San Francisco Giants 2011 Preview: Can Pitching Bring Them Another Championship?

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San Francisco Giants 2011 Preview: Can Pitching Bring Them Another Championship?
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The Giants have the sort of pitching depth that is rare amongst MLB teams. It carried them far in 2010.

The Giants are a team carried by pitching. Their rotation stamped their ticket to October, from which point, the offense came alive. They were mediocre in most offensive categories in 2010, but good pitching beats good hitting, so the Giants remain a team that can just as easily win a 1-0 game as it can lose a 1-0 game.

I would think the Giants of late 2010 were better than the Giants team that will take the field on opening day simply because their offense got unreasonably hot during the playoffs. What we learned from their championship run is that a team like this can win it all. A team who no one (admit it) bet on. After all, no matter how good your rotation is, you have to score runs to win. They scored runs at the right time, and they won.

To all those saying, “They did it once, they can do it again!” yes, that’s true. However, the road back through October remains difficult for any team, especially one with several question marks when it comes to hitting.

The thorn in their side is the age of their hitters. With the exceptions of Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, none of their starters are under 30. The Giants are going to count on repeat performances from some guys I would not be comfortable expecting repeat performances from. They don’t have an anemic offense, but it looks very middle-of-the-road to me, even with the changes they’ve undergone over the past year. Nonetheless, they will be carried far by their primary strength, which is...

 

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Matt Cain has quietly been among the stronger pitchers in the game over the last half-decade or so.

Rotation (improved)

For all the talk of the Phillies' powerhouse rotation, they were out pitched by these Giants over the final two series of the playoffs. With the core of their staff returning, the Giants boast one of the best starting rotations in baseball. The most significant change is that Todd Wellemeyer’s eleven starts from last year will be replaced with a full season of Madison Bumgarner, so it is very difficult to imagine the Giants pitching taking any sort of decline.

The Giants were one of two National League teams whose starters contributed 1,000 innings pitched or more. The Phillies led the pack with 35 innings more (thanks Roy Halladay), and four American League teams were above 1,000 as well. None other than the new Phillies have comparable depth to this San Francisco staff. This rotation posted the third-best ERA in baseball last year (3.54) and should be somewhere around there again.

Tim Lincecum will remain a perennial Cy Young candidate, “decline” notwithstanding. The falling fastball velocity was offset by a greater reliance on his excellent changeup and effective slider. He still gets a boatload of strikeouts, reasonably few walks and more balls on the ground than in the air. What we saw from him in 2010 was probably about as hittable as he’s going to be anytime soon.

Matt Cain’s stuff shouldn’t be going anywhere either. He strikes out fewer than Lincecum but also walks fewer. Cain gets a lot of fly balls but allows relatively few hits due to constantly low batting average on balls in play against him. This is likely due to his ability to deceive hitters (each of his four pitches was worth positive runs above average) and his home ballpark.

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Madison Bumgarner, one of the most promising fourth starters in the game.

With these two guys just 26 years old and with almost 2,000 innings of experience (plus playoffs) under their belt, the Giants should expect to thrive for as long as they can keep these two under contract, but the depth extends beyond Lincecum and Cain. Jonathan Sanchez has struck out more than a batter per inning in his career which offsets a high walk rate. The punch-out ability is vital, as his success probably hinges on it. He stranded almost 80 percent of runners on base in 2010, en route to a 3.07 ERA in 193.1 innings. That’s a bit lower than I expect from him in 2011, but he will be fine.

Madison Bumgarner’s 18 starts reinforced the widespread belief in what he could eventually accomplish. I like Bumgarner but I am not sure how much. I like last year’s strikeout rate (6.97 per nine), walk rate (2.11 per nine), groundball rate (1.19 per fly) and the fact that he mixes his four pitches well. The way he breezed through the minors in less than three seasons shows maturity, and I like his potential, but I am not betting on him doing anything like what Lincecum did in his second year. Not that it matters, since he’s going to be the Giants’ fourth starter and should be far and away better than most fourth starters. I am slightly concerned about his delivery though. There’s a lot of arm movement there that might translate into some arm problems down the road.

Barry Zito has received too much negative press. Not that it wasn’t deserved at times (2008), but there is something to be said for a guy who goes out there and makes every start. Despite never reaching the 200 inning benchmark as a Giant—or the 220 to 230 inning mark he frequented in Oakland—he’s just put together two solid seasons in a row. The worst people can say about him is that he’s robbing the Giants blind, which is not as bad as saying he’s absolutely atrocious. That said, the walk totals are higher than he can be comfortable with given his strikeout rate and hitability. I really don’t consider him a liability to the team given that expectations are low and he can still turn in the occasional dominant start when his curveball is on.

