It is a good time to be a San Francisco Giants fan. Great even. The Gigantes are fresh off an improbable World Series championship, the farm system is a veritable horn-o-plenty in comparison to recent history, and leading the way is arguably the best starting rotation in baseball—that's right Philadelphia, I went there.
But with the start of a new season, anything is possible, and new questions are raised. Will the Giants training staff find a way to resurrect the corpse of Aaron Rowand? Will Barry Zito be a serviceable fifth starter, or will he be released by the Giants and banished to a baseball purgatory like Baltimore or Kansas City to finish out his career? Is Buster Posey in fact the baseball Messiah?
The (possible) answers to these questions, and more are less than an inch away!
Part 1: The Pitching, Oh God, The Pitching!
Any 2011 preview of the Giants has to begin with pitching. It was pitching that ran roughshod over baseball's best and captured the Giants first World Series in over 50 years. I argue that this pitching staff would have dominated absolutely any team from any era last year. That's how good they were during the 2010 Playoffs.
Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are so awesome they don't even need to be previewed. They are so awesome that, as I was typing this, Lincecum just ruined some Minor Leaguer's shot at the bigs with a ridiculous changeup, and Cain threw eight scoreless innings with zero media attention. Barring injury, two more excellent seasons can be expected from the top of the Giants' rotation.
On most other teams, Timmy and Cain would be seen as what they are—two young guns entering their primes. On the Giants, they are the wise old sages tasked with leading the way for the really young guns, like 2010 MLB Playoff insta-hero Madison Bumgarner.
Of all the players on the 2011 roster, Bumgarner is one of the most interesting to me. He burst through last year with dominating performances on baseball's biggest stages, against the games' best. He clearly possesses the testicular fortitude to succeed, and dominate as a starter.
But Giants' fans know that at this time last year there were reports of decreased velocity and increased hittability from the young MadBum, and for a little while there was something of a Chicken Little scenario brewing within the fan base.
While Bumgarner did his best to put these concerns to bed in last years playoffs, keep in mind that he still has not pitched a full Major League season, and spent most of last season stashed in the minors, enjoying the glorious benefits of extra days off (not to mention bus rides to and from Fresno). Realistically, he is still a very young pitcher who needs to learn how to pitch in the majors, and work through the growing pains of a young starter. However, I don't think a 14-15 win, 3.50 ERA would disappoint anyone, nor do I think it's unrealistic.
Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti have proven their abilities to manage a young roster extremely well, and part of me secretly believes there's a chance that Bumgarner goes Lincecum all over everyone's A's and continues to dominate to the tune of 16-17 wins, with an ERA somewhere between his 2010 regular season 3.00 and his otherworldly 2010 postseason 2.18.
Part of the reason I am less concerned than others about his inconsistent velocity throughout his career is that, despite his top-of-the-rotation stuff, his K rate has never been in the Lincecum-circa-2009 range anyways. He may only strike out roughly 6-8 batters per 9 IP, but he pitches to contact with movement that keeps the ball in the park. Most young pitchers arrive in the Majors relying on velocity to get them through their first year or two. Bumgarner relies on movement and control, which makes him a likely candidate to pitch in the bigs for many years to come.
One of the most impressive MadBum stats is his stellar walk rate. In his first Major League season (2009), he walked only 2.7 batters per 9 IP, and lowered that 2.15 last season including the playoffs. Even factoring in a learning curve, Bumgarner clearly has the stuff and the approach to be a successful third or fourth starter at worst, and an ace at best.
My official projection for the 2011 version of Madison Bumgarner looks something like 16 wins, 6.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, with a 3.25 ERA, while maintaining his always impressive WHIP at about 1.200. This factors in some growing pains, but also the flashes of blinding brilliance we have seen from the young lad in the very recent past.
Speaking of pitching to contact, we arrive at everyone's favorite punching bag, Barry William Zito. These last few years have been tough for Barry and I. I was intrigued by him as he junkballed his was to a Cy Young Award in Oakland. I was mostly mortified when the Giants outbid themselves by $30 million for him, and overpaid him by roughly $90 million, but was secretly happy that he was on the light side of the Bay, and was optimistic about how that knee-buckling curve would play in the pitcher-friendly confines of AT&T Park.
Then reality hit. Zito has been incredibly, unbelievably hittable, and rumors have floated out of Spring Training this year that, after not making last year's playoff roster, Zito would be cut from the team, and paid his money to walk away. To which I say….RIDICULOUS! Listen, even I, the biggest Zito apologist outside of his immediate family, has found it hard to defend him recently—but I'm going to try anyway. Here are the salient points on the Zito Defense:
1. The Giants have no other options for a fifth starter. Here's an update I just received: Jeff Suppan is not good. He is not better than Barry Zito, neither is Dontrelle Willis. So unless a legitimate offer comes along for an affordable, durable, 200 inning-throwing, preferably hippie-minded starter, Barry is the best option the team has. By far. I know the anti-Zito haze is hard to see through sometimes, but when Jeff Suppan is standing on the other side of that haze, you're better off sticking with Barry.
2. The Giants are paying him. I don't understand ever paying a player to play for another organization. It absolutely never works out well. Unless some team is willing to step up and pay Zito's salary (stop salivating, Giants fans), there is absolutely no point to not rostering him.
