Five Questions:  San Francisco Giants

The San Francisco Giants enter 2007 dragging the weight of two consecutive losing seasons behind them, a circumstance the franchise hasn’t known since 1997.

That season was general manager Brian Sabean’s first in his job, and he plunged in with bold confidence. His first act was to execute a blockbuster trade that surrendered star third baseman Matt Williams, a terrific player and huge fan favorite. The deal was roundly howled as a disaster in the Bay Area sports media, yet it quickly turned out to be anything but: the primary talent received in exchange for Williams, Jeff Kent, blossomed in San Francisco into a great star. That trade worked as the centerpiece among several damn-the-torpedoes Sabean maneuvers that transformed the ball club into a surprise division champion in ’97, and a very strong contender for years to follow.

The contrast with the current scene could scarcely be more vivid. Faced with another proven-mediocrity roster, Sabean’s response this time around has been wholly unimaginative. No serious rebuilding has been undertaken; instead the near-exact orchestration that produced the off-key melody of 2006 is tuning up yet again: ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Barry Bonds and the B-List Veterans!

Well, almost, anyway. There may be a couple of interesting notes in the arrangement.

1. What about Barry?

As always, this is the primary question in San Francisco. But now there’s a twist to it, namely: just which Barry are we talking about?

Sabean allowed long-time staff ace Jason Schmidt to depart as a free agent to the arch-rival Dodgers. To replace him, the general manager reached across the bay for long-time Oakland standout Barry Zito. To be precise, Sabean did a lot more than reach: He vociferously handed over a significant chunk of the franchise’s future revenue, signing Zito to a staggering seven-year, $126 million deal.

To say the very least, the long-term economic wisdom of this contract can be questioned. But in the immediate context of the 2007 season, the move will likely work out reasonably well. Zito isn’t a great pitcher by any means, but his strengths are sure and important: He is extraordinarily durable, and as pitchers go, amazingly consistent. The Giants can almost certainly depend upon Zito to deliver 220-or-so innings of above-average starting pitching this year, and that would be a very valuable contribution.

Zito doesn’t have Schmidt’s stuff, and will never produce the kind of results Schmidt did at his peak. But Schmidt’s peak is almost certainly behind him, and his injury risk is far greater than Zito’s. On the field of play in 2007, the essential Schmidt-for-Zito swap will probably be at least a break-even for the Giants, and may well yield an advantage.

2. What about that other Barry?

He’s just your garden-variety soon-to-be-43-year-old cleanup hitter, a primary suspect in a high-profile legal proceeding that moves more slowly than the average glacier, one of the most polarizing figures in all of sports history, whose contract details took literally months for the parties to resolve, playing on extraordinarily creaky knees and closing in on the all-time career home run record. Ho-hum.

One thing we have seen many times before is the S.S. Bonds sail into stormy and uncharted waters, so one thing that can be counted upon is for the dauntless superstar to keep his wits about him. But the precise manner in which the various other variables work themselves out is anybody’s guess. The range of plausible possibilities regarding Bonds’ season pretty much goes from Hank Aaron to Dutch Zwilling.

But amid the swirling uncertainty, there are several facts:

  • Bonds needs 21 homers to tie Bad Henry, 22 to break the record.
  • Virtually every sophisticated projection metric at our disposal puts Bonds at right around exactly 21 or 22 home runs in 2007 (indeed, the THT 2007 Season Preview has him at 22 on the nose), so it can fairly be stated that his chances of breaking the record this year are just about exactly 50/50.
  • In 2006, Bonds did his best hitting, by far, in the season’s closing months. Through July last season, he was stewing at .240 with 14 homers in 229 at-bats; the rest of the way he sizzled at .319 with 12 bombs in 138 at-bats.

In all probability, the 2007 season will present Giants fans with little in the manner of pennant race excitement. But the ingredients for a feverish Chasing Aaron drama are present in excess, with all the media circus and steroid scandal trappings. If Bonds doesn’t encounter significant injury problems—given his age and the state of his knees, a perilously menacing “if”—the likelihood of the second half of the season providing highly spiced, if not necessarily wholesome and nutritious, entertainment is great indeed.

3. How exciting is Matt Cain?

Short answer: pretty doggone exciting.

Consider this: At the age of 18, in his first full pro season, in low Single-A Matt Cain had a 2.55 ERA and a 24-90 walk-strikeout ratio in 74 innings.

The next year, split between high Single-A and Double-A, he went 13-5, 2.67, in 159 innings, with 57 walks and 161 strikeouts. At age 20 his combined record between Triple-A and the major leagues was 12-6 with a 3.89 ERA, and 206 strikeouts against 92 bases-on-balls in 192 innings.

