tanked. What's worse is that in the minds of Giants fans (and many of the rest of us), Huff stands in the way of top prospect, Brandon Belt. Belt, who sports a minor league career OPS over one is loaded with potential. Yet, the Giants seem loathed to simply hand Belt a job and let him fly. Huff, who seems like a really fun guy, catches the fallout. 

Projections predict that Huff will rebound slightly and are mindful that Huff had terrible 2008 and 2009 seasons before his phenomenal 2010. That sounds about right. And since he proved last year that you simply cannot play Huff in the outfield, first base is the only place you can play him. His projected offense would fall way below market value for first basemen. The interesting question for 2012 will be how long the Giants hold off Belt and stick with Huff.

Freddie Sanchez will be back at second base. His 2011 season was derailed by a dislocated shoulder. His terminally low walk rate has always been somewhat mitigated by his batting average and he has little or no power. But he is a slick-fielding second baseman and if he has an career average season at the age of 34--no small guarantee--that would be enough for the Giants to justify his value proposition.

But shortstop is a real problem. The Giants let Juan Uribe walk after his 2010 season and post season heroics and that was the right call. But then they brought in Miguel Tejada who had left his better days back in Baltimore long ago. Predictably, Tejada didn't hit but was better defensively than thought. After the Giants tired of that scenario, they gave the position to Brandon Crawford. Crawford was better defensively but didn't hit at all in his 220 plate appearances. His 66 OPS+ was abysmal. Crawford will be the 2012 shortstop with back up help from Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot. Both are better as role players than starters. Crawford was never a great hitter in the minors, but if he can at least hit somewhere close to his minor league days, that would be a big help to the offense.

Over at third, Pablo Sandoval reclaimed his flame as one of the top young talents in the game. Sandoval went MIA in 2010 but was easily the Giants' best offensive performer in 2011. Sandoval's defense also dramatically improved and he should be a solid All Star for the Giants for quite some time.

It's really difficult to understand the Giants' tactics for building their outfield for 2012. First, the team traded slick-fielding Andres Torres to the Mets and received Angel Pagan as a replacement. The Giants feel that Pagan offers more of an offensive upside but that is questionable. While Torres has never been brilliant offensively, his plate discipline was better than Pagan's and the swap really is a one win loss in quality for the Giants.

Then the Giants acquired Melky Cabrera, who had a terrific season for the Royals last season. This deal seems to be repeating the mistake they made with the Huff contract. You take a guy who has a career year and pay him like that is the reality instead of the not too distant past when that wasn't the case. Cabrera is pasting the ball so far this spring, so perhaps this analysis is all wet. Perhaps 2011 is the new reality for Cabrera. We'll just have to see how it works out.

Nate Schierholtz is solid in right. He lacks plate discipline, but his sweet swing still shows some upside offensively.

Buster Posey for a full season should be a huge bonus for the Giants provided he can come back from his horrific injury and regain his status among the game's elite catchers. As 2011 proved, a Giants team without Posey is not a fun thought for anyone.

There really isn't much need to talk about the Giants' pitching. These guys will again be among the league's leaders in performance. The top three of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner can match up with anyone in baseball and Bumgarner may now be the best of the three. Bumgarner's command with his stuff is breathtaking and all he needs is a little more luck for people to understand how good he is. Ryan Vogelsong was a nice surprise last season, but the odds of a repeat are long. Vogelsong is having trouble getting started this spring due to back woes. That doesn't bode well. And with Jonathan Sanchez now gone, the fifth spot will be filled by Barry Zito until the Giants tire of that and give Eric Surkamp the job.

The bullpen should again be top notch as long as closer, Brian Wilson, is healthy. If he is, then all the other pieces are in place and terrific. Again, this team will pitch. The question is if the team can score enough runs to help the pitchers out.

The Diamondbacks still feel like the best team in this division but the Giants should be right there with them. Tim Lincecum must stay healthy. The projection of 86 wins seems reasonable. It is highly questionable that 86 wins will be enough to win the division.

1 comment:

Thomas Slocum said...

I disagree on one score - the pitching DOES need to be talked about, as that's what this team will live or die by. Sure a healthy Posey and a (relatively) svelte Sandoval are key to the offense - heck, they ARE the offense! Unless the Giants capture lightning in a bottle in the lower regions of the starting rotation again (like they did in 2010 with Baumgarner and Sanchez and in 2011 with Vogelsong), 80 wins is probably about right.