Q: When was the last time the San Francisco Giants finished above the NL league average in runs per game?
A: 2004, when they finished second.
Of course, when you have one player who gets on base 60 percent of the time you can expect to have a high-powered offense. In 2005, though, the Giants fell off a cliff, finishing second to last in runs per game. Since then they’ve sported among the worst offenses in baseball. In 2009 they scored just 4.06 runs per game, more than a third of a run below league average. Yet, once again, during the off-season they made few moves to upgrade that substandard unit.
After the 2009 season the Giants featured solid regulars at only two positions, Pablo Sandoval at third base and Aaron Rowand in center field. Every other position was either vacant or could have used an upgrade, though Freddy Sanchez was pretty much a given at second. Helping with flexibility, Sandoval could have made a move across the diamond in case a deal for a viable third baseman presented itself. It did not. A few opportunities did at first base, though.
The Giants could have tendered Ryan Garko a contract, but instead decided to let him go rather than pay him his first-year arbitration salary. They made a run at Adam LaRoche, but ended up signing Aubrey Huff. The step up from Garko to LaRoche might have made sense, but Huff, a 33-year-old coming off a poor, to be kind, 2009 season, doesn’t represent much of an upgrade. So it goes for the Giants. Huff likely won’t hit as poorly as he did for the Orioles and Tigers last year, but chances are he also won’t come close to his 2008 numbers.
Otherwise, the only addition the Giants made this off-season is Mark DeRosa, fresh off surgery to repair a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist. The injury seemingly affected his numbers last season, as he posted a five-year low in wOBA and a four-year low in WAR. Those numbers could recover this year, and chances are DeRosa can still outhit the Giants’ 2009 left field tandem. He could always move to third base, with Sandoval taking over at first, if Huff disappoints, but that just creates another hole in the outfield. They’re already taking a chance by starting Nate Schierholtz in right.
Rounding out the offense are Edgar Renteria at short and Bengie Molina behind the plate. The past two years haven’t been kind to Renteria. He has posted negative wRAA figures and has produced just 1.7 WAR, including a minuscule 0.3 WAR last season. His defense, once an asset, now figures somewhere around league average. Molina posted an OBP under .300 in 2009, the second time he’s done so as a Giant. Yet they signed him again for 2010, leaving Buster Posey in the future talent portion of these organizational rankings. Molina’s saving grace last year was his power, a three-year high for him. If he doesn’t produce like that again he might find himself riding the bench in favor of Posey by mid-season. That might be best for the organization anyway.
Pitching, on the other hand, represents a strong point for San Francisco. Two-time reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum heads the rotation, and he doesn’t figure to slow down anytime soon. Even as he lost fastball velocity last season he compensated by throwing it less frequently. He worked in his curveball and changeup more often, and even started using his slider.
Matt Cain follows him in the rotation, creating one of the best 1-2 punches in the league. His high strand rate might come back down to earth in 2010, but even so he has posted a FIP under 4 every full season of his career.
The Giants had to be happy with Barry Zito‘s performance last year after two disappointing years to lead off his seven-year, $126 million contract. Like Lincecum he relied less on his fastball in 2009, concentrating more on his curveball. He also worked in a slider more than ever before in his career. Perhaps the two secondary pitches will help him remain a solid No. 3 starter.Jonathan Sanchez, often the subject of trade rumors, has found himself a spot in the Giants rotation. He could stand to walk fewer batters, but his high strikeout rate will buy him some time to do so.
In the bullpen the Giants still figure to have a quality crew, even with the departure of
Bob Howry. Brian Wilson stepped up in the closer’s role last year, and Jeremy Affeldt proved to be more than just a LOOGY. Otherwise the Giants have a number of young arms they can continue plugging into the pen until they find something that works. That seems to be the best strategy, as relievers represent the most volatile players on a baseball roster.
Can the Giants prevent enough runs to make up for their weak offense? It would be tough for the starters to match the 3.58 ERA and 3.88 FIP from last season. That puts more pressure on the offense to produce more than the 657 runs it did in 2009. Without any major off-season upgrades, though, the Giants just have to hope. That’s not a good situation for any team to be in.