When Saturday, Feb. 14, rolls around, San Francisco Giants' pitchers and catchers will have all reported, and spring training will have officially begun in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Despite being the sleeper pick in the less-than stellar National League West, there are still plenty of things for manager Bruce Bochy to figure out before pitcher Tim Lincecum toes the slab April 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers at AT&T Park.
1. Where will the offense come from?
The $50 million question that everybody wants to talk about is the biggest problem holding the Giants back from getting into the playoffs.
The 2008 season showed that things cannot get much worse. The lowest number of home runs in the majors since 1993, the second-fewest runs scored, and the third-worst on-base plus slugging in the majors were just a few of the season's lowlights.
To say the Giants’ offense needs a few upgrades, does not make you a genius by any means.
Things will probably be better with Edgar Renteria replacing the stable of players the Giants trotted out to shortstop last season.
Despite what you think of the signing, if Renteria does anything close to what he has done in his previous seasons in the National League, he will be a solid No. 2 hitter, despite hitting .270 last season with the Tigers.
A full season of Pablo Sandoval will certainly help things as well.
He is easily the most talked-about youngster, who does not have the last name Lincecum. Hitting .345 after an impressive season in the minors, there is no reason to think that he won't continue to rake in hits in his first-full season in the majors.
2. Will Matt Cain finally get some run support?
Since the 2007 season began, Cain has been the poster boy for pitchers who don’t get any support from their team’s offense.
His ERA over the past two years is 3.71. His record? 15-30.
Almost half of his 34 starts last season were decided by one or two runs, and most of the time he was on the wrong side of them.
Some of it has to do with him being inconsistent, but a large part of it is because the Giants didn’t score any runs for him. In 19 of his starts, the Giants scored three runs or less for him. More often than not, those were his best games of the season.
With a somewhat improved offense and a better bullpen to hold his leads, one has to think that Cain will have some better success in 2009.
Add that to the fact that Cain will in better shape when spring training starts Saturday, and it is likely he will be able to go deeper in games, holding a lead for himself instead of relying on the bullpen.
3. Will the youngsters continue to progress?
Last season saw 15 players make their major league debuts in 2008, but only a handful will be looked upon to actually be contributors in 2009.
Sandoval and Fred Lewis are locks to be starters. They could very well be the bread in the Bengie Molina sandwich in the middle of the Giants lineup.
However, with everything seeming great for Sandoval, this may be the most important year of Lewis’ career, as he looks to prove that he is a legitimate left field in the majors.
He should be fully healthy after bunion surgery in September. If what Bruce Bochy says is right, Sandoval will be hitting in the No. 5 hole, giving him more of a chance to drive in runs.
Travis Ishikawa, if he does indeed win the first base job, will have to prove that he can put two solid back-to-back seasons together and hit left-handed pitching before he wins people over.
Emmanuel Burriss, who could join Ishikawa on the right-side of the infield if he wins the second base job, will look to prove he can stick in the bigs after a season, where he wasn’t expected to produce in the majors.
But that doesn’t mean the progression is limited to the big league level.
The continued improvement of the Giants’ top prospects, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Alderson, Buster Posey, Angel Villalona, and Nick Noonan, are all people who have to continue to show they are upper-echelon prospects if they want to have a chance to contribute in 2010.
4. Can Barry Zito snap out of his two-year funk and actually contribute when it matters?
Ah, that lovely seven-year, $126 million contract is looking quite good after two years, isn’t it?
Barry Zito has been an epic failure with the Giants, and has gone from the future face of the franchise to a complete laughingstock in fan’s eyes.
After a horrid first half where he went 4-12 with a 5.62 ERA, Zito changed arm angles and actually had a winning second half of the season, going 6-5 with a 4.59 ERA.
The lower arm slot was an obvious contributor. But whether it was that he had no pressure on him at all or the fact that the Giants were out of the playoff race, something Zito was doing worked.
And coming into this year, there really are no expectations for him to do anything other than what he has the past two years. So if he keeps his record around or a few games above .500, it would be considered a step in the right direction.
5. Will manager Bruce Bochy’s roster be consistent?
With all the injuries and offensive struggles that was 2008, Bochy was all but forced to mix and match to put some kind of competitive team on the field.
Spring Training will determine who will be at each infield position, excluding shortstop and the fifth starter spot.
But if the everyday lineup stays basically healthy, Bochy won’t have to hand so many players jobs that they aren’t accustomed to being in.