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There are few more colorful characters, or better closers, than Brian Wilson.

Any declines seen by Sanchez, Bumgarner or even Zito really won't make this rotation much worse. I say this partly because I can’t imagine anyone declining that much and because they’ve replaced Wellemeyer’s starts with more Bumgarner.

 

Bullpen: comparable

Like the rotation, the bullpen retained its key components from last year. Brian Wilson has gotten better in each of his years as closer and he’s going to huge for a team that can expect a lot of wins by margins of a run or two. Sergio Romo has outstanding control for a guy who strikes out ten batters per nine innings. Even with his low BABIP—against last year, he’s still going to be effective. Santiago Casilla brings a 96-mph fastball and newly developed curve to the late innings. Ramon Ramirez does not have the strikeout or walk rates to be a sure bet for greatness but has three consecutive seasons of 60+ innings and ERAs under 3.00, so he can get the job done.

Jeremy Affeldt is the rare lefty reliever who gets righties out almost as well as he does lefties. He isn’t a very good control pitcher but should be effective if not stellar like he was in 2009. Dan Runzler emerged last year with 32.2 solid innings. He showed better control against lefty hitters, but they hit him 33 points better than did righties. Javier Lopez is a well-traveled lefty specialist who does his job well, but is atrocious against righties. The Giants have several options from the left side to complete an impressive bullpen.

Only two relievers who threw more than 15 innings for the team in 2010 will not be returning. Denny Bautista contributed 33.2 innings and his 3.74 ERA masks terrible control, and I doubt anyone was going to be sorry to see Chris Ray leave. Guillermo Mota signed a minor-league deal with the Giants after an unimpressive 2010 season. I wouldn’t expect much from him.

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Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey.

 

Catcher: improved

A full season of Buster Posey is better than half a season of Buster Posey and half a season of Bengie Molina. Posey does nearly everything better than Molina and should be a force in the Giants’ lineup for years to come. Posey will be backed up by Eli Whiteside, a long-time minor leaguer who struggled in AAA.

 

Corner Infielders: comparable

Aubrey Huff has been a very good hitter for about a decade, but too few people knew that until he joined the Giants. In that ballpark, don’t consider him a lock for another 26 homers. A relatively high proportion of his fly balls went for home runs compared with the rest of his career. However, he should see more pitches in the zone now that he’ll be hitting in front of Buster Posey, so maybe I’m wrong there. Either way, his 12.6 percent walk rate was almost three percent higher than his previous career-high. Still, he could easily hit .290 again with another thirty doubles. And five triples ain’t bad either.

Pablos Sandoval’s .268 average of 2010 is probably closer to what we should expect from a slow-running, groundball-prone contact hitter. I don’t know where all the power went, but he should hit at least 15 home runs. I like the potential for him to have a better season in 2011, but I cannot say it’s necessarily a likelihood. Hitting behind Huff and Posey should provide him ample opportunities to drive in runs.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Aubrey Huff led the Giants with 26 home runs in 2010.

 

Middle Infielders: comparable

While Freddy Sanchez returns at second base, Miguel Tejada replaces Edgar Renteria at shortstop. I had some difficulty comparing Tejada and Renteria. Both are well past their prime and are very different in style and skill sets.

Renteria never had much power, but Tejada did (and he still has some, even without the chemicals). Renteria hit eight home runs over two seasons in San Francisco, and Tejada should easily top that in 2011. Tejada hit .269 in 2010 after hitting .313 the year before. His true ability is probably somewhere in between, helped by the fact that he swings at everything and makes contact much of the time. Renteria also is probably a .270 hitter, .280 at best.

Renteria walked more but still less than your average hitter. He also struck out more and had less power. Of course, neither have the power of Juan Uribe. All else equal, you probably want the guy who is going to put the ball in play more often but not necessarily if both are extremely ground-ball prone. Both players have been exceptionally durable, each posting at least 500 plate appearances every year from 1999 to 2009. I think Miguel Tejada is probably better than Edgar Renteria but only by very little.

Freddy Sanchez is a very good pure hitter, and his ability is essential to the team’s ability to score runs. In his worst season as a full-time player, he hit .271, and is a constant candidate to bat .300. Always a groundball hitter, he hit fewer of them in his best seasons in Pittsburgh, so I think it’s reasonable to put him around last year’s .292 average. He rarely walks (his 32 in 2010 tied his career high), but Sanchez sees more pitches in the zone than most.

