San Francisco Giants: 1 Year After Title, the Unanswered Questions
It's November 1, 2011. Exactly one year ago, the San Francisco Giants won their first World Series championship since moving west from New York in 1958.
A new champion of baseball has been crowned, and now the focus turns to the offseason, when general managers all over the country will take their resources and try to engineer a contender for 2012.
For the Giants, making the playoffs is no longer good enough. That ship sailed with the final pitch of the 2010 World Series.
Now, it's championship-or-bust for this franchise, which makes this winter ever more intriguing.
The list of unanswered questions for San Francisco is long, and here they are, with possible answers attached ...
The Giants are built on the backs of their pitchers, and from top to bottom, San Francisco's staff is the envy of the league.
Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong will return in 2012, and this core of stellar starters will once again ensure that the Giants will dominate opposing lineups.
The biggest questions facing this club with respect to starting pitching in 2012 are:
1. Who will be the fifth starter?
The Giants have indicated that Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez will be back in 2012, and it looks like Sanchez and 2011 September call-up Eric Surkamp will compete for the final rotation spot. Barry Zito will likely start out in the bullpen after yet another terrible season in '11.
2. Will Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain sign long-term extensions?
Don't hold your breath. Lincecum has already stated his preference for another two-year arbitration deal that will take him into free-agency come 2014, and Cain may very well follow suit.
Cain will be able to test the waters after the 2012 season, and if the offense doesn't pan out in San Francisco, you can bet he'll look elsewhere. There is perhaps no other pitcher on the Giants who has suffered more from lack of run support over the years than Cain.
With San Francisco reaching agreements to extend Javier Lopez and pick up the contract option for Jeremy Affeldt, two lefties that, along with returners Sergio Romo and Ramon Ramirez, make up the core of the bullpen, the Giants are looking good when it comes to middle relief.
The biggest bullpen question mark?
Brian Wilson blew five saves in 2011, and had elbow inflammation that kept him out of commission for the final six weeks of the season.
There is real uncertainty about the health of Wilson's arm, as the Giants have been very secretive about his actual condition.
The re-signing of Lopez and Affeldt may indicate that the Giants are uneasy about Wilson's prognosis.
The Lead-off Position in the Lineup
San Francisco's offensive woes in 2011 were well documented, and the need in this area for Giants General Manager Brian Sabean to address is the most glaring, and perhaps most difficult to approach.
The Giants finished dead-last in the National League in runs scored last season, and even with a pitching staff that finished with better numbers than in the championship 2010 campaign, the impotent offense sank San Francisco's playoff chances down the stretch.
1. Who will hit lead-off?
Andres Torres had a breakout season in 2010, and set the table nicely for the rest of the lineup. But in 2011, his production fell off drastically, as he hit just .221 with four home runs and 19 RBI. That following a season in which he hit .268 with 43 doubles, eight triples, 16 home runs and 63 RBI.
With Torres proving he isn't consistent enough to be relied upon in the ever-important lead-off slot in the lineup, and with the Giants cutting ties with Aaron Rowand, filling the hole in the first batting order position will be of paramount importance this winter.
Crisp hit .264 with eight home runs, 54 RBI, and 49 stolen bases for the A's in 2011. He's a free-agent and at 31, could be a good pickup for the Giants at something like three years, $19 million.
Rollins, at 32, could also be a good short-term signing for the Giants. Rollins hit .268 with 16 home runs and 63 RBI for Philadelphia in 2011. He also swiped 30 bags.
Rollins, given his All-Star credentials and ability to hit for power, would likely cost more, however. He would probably not sign with San Francisco for less than four years, $37 million.
Grady Sizemore is an interesting prospect. Sizemore, the once-great leadoff man for the Cleveland Indians, fell on hard times via injury, and is coming off of a recent reconstructive surgery on his knee.
With question-marks abounding over whether he'll ever again be the 30-homer, 90-RBI, 30-SB player that he was, he may be a risk worth taking. He's only 29, after all, and if he can even approach what he once was, he could be valuable for San Francisco.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding Sizemore, the Giants might be able to bring him over on a discount, say, three years, $18 million.
The most likely answer: Coco Crisp
Miguel Tejada didn't exactly pan out for the Giants, and when San Francisco cut ties with the veteran shortstop late in the 2011 season, most saw the act as too little, too late.
Brandon Crawford, the rookie who showed glimpses of brilliance both in the field and at the plate in 2011, looks to be the heir apparent, but while he is a slick fielder, the question is, can he hit? Crawford hit just .204 in 220 plate appearances for San Francisco last season.
Despite his offensive struggles during the regular season, however, Crawford has been a hot hitter in the Arizona Fall League so far, batting .333 with seven RBI in 11 games.
Whether Crawford will be the starting shortstop depends on two factors: whether the Giants sign a free-agent to fill the position, and whether Crawford keeps hitting well.
The Giants will likely spend their money on a reasonably-priced leadoff hitter that plays center field (i.e. Coco Crisp), and so Crawford may very well be the Opening Day shortstop.
A Power Threat
The Giants don't appear to be headed for a big free-agent slugger signing this offseason, and have stated that their number one priority is keeping their elite pitching staff in tact.
That's a great number one priority, and very well should be the first order of business for Brian Sabean and company.
The issue of whether the Giants would have "enough" following the pitching staff signings to ink a big-time slugger like Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, is really a question of how much, if any, ownership is willing to increase the current $125 million payroll.
Right now, it seems that they're not thinking along those lines at all.
One power threat that the Giants are interested in signing this winter, however, is Carlos Beltran. Beltran was acquired at the trade deadline in 2011 to bolster San Francisco's lineup for the playoff push, but got hurt and, while he produced late, it was too late to make a difference.
Beltran is 34, and will likely push for a deal longer than what the Giants would like to offer, which would probably be in the neighborhood of two years, $42 million.
In the end, Beltran will probably sign elsewhere. Anaheim's a good bet.
The Giants will likely sign Michael Cuddyer, the free-agent outfielder from Minnesota, who hit .284 with 20 home runs and 70 RBI in 2011. Cuddyer is just two seasons removed from hitting 32 home runs and driving in 94 for the Twins in 2009, but like San Francisco's Aubrey Huff, has had a history of up-and-down years in sequence.
Beyond that, Brian Sabean will hope that the returns of Freddy Sanchez and Buster Posey, as well as a repeat performance by Pablo Sandoval, can provide enough offense for a club with outstanding pitching.
Will Buster Be the Same?
Posey has been catching bullpen sessions and taking batting practice in Arizona, and is anxious to get back to playing games once spring training comes around.
But one of the biggest questions of all for the Giants in 2012 is whether Posey will be the same again.
Only time will tell.
Projected Opening Day Lineup
1. Coco Crisp - CF
2. Freddy Sanchez - 2B
3. Pablo Sandoval - 3B
4. Buster Posey - C
5. Michael Cuddyer - LF
6. Aubrey Huff - 1B
7. Nate Schierholtz - RF
8. Brandon Crawford - SS
9. Tim Lincecum - P