In this sunny springtime of 2013, the San Francisco Giants enjoy a splendidly lofty perch. They luxuriate amid a vantage not achieved in their abundantly rich franchise history since, indeed, the John McGraw–Coogan’s Bluff glory days of the early 1920s: defending World Series champions for the second time in three years.
The champagne-soaked Giants ball club of 2010 was understood to be a long shot. Once in a while a long shot hits bulls-eye; these things happen. But since just two autumns later, the 2012 Giants flashed a second from-out-of-nowhere bolt of lightning, perhaps it would be prudent to consider this outfit something stronger than a long shot for 2013. That’s the case even though their traditional arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers have apparently now decided that expense is not only no object, expense would seem to be the object.
Still, as late as Aug. 19, the 2012 Giants were in second place (behind, yes, those Dodgers), and reeling. Several key issues will determine whether corks will be popping in San Francisco this fall.
The Grand (?) Finale of the Zito saga
Though many Giants’ faithful may feel it’s taken twice that long, as of 2013 we do finally reach the seventh and final season of the epic Barry Zito contract. And while it’s all too plain that the curve-balling southpaw’s performance has been a whopping disappointment over the long life of this deal, it’s worth acknowledging that, though it did not go well, it could have gone far worse.
This was vividly illustrated in 2012, when the then-34-year-old Zito was attempting to bounce back from a nightmarish 2011—that 2011 season indeed demonstrating just how far worse it could go, an injury-plagued episode of misery, spent mostly on the DL and struggling to perform at replacement level in 13 torturous appearances. A repeat of that, and the Zito deal, paying him a groaning $19 million in 2012, would officially migrate from “merely bad” territory into “irretrievably catastrophic.”
But bounce back Zito did, delivering a solid, no-frills, no-spills innings-eater season to the Giants in 2012. And while, no doubt, a healthy dose of good fortune largely explains the fact that his team went 21-11 in Zito’s 32 starts, there was no illusion about the 32 like-clockwork starts and the 184 workmanlike innings, and it remains that his team was able to go 21-11 in that one-fifth of the schedule because Zito dependably provided them the chance to win. And it was Zito’s seven innings of shutout ball against the heavy-hitting Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS that utterly turned that series around, and saved the post-season for the Giants.
Given that Zito’s contribution proved crucial in light of the calamitous 2012 struggles encountered by one of his rotation mates (which we’ll explore below), it’s no exaggeration to say that the Giants simply wouldn’t be basking in the glow of victory if not for Zito’s steely comeback achievements. A strong finish on the long contract this year will likely be necessary for the Giants to repeat as bubbly-sprayers.
Who’s left in left?
Another year, another competition for the starting left field job in San Francisco. Ever since the departure of you-know-who back in 2007, the position has been mostly a free-for-all. The one Giants’ left fielder who finally appeared to have grabbed the spot to hold for awhile, last year’s Melky Cabrera, instead flunked his PED test and is currently performing humility exercises in Toronto.
The leading candidates for 2013 are journeymen: 29-year-old Gregor Blanco, who largely inherited the job from Cabrera in late 2012, and 35-year-old Andres Torres, who returns to the Giants after fleetingly starring as the San Francisco center fielder in 2010, then flopping. Both Blanco and Torres run well, both provide superior left field defense, and both know how to work a walk. Neither is likely to hit anything close to the way the average starting left fielder hits: in 2012 Blanco’s line was .244/.333/.344, with Torres at .230/.327/.337.
Last year, Blanco legitimately saved a few games with web-gem snags in the outfield. But touting a left fielder’s defensive chops is the baseball equivalent of “great personality.” The Blanco-Torres tandem is a stopgap, and nothing more. Should the Giants be in contention as the trade deadline approaches, anticipate a new arrival in this locality.
A dark horse possibility to work his way into the left field mix is 24-year-old Gary Brown, generally understood to be the Giants’ center fielder of the future. But most likely, GM Brian Sabean will instead elect to give Brown a season (or most of a season) starting every day in triple-A. (It’s also possible that Brown may wind up being someone else’s center fielder of the future by serving as trade bait to facilitate the new left field arrival, who would presumably be an established power hitter.)