3. He fits in. Let's face it, the Giants are a team filled with allegedly pot-smoking dirty hippies, and goofballs. And Barry Zito fits right in. He plays guitar, keeps it mellow, doesn't rock the boat, and is a good teammate. Lincecum likes him. Cain likes him. Posey and Sandoval like him. Therefore I like him.
A statistical projection for Zito seems not only futile, but potentially disappointing. We have all seen both the best and worst of Zito, and most of us know what to realistically expect. However, with lowered expectations comes lowered responsibility.
There has been talk of making Jonathan Sanchez the No. 2 starter, in order to break up the lefties and righties, as well as the pitchers who are capable of consistently pitching late into games (Lincecum and Cain), from those who struggle in that area (Sanchez, Zito, and the youngster Bumgarner, who will not be expected to reach the innings totals of his starter brethren).
A rotation of Lincecum, Sanchez, and Cain, followed by Bumgarner and Zito, puts Barry in the fourth slot at best, and the fifth at worst.
Do I think this demotion will result in a return to Cy Young form? Obviously not. But matching up with Jon Garland and Wade Leblanc is surely more advantageous than, say, Clayton Kershaw and Mat Latos. Just saying.
A potential answer to Zito's expected inconsistency could be Jonathan Sanchez, AKA the mystery wrapped in a riddle bundled up in an enigma. I think if I had one wish for the Giants organization, it would be for consistency from Sanchez, because when he's on, he's as good as anyone in the league including his battery mates. But when he's off, he's a frustrating, frustrating man to watch. He sprays crisp 94 MPH fastballs all over the place. He twists off incredible sliders that would break hitters down if it weren't a foot off the plate. His arm action frustrates hitters to the point that, were they to swing at the fastball whizzing a foot over their heads, their timing would definitely be off.
With the need to give Bumgarner some extra rest days as often as possible, a good season from Sanchez would be a key shot in the arm for this team. And there's reason to be hopeful. In 2010 not only did Sanchez lower his ERA to 3.07, he maintained his stellar K rate, at over 9 per game. He also seemed to be more able to work through a difficult or stressful inning. He still gave up the occasional big hit(s), but his composure on the mound just seemed to be headed in the right direction.
I'm optimistic about Sanchez in 2011. I have faith that he will put it all (or at least some of it) together enough to finally have the season we've all been waiting for. For me, a projection of about 175-180 IP, 3.15 ERA, 9.5-10 K/9 and, good God let's hope for, a sub 4 BB/9 ratio, seems about right. Although I have felt this way in the past, and have been proven wrong before on this topic, and let's be honest, a 4.00 ERA with 4.8 K/9 wouldn't surprise anyone.
While the starting rotation is clearly the strength of this ball club, the bullpen remains somewhat of a mystery to me. While they can be fully expected to lead the league in ridiculous haircuts and outlandish facial hair, this is not a group for whom consistency is a strength.
I, like all Giants fans, have been tantalized and disappointed by Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt more times than I can count. When I watch Romo pitch, I see sliders that should be unhittable, starting in the strike zone and breaking three feet off the plate, leaving batters looking foolish and confused. In nearly every game that Romo appears in, he has at least one moment that makes you stop and think "this guy has incredible stuff. He should be one of the best relievers in the league". Problem is, these thoughts are often followed by a slider that hangs over the plate and is promptly deposited in the outfield bleachers by subpar NL West utility players.
Affeldt presents a similar quandary: is he the guy with the Zito-esque curve and the 96 MPH fastball, or is he the guy who struggles with his control, and gets knocked around by patient-yet-below-average hitters, like the David Eckstein's of the world?
For me, Romo and Affeldt are the key to the success of the bullpen. Brian Wilson will undoubtedly be Brian Wilson—that is to say he will throw 98 MPH gas, walk one or two hitters too many, and generally give Giants fans a collective heart attack on his way to racking up his 40+ saves.
Javier Lopez, I'm assuming, will continue to own left handed hitters like Cody Ross owns Roy Halladay. And guys like Santiago Casilla and "Razor" Ramon Ramirez will prove serviceable enough to eat up some innings and spell the studs.
But Affeldt and Romo are the key.
With a little consistency, the Giants will have arguably the NL's best bullpen again. But bullpen's are fickle mistresses. Elite closers turn into overpaid specialists seemingly overnight, and one injury can decimate a relief crew (just look at former-Giant Joe Nathan's Twins last season). Healthy and productive years from Affeldt and Romo would give San Francisco the depth to withstand an injury or two (just plug in a Dan Runzler here and an Alex Hinshaw there), but anything less than that could present real problems. Runzler and Hinshaw are great as innings-eaters/injury replacements, but asking them to step up and play major roles is a lot to ask, and I am dubious as to whether they are up to the task.
All that said, the Brian Sabean, Bruce Bochy, and Dave Righetti seem to have a knack for piecing together excellent relief crews. They did pick up Javier "sit DOWN, Ryan Howard" Lopez and Ramon Ramirez for nothing last season, and despite their penchant for high-wire acts, both Romo and Wilson have developed nicely overall, with Wilson emerging as an elite closer and the only modern-day pirate (swashbuckling variety, not Pittsburgh variety) to achieve MLB fame and fortune.
Stay tuned for Part 2.1: The Offense (already up)