Competition Vs. Contention: Giants Favoring The Latter in 2009

Evan Aczon@TwoSeamGripeSenior Analyst IJune 16, 2009

After the Giants finished 2008 with a record of 72-90, a lot of people saw promise.

There were flashes of brilliance from young guys, steady contribution from veterans, and it looked like a couple tweaks to the roster could change a lot for 2009.

Those changes happened, for the most part, even though a lot of baseball fans are missing out on them. Realistically, the Giants are not yet ready to win a title, but their record is the best it’s been in more than a year and they’re actually leading the National League wildcard race.

“We intend to be competitive,” said managing partner Bill Neukom. “And after we are competitive, we intend to be contending.”

I know that I usually end up saying the same things in every article, but what that means is this: 

The Giants are a hitter away from contending, but don’t bet the future of the team to get that hitter.

Get what you can right now. Win as much as you can this year. If there’s a good deal out there, take it. But don’t trade top prospects for anyone. 

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To be more in depth, look at what has transpired over the last 18 months. In 2008, the Giants were projected to be the absolute worst team in the majors. They ended up in fourth place with a better winning percentage than five other teams. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young, winning 18 games. The “cleanup experiment” with Bengie Molina ended up with 96 RBIs.

Fast forward to this year.

The Giants added bullpen help in Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry. There were a lot of times where the fans simply asked, Why? There was a questionable signing of Edgar Renteria, a Randy Johnson signing that a few people grumbled about, another absence of a power bat, and couple rumors involving Matt Cain that people were itching to pull the trigger on. 

Almost halfway into the season, we’re starting to get it. 

Why add Renteria? Admittedly, the Giants overpaid. But Edgar’s one of the top RBI men on the team, and is getting a lot of clutch hits.

Why Randy Johnson? Yes, he was brought in to fill seats on the road to 300, but also to win. No current pitcher knows how to win as well as he does.

Why no power bat? The front office declared that they would build from within.

Travis Ishikawa is not the power bat they were looking for, but he’s the best defensive first-baseman in the league. Sandoval has taken his place for now, and is providing the defense and the power. Fred Lewis’s time in the outfield looks to be on hold for now, contributing only three homeruns so far. Nate Schierholtz is finally seeing time, and he’s swinging a hot bat.

Why not trade Cain? Anyone who thought that Cain should have been traded should be made to watch his complete game over the Athletics for 24 hours straight.

Cain is making his case for an All-Star bid, and if we look far enough forward, maybe even a Cy Young candidacy. How great would it be to have Lincecum and Cain win back-to-back Cy Young awards? Having them compete against each other would be an amazing experience, and anyone who ever wondered what Cain would look like with run support is suddenly realizing their wildest dreams are coming true.

The knock on the Giants is that they can’t score runs. After last year, we knew that the pitching was there, but the lack of power was so glaring that a majority of the losses were games that were lost by one or two runs. They averaged 3.95 runs a game, but the team ERA was 4.38, which won’t win games.

Once again, fast-forward to 2009. Although far behind the league leaders in total home runs and runs scored, they’re posting 4.05 runs per game this year. Couple that with a pitching staff that boasts two top-five ERAs (Cain is third and Lincecum is fourth) under 3.00 and a second place team ERA (3.70) and you’re going to win more games. 

The offense is also pounding the ball in the last couple months. After a relatively quiet month of April, where the team was shut out a few times and just couldn’t seem to score runs on the road, the summer heat has worked wonders for the Giants bats.

Aaron Rowand’s hitting streak is over, but somehow having him in the leadoff spot has kept him consistently driving in runs and getting on base. Remember last year when he was hitting .345 into June? He’s back at .300, and the way he’s hitting there shouldn’t be a drop-off like last year.

Bengie Molina is starting to heat up, and is once again leading the team in homeruns and RBI. Randy Winn is a little below his consistent career average, but is getting there.

The biggest contribution has been from Pablo Sandoval. Not one person is surprised at this guy. Over his career in the Giants organization, he’s hitting an impressive .303. After a partial season last year, everyone knew that he would be a hitting force in the years to come.

What no one thought is that he would be among the league leaders for batting average and actually be in contention for an All-Star spot and a batting title.

His style of hitting (swing at everything) doesn’t suit everyone, but as last night’s second homerun showed, he can hit everything, and hit it hard. The Panda was slumping for a little bit, but the days of big-league pitchers fooling him with breaking balls are over. Sandoval is here to stay, whether it is at first or third base.

With those slight upgrades on offense, and the bolstering in the bullpen, which has been, for the most part, lights out, the Giants have settled in to Neukom’s “competitive” groove. Now that they’re five games over .500 and playing some really good baseball, they’re inching towards the “contending” part of the game.

To conclude, I’ll once again set the record straight: The Giants need a bat to win the World Series. They needed a bat to compete last year. But last year we just asked the management to let the kids play. This year, we’re over that. The kids are here, and they’re playing well. If they’re not, then they’ve been replaced with new kids. (Update: Burriss [0-27] optioned down, Downs [.288, 6 HR, 38 RBI] called up.)

Whatever the case may be, it looks like the tide is finally starting to turn. The hits are falling, the runs are crossing the plate, the pitching is stellar, and the Giants have only themselves to thank for it. Well done, friends.

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