The Panda and his pancakes
Following his thoroughly disappointing .268/.323/.409 performance of 2010 (in which he viewed most of that season’s post-season festivities from the bench), Pablo Sandoval was all but house-arrested by the Giants. They didn’t allow him to return home to Venezuela for most of the 2010-11 offseason, and instead sentenced the Panda to hard-labor conditioning camp in Arizona in order to shed the egregious weight he’d gained.
The good news is that the regimen paid off: in 2011 there were at least 40 pounds less of Sandoval to be found, and his hitting rebounded to brilliant tip-top form (.315/.357/.552). Alas, there’s been some bad news as well: in that 2011 season, Sandoval missed more than a month with a fractured hamate bone in his hand, and in 2012, he was DL’ed not once but twice, with another hamate bone injury and also with a pulled hamstring.
And, worse news: over the course of 2012 Sandoval proceeded to gain back just about all the excess weight, and his hitting performance through the injury-marred season, while good (.283/.342/.447), was distinctly less than his best. And this spring, the Panda is again decidedly pudgy, and has been bothered by a sore elbow as well.
Just ask Justin Verlander how well Sandoval can hit. But the Giants are deeply concerned about his injury rate, and about the relationship between his weight and his ability to remain injury-free. At the age of 26, Sandoval may be facing a fateful fork in his career road. One direction leads toward Cooperstown, the other, The Hall of Might-Have-Been.
A Pence, a Belt, and the production of runs
Particularly if the Giants don’t get 600 plate appearances worth of top-shelf Panda production, they’ll need at least one more serious bat to support MVP Buster Posey in the middle of the order. Two obvious potential suppliers of such a bat are right fielder Hunter Pence and first baseman Brandon Belt. Alas, neither achieved consistent middle-of-the-order-style production in 2012.
The veteran Pence was a trade-deadline acquisition who gained far more notoriety in San Francisco for his energetic pre-game pep rallies than for his on-field contribution. Indeed, Pence’s anemic .219/.287/.384 line in 59 regular season games for the Giants was far below his well-established career standard, and he continued to stink it up in the postseason at .210/.231/.290, with 17 whiffs in 62 at-bats. At the age of 30 in 2013, in the final year of a contract that will pay him $13.8 million, Pence needs to prove that all that was just a passing slump, and not the onset of an early decline.
The 24-year-old Belt was in his first full big league season in 2012, and presented a study in inconsistency. When hot, as he was in the months of June, August, and September, the Baby Giraffe was blazing, to the tune of .320/.393/.515. But when not, as in the months of May, July, and October, Belt went into full deep-freeze mode, at .191/.298/.284, striking out an alarming 70 times in 183 at-bats.
An exaggerated streak/slump dynamic is to be expected in young players, but Belt’s jagged pattern was extraordinary. He appears amply capable of breaking out as a serious offensive force, but for that to happen he has to figure out how to arrest the periodic hibernation of his stroke. Perhaps this year, with the security of the starting first base job presumably his, Belt will gain mastery in the continual battle of adjustments. For whatever it’s worth, at last check he was 21-for-50 (.420) with four homers in the 2013 Cactus League.
Whither the Freak?
Tim Lincecum has now logged five full major league seasons, and dazzling though his overall performance has been, a disturbing sequence is emerging.
In 2008 and 2009, Lincecum was completely spectacular, racking up 7.5 and 8.0 WAR and sweeping twin Cy Young Awards. In 2010 and 2011, he was very good, but less than spectacular, his WAR totals at 4.7 and 4.1. And in 2012, at age 28, Lincecum labored through a dismal campaign, his walk rate and home run rate both bloated, and he squeaked out just 1.5 WAR over 33 starts. Giants’ fans really don’t like where this movie seems to be heading.
There are rays of hope to be found. One is that Lincecum, demoted to long-reliever status in five outings during last fall’s post-season, performed like the Freak of yore, and how: 13 innings, three hits, one run, two walks, 17 strikeouts. Another is that Lincecum reported to this year’s spring training sporting a good 10 pounds of newly-added muscle—as he had done in 2011, and, pointedly, not in 2012.
For whatever it’s worth, Lincecum is also now sporting a neatly-trimmed coiffure, which is probably trivial but might symbolize a newfound maturity, the sort which tends to discover motivation in the looming presence of a massive contract year.
The Giants won the 2012 division title despite a terrible season from Tim Lincecum. That’s a formulation highly unlikely to be repeated. In 2013, an outcome far more liable to play out is simply this: as goes the Freak, so will go the Giants.