Offseason decisions: seeking offense in San Francisco

One of a series on dilemmas facing major league teams this winter.

This year, the San Francisco Giants delivered a tepid follow-up to their scorching 2010 world championship run. The 2011 Giants weren’t bad, but neither were they exactly good, as they shakily leveraged a Pythagorean record of 80-82 to limp home in second place at 86-76. As we gather around the cozy November stove—hot cider, anyone?—let’s consider the questions General Manager Brian Sabean faces in re-tooling for 2012.

Buster

The Giants encountered numerous problems in 2011, and none was greater than the plague of injuries that swarmed the roster. And on the extra-long list of DL stints, none was more painful than the late-May loss for the season of star catcher Buster Posey.

So question No. 1 is whether Posey will return healthy next spring. Reports are that his rehab from ankle surgery is going according to schedule, but one never knows. But if Posey is back at full strength and able to reclaim his role as full-time backstop and middle-of-the-order run producer, the Giants’ offense will be dramatically and immediately improved in 2012—and it’s an offense that can use all the improvement it can get.

If, instead, Posey is able to resume hitting on an everyday basis but is unable to handle the rigor of catching, the Giants will have to play him at first base, which would (a) crowd out another much-needed bat (see below), and (b) leave the Giants exposed, as they were during most of 2011, to lots and lots of plate apperances from backup catchers. So Posey’s health and capability is an enormous issue.

The first base follies

Last winter, perhaps caught up in post-victory-parade euphoria, Sabean signed the 34-year-old veteran Aubrey Huff to a two-year, $22 million contract. Oops. Huff, a delightful inexpensive surprise in 2010, was a poorly-conditioned dead weight in 2011. One wonders why field manager Bruce Bochy indulged Huff with close to 600 plate appearances, because Bochy had two obvious first base alternatives at hand.

San Fran’s 23-year-old rookie Brandon Belt had annihilated minor league pitching in 2010 but spent 2011 being yo-yo’ed back and forth from the majors to Triple-A and from the starting lineup to the bench, never settling in anywhere. Another youngster, 26-year-old minor league veteran Brett Pill (don’t you love these names?), spent 2011 tearing up Triple-A but wasn’t promoted to the majors until September (when he hit quite well in his teeny opportunity).

Belt can play corner outfield as well as first base (which Huff proved in 2011 he can no longer do), so that gives the Giants some flexibility. But unless Huff has another dramatic comeback up his sleeve, at this point he’s just in the way of Belt and/or Pill, who present the kind of young power bats the Giants are in no position to dismiss.

The middle infield mess

An injury to second baseman Freddy Sanchez (gosh, who could have seen that coming?) combined with a cliff-dive from shortstop Miguel Tejada (at the age of 37, another stunner) to throw the 2011 Giants’ middle infield into complete disarray. Bochy sorted through various uninspiring veteran utilitymen in a vain attempt to plug the holes.

He also made extensive use of Brandon Crawford, a 24-year-old rookie shortstop. Crawford struggled at the plate but didn’t appear completely overmatched, and he was solid defensively.

It would seem sensible for the Giants to give Crawford the full shot in 2012, as he looks capable of developing into an adequate performer, but these are Sabean’s Giants. More likely, they’ll bring in 2012’s edition of the Proven Veteran Mediocrity to play shortstop, and assuming Sanchez is toast, continue to fart around with the likes of Jeff Keppinger and Mike Fontenot at second base.

None of this inspires confidence.

What about the outfield?

The Giants’ outfield was largely an offensive wasteland in 2011. Sabean recently took a decisive step toward addressing that, trading erratic starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez for center fielder Melky Cabrera. The switch-hitting Cabrera was probably hitting over his head in 2011, but on the other hand he was just 26 and might have genuinely arrived at a new level of performance. Depending upon which version of Cabrera they get, the Giants may have solved their center field problem.

But right and left remain huge question marks. Clearly, the Giants would love to bring in a big bat (someone along the lines of, say, Carlos Beltran, whom they rented for a couple of months last year), but it isn’t obvious they’ll be able to pull that off. More likely, again in normal Sabean fashion, they’ll continue to cobble together a motley platoon of journeymen. It would be great to see them just give Belt 550 at-bats as their left fielder and see what happens, but that’s rarely been the Giants’ style.

