Giants' manager Bruce Bochy must find some answers in the second half
The San Francisco Giants enter the All-Star break with a record of 46-40, a half-game behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Giants are in an excellent position to make their move and seize control of the division.
Will this happen?
The Giants have played mediocre baseball of late and they will need some improvement in several key areas to assure themselves of the division crown.
However, the mere fact that the Giants are right in the thick of things when they have endured some hardships is a good sign. Closer Brian Wilson has been lost for the season and second baseman Freddy Sanchez will not play a game for the Giants in 2012.
Pablo Sandoval was lost for five or six weeks with a broken bone in his hand. Perhaps most critical of all, has been the poor performance of Tim Lincecum, thus far.
Let's dive a bit deeper into ten key things to watch for in the second half of the season for the Giants.
Emmanuel Burriss rarely gets playing time any longer
Emmanuel Burriss had the look of a career minor league player prior to coming into spring training. Then he had a great spring and played extremely well. He hit the ball far better than he had ever hit before, his defense was solid and he used his speed effectively. In short, he looked like a big league ball player.
In spring training, Burriss, hit .288, with a .356 OBP. He also had six extra base hits in only 66 at-bats, along with five stolen bases. Burriss' play, and the fact that he is out of minor league options, forced the Giants to keep him and jettison veteran utility infielder Mike Fontenot.
Burriss was given plenty of chances in the first couple of months of the regular season, but could not carry over his productive spring to the games that counted. In 120 at-bats, Burriss is now hitting just .208, with an OBP of .273. He has four steals, but has also been thrown out twice.
Burriss defense had been adequate. However, his inability to get on base and lack of power—he has just one extra base hit all year—give him the look of someone who belongs in Fresno.
Giants' manager Bruce Bochy rarely uses Burriss and if the team adds any additional players, Burriss should be exposed to waivers. If no team claims him, he can then be signed by the Giants to a minor league contract. If another team claims him, the Giants will lose him, but so be it.
I have stated for the past few years that Burriss cannot hit well enough to play in the majors. Once again, he has proven it. He is best suited as a September call-up, when he can be used as a pinch runner.
Utility infielder Joaquin Arias has played well and taken over the role that Burriss claimed out of spring training. This makes Burriss expendable.
My expectation is that Burriss will indeed be released, or come up with a phantom injury that takes us into September.
Nate Schierholtz has not hit consistently and lost his starting job
The Giants are in search of more pop in their offense. The right field and first base positions are two spots where a team counts on offensive production. Unfortunately for the Giants, they are not getting it.
Nate Schierholtz had one hot streak early in the season, but has since tailed off and has the look of a fifth outfielder, defensive replacement and pinch hitter. He simply has shown no ability to be a consistent producer at the plate.
Schierholtz is currently hitting .246, with three home runs and 12 RBI, in 134 at-bats. His OBP of .309 also leaves a lot to be desired.
These stats are also somewhat misleading. Since Schierholtz' hot streak against the Mets in late April, he has fallen off dramatically. In his last 91 at-bats, Schierholtz is hitting only .187, with no home runs and only three RBI.
Defensively, Schierholtz is very good. Perhaps a change of scenery would do him some good. I would not mind seeing him packaged with some prospects to acquire a stronger offensive player.
Gregor Blanco won right field job and gave the Giants a huge positive jolt at the top of their batting order. Blanco did a great job getting on base and igniting the offense. However, he has slumped lately and as his struggles have persisted, the Giants' offense has suffered.
Blanco has great speed and also a little bit of pop in his bat, when his seeing the ball well. He is currently hitting .252, with an OBP of .337. His 15 steals are tied with Angel Pagan for tops on the ballclub.
Blanco appears best suited as a fourth outfielder, who would see some spot starts, pinch hit and play defense in the late innings.
At first base, the Giants have stuck with Brandon Belt, but he is not giving them enough offensive production to warrant him staying in the lineup. In 189 at-bats Belt is hitting just .254, with only four home runs & 30 RBI. Belt's OBP is a very respectable .358, but he does not hit for power or drive in enough runs.
Giants' GM Brian Sabean will be looking for an outfielder and if he can also play some first base, that would be a bonus. A solid hitter of this caliber will not come cheap, however, and any team looking to deal will be wanting some top prospects in return.
