Five questions:  San Francisco Giants

Following a division-winning, pennant-winning, and World Championship-winning performance in 2010, the 2011 San Francisco Giants fell to a distant second place. And even that overstates their quality, given that the ball club allowed eight more runs than it scored.

What prevented the Giants from repeating was, very simply, an anemic offense. They finished dead last in the National League in runs scored and on-base percentage, and tied for 14th in OPS+. If they’re to rebound and seriously contend in 2012, they must improve upon that feeble production. Have the offseason moves undertaken by GM Brian Sabean meaningfully addressed this fundamental issue?

Whither Melky?

Sabean’s biggest transaction was to trade enigmatic starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez (and a Double-A pitching prospect) to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Melky Cabrera. Now, on the surface, this deal looks like a complete steal for the Giants, as Sanchez spent almost half the 2011 season on the DL, and went 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA when he was active, while Cabrera hit .305 with 18 home runs and 44 doubles.

But there’s good reason to be skeptical that Cabrera will deliver that sort of performance again. To call his 2011 a “career year” is to greatly understate it, as Melky not only achieved career highs, but vastly exceeded his previous bests, in plate appearances, runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBIs, stolen bases, batting average, slugging, OPS and OPS+.

Now, it sometimes happens that a player leaps forward at the age of 26 and establishes a significantly higher level of performance, across the board, and then sustains it going forward. Sometimes. But not often. Instead, what typically follows an out-of-nowhere mid-career improvement such as Cabrera’s is a more-or-less dramatic regression, if not right back to the former standard, then to something close to it. In other words, pitiless reality sets in.

Obviously we’ll see what happens this time. It should be noted that Cabrera was meaningfully fitter and trimmer in 2011 than in 2010. If indeed the 2011 version of Cabrera is “for real,” then the Giants have neatly filled at least part of the gaping sinkhole that enveloped the top of their order last year. But if 2011 proves to be a fluke, and he’s nothing more than the old familiar Melky, then the Giants’ table will continue to be inadequately set.

A fallen Angel?

Curiously, Cabrera wasn’t the only speedy, switch-hitting center fielder with a highly irregular track record of offensive production that the Giants traded for this winter. Sabean also swapped incumbent center fielder Andres Torres—you guessed it, himself a speedy switch-hitter with a highly irregular track record of offensive production—along with solid, dependable reliever Ramon Ramirez to the New York Mets in exchange for Angel Pagan, yet a third bird of the Cabrera/Torres feather.

As with Cabrera, scrutiny of Pagan’s history yields a perplexingly wide range of projected 2012 performance. Unlike Cabrera, Pagan’s spike season was back in 2009 (when Pagan was 27), and his bat has spent the past two years steadily working its way back into the ranks of the mediocre.

At this point, manager Bruce Bochy has Pagan penciled in as the first-string center fielder, with Cabrera in left. If Pagan hits the way he did in 2009, that’ll be fine, but if he brings more along the lines of his 2011 output, he’ll be a below-average-hitting regular center fielder. In that case the Giants will have surrendered Andres Torres and bullpen depth to gain a fourth-outfielder talent, not substantially better than Torres will likely be—though, to be fair, Pagan is three-and-a-half years younger than Torres.

Is Belt in the loop?

The Giants have one blindingly obvious alternative to consider in left field. It’s hard to present a stronger case than Brandon Belt’s when demonstrating no further need to prove oneself in the minors: In 825 plate appearances his minor league line is .343/.457/.596, including a .291/.436/.535 portion in Triple-A. You’d think a team in dire need of both power and on-base ability would find a way to work such a kid into the lineup.

But these are the Giants, so it can’t be that simple. The recent party line has been that Belt, at age 23, just wasn’t mentally ready for the big leagues in 2011, or something, and so therefore it was all right that the organization lacked anything resembling a coherent plan for him.

And the plan (?) this year is that Belt will have to hit his way into a starting job in spring training, either in left field or at first base (or conceivably, one might imagine, right field). Why a few dozen 2012 exhibition-game plate appearances should count for more than a thousand for-real PAs in both the minors and majors in 2010-11 in deciding what to do with Belt remains unclear.

In any case, however meaningful it is, Belt has been hitting well this spring. The most recent Bochy quotes made it rather plain that they don’t yet know what the heck they’ll do with Belt. And a non-roster invitee, a 28-year-old journeyman named Gregor Blanco, who put up a .201/.350/.327 line in Triple-A last season, has apparently been thrilling the Giants brass in his Cactus League appearances, so much that he seems to have gained the inside track to open the regular season as the Giants’ fourth outfielder. We kid you not.

And for that matter, what about first base?

If anything would seem more obvious than just sticking Belt in left field for 500 at-bats and finding out what happens, it would be sticking him at first base for 500 at-bats and finding out what happens. However, not one, not two, but three possibilities stand in the way of the Giants doing that.

The first possibility is that Aubrey Huff retains his status as the starting first baseman, a spot he held for nearly all of 2011 despite consistently dreadful performance: Huff’s OPS was .676, as compared to a league-average mark from first basemen of .801. Worse yet, the always-interesting Huff freely blamed his dismal production on poor aerobic conditioning due to heavy smoking. Terrific.

