Sitting just five victories away from reaching the magical number of 300 career wins, left-hander Randy Johnson is packing his bags for the Bay Area. The 45-year old hurler has agreed to a one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants, with a base value of $8 million and up to an additional $5 million in bonuses and incentives.
A native of Walnut Creek, California, Johnson's return to the Bay Area is something of a homecoming for the five-time Cy Young Award winner, who went 11-10 with a 3.91 ERA in 30 starts last year for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Johnson joins shortstop Edgar Renteria and relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry as new additions to the Giants, who finished the 2008 campaign fourth in the NL West with a record of 72-90.
San Francisco now boasts a starting rotation containing three Cy Young Award winners in Johnson (a recipient in 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002), lefty Barry Zito (2002), and righty Tim Lincecum (2008). Rounding out the starting staff will be 24-year-old fireballer Matt Cain (8-14, 116 ERA+ in 2008) and left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who has struggled with his command since entering the big leagues in 2006. That said, the question remains: With the Giants' recent off season additions, should they expect to see an improvement in their play on the field?
The answer is yes… But probably not a lot.
Make no mistake, the Giants now have one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. Despite his age (he turned 45 in September) Johnson remains one of the better left-handed starters in the game. Though no longer overpowering, the Unit's fastball sits effectively at 92-93mph, and his slider is still a devastating pitch when he's able to command it.
Additionally, Johnson should benefit from the move out of hitter-friendly Chase Field, where he allowed 16 of the 24 home runs against him last year, to the more neutral AT&T Park. Johnson joins a rotation featuring Tim Lincecum, the 24-year-old staff ace who last year led the Majors in strikeouts (265) and ranked second in Adjusted ERA+ (167) on his way to winning to his first Cy Young Award.
It will be interesting to see whether the diminutive right-hander will be affected by his heavy workload last year, during which he averaged 109 pitches per start in just his second season in the bigs. The Giants' other 24-year-old righty, Matt Cain, enters 2009 having gone just 15-30 the last two years, despite posting a respectable 3.71 ERA in that span.
Left-hander Jonathan Sanchez is a fastball-changeup pitcher who commands neither pitch very well, but gets good movement on both. Though nothing special, Sanchez posts solid K-rates and should be an adequate placeholder for high-ceiling minor leaguers Tim Alderson and Madison Bumgarner.
Like many teams, the weak link in the starting staff will likely be the fifth starter. Unlike many teams, the Giants have a fifth starter who is slated to make $18 million next year. Barry Zito, the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner, has been a major disappointment for a Giants team that signed him to a seven-year, $126 million contract following the 2006 season. In two years with the team Zito has struggled to the tune of a 4.83 ERA and a 1.468 WHIP, winning 21 games and losing 30.
He did show some signs of life in the second half of last season, lowering his ERA by a full run, but it is unlikely that he will ever return to his 2001-2006 levels of production. In addition, Zito's massive contract serves as an impediment to the Giants' attempts to address their most glaring weakness.
Which brings us to the bats (or lack thereof). The Giants have signed five-time all star Edgar Renteria to a two-year, $18.5 million in an attempt to improve an offense than last year ranked among the Majors' worst. Renteria is coming off of a disappointing 2008 season that saw him report to camp out of shape, get off to a slow start offensively, then finish the year strong with a 0.812 OPS in the second half.
Though a downgrade defensively from Ivan Ochoa and Brian Bocock, Renteria should provide some much-needed offense at the position, following a season in which Giants' shortstops posted a collected 0.576 OPS.
Joining Renteria in the starting lineup will be center fielding Aaron Rowand, who last offseason signed a five year-$60 million contract, as well as veterans Bengie Molina and Randy Winn.
Second year starter Fred Lewis gave a solid performance in 2008 taking over for home run king Barry Bonds in left field, but will no doubt look to improve his Helton-esque home/road splits, which saw him post a 0.914 OPS at AT&T park, but just 0.668 on the road. The Giants will look to those five to provide most of the offense in 2009, as the rest of the lineup is filled with question marks.
22-year-old Pablo Sandoval burst onto the scene batting .345 over the last two months of 2008. A natural catcher, Sandoval will likely play third base next year and for the foreseeable future, as promising prospect Buster Posey appears to be the Giants' catcher of the future.
Fellow second year player Emmanuel Burriss will man second base, following a disastrous Arizona Fall League performance that saw him make 10 errors in 24 games at shortstop. An undisciplined slap-hitter at the plate, most of Burriss' value figures to come on the basepaths, where he stole 68 bases in 2007 in the minors, and 13 in 17 attempts for the Giants in 2008.
Kevin Frandsen, who missed most of 2008 with a ruptured Achilles tendon, will also be in the mix at second base. Slick-fielding first baseman Travis Ishikawa is coming off a terrific year in AAA and, barring any trades, will likely be the starter coming out of Spring Training.
So can the Giants expect to contend for a playoff spot if the veterans come through and the youngsters are all able to adjust to playing in the Majors?
Ultimately, the NL West is weak enough that if the Giants get extraordinarily lucky, yes, they could conceivably win between 82 and 84 games and take the division. For that to happen, the revamped bullpen will need to be able to protect leads, veterans Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, and Edgar Renteria will all need to perform at least up to their career averages, and youngsters Pablo Sandoval and Emmanuel Burriss will need to build upon strong rookie seasons.
If all those things happen (and if Manager Bruce Bochy ceases his attempts to shred Tim Lincecum's arm), the Giants could be a surprise team in 2009.
That said, how often does everything go right for a team? A more realistic projection would have the Giants again struggling to score runs and finishing somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 wins.
Ultimately, the Giants' priority should be rebuilding the farm system and positioning the club for future success. In the meantime, the signing of Randy Johnson represents the kind of low-risk commitment that GM Brian Sabean should continue to make, and hopefully signifies a change in organizational philosophy as a response to the disastrous Barry Zito signing.