And in 2006 Cain worked his first full season in the majors, and went 13-12 for a 76-85 team, posting an ERA+ of 108. He was ninth in the league in strikeouts, fifth in most strikeouts per inning, and third in fewest hits per inning.

Of every sort of player in the sport, young pitchers are, it must be reiterated, the least dependable. Their injury risk is enormous. Cain could yet go haywire in any number of ways. But there is also the very real possibility that Cain is on the verge of major stardom, and within that there’s a non-insignificant possibility that he has a Hall of Fame career before him. Only time will tell, of course, but there is good reason to be very, very excited about 22-year-old Matt Cain. (In case you missed it, THT guest columnist Carlos Gomez presented a marvelous analysis of Cain’s delivery mechanics here.)

In his decade at the Giants’ helm, Sabean and his executives in charge of the farm system (Dick Tidrow as Farm Director, Jack Hiatt as Director of Player Development, and Matt Nerland as Scouting Director) have deservedly taken a lot of heat for their appalling inability to produce position-player talent. But in fairness it shouldn’t be forgotten that pitchers are players too, and the Sabean regime’s track record in developing young pitchers has been excellent.

Sabean’s incomprehensible 2003 trade for A.J. Pierzynski, in which he surrendered Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser, deprived the team of a large chunk of that young pitching bounty, but still the 2007 roster includes Cain as well as the good young starter Noah Lowry, and intriguing young arms Jonathan Sanchez, Kevin Correia, Brian Wilson, Pat Misch, and Tim Lincecum.

4. Isn’t there that little matter of the bullpen?

Oh, yes, there is that.

In Zito, Cain, Lowry, and workhorse veteran Matt Morris, the Giants have the basis for what will probably be a solid starting rotation. But the crew that will be finishing out the games doesn’t look nearly as substantial.

For most of his tenure in San Francisco, Sabean demonstrated a knack for cobbling together effective bullpens out of the odds and ends that are the raw material of most bullpens. But in the past couple of years, he seems to have lost the touch.

Just how bad was the Giants bullpen in 2006? Well, the aggregate ERA of their relief pitchers was 4.73, 15th best in the 16-team National League. The median bullpen ERA of the 15 other NL teams was 4.12, or more than half a run better than the Giants’. The only team with a worse mark than San Francisco’s was the Brewers, at 5.00.

Armando Benitez, signed to a big-bucks closer deal two years ago, has been a complete bust. Now enterting the final season of his contract, it’s an open secret that Sabean would love to trade him, but that suggestion undoubtedly prompts peals of helpless laughter from the GM on the other end of the phone line, and the plea, “Stop it, Sabes! You’re killing me!” Thus if the Giants’ relief corps is to be improved in 2007, the improvement will have to come from within.

Such improvement could plausibly occur; relief pitchers are a notoriously fickle lot, and as mentioned the team does have impressive young pitching talent, though most of it is unproven. But Correia and Wilson in particular are two who might step forward. At any rate, the contribution from the Giants’ pen could scarcely get any worse.

5. And isn’t there that other little matter of, you know, the offense?

Well, yes, there is that, too.

The Giants’ offense in 2006 compiled a team OPS+ of 95, which tied them with the Reds for 12th in the league. And that performance included a 156 OPS+ contribution from Bonds in 130 games, and a 132 OPS+ from Moises Alou in 98 games. One-hundred and thirty games is unquestionably the playing-time ceiling for Bonds at this point in his career; the Giants would be ecstatic to get that from him in 2007, as there is high likelihood of him being available far less frequently than that. And even though Alou’s availability was limited in ’06, they’ll get nothing from him in ’07, as he’s moved along to the Mets.

Newcomers Dave Roberts, Rich Aurilia, Bengie Molina, and (assuming he’s healthy) Ryan Klesko all bring something to the offensive table, but even under the best-case scenario—Bonds is reasonably healthy again, and everyone else does about as expected—there’s little basis to expect anything better than mediocre run production from this roster.

The lineup should present no gaping holes; even its weakest link, Pedro Feliz, drove in 98 runs in 2006. Randy Winn will probably hit better than he did in ’06, but Ray Durham probably won’t hit quite as well, while the ageless Omar Vizquel can probably be counted upon to do about the same as he does every year.

All in all it shouldn’t be a truly weak offense, but collectively the Giants’ hitters stack up as being neither especially good at getting on base nor at driving runners home. And if Bonds is out of the lineup for an extended period, then it may well become a truly weak offense.

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