Thus, Cabrera in center field and the rejuvenated Pablo Sandoval at third base are the only position player names that can be written with a pen at this point. Pencil only for every place else.

The towering mound

The Giants are, of course, as successful as they’ve been despite lineup sinkholes because they possess a marvelously deep and strong pitching staff. There likely won’t be significant changes on that front.

The leading candidate to replace Sanchez as the fifth starter is rookie left-hander Eric Surkamp. He appears to be slotted on the depth chart ahead of veteran Barry Zito and his mega-contract. The organization’s body language regarding Zito is such that it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that they will eat the $40-something million left on that deal and cut Zito loose.

The Giants would be unwise to count on a repeat performance from Ryan “Out of the Blue” Vogelsong at the age of 34. But he was so good in 2011 that there’s lots of effective regression room. And the top three of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner are among the very best in the business, and Sabean will do nothing to mess with that. The Giants have re-signed veteran LOOGY Javier Lopez, so their splendid bullpen remains completely intact as well.

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Comments

  1. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    FYI, the way the Giants beat Pythagorean is that Bochy is the king of one-run games.  My research has found that Bochy is the only manager who has been able to consistently win more 1-run games than other managers, and not only that, is the only one who has consistently been among the leaders in the NL in games above .500 in 1-run games in a season.

    Based on the .500 record most expect a manager to achieve, it is statistically significantly above .500 in 1-run games for his career.

    His +11 in 1-run games helped him beat Pythaorean this season.

    If you are going to discuss Posey, while I agree about the caveats you note, you should have also reported that all medical reports are that Posey is healthy and ahead of the recovery timeline, though there is still much to do.  In addition, it should have been noted that he caught live pitching and that went fine with no troubles.

    About Huff, I don’t know why attribute it to euphoria that the Giants signed Huff.  Most teams like a hitter whose OPS was as high as his was in 2010, an OPS that he had been around in two of three seasons at that time.

    And you neglected to note that the reason Belt was yo-yoed involved both his inability to avoid the strikeout (like one-third of his ABs), his inability to hit for much when he did hit the ball (after success in his first few games), and his injury which took him away for a long time during a key part of the season when he probably would have seen a lot of playing time due to Huff’s struggles.

    You also biased the audience with your treatment of Pill.  Yes, he was tearing up the AAA, but you failed to note that he was so bad in the minors previously that no team wanted him when the Giants removed him from their 40-man roster the off-season before.  Maybe he was having a lucky streak early on, like many a AAAA prospect has done before at his age.  Then by mid-season, do you bring up a player who had shown nothing previously because he was hitting well for half a season, or do you try to make do with a vet during a pennant chase?

    You also dismiss the possibility that Huff might have another dramatic comeback without noting why he declined in the first place.  It was noted strongly by the Giants management that Huff’s struggles in 2011 was due to him not coming into camp in good condition, which was unlike his 2010 season where he got into great shape because he knew it was his last chance.  We saw what he could do in 2010 when he is in good shape and we saw what he could do in 2011 when he was in poor shape.  Who is to say he won’t repeat 2010 then?  Sure strong odds against, but the way you wrote it, it looks like zero chance, and the odds are not zero.

    While I agree that Sabean will bring in a vet to compete for the SS position, I don’t see what is wrong with that.  The only problem is if Bochy gives the job to the vet solely because he is a vet rather than that Crawford was just not performing.  Bochy has not had problems letting young players play and win their position.  If he did, Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez, Bumgarner, Wilson, Romo, Posey, Sandoval, and Schierholtz would not have been made starters over the years.  Plus, whoever loses at SS would be a great backup at 2B should Franchez injures himself once again (more when than if, I agree).

    Regarding the outfield, I take from your leaving his name out that you don’t think much of Nate Schierholtz.  He has been great defensively in RF for years now plus has been a very good base runner, and his hitting while not great is not bad either.

    And that is the big thing you are missing, when a team has a pitching staff as great as the Giants, the offense does not need to be good or even average to win and compete for the playoffs.  Good enough offense can win a lot of games, even if it is one of the worse in the NL (can’t be the worse, but can be one of the worse).

    Also missing from your outfield discussion is Brandon Belt, who you believe in so much at 1B but neglect to list him in LF, making the OF potentially Belt, Melky, Nate.  And Belt was actually good defensively out there, according to the Fielding Bible stats, probably because he is a pretty good runner, athletic.  He and Nate could make the corner OF great defensive spots, which would help make up for Melky being potentially bad there.

