Five questions:  San Francisco Giants

Well, how about that! The ne’er-do-well Giants went and won the World Freaking Series last year. All those who predicted that, please raise your hands!

Yeah, right. Put your hands down, you liars.

As unlikely a turn of events as it was, the ultimate success of the 2010 San Francisco Giants stands as excellent evidence that terrific starting pitching trumps pretty much every other element in post-season baseball. Indeed it was the case that the Giants, with their league-average offense, encountered more difficulty in reaching the post-season tournament than in winning it.

In any case, they’re back in 2011 with essentially the same roster, and thus essentially the same mix of assets and vulnerabilities. The Giants’ chances of repeating with this formula will likely boil down to the answers to the following questions.

1. Will that 37-year-old be able to handle shortstop?

One of the few significant roster changes is at shortstop, where Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria, who shared the position in 2010, have departed. To replace them, General Manager Brian Sabean signed the veteran Miguel Tejada.

Now, on the one hand, at this point in his career, concerns regarding Tejada’s range are quite valid, but on the other hand, it wasn’t as though Uribe and Renteria were covering a whole lot of ground themselves. Still, in the pursuit of defensive excellence it’s hardly a recommended practice to deploy elderly players with limited mobility at shortstop. The Giants were successful last year despite the range of their shortstops, not because of it.

What Uribe and Renteria did offer was steady sure-handedness, and more pop with the bat (especially Uribe) than one typically finds in shortstops. And these are attributes of Tejada as well.

And though he is 37, throughout his long career Tejada has been exceptionally durable, so the injury risk normally present in veterans (and all too present in Renteria) can be considered low in Tejada’s case.

Thus, most likely Tejada will provide the Giants with a full season of the plusses and minuses he delivered for the Padres down the stretch in 2010, and for the Astros in 2008 and 2009: not good, but on balance not bad either. Still, he is 37, and every player hits the end of the line at some point. The Giants need this to not be that point for Tejada.

2. Where will Brandon belt?

For far too long, the Giants’ organization utterly failed at producing hitters. But in the recent few years they’ve churned out a certain hard-hitting third baseman we’ll discuss below, as well as sweet-swinging 2010 Rookie of the Year Buster Posey. And it appears that they may have a third outstanding young bat following close on those heels.

Twenty-three-year-old Brandon Belt (yes, that really is his name) has just one year of professional experience under his—never mind—but what a year it was: he completely destroyed pitching at both High-A and Double-A before finishing the season with a two-week stint at Triple-A, in which he didn’t hit for average but continued to produce abundant power and draw abundant walks. Belt very well might not turn out to be as great a hitter as his 2010 minor league performance indicates, but that performance was so sensational that it leaves plenty of room beneath it to still be darn good.

The questions at this point are (a) will the Giants promote him to the majors at the start of the 2011 season, or give him some more time in Triple-A (Sabean’s comments have suggested the latter, but as of this writing it hadn’t been decided, and the recent short-term injury suffered by Cody Ross provides a reason to keep Belt in the majors for at least the first couple of weeks), and (b) when Belt is brought up to the big club, what position will he play?

Belt played mostly first base in 2010, but he did spend about a dozen games in the outfield. The Giants already have 34-year-old veteran Aubrey Huff, who surprised with a terrific year in 2010, on hand to play first base, although Huff was also deployed in both left and right field in 2010, and handled those assignments flawlessly.

Whatever position he plays, the extent to which Belt is in the majors in 2011, and the extent to which he hits the way he threatens to, will be keys to providing the Giants with a much-needed offensive boost.

3. How “for real” is Señor Torres?

By far the most pleasant surprise for San Francisco in 2010 was the breakout performance of erstwhile bit player Andres Torres. Projected as nothing more than a backup, instead at the age of 32 Torres grabbed the first-string center field job and spent the season delivering the complete package of power, on-base ability, speed, and defense. His only slump was a doozy he encountered in early September, and that was subsequently explained by the appendicitis he was discovered to be suffering; Torres underwent an appendectomy and returned to perform well in the post-season.

We’ve heard of late bloomers before, but 32 years old? And, of all things, as a speedy leadoff-hitting center fielder? It was one of the most delightfully strange episodes in the sport’s history. And its oddity is what raises the large question of whether Torres can sustain this sort of performance, and if so, for how long.

If Torres does—to use the hackneyed phrase—“turn back into a pumpkin,” it will represent a significant loss. On a team rich with colorful personalities he was generally overlooked, but Torres was a crucial factor in the success of the 2010 Giants.

4. Whither The Panda?

Winning a championship requires lots of things going well simultaneously, and that certainly describes what happened for the 2010 Giants. However, one prominent horse in their cavalry charge zigged while the others zagged: third baseman Pablo Sandoval endured a distinct down year. Indeed, by the time of the September stretch run and the post-season, The Kung Fu Panda had lost his first-string status, and was deployed only in a spot-player role.

Entering the season, no one remotely imagined such a fate for Sandoval. In 2009, at the tender age of 22 he was among the game’s elite hitters, presenting a sizzling line of .330/.387/.556. But 2010 brought a sudden plunge in the production of both power and batting average, and a sudden spike in the production of double-play grounders.

Now, many young stars before Sandoval have encountered disappointing early-career seasons; the Sophomore Slump is a time-honored malady, as the league makes adjustments in response to a youngster’s success. That might well explain some of what was happening with this youngster.

But many observers, including this one, believed that something more than that was going on with The Panda, and that his primary problem was his weight. Sandoval had always been rotund (his other nickname is “The Round Mound of Pound”), often listed at 5-11, 245 (or alternatively at 5-11, 262), but in 2010 he migrated fully into the territory of obese, probably weighing close to 300 pounds. Sandoval’s bat speed as well as his defensive range were noticeably reduced in comparison with 2009.

Clearly, the Giants believed Sandoval’s weight was unacceptable, as they persuaded him to not return to his home in Venezuela for the off-season, and instead enrolled him in a strictly-supervised weight-loss/conditioning program in Arizona. So far, the results appear to be splendidly successful, as Sandoval shed about 40 pounds and looks great this spring. The degree to which The Panda will be able to keep the trimmer shape, and the degree to which a trimmer Panda is able to regain his former prowess with the bat, will go a long way toward determining the run production of the 2011 Giants.

5. Will those starters shoulder that load again?

The Giants’ core strength in 2010 was expected to be their starting pitching, and the Giants’ core strength in 2010 was indeed their starting pitching. The starting rotation of Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner was as reliably effective as any in the game.

The “worst” of them was Zito, and his contribution of a 98 ERA+ in 199 innings was just fine; most teams would kill for a fourth starter, let alone a fifth, that good and that durable. The Giants’ depth was such that they were able to keep Zito off the post-season roster altogether, and ride to an 11-4 record on the backs of the other four, who combined for a WHIP of 0.99 and an ERA of 2.23 in their 15 starts.

That’s just great starting pitching. If the Giants get the kind of performance from their starting staff in 2011 that they got in 2010, they will be a formidable contender almost without regard to how well anything else goes. But if the Giants’ starters encounter problems with injuries and/or ineffectiveness, it’s unlikely that the team will have sufficient counterbalancing strengths.

Pitchers are, of course, the least reliable of performers under any conditions, and the big four with whom the Giants cruised to victory are all young, and none have ever before piled on a postseason workload. Cain, who’s never missed a turn due to injury in his five-plus big league seasons, sat out two starts early this spring with pain in his elbow. That could turn out to be nothing, or it could be the portent of a problem.

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