Justin Upton has the ability and talent to lead Arizona back in the race
The San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers have both played mediocre baseball over the past few weeks. This has allowed the Arizona Diamondbacks to hang around on the outskirts of the NL West division race. At the break, they are only four games out and poised to make a run.
This is a very dangerous thing as Arizona has a very solid lineup with players like Justin Upton, Jason Kubel, Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Montero leading their attack. The Diamondbacks' pitching also is equipped with some good arms, in Ian Kennedy, Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill and J.J. Putz.
The Diamondbacks, under manager Kirk Gibson, won the division last year and will be a force to be reckoned with in the second half. In addition to Miley, if one of their young pitchers—like Trevor Bauer—emerges as a winner, this could push them over the top.
The Dodgers will be lifted by the return of Matt Kemp after the All-Star break but do not currently have enough to stay atop the division, in my opinion. Now, there is the very real chance that the Dodgers could spend some of their new owners' money and bring in some top caliber talent, which might swing things in their favor.
None of the three teams in contention, the Giants, Dodgers or Diamondbacks, currently have a complete team. Nobody, as they are currently constructed, is good enough to run away with the division. I expect a close, hard-fought race, right up to the very end.
If the Giants acquired a utility infielder, Pablo Sandoval could play first base
One of the things that Giants' GM Brian Sabean will be combing the rosters of other teams for is another solid infielder. If this player can also contribute at third base, that would be a big benefit, as Pablo Sandoval could also first base from time to time.
The key is that whoever the Giants insert, the defense must not suffer too much. The weak offensive production from Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford is somewhat offset by their generally good defense.
The second thing Sabean will consider is whether any new addition would be markedly better offensively than Belt or Joaquin Arias. If the answer is no, then there's no reason to make a deal of this nature.
Michael Cuddyer would be an ideal fit. He has played in the outfield, as well as all of the infield positions, except shortstop. Someone like Cuddyer, or perhaps even Cuddyer himself, would not come cheap.
However, now that we know for sure that Freddy Sanchez is gone for good, it is imperative for the Giants to bolster their offense in order to make a strong second half run.
Aubrey Huff was a hero of the 2010 World Series champions
Aubrey Huff had an outstanding season in 2010 and was a major reason the Giants made the playoffs and went on to win the World Series. I will forever appreciate his contribution to that team and the Giants' organization.
However, Huff played poorly in 2011 and has had a terrible start to the 2012 season. After injuring his knee in a post-game celebration for Matt Cain's perfect game, Huff is currently on a rehab assignment.
Huff also fought through some personal demons, spending time on the DL with an anxiety disorder. His star-crossed year took a turn for the worse when he sustained the knee injury, just prior to several interleague games in the AL parks. Huff had been told by manager Bruce Bochy that he would DH in many of those games.
Prior to his injury, Huff was hitting just .155, with one home run and five RBI. He has been relegated to a bench role and does not appear to fit into the Giants' plans. His chance to prove to the Giants that he could still perform at a high level, came and went when he missed his chance to DH.
If the Giants do somehow keep him through the end of August, he could act as a pinch hitter and provide some veteran leadership in September, when the rosters expand. However, until then, I don't see Huff making an impact and he is therefore quite expendable if the Giants make a couple of acquisitions.
2012 has been a frustrating year for Tim Lincecum
Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young award winner, has had an awful start to the 2012 campaign. In his 18 starts, he has a record of 3-10 and the Giants have only won four of Lincecum's games all year.
Lincecum has an ERA of 6.42, which is the worst in baseball for any starting pitcher that has any starts to speak of. Recently, Lincecum stated that he has not hit rock bottom, but I must say, he is sure very close. Only a horrendous outing against Houston in his first start after the break could sink him any lower.
It is imperative for Lincecum to turn it around and fast. The Giants have been exceedingly patient with him, based on the equity he built up from his previous seasons. However, they cannot afford to let more games slip away when Lincecum starts.
The Giants are currently six games over .500, which is incredible considering that they are 10 games under .500 when Lincecum pitches.
I believe that Lincecum will be on a short leash the remainder of the season. If he does not start performing at least up to a half-way decent level, he will likely be put into the bullpen or perhaps even sent down to Fresno to try and sort things out.
Lincecum has lost a lot of velocity on his fastball. When he first came up to the Giants, he threw in the 95 mph range. Now, on most outings, his fastball averages around the 90-91 range. You can win throwing the ball at that speed, but the key is location.