  2. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    About the pitching, I guess you also missed the Bochy interview on the local radio station, he said that Zito is clearly the 5th starter, make no mistake about that.  That does not speak of being ready to let him go. 

    And while Vogelsong is truly unlikely to repeat, it was not like he was very lucky in 2011 either.  He pitched great, good strikeout rate, good K/BB ratio, and he ended 2011 with a dominating flourish, suggesting that he, while unlikely to repeat what he did in 2011, could still be a good pitcher (under 4 ERA that is) and might be pretty good (mid-3 ERA) if he can keep up the K/BB rate he had in September.  In any case, as the 4th starter, a sub-4 ERA there is great for almost any team.

    And as maligned as Zito has been, aside from his injury filled 2011, which I believe was impacted by the auto accident that could have took his life, he has had OK to good ERAs in 2007, 2009, and 2010, which is great to have in the 5th slot on any team.  People have to forget about his salary already, it was a done deal once it was signed, now we need to focus on what he can do (or not do) for us in the way he is used by the team.  He is a great #5 starter.

    And the bullpen is not necessarily intact.  Ramon Ramirez might not return in 2012 according to the speculation I read on the Giants beat writers’ blogs.  And I’m worried about Romo given how the Giants had a baby his arm last season and still finally had to shut him down.  And, of course, the Beard had his injury problems as well.

    But I think the pitching staff looks ready to continue its dominance that it has done for three seasons now.  When you have such a great staff, you can win a lot more games with almmost any offense because such teams lower the run environment in the game and make their offense much more effective (I calculate it at around 20% more) in winning games.

    With effectiveness like that, you don’t need to have great hitters everywhere in your lineup.  The Giants as currently configured (Melky, Franchez, Sandoval, Posey, Huff, Belt, Schierholtz, Crawford), using the lineup calculator and roughly 3 year averages, can average around 4.3 runs per game, and with a pitching staff like 2011, that would win the Giants around mid-90’s games most of the time.  That assumes Melky to be approximately what he produced in 2009 (which is roughly the average between his horrible 2010 and great 2011).  And does not include any uptick for Melky, Huff (I used a low 700 OPS for him), Belt, Schierholtz, or Crawford.

    If the Giants can add Beltran in LF, then the team should be dominant like the Phillies were in 2011.

  3. Steve Treder said...

    “About Huff, I don’t know why attribute it to euphoria that the Giants signed Huff.  Most teams like a hitter whose OPS was as high as his was in 2010, an OPS that he had been around in two of three seasons at that time.”

    And his OPS had not been near that high in four of the previous six seasons.  2010 was a fluke.  2011 demonstrated that.

    As for Pill, the fact that the Giants have failed to promote him through their system doesn’t mean he isn’t a decent hitter.  He hit extremely well in the low-scoring Eastern League in 2009.

    “Regarding the outfield, I take from your leaving his name out that you don’t think much of Nate Schierholtz.”

    That is correct.

    “Also missing from your outfield discussion is Brandon Belt, who you believe in so much at 1B but neglect to list him in LF”

    From the article:  “It would be great to see them just give Belt 550 at-bats as their left fielder and see what happens.”

    “I guess you also missed the Bochy interview on the local radio station, he said that Zito is clearly the 5th starter, make no mistake about that.”

    I did miss that.  I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in it anyway.  Neither Bochy nor Sabean was saying anything resembling that in Sept/Oct.

    “If the Giants can add Beltran in LF, then the team should be dominant like the Phillies were in 2011.”

    I hope that’s true.  I don’t think it’s true.

  4. Steve Treder said...

    “Bochy handed the starting job to Belt out of spring training and he just didn’t hit at all.”

    In 52, count ‘em, 52 at-bats.  The Giants jerked Belt around purposelessly in 2011, and never let him just settle in anywhere and play. 

    As for Crawford, I completely agree.  The Giants should just let him play and see what happens.  Worst case, he can’t possibly be any worse than the likes of 2011 Tejada/Cabrera.

