by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
July 16, 2009
With the San Francisco Giants a very surprising 10 games
over .500 and leading the Wild Card chase by 2 games and only 7 games back of
the Dodgers at the All-Star break, I am forced to ask myself, is this for real?
I mean seriously, who are these guys and what the heck are they doing with the
second most wins in the National League? Are these guys really serious
contenders or have they just been pretending all along?
My heart wants to answer that with a resounding yes! They
most certainly are the real deal, sir! Not only will you see them vie for the
Wild Card, but you can expect them to give the Dodgers a good run for their
money down the stretch as well!
My brain, however, has stubbornly clung to its preconceived
notion that the Giants’ pitching is overrated and their offense far too
insufficient to sustain this amazing first half run. Come the dog days of
August and the stretch run of September, their fortunes will turn and they’ll
likely end up closer to the 75-80 wins that
I opined they might get, than they’ll get to reaching the post-season.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer for you. As a
prognosticator, well, I kinda suck. Your guess is probably at least as good as
mine (though if I were smart, I’d pull an Asher and say definitively that
they’ll fade away after the break, thus assuring they’ll reach the post-season
just to spite me). I can, however, give you a little insight on how the Giants
have gotten to where they are with a quick rundown position by position.
To look at Bengie Molina’s offensive numbers as a whole at
the break would be to do him a disservice, as his batting line of .264/.269/.439
belies his value to the Giants. He is the heart and soul of the Giants; without
him, they would simply fold. We’re talking intangibles here, not raw stats.
Not that his otherwise pathetic offensive line can’t be somewhat explained by a
two-week dry spell in which he collected just six hits in 55 at bats (three
walks for the season, though, is totally on him), but he has been the Giants’
rock behind the dish (even if some defensive measures suggest he’s been a
liability). The Giants’ staff leads the majors with a 3.51 team ERA and 13
shutouts, and some of the credit for that deservedly belongs to Molina.
I never thought the Giants would give Travis Ishikawa a
chance to play, but to their credit, they have been exceedingly patient with
him. Since May 11, that patience has really begun to pay off. After beginning
the season by batting just .188/.250/.246 with zero long balls in his first 23
games, he has hit .315/.366/.532 with seven homers in his last 40. And he’s
been golden with the glove all along, with his .857 RZR ranking second in the NL
(to Ryan Howard?!?), his scoring a +11 with Dewan’s +/- system (despite almost
300 fewer innings on the field than most starting first basemen), and his 8.6
UZR rating the best in the bigs at his position (were he to have enough innings
Emmanuel Burriss won the battle for the job in Spring
Training over Kevin Frandsen, but Burriss’ bat never really got going and he was
sent out to Fresno, where he suffered a potentially season-ending foot injury.
Matt Downs was recalled and given a shot, but after batting just .194 in 12
games, he was farmed back out and replaced in the everyday lineup by former
White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe. Uribe has been a pleasant surprise (utter
shock) in a utility role this year, batting .301/.328/.464 in 61 games, and he
has been solid defensively at second base (+4, tied for 3rd in the NL
despite playing just 119.1 innings there). Nevertheless, expect Freddy Sanchez
trade talks to heat up later this month should the Giants get out of the gate
well in the second half.
Part Vlad Guerrero, part David Ortiz, Giants third baseman
Pablo Sandoval may have been overlooked for the mid-summer classic, but come
October, if the Giants are still in the hunt, his name could well be bandied
about in MVP talks. Heading into the break, the 22-year old is fifth in the
majors in batting average (.333), sixth in slugging (.578), ninth in extra-base
hits (42), and 11th in OPS (.964). His 15 home runs and 55 RBI lead
the Giants. A natural catcher, there was concern about his defense entering the
year, but he has been very respectable in the field (0 fielding errors), if
lacking a bit in range.
Edgar Renteria has been an epic waste of $9 million for the
Giants, sporting a mediocre batting line (.260/.317/.326) and playing below
average defense (he may well be the worst shortstop in all of baseball when it
comes to fielding balls in the hole). Still, vastly overpaid as he might be,
there is something to be said for his steadying veteran presence on the field
and in the clubhouse.
Aaron Rowand, leadoff hitter extraordinaire. Who’d have
thunk it? Yet since manager Bruce Bochy began penciling Rowand into the top of
the order on May 20, the 60 Million Dollar Man has been one of the most effective leadoff men in
baseball, batting .314/.361/.500 in 47 games. He has also been playing much
improved defense from last season. He has been, for all intents and purposes,
the player the Giants expected they were getting when they signed him to a
five-year deal prior to the ’08 season.
Fred Lewis, on the other hand, has regressed both
offensively and defensively, and as a result has become the 25th man
on the Giants roster, losing his starting spot to Nate Schierholtz and even
falling behind journeyman Andres Torres on the depth chart. Meanwhile, the 25-year old Schierholtz has showed good potential at the plate (.375/.406/.578 in
the month of June) while playing very strong defense in one of the toughest
right fields in all of baseball. He even leads the team with 10 pinch-hits.
Moving seamlessly from right to left to make room for
Schierholtz, Randy Winn, like Molina, has been better than his overall line
(.275/.321/.391) would appear. A switch-hitter, Winn is batting just
.115/.127/.148 from the right side of the plate in only 61 at-bats, but a much
more productive .313/.364/.448 in 259 left-handed ABs.
