PART 2.1: The Offense (1 of 2)
At this time last year, a preview of the Giants offense would have been a lot like looking at an image of Afghanistan post 9/11 - bombed-out, depleted and depressing. Not only was Bengie Molina batting cleanup, but the SF offense was so decrepit that no one batted an eye at this decision.
Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff were the prized offensive acquisitions to the team, and neither was expected to contribute much at all—aside from positional flexibility and general veteran-related grittiness, which Bruce Bochy loves. Barry Bonds wasn't walking through that door. Will Clark wasn't walking through that door. Eugenio Velez walked through that door, but no one cared, and he was immediately informed that Fresno was located 200 miles east of San Francisco, and that he should probably catch a bus there as soon as possible.
The team's lone bright spot was Pablo Sandoval, who had broken out in a major way in 2009 and had apparently spent his offseason celebrating said breakout at local Bay Area Mongolian Barbecue's, leaving Giants fans and front office members alike wondering if he was capable of repeating his stellar first-year MLB campaign.
Concerns about the San Francisco offense proved themselves to be well-founded once the season started. While the starting pitching continued to do what they do—that is, dominate without mercy, they were again hamstrung by a pitiful offense. A large part of this (no pun intended), was Pablo Sandoval's regression in 2010.
Will Pablo Sandoval's improved conditioning result in more production?
Sandoval came to the Giants with the rap as a bad ball hitter, a guy who would swing at anything but was also capable of hitting anything. Unfortunately, after a year of people around baseball saying that Sandoval would swing at anything—I repeat, anything—pitchers around the NL started to pay attention.
This resulted in the Kung Fu Panda swinging at his usual variety of eye-level fast balls and breaking balls in the dirt, but also struggling to adapt his plate approach to his changing scouting report. And while he struggled at the plate, his woes were mirrored in the field, as his lack of conditioning resulted in a slower, less focused Panda.
If his first full ML season could be compared to the first season of LOST, a breakout hit that came out of nowhere to blow minds and tantalize with potential, his second season quickly revealed itself to be a lot like LOST's second season—a disappointing follow-up that left people wondering if Season 1 was simply the result of lightning caught in a bottle, a feat that could not be repeated. Sandoval did nothing to dispel these thoughts.
This season, however, things are looking up for the Panda. He is noticeably slimmer, and reports of his improved offseason conditioning program have been widely reported. This must mean that he actually had an offseason conditioning program, which is reason to celebrate in itself. While a return to 2009 Panda form could put this lineup over the top from "mildly interesting" to "legitimately dangerous," Giants fans have, for the most part, hedged their expectations. However, if Sandoval can find a nice middle ground between his first two seasons…
2009: AVG .330/ OPS .943/ HR 25/ RBI 90
2010: AVG .268/ OPS .732/ HR 13/ RBI 63
…and produce something in the area of .300/ .820/ 20/ 90, I think all Giants fans will jump for collective joy. Moreover, a focused Sandoval will hopefully result in a more patient Sandoval, and perhaps, even a player who is capable of drawing more than 45 walks a season. And since I'm wishing for unrealistic things, I'd also like a year-long Cody Ross hot streak and a new shoulder and knee for Freddy Sanchez.
A fully realized Panda batting next to Posey, Huff, Burrell, Sanchez and possibly youngster Brandon Belt, who has been tearing up pro pitching thus far, looks pretty good. Pretty good indeed. And that doesn't even include a potential second-quality season from Andre Torres or postseason hero Cody Ross. Somewhere in Philadelphia, Roy Halladay just shuddered in disgust at the mere mention of his name.
I am optimistic about Sandoval in 2011. You can't do what he did in 2009 as a 23-year-old without having some major skills. Yes, he needs to work on his discipline both on the field and at the dinner table. Yes, he needs to learn how to really hit instead of just swing. But the guy can do it. The evidence is there. His first year-and-a-half in the majors, he tore up pro pitching in a way that made us all think he was a once-in-a-generation talent. I, for one, still feel that way.
While we all remember the ultimately legendary nature of Aubrey Huff's 2010, it is easy to forget that at the beginning of last season, comparable production was expected from Huff and fellow free-agent signee Mark Derosa. DeRosa's season ended almost as soon as it began, and the Giants were almost immediately left with decreased defensive flexibility and without a serviceable veteran who would have been relied upon to start in left field, backup all seven other defensive positions, collect 400 AB's and likely pitch 250 innings. Alright, that last part may have been exaggerated slightly, but DeRosa was going to play, and he was going to play a lot.
Lucky for all of us, no one is relying on DeRosa quite as heavily in 2011. A healthy and fit Sandoval will take care of third base, and Miguel Tejada was brought on board to do the same for shortstop—two positions that weren't exactly positions of weakness for the Giants last year (Juan Uribe's clutch-ness and swagger are well-documented, and I think every Giants fan would take five years of terrible Edgar Renteria regular seasons if it meant getting one Edgar Renteria 2010 postseason), but neither were exactly pictures of stability either.