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Cody Ross, one of the Giants whose uncharacteristically hot Octobers carried them to a championship.

 

Outfield: improved

Cody Ross and Andres Torres are guaranteed starting jobs in right and center field respectively. Ross played well for two months when it counted most and earned a raise to $6.3 million in an arbitration year. He will probably hit somewhere around .260 and something like 15 home runs. His career average of .265 and OBP of .323 speak to mediocrity. He certainly isn’t one of the better right fielders in the game but since the Giants began 2010 with John Bowker and Nate Schierholz making starts in right field, I’d say they’re a little better in that regard.

Andres Torres is a late bloomer who turned 33 last month and has 1,025 plate appearances to his name, about half of which came last year. He isn’t your typical leadoff man, despite an above-average ability to get on base. His .268 batting average this year, as well as his .270 in 2009, seem to me about the best he’s capable of given his rather high BABIP's over the past two seasons. He is probably capable of that again, due in part to his speed, but he strikes out a ton (25.2 percent of the time in 2010). He will steal bases and could hit another 16 home runs, but for him to be a productive hitter, he will need to replicate his average (or top it) from 2010. I think his defense will keep him his job unless he really struggles at the plate. He had the second-highest zone rating among outfielders last year. Of course, he’ll be better than Aaron Rowand.

Left field is where is gets dicey. In theory, Mark DeRosa and Pat Burrell should be a far more impressive duo than the other two Giants outfielders, but times have changed. DeRosa still has to make good on the $12 million the Giants gave him for 2010 and 2011. The Rangers and Cubs caught lightning in a bottle when DeRosa gave them impressive seasons from 2006 to 2008. One botched wrist surgery and one follow-up corrective wrist surgery later, and here we are. If healthy, DeRosa could hit for good average. He doesn’t strike out often and takes his walks. AT&T Park should steal some of his power, but the best thing about him has been his discipline. He remains a question mark though. 

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Pat Burrell, one of the more powerful Giants.

Pat Burrell is a disciplined hitter with some power. He is almost two years younger than DeRosa and in better health, which makes him more likely to get the position. He is also in better graces with the San Francisco fans, which helps. He doesn’t have the same potential to hit for average that DeRosa does, but he has more power and is just as disciplined at the plate. Having Burrell to compete with DeRosa certainly makes this group better than the outfield the Giants began the season with last year.

 

Bench: improved

The infield versatility took a hit when Juan Uribe left for the rival Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Dodgers are the ones who will probably be kicking themselves for that deal since Uribe is a one-tool player. Uribe, a career .256 hitter, posted a .306 average at home over this two seasons in San Francisco. Ryan Rohlinger is the new utility infielder, and he has shown little at the big-league level, mainly because he hasn’t gotten much of a chance. His minor league stats show him to have hit for average at the AA and AAA levels. We’ll see how he develops.

Aaron Rowand should not be a starter, but he makes for an above-average fourth outfielder. He has some pop in his bat and plays with an intensity that is always admirable. The downside is you don’t want your fourth outfielder to cost you $24 million over two seasons. I’m sure the Giants would love to trade him, in which case the backup outfielder role would fall to Nate Schierholz.

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We’ve heard talk about the promise Schierholz has shown, but it hasn’t amounted to much and he’s about to turn 27. As it stands, he’s just average across the board and below average when it comes to taking walks. He showed improved discipline in 2010, so maybe he can develop into a greater contributor to this team, but he isn’t a bad bench option. I'd gladly take him over Jose Guillen.

Travis Ishikawa returns to give Aubrey Huff the occasional day off, and there’s nothing special about him. Eugenio Velez left for Los Angeles and John Bowker was traded to Pittsburgh last summer, and the 2011 Giants’ bench will be fine without them. Mike Fontenot is an able backup, who was not a terrible starter when he was with the Cubs.

 

Lineup: In 2010 the Giants team batting average was .257 (16th best in MLB). Their walk rate was 7.9 percent  (21st). Division rivals Colorado and Arizona outscored them by 77 and 22 runs respectively. Their 162 home runs were tied for 10th best, but to be a truly strong offense they will need to do a better job getting on base.

The Giants won in 2010 with their brilliant pitching staff, but their offense is just average. They will win a lot of games in 2011, so long as pitching remains a part of the game, but as I’ve said, it’s hard to bet on them to repeat as champs.

 

Expected win total: 88-93

See also my articles on the Reds, Yankees, and Phillies.

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