The Giants in the first half boasted one of the game's top
pitching tandems in reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum (10-2, 2.33) and his
fellow All-Star Matt Cain (10-2, 2.38). That duo was a chief reason why San
Francisco’s starters lead the majors in ERA (3.62), complete games (8), and
shutouts (tied with 3), plus sported the second-best opponents batting against
(.238) and OPS (.696).
Three through five starters Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, and
Jonathan Sanchez have, on the other hand, been rather inconsistent to say the
least. Johnson is 8-6 but with a hefty 4.81 ERA. In contrast, he has pitched
into the 6th inning or later while allowing two or fewer runs seven
times. Zito is only 5-9 with a 5.01 ERA, but he has also been victimized by poor
run support (he ranks 72nd in MLB with 3.3 RS/G). Six times, he has
taken a shutout into the 6th inning or later. And while Sanchez
showed that he clearly has the stuff it takes to dominate in the big leagues by
tossing the only no-hitter of the first half (and nearly a perfect game), he
also goes into the second half with a 3-8 record and a 4.69 ERA (his 3.2 RS/G of
support, though, ranks 73rd, just behind Zito). Indeed, when Sanchez
tossed his no-no, he was starting in place of the injured Johnson after having
lost his spot in the rotation to Ryan “The Big” Sadowski, who has allowed only
earned runs in his first 18 big league innings.
The Giants' bullpen, led by closer Brian Wilson, has
surprisingly been among the very best in the game, leading the majors at the
break with a composite 3.29 ERA. Wilson is tied for the ML lead with 23 saves
and has allowed only two of 20 inherited runners to score while striking out 10.3
batters per nine innings pitched. Setup man Jeremy Affeldt has been nothing
short of outstanding, posting a 1.32 ERA in 38 appearances and leading all ML
relievers with 19 holds. In fact, Affeldt has not allowed a single run - earned
or otherwise - in his last 23 outings, while holding opposing batters to a .188
slugging percentage during that span.
But the bullpen, which posted a composite ERA of 4.16 in
April and 3.73 through May, really began to gel after the versatile Sergio Romo
(2.77 ERA, 11.1 K/9 in 15 games) returned from an arm injury, recording a 2.63
ERA collectively since June 1. Non-roster invites Brandon Medders (2.72 ERA in
34 games) and Justin Miller (1.98 ERA in 29 games) have been great additions.
Even Bobby Howry (3.38 ERA in 34 games) has pitched well, save for a few
hiccups. Rookie Merkin Valdez has also pitched better than his overall
numbers would indicate, allowing seven runs over his last three appearances,
which ballooned his ERA from 3.24 to 4.97.
How the Giants fare in the second half could depend greatly
on how well they get out of the gate. They face a stiff challenge right off the
bat, with a ten games in ten days through Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Colorado, the
later two always tough places for the Giants to garner wins. With only two
weeks until the non-waiver trade deadline, the front office will need to decide
quickly whether this team has a special kind of chemistry, or whether they
simply overachieved in the season’s first half. If they decide they are for
real, will they attempt to add another bat or two to the lineup? Will they go
after more pitching? Both perhaps?
For my money, this is a team that has overachieved,
putting them in position to make a run for October in spite of their lackluster
offense. They possess one of the top farm systems in baseball (ranked 5th
this year by Baseball America) and have the talent necessary to step up and
acquire an impact player. But should they?
Given the lackluster offensive options reportedly
available, I believe it would be a mistake to sacrifice potentially valuable
future resources in order to acquire what would likely be a stop-gap player who
may or may not make a difference right now. Lincecum even questioned whether
it would be wise to mess with the chemistry that got them where they are,
telling reporters prior to his All-Star game start: “Right now, I think we’re
really meshing well with the team we have. To make significant movement like
that, it might mess up the chemistry of the team."
"We’re playing better ball
than everybody expected,” he concluded. “We’re playing ball the right way.”
If they do go after an impact player, top prospects Madison
Bumgarner and Buster Posey should be strictly off-limits regardless of who is
available, and second-tier players like Tim Alderson and Angel Villalona should
be made available only if the player(s) involved would remain in San Francisco
beyond this season.
To that end, I do believe there is one, and only one,
player the Giants ought to seek to add to their roster: Toronto Blue Jays
starter Roy Halladay, although it’s unlikely that such a deal could be swung without
including Bumgarner or Posey (or both). An offer of Alderson and Villalona along with two other pitching prospects (Scott Barnes, Jose Casilla,
Joe Martinez, Kevin Pucetas, Henry Sosa, and Clayton Tanner are among those who
could possibly interest the Jays) might be enough to tempt Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi,
or at least comprise the basis of a nifty blockbuster deal. Jonathan
Sanchez could certainly be offered as part of any deal as well.
Adding Halladay, who is signed at a cost of
$15.75 M for 2010, would give the Giants a nasty 1-2-3 that could likely carry them far
into October, even without an offensive upgrade. Sticking with youngsters
Ishikawa and Schierholtz, along with allocating more at-bats to John Bowker, would
benefit the already bright future of the club and could well be enough to turn
Optimism abounds as the Giants move forward into the second
half of the season. Even if they play no better than .500 ball from here on
out, they’ll still manage 86 wins, far better than I think anyone could have
expected. If they replicate their first half outcome of 10 games over, they’ll
get themselves into the 90-win range, which could well be enough to get them into
October. A top-two like the Giants have in Lincecum and Cain that
might just be enough to push them over the top once they're there. Even if they fade after the
break, they’ve still made tremendous strides this year. With the talent they
have stored away in the minors, the future has not looked this bright in quite a
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.