The San Francisco Giants are at the very top of the roller coaster. Pitchers and catchers are in the front car looking down that first precipitous drop as they get ready to report in less than 24 hours. The rest of the guys are soon to follow.
A couple significant bodies might hop on at the last minute (rumor has it there's an offer on the Joe Crede's table), but the Orange and Black roster is pretty much set.
A quick look around the Major Leagues shows that the same can be said about the overall picture. Most teams have circled the wagons for the official start of spring baseball.
Others are adding the last piece or two—the Los Angeles Angels grabbed Bobby Abreu, the Washington Nationals nabbed Adam Dunn, and that means Manny Ramirez is even more certain to default to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The pitching situation is no different.
The Milwaukee Brewers just signed Braden Looper and Ben Sheets' elbow surgery promises he'll be down for at least the first half of 2009. An injury history like his suggests his shelf life will be even longer.
That means the juiciest prizes on the open market are now complimentary players like the Orlandos (Hudson and Cabrera), Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, Garret Anderson, and Moises Alou.
Fine ballplayers, but none is going to shift the balance of power. Not even in the increasingly watered-down National League West.
So it's a perfect time to take stock of the Giants' 2009 outlook:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Travis Ishikawa
Second base—Emmanuel Burriss
Third base—Pablo Sandoval
Left field—Freddie Lewis
Center field—Aaron Rowand
Right field—Randy Winn
If Crede signs he'd slot in at the hot corner and Sandoval shifts to first. Even if Crede doesn't jump aboard, Richie Aurilia's set to take reps at third if Pablo can't handle the defensive load. Regardless, Sandoval's in the lineup.
There's also a bit of unrest (apparently) at second with Burriss and Kevin Frandsen duking it out for the starting job. I'm putting my money on the fleet feet of Emmanuel to pull through in spring training.
Ace—Tim Lincecum (R)
Second spot—Randy Johnson (L)
Third spot—Matt Cain (R)
Fourth spot—Barry Zito (L)
Fifth spot—Jonathan Sanchez (L)
Here again, spring training will decide the final order of the rotation. The Franchise and defending NL Cy Young gets the ball on Opening Day, but the other spots are subject to change. I'd go with the above since it alternates either righty/lefty or hard stuff/soft dookie, but I'm not Bruce Bochy.
Noah Lowry (L) also plans to have a say in who gets that fifth spot in the rotation. I like Sanchez' arsenal and health over Noah's experience.
Closer—Brian Wilson (R)
Set-up—Jeremy Affeldt (L)
Set-up—Bobby Howry (R)
Set-up—Jack Taschner (L)
Set-up—Sergio Romo (R)
Set-up—Alex Hinshaw (L)
Nothing much needs to be said here in terms of qualifiers. The firemen are set and primed for a strong year.
Put it all together and the outlook is pretty rosy in the absolute sense.
The offense isn't going to blow anyone's doors off the hinges, even if Crede signs and experiences a rejuvenation. However, it should have a lot of speed and some guys who can handle the bat well enough to generate more runs than last year.
That's not saying much, but at least it's progress.
Same goes for the rotation. It's tough to imagine Lincecum getting better, but he's so young that improvement should be forthcoming. The Big Unit has a lot of miles on his left arm, but he's still an upgrade over the warm body SF trotted out every fifth day in 2008.
Zito has been improving at a glacial rate and the Sanchez/Lowry survivor should be more consistent.
And then there's Matt Cain.
To the casual observer, the Kid is a bit of a train wreck. His numbers are ugly with a capital 'U;' don't believe it—with a little extra run support and the accompanying confidence boost, he could take the Leap.
Cain's a stud whose youth makes him susceptible to the big inning, especially when he thinks he's gotta be perfect to keep his team in the game.
If that offense can simply muster another two or three runs in Cain's starts, the Giants could be looking at a one-two punch to rival anyone in baseball. That's the absolute sense. The relative one is even rosier because the NL West—a harmless kitten last year—has gotten even cuter.
The Bums, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Colorado Rockies should all see improvement from seriously talented youngsters. However, most of those youngsters figure to do their damage with ash or maple, not with the rosin bag. Additionally, those teams have all lost hugely significant piece.
Arizona's seen Dunn, the Big Unit, and Brandon Lyon walk. Hudson and Juan Cruz seem destined for the door as well. Colorado traded away Matt Holliday and let Brian Fuentes take the walk. I guess they let Willy Taveras run.
Last year's division champ, the Bums, will likely retain the services of Manny—what those will be remain are an increasingly large question mark. Even if he returns the Good Manny, the boys in blue have still seen Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux, Jason Johnson, and Scott Proctor hit the road. Nomar Garciaparra and Joe Beimel also have their thumbs out.
That's a ton of talent creating a vacuum that endures. And nothing on the open market is gonna fill it.
As a die-hard San Francisco Giant fan, I like the absolute picture very much. I love the relative one because it's all about making the playoffs. If you can scratch and claw your way into the second season, anything can happen.
An injury here, a hot streak there, and you're wearing a World Series crown. It almost happened for SF in 2002 and it did happen for the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies.
The weakness of the NL West and the progress (on paper) of the Giants make 2009 one of the most promising baseball seasons for the Bay Area in several years. The playoffs are a legitimate possibility and, for the first time since 2004, that's not the Kool-Aid talking.
It'll take a bit of luck, but that's always the case. And the San Francisco Giants are due for a bit of luck.
In less than 24 hours, the ifs start dropping away and the roller coaster officially starts. This year, San Francisco should be able to enjoy the ride.