With the San Francisco Giants barely off the All-Star Break and seemingly poised for a playoff push, a lot of fans are overlooking the fact that this team wasn't expected to contend until 2010, as was envisioned by general manager Brian Sabean, former team president Peter Magowan, and his successor Bill Neukom.
In light of that, last week's piece about the future of Tim Lincecum will now be the first in a series of articles that looks at each position for the Giants and assesses the situation for next season. Each player on the roster will be looked at, weighing their contract situation, performance, and their overall fit into the puzzle of the "Giants Way."
Each article will also be coupled with a parallel article addressing the Giants internal options, as conducted by fellow Community Leader and Giants' minor-league expert Danny Penza.
This installment will take a look at the starting pitching rotation with the exception of Lincecum. As San Francisco has certainly shown this year, the starting rotation is the backbone of an organization. Without pitching, all the offense you have can go to waste (see Texas Rangers before this year).
The Giants' pitching staff is tied with the Dodgers for the best ERA in the majors right now (3.60). They also have the most complete games (eight, tied with Kansas City) and have thrown 13 shutouts, four more than the next highest team (nine, Cincinnati).
Their starters have played a huge part in that, and behind the repeat performance from reigning Cy Young winner Lincecum and the surge from Matt Cain, have emerged as a veritable have arguably the best one-two punch in baseball.
Lincecum is under contract until the end of this year, but as discussed here, he will be under team control until 2012, so there's no need to worry about the Yankees trying to swoop in on "The Franchise." So we'll start with the rest of the rotation, as it was on Opening Day.
Randy Johnson (DL), One year/$8M (2009)
Randy Johnson's signing was seen by many to be a publicity ploy by upper management. After a mediocre, injury-shortened year in Arizona, his quest to 300 wins seemed to outweigh what his Hall of Fame career brought to this pitching staff.
Never known as fitting the mentor role, Johnson's contribution upon his return to the Bay Area has been immeasurable. Although not seen by the media, the focus and determination seen in the rest of the young staff is not just the result from another year of experience.
Johnson's impervious concentration on his individual performance is evident even when Cain or Lincecum take the mound. His advice, albeit concise and gruff, gets across to the young players. Just ask Jonathan Sanchez, who praised the Big Unit and his teaching ability in this article following his no-hitter.
After a slow start, Johnson was rallying back, winning five of his last eight starts before he was sidelined with a shoulder strain. He himself stated that the Giants signed him to win the games after number 300, and that he was committed to living up to being the number two starter on the team.
As for his status with the Giants for 2010, that all depends. Johnson already has Hall-of-Fame numbers, and will most certainly be voted in on the first ballot. He has 300 wins, a World Series ring and World Series MVP Award, and an unprecedented five Cy Young awards. But he's ever so close to getting his 4,000th strikeout, something that will probably not happen this year.
Depending on how serious his shoulder injury is, his time on the disabled list may just be a precursor to what's to happen in the future. In the games that he has looked sharp, he has been very reminiscent of his old self, mowing down hitters with his signature slider. But it seemed to take Randy a lot longer to get into that groove this year, and he hasn't been in it to stay.
At his age, Randy Johnson is still an asset to this team, especially as they make their playoff push. The Giants are not obligated to pick him up again next year, and if health continues to be a concern, they won't, especially with who they have waiting to take his spot in the rotation.
Matt Cain, Four years/$9M (2007-10), plus 2011 club option
Matt Cain is the prime example for why a club buys out a young player through their arbitration years. As explained in the Lincecum article, Cain was signed to a long contract in 2007 that locked him up through his time under team control. This gave Cain some job security, and also allowed the Giants to keep him under contract for relatively cheap.
After a couple very hard-luck years, Cain is finally breaking through that glass ceiling that was holding him back. His growth from 2008 to 2009 has been enormous, and the statistics and national recognition reflect that.
Cain is second in the National League in ERA, behind Dan Haren. He also has a .857 winning percentage and three complete games, both of which lead the league. His WHIP is lower than last year, and his walks are down as well.
But the most impressive growth for Cain has been his maturation as a pitcher. Cain came in as a 20-year-old thrower, routinely hitting 97 and 98 on the radar gun, but also walking a lot of people and showing signs of unease with runners on base.
Now he has taken time to develop a couple more pitches, including a great curveball and a good slider. He's also taken a few miles per hour off of his fastball, which allows him much better control.