  5. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I’m sorry, but there is no team that is seriously trying to contend for a playoff spot that is going to just leave a rookie struggling as bad as Belt in there to work it out. it wasn’t just that he wasn’t hitting, he was completely lost at the plate.  More than that, Huff was being embarrassed playing out of position in the OF.  At that point, it was way too early to write off Huff.  They had to move him back to first base and Belt had not played OF up to that point.  The sent Belt down to get his hitting groove back and to play some OF.  They brought him back and he looked better, but promptly broke his hand.  Are you going to blame THAT on the Giants too?  Maybe the Padres or A’s have that luxury of putting a rook out there and sticking with him though thick and thin, but you aren’t going to see that with a contending team.

  6. DrBGiantsfan said...

    re. Huff:  Huff put up a 5+ WAR in 2010.  You don’t sign 5+ WAR players for $10 M/yr.  The Giants signed him to be a barely 2+ WAR/yr player in 2011 and 2012.  They did not sign him thinking they were getting the 2010 Huff again.  They signed him thinking they were going to get a career average Huff.

  7. Steve Treder said...

    “I’m sorry, but there is no team that is seriously trying to contend for a playoff spot that is going to just leave a rookie struggling as bad as Belt in there to work it out. it wasn’t just that he wasn’t hitting, he was completely lost at the plate.”

    52 at-bats is nowhere close to a significant enough trial to draw conclusions about Belt’s performance, or whether he was “lost” at the plate.
     
    “More than that, Huff was being embarrassed playing out of position in the OF.  At that point, it was way too early to write off Huff.  They had to move him back to first base and Belt had not played OF up to that point.”

    1)  That argues that re-signing Huff was a bad idea.

    2)  Belt had played the OF in the minors in 2010.  The decision to play Huff in the OF instead of Belt didn’t make much sense anyway.

  8. Steve Treder said...

    “They signed him thinking they were going to get a career average Huff.”

    Doing that when Huff is about to turn 34, and with Belt, let alone Belt and Pill, in your system is a really bad idea.

  9. DrBGiantsfan said...

    You are indulging in a colossal amount of revisionist history here. 

    I follow the Giants minor leagues closely.  Belt did not play more than a handful of innings in the OF in 2010.

    I saw almost every one of the Giants games this season.  I can assure you, Belt was completely lost at the plate in those 52 AB’s. He had huge holes in his swing and MLB pitchers quickly found them. He was looking at pitches down the middle of the strike zone and swinging at pitches that almost hit him.  In fact, I think he actually did swing at a pitch that hit him in the back foot at one point!  There is absolutely NO contending team that would have left him out there for 200-300 AB’s just to meet sample size requirements.

    Huff had played some OF in 2010 and did not embarrass himself.  It was reasonable for the Giants to think he could play there in 2011.  After a few games, it was obvious he could not.  The mistake was waiting until the end of spring training to put him out there but the Ross injury and a good spring by Belt got the Giants a bit irrationally exuberant about Belt’s readiness to play in the majors there at the last minute. 

    Once again, signing Huff for 2 years/$22 M was not a case of thinking they were going to get the 5+ WAR player he was in 2010.  34 is not old enough to think a player is going to fall off a cliff.  Regress?  Yes, but the Giants factored a reasonable regression into his salary.  I will make a prediction here: Huff will come back provide more value than his $12.5 M in 2012.

    Brett Pill had some decent seasons in the minors but never hit for more than doubles power until 2011.  He was always old for his level at every step along the way.  He was absolutely not on anyone’s radar as a viable 1B prospect until he got called up last September and looked surprisingly good at the plate.  Talk about small sample size!  You can go ahead and put him in as the starting first baseman if you want.  Remember Lance Niekro?  That’s what you are likely going to get from Pill.  I’ll take my chances with Huff with Belt in LF unless they can get Beltran signed for less than 3 years, then I’d put Belt in Fresno for some more seasoning.

  10. Steve Treder said...

    “Belt did not play more than a handful of innings in the OF in 2010.”

    He played 14 games and handled 29 chances.  I don’t know how many innings it was, but it seems more than a handful.  Why would it be impossible for him to play the OF in spring training of 2011 and be ready to go out there on Opening Day, yet be ready to play the OF in mid-season of 2011 after a few dozen more games in the minors?  Is playing left field the most daunting defensive challenge for a young player who runs decently well?

    “I saw almost every one of the Giants games this season.”

    As did I.

