Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants' front office deserve a hearty round of applause heading into 2010 Spring Training.
Their winter of discontent following a disappointing finish to the 2009 Major League Baseball season could've been Ugly with a capital "U."
Considering how the anemic offense submarined an otherwise exceptional campaign from the starting staff and bullpen, the easy thing would've been to start the ol' printing presses and shell out max dinero for one of the best bats on the market.
But "easy" is all too infrequently synonymous with "smart."
Check out ESPN's list of the top-rated free agents that were available at the beginning of the 2009-10 shopping season. It's obviously not definitive, but the point it illustrates absolutely is.
After Matt Holliday and Jason Bay, the splinters fell off the face of the freakin' planet.
I'd be willing to concede to an argument putting either Orlando Hudson, Felipe Lopez, Chone Figgins, or Mike Cameron at No. 3 on the list of best available batsman way back when.
That, more than anything is why there was so much fascination with Holliday and Bay—not that either option is a sure-fire linchpin to a successful offense, but because both were infinitely more attractive than anyone else.
In other words, the "thumpers" found themselves in as rosy a seller's market as could be (horrid economy notwithstanding).
With that in mind, I'd say the Gents' brain trust did just fine netting its haul:
—Mark DeRosa, 35, signed for two years and a total of $12 million
—Bengie Molina, 35, re-signed for one year at $4.5 million
—Juan Uribe, 30, re-signed for one year at $3.25 million
—Aubrey Huff, 33, signed for one year at three million dollars.
Granted, nobody in the quartet is likely to set the world afire at this stage in his career. Additionally, there are incentives that can/will bump the initial price tag north of its current perch so any drastic improvement in the batting order will end up costing Los Gigantes more than the current $16.75 million tally (excluding DeRosa's second year at an average of $6 million).
Nevertheless, I say that's a neatly efficient shot in the arm to a lineup that should see some internal progress as well.
As exceptional as Pablo Sandoval was last year, Little Money is a green 23 so we've yet to see his ceiling (assuming his weight stays a superficial distraction rather than a real one). Aaron Rowand was brutal for most of 2009; a resurgence from him is almost a statistical inevitability. Chuck in a full year's boost from Freddy Sanchez (once he gets healthy), a kick from Nate Schierholtz, a shorter leash on Edgar Renteria should he struggle again, and the boys by the Bay could be onto something
Those are all substantial "ifs," but calling them "probable" would be no exaggeration at all.
Which means the Orange and Black offense should be better in 2010. Which means the overall team should be better, too, because the pitching staff is still young and improving.
Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, and a dash of veteran savvy in Barry Zito equate to one hell of a safety-net. Especially since the first four are still looking forward to their 28th birthdays i.e. they're still developing physical tools and the mental ability to bring a full arsenal to bear on the bump.
That's the second perspective to keep in mind—simply improving is a double-victory because the National League West got weaker over the last several months.
Not to mention the gathering storm around Manny Ramirez.
LA watched Randy Wolf and the O-Dawg make inexplicable exits after both played key roles in los Doyers' run to the 2009 postseason. True, Hudson got dumped in favor of Ronnie Belliard during the stretch drive, but Orlando spent most of '09 leading the LA charge.
More important, however, is the departure of the pitcher.
The southpaw Wolf was arguably the ace for the Senior Circuit in the City of Angels. Fellow lefty Clayton Kershaw will certainly take that mantle soon—perhaps as early as 2010—and Chad Billingsley seems to have the No. 1 tools, but neither youngster was very consistent and Billingsley disintegrated after the All-Star break.
Logically speaking, Wolf's loss will be significant.
Baseball doesn't always adhere to logic. Meanwhile, dynamos like Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, and—to a lesser degree—Russell Martin and Jonathan Broxton will keep the Bums in the thick of things atop the division. But don't expect that buffer to be what it was last year.
Consequently, the brass ring is undeniably within reach for los Gigantes.
They'll get ornery competition from the Arizona Diamondbacks as they return Cy Young winner Brandon Webb to a rotation that already sparkles with Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson. Furthermore, the Snakes could be packing quite a bit more venom on offense, having imported one version of right side of the Atlanta Braves' infield (Adam LaRoche at first with Kelly Johnson at second).
Then there's the matter of Justin Upton's uber-potential, the proverbial volcano ready to blow. If his entire-offense-in-a-can explodes and Webb comes back without missing a beat, the Show's entire landscape could change.
Forget about just the NL West.
I'm not as sold on the Colorado Rockies, but there's something to be said for continuity and stability.
The Rox qualify in spades on both accounts, having spent the offseason hunkered down in Denver. The Colorado powers-that-be only emerged to poach a couple under-the-radar assets in Melvin Mora and Miguel Oliva, yet those moves demand attention when shown against a backdrop that is essentially the same exact team that took the 2009 NL Wild Card.
What the Rockies lacked for in splash, they made up for in wisdom—don't fix what ain't broke. The only thing broken on the Rox campaign from a year ago was the jump out of the gate and perhaps the return of Jeff Francis can make for a fast start.
As for the San Diego Padres...well...they're in the NL West, too.
Aside from the Fathers, 2010 out West doesn't look like a cakewalk.
The Dodgers will still be dangerous, the Diamondbacks have the pieces on paper to be truly terrifying, and the Rockies' pre-set chemistry might be the secret ingredient to 162+ games of unstoppable-ness rather than only 100.
And yet the San Francisco Giants, even without the big bat everyone wanted, can stake as strong a claim to a possible pennant.
Depending on your perspective...