An aging Pat Burrell in left field, combined with the uncertainty of Panda's weight, Tejada's age (no, really, people are seriously uncertain how old he actually is) and an oft-injured Freddy Sanchez at second will leave plenty of playing time for DeRosa.
At this point, the best that can be said about DeRosa is that he is what he is. He probably won't hit .300. He probably won't get you more than 12 HR or 70 RBI. But if he does manage to produce a .275/65 RBI/10 HR season, all will be forgiven as long as he keeps the infielders (and outfielders) fresh and flashes the leather a little bit.
The big concern with DeRosa is the games played. He's topped 120 only four times (2006-2009) and has broken 400 AB the same amount of times. No one expects DeRosa to play in 120 games, but if he once again lives up to his injury-prone reputation, it puts an extra burden on the Giants infield. In this way, DeRosa is a bit of an X factor heading into 2011 and an extremely important piece of a team that lost a lot of defensive flexibility with the departure of Juan Uribe.
The opposite side of the Mark DeRosa coin is Aubrey Huff, that thong-wearing, red-headed rascal. While his 2010 season was ultimately a grand success, Huff started the season as basically the standard version of what the Giants thought he could be when they signed him and visibly got more comfortable as the season went on.
He kept his average between .275 and .300 (save for the standard hitter's transition to playing at AT&T Park—Huff's April was terrible in 2010) and showed a surprising versatility in the field, as well as an awesome willingness to play anywhere and fit any need. While he was not good enough to carry the team by himself, he quickly showed himself to more Will Clark than Shea Hillenbrand or Ryan Garko, and for that, Giants fans were immediately grateful.
I am optimistic about Huff in 2011. Not only must he be ecstatic to finally be on a winning team in a great city, but his comfort level with hitting at the windy confines of AT&T park has clearly grown. Nobody likes to hit in San Francisco, yet Huff has figured out that if you embrace it and focus on roping liners into the park's spacious right and left field gaps, success will follow. I'm expecting a big year from Huff, now that his transition to one of the great pitcher's parks in all of baseball is complete.
I foresee a 500 AB, .310 AVG. kind of season from Huff, while building on his surprising .891 OPS from last season (even pushing that over .900 would not surprise me). Increased lineup potency could easily result in a 100+ RBI season and 160+ hits are almost a given with Huff, but I'm most looking forward to the 10—that's right, 10—stolen bases I'm projecting from the team's self-described "best all-around athlete."
One of the most valuable parts of Huff's game is that the man gets on base—plain and simple. While his OBP doesn't exactly jump off the page at you, he is incredibly, remarkably consistent at producing OBP's in the range of .320 - .360. On a team with so many offensive question marks, and for the Giants, nearly everyone's potential production could be questioned, Huff will provide a steadying influence on the lineup, even if he doesn't reproduce his career high .385 OBP from last season.
If Aubrey Huff was a spark that helped ignite a championship fire, Aaron Rowand was like a rainstorm of suck. For Rowand, the transition from glorified little league park in Philadelphia to actual major league stadium in San Francisco has not been an easy one. His gutsiness, grit and willingness to leave it all on the field has not changed, but his production has dipped dramatically, and his power has disappeared altogether. While Giants fans had hoped that his contract wouldn't eventually evolve into a Zito-esque mess, 2010 was the year that our worst fears about Aaron Rowand were realized.
Like Barry Zito, Rowand's decline was only made worse by the fact that, deep down, on some primal level, fans want to love him. He seems to be a great teammate. He is always willing to get his uniform dirty, willing to crash into a wall at full speed and willing to put everything he has in him into a game designed for kids. Which makes it that much harder to come to grips with the fact that the dude simply cannot hit. He can't hit breaking balls. He can't hit righties. He really can't hit lefties.
Will Aaron Rowand ever bounce back to be a productive player again?
While Rowand had shown signs of decline prior to 2010 (his batting averages since 2007: .309, .271, .261, .230—clearly trending in the wrong direction), last year it all hit the proverbial fan. Additionally, it seems as though Rowand himself has realized his failures. He has realized that big brass ones can only take you so far, and his confidence has suffered greatly as a result. I would like to think that he can return to being a league-average player, but decreased production combined with decreased confidence can not only end seasons, but careers.
We all remember the disaster that was Rowand's 2010. There's no need to rehash it further.This year, expectations are nonexistent. A 250 AB, .260 AVG, .720 OPS, 50 RBI kind of season would be a revelation. Heck, maybe it would even convince another team to trade for him without asking for Zach Wheeler or Brandon Belt in return. What's that? That's not going to happen? Oh well, we can hope anyways.
