San Francisco Giants: Possibly the Favorite to Win the NL West?

Andy Bensch@@AndyBenschSenior Writer IJanuary 28, 2009

With the offseason between the 2008 and 2009 MLB seasons shaking out the way it has, the San Francisco Giants may in fact be the favorites to win the NL West in 2009.

However, at the end of the past season, many Giants fans felt as if they would have to wait until 2011 before seeing their team become competitive again. This is why it feels so strange to find myself making the case that they could be favorites to make the 2009 postseason.

But it very well could happen.

After missing the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, including three seasons where the team was all but eliminated before the month of September, the San Francisco Giants are back where they belong: in the conversation for playoff baseball.

San Francisco has retained all of their players who made a significant contribution to the team last season, released those who did not, and replaced them with free-agent players that they feel will make the difference.

Now even though I cannot predict with certainty how Giants Manager Bruce Bochy will set up his lineup, either way he goes will bring the Giants a much improved offensive group.

2008 lineup:

1. Burriss 2B

2. Ocoa SS

3. Winn RF

4. Molina C

5. Rowand CF

6. Lewis LF

7. Castillo 3B

8. Aurilia 1B

Potential 2009 lineup:

1. Winn RF

2. Renteria SS

3. Sandoval 1B (perhaps 3B, but in my opinion, I hope for Frandsen at 3B)

4. Molina C

5. Lewis LF

6. Rowand CF

7. Frandsen 3B

8. Burriss 2B

Like I previously mentioned in my last Giants article, key pieces to the team this year are Renteria, Sandoval, and Frandsen.

Despite the questions regarding his drop in offensive and defensive play last season, Renteria is still a significant upgrade at shortstop over Ochoa and Vizquel.

Pablo Sandoval is projecting to be a 20 HR, 90 RBI guy from the first base position which is a huge upgrade there.

And finally Frandsen is a much better all-around player than Jose Castillo.

Even though the Giants will most likely not have brought in the marquee hitter that baseball followers thought they needed going into 2009, their offense will still be significantly improved.

Not only did San Francisco improve their offense but they improved their bullpen and starting rotation this offseason.

Bullpen 2008: Romo, Hinshaw, Taschner, Walker, Hennessey, Wilson, Yabu

Potential 2009 Bullpen: Romo, Hinshaw, Wilson, Affeldt, Howry, Yabu, Taschner 

The Giants' bullpen was just as atrocious as their offense last season. Tyler Walker and Brad Hennessey were two of the scapegoats and there was also Vinny Chulk who was released during the season. Let's just say Chulk's main nickname in San Francisco was Vinny "Choke". Despite having some below average bullpen hurlers last season, the Giants found some gems. 

Brian Wilson was selected to the all-star game in his first full season as the team's closer and finished with 41 saves. The Giants also found a couple of young gems in lefty specialist Alex Hinshaw and crafty right-hander Sergio Romo. 

While throwing 39 and 2/3 innings for San Francisco in 2008, Hinshaw accumulated a 3.40 ERA and 47 strikeouts. Hinshaw proved to have shaky control, walking 29 batters in that span, but that number should decrease as he settles into the big show.

Romo fared even better in his first season. In exactly 34 innings, Romo accumulated a 2.12 ERA and 33 strikeouts while only walking eight batters. Romo also only allowed 16 hits and after adding those hits to his eight walks, it only totals to 24, which comes out to be an outstanding 0.70 WHIP.

The Giants will return these these three studs back to their 2009 bullpen and will be without the three worst performers of their 2008 bullpen in Walker, Chulk, and Hennessey.

But that's not all, the Giants are replacing them with two free-agent relievers. The first free-agent to be signed by any team was Jeremy Affeldt. Affeldt finished with a 3.33 ERA with 80 strikeouts and only 25 walks in 78 and 1/3 innings for Cincinnati last season. 