His poise is a great asset now. He is still giving up hits and walks, but instead of worrying and letting his pitching pay the price, he is buckling down, stranding more runners on base than he ever has in his career.
Little things like these are the signs of better-than-average pitchers, and lest we forget that Cain is actually younger than Tim Lincecum, we can assume that he is only going to get better.
Cain's future with the team is secure. The Giants will most certainly pick up his option, so look for him and Lincecum to be the one-two punch in San Francisco for a long time.
Barry Zito, Seven years/$126M (2007-13), plus 2014 club option
Barry Zito continues to be one of the hardest people in Bay Area sports history to defend. He's not quite on the Al Davis level yet, or the Mike Nolan level even. But he's up there.
It seems that every time he comes out and does something good, I'm right there with him, and then he turns right around and bombs. Take his past two starts before the break.
On July 7 he manhandled a hard-hitting Florida team, pitching 8.1 shutout innings, striking out six. On July 12, the Padres roughed him up for 9 runs in 4.1 innings, hitting two three-run home runs off him.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Barry Zito is grossly overpaid. Is he a good pitcher that the Giants should have signed? I think so. Is he an ace, worth almost $20 million a year? Not at all.
Zito's Cy Young year was as a third starter, behind Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. He has good stuff, but not ace stuff. Not even close. And there's no team in the league that can afford a $20 million third or fourth starter.
The Giants options are few, and not appealing. They can eat his contract and release him, if he continues to perform poorly. But if they do that after this season, that's $83 million that won't be off the books until 2014.
They can try and trade him, which could happen if he strings together a few starts, but that would involve the Giants taking a big part of his salary. His trade value also isn't that high, especially given his inconsistencies.
I'd say that the Giants keep him around for 2010, but not after if he doesn't improve. If the worst pitcher on your team is Barry Zito, then your pitching staff is still pretty strong. Zito only needs to come around and restructure his contract, but I doubt that would ever happen.
Jonathan Sanchez, One year/$0.455M (2009)
As San Jose Mercury News writer Tim Kawakami said it best, Jonathan Sanchez and his no-hitter have to be a sign of some magic that is flowing through the Giants clubhouse. His year up to then had been terrible, and he had been pulled from the rotation almost three weeks before in an attempt to work out the kinks.
And then he threw a no-hitter. The first one in 33 years by a San Francisco Giants pitcher and the first one in AT&T Park.
Hopefully he can at least partially replicate the pitcher we saw that night in his upcoming starts. Always known for his great stuff, he had trouble using that stuff after the first time through the lineup. But during his no-hitter, there were a few things that tipped off us close observers that he might be turning a corner.
A slight mechanical change kept his front shoulder closed a little bit more, reducing the number of pitches thrown out of the strike zone away to right-handed hitters. He also had the advantage of not working out of the stretch, but his composure was definitely better, and his concentration was more focused than panicked.
I have never been a fan of Sanchez, but I will be watching his next couple starts because of those subtle changes. He is under team control until after next season, so look for them to trade him before he hits arbitration, if he doesn't hit his stride, or lock him up for a couple years after 2010.
Instead of the usual names being thrown around for early call-ups, like Bumgarner or Alderson or Pucetas, Sadowski got the call when Sanchez went to the bullpen. He responded with two shutout starts and some quality pitching from the young right-hander.
Since then, however, he's pitched in three games, giving up thirteen runs in 11.1 innings. That sharpness he had isn't there, and as with many young starters, it's when the honeymoon is over that we figure out how good they are.
His stuff is pretty good, with a lot of movement, but his future with the club depends on the ascension of those top names as well as his development of another go-to pitch.
Noah Lowry, Four years/$9.25M (2006-09), plus 2010 club option
In all of this season's positive attention, it's easy to lose track of one of the more tragic storylines of 2009. Noah Lowry was expected to battle Sanchez for the fifth spot, with his consistency as the Giants top winner in the past couple years giving him the early edge.
But continued trouble with his arm eventually led to two surgeries, one on his forearm and another that removed a rib to relieve pressure. These developments have sidelined him indefinitely, and his agent has charged the Giants medical staff with misdiagnosing his original injury back in 2008.
The possibility of Lowry pitching again is there, but it will take months of rehab to get anywhere close to the level he was at before. The Giants will most likely decline his $6 million option, which will make him eligible for salary arbitration.
Be sure to check out the Giants internal options in Part II of this installment. The next Fate of the Franchise deals with the 2010 Giants bullpen.