Rowand's regression coincided with many factors, including injuries to DeRosa and Freddie Sanchez, to make for a frustrating start to last season. This season has much more potential for immediate success, partly because of the transition from Rowand in center field to Andres Torres, who came out of nowhere last year to provide a legitimate threat on the basepaths as well as playing a Gold-Glove caliber center and batting leadoff, a traditional point of weakness for recent Giants teams.
I'm still not sure if Torres is for real. Last season, I stayed off Andres' bandwagon until it was impossible to deny that he was the Giants most productive center fielder. It's not that I don't like him, but I've seen many a player get hot for three weeks at a time and ride the momentum of that hot streak into more at bats than they probably should have gotten (Eugenio Velez in 2009 was a prime example of this), and for this reason I was, and remain, dubious.
Can Andre Torres repeat his 2010 performance?
But Torres' production and value to the team won't be measured purely by statistics. Sure a high average would be nice, but even a .275 would be great if he can stay healthy and take care of the leadoff spot all season. At the end of 2011, Torres' season will be gauged by immeasurable stats, such as loopy fly balls chased down in the gaps of AT&T park, clutch triples hit and overall ground covered in the outfield.
Even if I have my reservations about his ability to reproduce his offensive numbers from 2010, anyone who has played the outfield in San Francisco knows that their roles can be defined by so much more than traditional offensive stats. Just ask Randy Winn, who would have been playing minimal games at a minimal salary for another team were it not for his masterful ability to play AT&T's funky right field wall.
Another player whose impact will not be based on statistics alone is Freddy Sanchez. I say this only because if Sanchez can simply manage to stay healthy for an entire season (or most of it), it will be a win for the Giants, regardless of production. Sanchez came over from the Pirates with pedigree as a former NL batting champ and immediately proceeded to spend most of his San Francisco tenure thus far on the DL.
Look, I love Freddy Sanchez. When he's healthy, the guy is a stud. He still plays a Gold Glove-level second base and is capable of being one of the most offensively dangerous 2B in the game not named Cano. And let's be honest, a lineup beginning with Torres, Sanchez, Huff, Posey, Burrell and Sandoval looks much more dangerous on paper than Torres, DeRosa, Huff, Posey, Burrell and Sandoval.
One more note on Sanchez's propensity for injury. His body is clearly not what it used to be, and nagging injuries will be a problem for him, as they are for most pro athletes, regardless of sport. However, Sanchez wants to play. More importantly, he seems to find a way to play when it matters. Going into the 2010 postseason, I didn't know if Sanchez would be a factor at all in the playoffs. But he gutted it out, played through pain (including a nasty fastball to the hand courtesy of Kyle Farnsworth) and proved himself to be a gamer and an extremely tough dude. I think that counts for a lot.
Before I break off Part 1 of my 2011 SF Giants offensive preview (to be continued soon), it is important to state that despite relative uncertainty at nearly every spot in the lineup, 2011 is looking far, far better than 2010.
The main causes of offensive struggle last season can be summed up thusly:
1. Bengie Molina being Bengie Molina.
2. A distinct lack of situational (clutch) hitting.
3. A crazy, crazy amount of GIDP's (grounded into double plays) hit into by the Giants.
4. A lack of a clear, delineated lineup that featured a balance between guys who hit for average, power hitters and role players. 2010's version of the Giants seemed to be a mishmash of low-average, lower-power hitters with no one in between to legitimately put the fear of God into opposing pitchers.
In 2011, at least from a balance perspective, things are looking up dramatically. Andres Torres looks as though he can provide a stabilizing influence as a leadoff man, and even if he can't, Freddy Sanchez can step up and do the job. Sanchez is also the ideal second place hitter, a guy who will hit for average and won't embarrass himself on the basepaths. Then come the big boys.
Posey hasn't given anyone any reason to doubt him about anything, ever and has proven that he can hit elite pitchers even as a young player. Huff can hit for both power and average and is a proven middle-of-the-lineup guy who is also unafraid during big moments. Pat Burrell clearly still has some life left in his bat, and a rejuvenated Sandoval could put this lineup over the top. Pretty good for a franchise that talked itself into Bengie Molina as its main source of power for not one, but two seasons.
With Bengie gone, San Francisco basepaths and toilets alike will be clearer than ever. While it is impossible to predict how many GIDP's the Gigantes will collect, their lineup is decidedly more clutch, proven and seasoned than in years past. The starting rotation has been at an elite level for years now, and while no one is arguing that the Giants offense is on par with baseball's best, it is certainly better and more prepared to succeed than it has been since the glory days of one Barry Lamar Bonds.
Additionally, coming off a World Series win, opposing staffs will not be taking this offense as lightly as they have in years past. It wasn't the offense that led the way to the title, but it was certainly a part of it, and that, at the very least, commands respect. It's amazing what a World Series win will do for a team.
Next: Part 2.2: The Final Installment—More Offense! (two words rarely uttered by Giants fans)