The Giants also brought in veteran reliever Bob Howry who, despite having an off-year with the Cubs in 2008, finished with a 5.35 ERA in 70 and 2/3 innings and is still one of the better relievers in the game. His stat lines from the previous three seasons before last year look like such:

2.47 ERA, 73 innings, 16 BB, 48 K

3.17 ERA, 76 2/3 innings, 17 BB, 71 K

3.32 ERA, 81 1/3 innings, 19 BB, 72 K

Now we have yet to see what this Giants bullpen can do on the field, but one could make a strong case that the Giants are going from having the worst bullpen (on paper) to the best bullpen in one year.

How about taking a look at what many experts consider to be the strength of the Giants, their starting rotation?

2008 Rotation: Zito, Lincecum, Sanchez, Cain, Correia, Henessey/Palmer

Potential 2009 rotation: Lincecum, Randy Johnson, Cain, Zito, Lowry, Sanchez

Perhaps the sneakiest free-agent signing any team made this offseason was the Giants taking the Big Unit away from the Diamondbacks. Yes, at age 45, Johnson is old and injury prone, however he isn't as washed up as one may think. Even myself for instance thought he was too old, but wouldn't you know it, the future Hall-of-Famer went 11-10 with an 3.91 era and 171 strikeouts to only 44 walks last season.

With the addition of Johnson and the probable return of Noah Lowry, who missed all of 2008 to injury, the Giants rotation will be even better than it was in 2008.

They now sport three different Cy young award winners, three starters with over 170 strikeouts last season, and from the last full season of each of their returning four starters, a combined record of 50-44. Only slightly over .500 ,but remember the Giants over the past few seasons as a team have finished significantly below .500 and this season they have re-loaded their bullpen.

The fact is that the Giants have improved their team in each of the three facets of a professional baseball team: offense, bullpen, and starting pitching.

No other team in the Giants' division has come even close to improving their team to the rate at which San Francisco did.

New ownership in San Diego has done nothing but shed salary by getting rid of heavy contracts and has been actively trying to ship out their ace pitcher Jake Peavy.

The Rockies traded away their best player this offseason in Matt Holliday and the players received in return do not nearly make up for the offensive hole his departure leaves them with. Their pitching is just as suspect as always and experts aren't looking for Colorado to get back to the World Series any time soon.

The Diamondbacks have lost some key free-agents including their closer, right-handed reliever Brandon Lyon, and Randy Johnson. Arizona is also not likely to re-sign either their former second baseman Orlando Hudson nor outfielder/first baseman Adam Dunn, who are still currently free-agents.

And last but not least, the offseason of the Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B and future hall-of-famer Jeff Kent retired, the Dodgers' hard throwing reliever Scott Proctor, closer Takashi Saito, and starter Brad Penney all signed with the Red Sox, and another starter, Derek Lowe signed with the Braves.  

Needless to say the Dodgers sufferred a major blow to their pitching corps through free-agency. But the determining factor on whose favored to win the division will of course be where Manny Ramirez decides to sign.

And as of now, it appears the only two teams who have showed considerable interest are both the Giants and the Dodgers. Personally, as a Giants fan, I believe the Giants don't need Ramirez on their club. For as much offense as he provides, I am skeptical about his defense and his persona in the club-house. The Giants are just beginning to become a unified team once again after the departure of Bonds.

So in the ideal world, Manny will end up signing with a team not named the Dodgers or the Giants. However at this point, that doesn't seem likely, hence their are two scenarios.

Scenario one: Giants sign Ramirez; Not only would the Giants benefit from the added offense from one of the league's best hitters, but they keep him away from the Dodgers, which in my opinion is more valuable than the offense he would provide for the Giants. If this happens, San Francisco would be clear front-runners to win the NL West.

Scenario two: The more likely scenario. Dodgers sign Ramirez; This would once again solidify a powerful lineup including young stars Matt Kemp, James Loney, and Russell Martin. This would give the Dodgers a slight edge over the Giants and would make LA the favorite to win the NL West.

Either way, the Giants have significantly added talent to their roster that they didn't have for the majority of last season. The only other team in the West to make a significant addition to their roster(an addition that they didn't have for the majority of last season) was the Dodgers with the trade for Ramirez.

Therefore, even with Manny potentially on the Dodgers, the San Francisco Giants are going to be right up there with Los Angeles at the top of the NL West in 2009.


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