Lincecum has struggles with command all season and needs to do a better job of spotting his fastball. If he can do that, his secondary pitches will become much more effective.
There have been questions about Lincecum's command, about his mechanics and about his confidence. He has seemed to be fighting himself, through this bad stretch. It's time for him to start attacking the hitters again and throw with confidence and conviction.
While I do believe Lincecum still has it in him to be good, he needs to get it done now. I think he will start turning things around against the Astros in San Francisco, this coming Saturday. Hopefully, he can use that as a springboard to a productive second half.
Brad Penny could see some starts in the second half of the season
In the previous slide I stated that I do believe Lincecum will bounce back and at least be decent. However, the Giants must be prepared if that doesn't happen.
There are two potential options for manager Bruce Bochy and GM Brian Sabean to consider. One option is to move Lincecum out of the rotation and insert Brad Penny.
Penny is a 34-year-old veteran who has pitched well out of the bullpen for the Giants. He could likely give the Giants five or six solid innings before needing some relief help. At this stage, Bochy would be thrilled with six quality innings from either Lincecum or Penny.
The other option is that Sabean will make a deal to get a veteran pitcher to replace Lincecum in the starting rotation. If this happens, Lincecum would either be moved to the bullpen or sent down to work on things.
There are some very intriguing starting pitchers on the market, including Cole Hamels, Wandy Rodriguez, Bartolo Colon and Matt Garza. While obtaining Hamels would be a big reach, any of the others could be a possibility.
My preference would be Rodriguez or Garza, as I think they would both flourish at AT&T Park on a winning team.
Whether Sabean explores these options will depend on Tim Lincecum and whether or not it appears he can regain his form. In addition, whomever the Giants consider would also need to be an upgrade over what they think they can get out of Penny.
Padres' closer Huston Street could be available
The San Francisco Giants will be in the market and, I believe, acquire at least one and perhaps two relief pitchers. There are some top relievers who could be available, including Huston Street of San Diego, John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez, both of Milwaukee.
When the Giants made their run into the 2010 playoffs and won their first ever championship in San Francisco, a big reason for that was the fact that GM Brian Sabean acquired some productive relief help during the season.
In 2010, the Giants traded for Chris Ray, Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez, all of whom contributed to the team. Lopez and Ramirez were especially valuable down the stretch.
Lopez was lights-out against left handed batters and manager Bruce Bochy saved him for just the right moments, with the game on the line.
The recent injury to top reliever prospect Heath Hembree makes it all the more important for GM Brian Sabean to bring in a quality arm to bolster the bullpen.
The 2012 Giants are in need of some quality arms in the bullpen. Whether they go after a big-name closer is uncertain, but as a minimum, expect them to acquire at least one reliever before the trade deadline.
Sergio Romo has an ERA of 0.72
Although Giants' manager Bruce Bochy will stop short of calling it a closer-by-committee approach, expect to see more of it in the second half of this year. When Brian Wilson went down early in the year, the job was given to Santiago Casilla.
Casilla was extremely reliable, up until the past week or two. He has 21 saves and an ERA of 2.84. Casilla has only four blown saves, but three of those have come in his last four outings. Part of the problem is that Casilla has been dealing with a blister that has affected his pitching.
The Giants have been very reluctant to thrust Sergio Romo into the closer role. There is worry about Romo's knees, which he has injured on several occasions, and also with his arm. When Romo pitches too much, his arm wears down quickly and he loses his effectiveness.
Nevertheless, if the Giants do not acquire another closer, expect Romo to get more save opportunities in the coming months. History suggests that Casilla could spend some time on the DL at some point in the season, so the Giants do not want to over-work him, as they may have done in the first half of the year.
The Giants can use a big second half from Buster Posey
Although is won't be easy, my pick to win the NL West is the San Francisco Giants. They have the best pitching in the division and if Tim Lincecum steps it up, it will be even better.
I am wary of the Diamondbacks and if the Dodgers make a couple deals to acquire some big-money players, they could also win. Each of these teams has a few holes and the team that can best fix those deficiencies will win it.
The Giants will need to stay healthy in the second half and a tweak here or there should get them over the top. I look for the Giants to win 89 games and finish a couple of games ahead of Arizona, with the Dodgers four or five back.
Once in the playoffs, with their pitching, anything can happen. Could we see another magical post-season run from the Giants?
It is most definitely possible.