Ah, yes! It’s that time of year again, when we dust off our (oh so murky) crystal ball and do our best at sizing up just what might be in store for Los Gigantes de San Francisco.
Last year’s ball club turned out to be among the most positive surprises in either league; they most definitely far surpassed the expectations of yours truly, coming in at 88-74, good for third place in the dramatically improved NL West. Whether they can build upon that improvement (or even sustain that level of performance) in 2010 is, of course, a function of how various looming questions may be answered. Let’s consider the most pressing five.
1. How will the Dubious Duo do at the keystone?
A double play combo consisting of Edgar Renteria at shortstop and Freddy Sanchez at second base could very well be considered among the finest in the game—it could be, that is, if it’s still, say, 2006. Unfortunately I believe we’ve made it all the way to 2010, and thus this particular keystone pairing is, well, uncertain, in a Brian Sabean Special sort of way.
In terms of raw age, neither of these guys is ancient, although Renteria at 33 and Sanchez at 32 are both well beyond the normal prime years for middle infielders. The larger issue is that neither was healthy last year: Renteria was dogged by a sore elbow, and neither hit nor fielded well, while Sanchez spent the second half of ’09 hobbling on a bad knee. Both underwent surgery in the offseason; Sanchez in fact went under the knife twice, dealing with the knee and a shoulder problem as a bonus.
Sanchez hasn’t played an inning of spring training and won’t be available until mid-April at the earliest. Renteria has been playing this spring, but he has a lot of improving to do on his 2009 production to even be considered average. All in all, things will have to turn out as well as they possibly can for the Giants to avoid problems at one or both of the crucial middle infield positions in 2010.
2. What’s the story in right field?
The archetypal right fielder is a big guy: Whether or not he possesses the position’s ideal of a cannon arm, he’s almost always a power hitter. Very often the right fielder is among his team’s top run producers, a core-of-the-order slugger.
But not for the Giants of the current era. This franchise hasn’t had a right fielder who hit as many as 20 home runs in a season since, get this, 2003, and only one since then (Moises Alou in 2006) has delivered as many as 15. The 2009 Giants presented yet another distinctly inoffensive alignment in right field: Randy Winn and Nate Schierholtz combined for 151 starts at the position, while delivering a total of seven homers and 50 RBIs.
Sabean’s action in addressing this issue for 2010 consisted of letting Winn go, and, well, nothing else. So the 26-year-old Schierholtz is back; despite modest major league production so far, the position is his to lose. Schierholtz brings some impressive tools to the challenge: He does have the requisite howitzer, and he’s a big fellow who runs reasonably well (though he hasn’t shown particular defensive aptitude). He has a track record of consistent high-average, moderate-power hitting at every level of the minors, and the kind of doubles power Schierholtz demonstrated as a youngster often develops into home run power later.
Balanced against those positives is an amazing absence of strike zone discipline (more than once in 2009 Schierholtz swung through a pitch that plunked him in the back leg). One suspects that unless meaningful progress is made on the plate discipline, the power won’t materialize, and while 26 isn’t too old for it to begin to happen, it’s getting darn close.
The only real competitors for the job currently on the Giants’ roster (a late-spring pickup of someone like Jermaine Dye isn’t out of the question) are John Bowker, another 26-year-old left-handed hitter with impressive minor league credentials but not much in the majors, 29-year-old Fred Lewis, whose all-around mediocrity lost him the starting left field job in 2009, and speedy 28-year-old jack-of-all-trades Eugenio Velez—and if Velez ends up spending a lot of time in right field, then the Giants will be pulling off their most ardent head-scratcher yet.
3. How will the young southpaw starters fare?
The Giants’ starting rotation for much of 2010 will likely contain two young left-handers who represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of great potential: Jonathan Sanchez (who, to be sure, at 27 isn’t all that young anymore), who’s teased the Giants for several years with dazzling stuff and erratic results, and Madison Bumgarner, who’s just 20, but who’s torched the minor leagues so thoroughly that he appears nearly ready for the majors. (Just this week, the Giants optioned Bumgarner to Triple-A, but he will almost certainly be back soon.)
The ceiling for each (particularly Bumgarner) is sky-high. But, alas, neither has any record of consistent major league success, and if there is any creature on the planet less dependable than a young pitcher, it’s a young pitcher with brilliant potential.
Either or both could get hurt or otherwise implode. Sanchez could join the legion of great-stuff throwers who never put it together, and Bumgarner could join the legion of what-might-have-beens. But still, there is a real possibility of true brilliance from both. Where these two land upon the spectrum from nothing to all may well make the difference in how the Giants do in 2010, and quite a ways beyond.
4. Will the run production be any less meager?
The Giants won 88 games in 2009 despite featuring the worst offense in the league. (Those who might interpret the team’s low-scoring tendency as an artifact of its home ballpark are looking at some very out-of-date data; AT&T Park hasn’t played as a friendly environment for pitchers in many years.) While a win is a win and a loss is a loss, regardless of how it’s created, sustaining a successful ball club without even as much as a league-average performance in one half of the inning or the other is a most difficult act. Balance imparts flexibility, while all the eggs in one basket imparts vulnerability.
San Francisco’s offense in 2009 presented one extraordinarily good hitter (the phenomenal 22-year-old Pablo Sandoval) and, effectively, nothing else. The remedy Sabean has endeavored to provide for 2010 consists of acquiring so-so 33-year-old veteran Aubrey Huff as the new first baseman and so-so 35-year-old veteran Mark DeRosa as the new left fielder. While it’s a measure of the remarkable offensive weakness of those positions on the ’09 Giants that Huff and DeRosa will likely bring upgrades in run production, neither is truly a good hitter by the standards of first basemen and left fielders, and moreover their age suggests meaningful injury risk.
Sabean’s other major move was to re-sign 35-year-old veteran catcher Bengie Molina. While Molina is a decent hitter for a catcher, he isn’t a good one, and moreover his presence serves to block 23-year-old rookie Buster Posey—universally regarded as the best-hitting catching prospect in the game today, almost certainly a better hitter than Molina right now. Only the Giants, it seems, would find a way to do something like this.
What it means is that while the Giants’ offense won’t likely be any worse than it was in 2009 (one might well ask, “How could it?”), the probability of it being much better isn’t high. Which means the team’s pitching staff will once more shoulder an exceptionally heavy burden. Which leads to the final question …
5. How long can the young aces remain injury-free?
Let’s face it: Injuries are a part of every sport, baseball certainly included. It’s just the nature of athletic competition; as the body is pushed to the breaking point, well, sometimes it’s going to break. Any team in any sport that makes plans based on an assumption of zero injuries is a team doomed to disappointment.
Thus the 2010 Giants seem particularly precariously poised. The team in the field is hugely dependent upon 30-somethings, a most injury-vulnerable demographic, and the ball club’s strength is heavily focused upon two great young starting pitchers: 26-year-old Tim Lincecum and 25-year-old Matt Cain.
Both of these exceptional young right-handers have made their mark not only on the basis of their effectiveness (wonderful as that has been, obviously and especially in Lincecum’s case), but also on the basis of their stalwart durability: Neither ever misses a dang start. Lincecum may be a hippie gymnast-flexible prodigy, and Cain a strong-as-an-ox old-schooler, but the bottom line is that both have simply never gotten hurt. Ever. At all. Period. Not once. Never. Ever.
We Giants fans fervently hope that this will always be the case. But we’d be fools (and yes, I know, we’re Giants fans so that may already be settled) if we expected this to always be the case. At what point either or both of these remarkable workhorses demonstrate normal susceptibility to injury is the point at which the Giants are likely to struggle.