    “I can assure you, Belt was completely lost at the plate in those 52 AB’s.”

    I’ll take your assurance as sincere, and respectfully disagree with the assessment.

    “I will make a prediction here: Huff will come back provide more value than his $12.5 M in 2012.”

    I’m skeptical about that.  But even if your prediction is accurate, it won’t justify the two years and $22M.

    “Brett Pill had some decent seasons in the minors but never hit for more than doubles power until 2011.”

    No, his 19 HRs was 4th-best in the Eastern League in 2009.  That’s home run power.

    “You can go ahead and put him in as the starting first baseman if you want.  Remember Lance Niekro?  That’s what you are likely going to get from Pill.”

    Niekro never had a single minor league season remotely as good as Pill’s 2009 or Pill’s 2011.

    Look, I’m not thrilled about Pill.  I would be quite uncomfortable handing him a major league starting job (whereas I would be eager to hand Belt a major league starting job).  But Pill’s minor league track record suggests someone capable of handling a major league platoon or utility role.  At this point it’s clear that the Giants would have been better than they were in 2011 had they (a) not re-signed Huff, and (b) given Belt a full-season opportunity in the majors, and (c) used Pill as a major league utility man taking Huff’s roster spot.

  11. marc said...

    Yeah, pretty superficial column. You really should actually pay attention to the teams you write about.

    Belt, Melky and Nate in the outfield sounds pretty damn good to me. Nate is a very good player all around.

    And really – missing that Huff was very out-of-shape, Belt was indeed lost at the plate, etc, is inexcusable. Best comment is from DrB – “There is absolutely NO contending team that would have left him out there for 200-300 AB’s just to meet sample size requirements.” Touche.

    You just have to watch the games.

  12. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I agree with OGC that the first base alternatives were not at all as clear as portrayed here.  Bochy handed the starting job to Belt out of spring training and he just didn’t hit at all.  He got brought back later and promptly broke his hand.  Pill is an older prospect who pretty much nobody projected a MLB career for.  They even moved him to 2B to make room for Belt down in Fresno!

    Having said that, Belt might be the offense the Giants are looking for without having to spend a dime.  I know Bill James can get irrationally exuberant with his projections, but as much as Belt struggled last year, he managed to hit 9 HR’s which is about 1 every 20 AB’s.  My own “eyeball” projection has him with a BA of .240, OBP of .340 and 25 HR’s which isn’t too far off from James except in BA.

    I think the Giants need to just close their eyes and give Brandon Crawford the starting SS job.  He put up a 0.5 WAR in 500 innings last year while being well below replacement on offense.  That projects to 1.3 WAR over a full season.  His walk rate was solid at .084.  Both Marcel and Bill James project a BA of about .235 for him.  I think that’s doable given his approach which would bring his OPS up to about .645.  I figure he’s a fairly good bet to be a 2 WAR shortstop over the course of a full season.  Teams are paying middle IF a lot of money for that production.

    One more thing about Crawford:  When he was at the depths of his slump, he was holding his bat too low and bringing it up into ready position too late.  This was forcing him to take hurried swings with little or no power behind them.  He made an adjustement early in September and his numbers improved to .256/.333/.419 for the month. He does that for a full season and he’s suddenly a 2.5-3 WAR player!  He probably won’t do that but it does make the .235 BA projection seem not unreasonable.

  13. The Miracles said...

    Thanks for the convo and the cider. I can’t believe we’ve got three plus more months till the season begins. Feels like it’s been 20 years since the World Series.

    What jumps out at me about Melky is his runs scored—102 in 2011, 27 more than his previous career high. Boch said in the SF paper that he likes him because he “crosses the plate.” Was Melky such a stud that he was responsible for getting home so often, or was the Royals’ offense so good in 2011 that Melky was shooed home 102 times in the wake of their mighty bats?

    The Giants definitely need runs, but it seems like the 102 is never going to remotely happen again.

  14. Juancho said...

    I’m a Royals fan and followed Melky last season. He is a terrible centerfielder and should really play in one of the corners. He’s a switch-hitter who is better from the left side, which is nice. In 2011 he overperformed his career averages by a good deal. Expect a low OBP and a pretty good SLG in 2012. However, his hitting improved from both sides of the plate, making it less likely that his performance was all pure luck.

    Don’t count on more than 2 WAR out of him.

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