But the Giants had signed the now-35-year-old Huff to a two-year contract following 2010, and with $10 million in sunk cost dedicated to him in 2012, they aren’t eager to put him on the bench. As of now, the first base job remains his to lose.

Another ahead of Belt in the first base queue is Brett Pill, an aspiring 27-year-old rookie who was in the 2011 Pacific Coast League’s top five in doubles, home runs, and RBIs. To be sure, given his age Pill doesn’t project as a major league star, but he seems entirely capable of contributing in a utility or platoon role (conveniently, he bats right-handed, while both Belt and Huff hit lefty). And it could easily turn out that not only does Belt out-hit Pagan and/or Cabrera and win a job in left field, but Pill out-hits Huff and wins one at first base.

But even that might not turn out to be the last word on the first base matter. The Giants have yet a third plausible scenario blocking Belt at first base, and it involves their catcher.

Is Buster all better?

On the long list of major problems plaguing the Giants’ offense in 2011—Huff’s flop, Torres’ flop, the ghastly performances of Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, and so on—none was worse than their loss of Buster Posey to a season-ending ankle injury in late May.

The Giants simply didn’t have a backup catcher capable of even somewhat softening that blow. When Posey went down, he was hitting .284/.368/.389, for an OPS+ of 115. The two erstwhile scrubs who split the job the rest of the way, Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart, combined for a line of .200/.270/.309 in 419 plate appearances, for an OPS+ of 65. Overnight, the Giants’ catching output was switched from middle-of-the-order mode to automatic-out. The demonstration of the concept of “replacement level” could hardly be more vivid.

The good news is that Posey’s healing and rehab program has all gone according to schedule, so far. At this point he does appear capable of resuming the stress of regular catching. But it’s still very early in the process, and the baseball season is a very long one. Posey could reinjure the ankle, or it could just prove to be chronically painful when subjected to many thousands of squats.

Thus a possibility remains that Posey is unable to handle catching on a regular basis. If that’s the case, the Giants could be forced to play him at first base more than occasionally in order to keep his bat in the lineup. This would put a reserve catcher back into a too-prominent role, as well as block the potentially productive bat of whoever else would be the regular first baseman. And the Giants proved last year to be a ball club that can’t afford to waste any offensive capability.

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  1. trantor said...

    This is another reminder to the glaring offensive problem the Giants continue to have under Sabean. Mediocre talent at low defensive spectrum positions. (Not to mention the inability to stick a raw, talented rookie out there for a couple seasons to see how he copes)

    Sabean got away with this for 10 years with Bonds on the roster, and seems pretty stuck in his ways.

  2. Menthol said...

    FWIW, Melky is tearing it up in spring training, so perhaps he really has turned a corner. OTOH, Pagan has been a load of stink.

  3. Steve Treder said...

    Well, as is probably already evident, I learned a long, long time ago that spring training stats are … well, you know what.

  4. levislanding said...

    Quick note Greggor blanco was probably terrible last year in triple A because he had a wrist injury. He does have a. 350ish major league obp which makes him somewhat useful.

  5. Steve Treder said...

    Yeah, Blanco’s decent enough as a strict backup.  He runs well and can get on base.  But I’m of the school of thought that says you fit the Gregor Blancos in as appropriate to accomodate the Brandon Belts, not the other way around.

  6. Paul G. said...

    During his time in New York, Melky was an incredibly erratic player.  Sometimes he looked like a star in the making and other times he left you wondering how he was promoted past A ball.  There was talk that he got lazy and let the early success get to his head.  I dunno.  I do know that what he did in KC last year was pretty much what the Yankees expected him to become though it took a lot longer than expected.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    Well, the scenario of the talented kid who needs to gain some maturity and perspective in order to pull it all together isn’t unheard of.  I suspect you know what I’m hoping for!

  8. wat? said...

    Um, baseball is pretty much 100% anaerobic. I don’t understand how smoking can hurt his performance too much. Prince Fielder does pretty well and he’s about 60-70 pounds overweight.

  9. JeffA said...

    I can’t believe both this article and the comments so far about impact players on the Giants offense this year has yet to even the mention the name of Pablo Sandoval! As Panda’s weight goes this year, so does the Giants offense – in direct inverse proportion!

  10. Steve Treder said...

    Obviously if the Panda lets his conditioning go to seed in 2012, it’s very bad news for the Giants’ offense.  But there has been no indication this spring that he has.

    A quote in an AP story on the issue in late February was as follows:  “He looks good,” athletic trainer Dave Groeschner said. “We will get a weight on him this week. He is getting close to where he needs to be.”

  11. Steve Treder said...

    Well, my guess is that Peter Magowan wanted to do things like sign Beltran—that is, spend some of the vast income stream this franchise generates and commit to fielding a serious contender every year, to the extent possible—but the majority of the ownership group overruled him and gently pushed him out.  The new ownership coalition appears committed to maximizing operating margin as the first priority, higher than maximizing on-field wins.

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