Five questions:  San Francisco Giants

The good news about the 2008 Giants was that they weren’t as rotten as they plausibly could have been. The bad news was that, performing entirely as well as could possibly have been expected, they plodded to a 72-90 finish.

What, then, are the aching questions facing this stuck-in-second-gear outfit at the dawn of 2009?

How good is Pablo Sandoval, really?

A .280 GPA in a quarter-season’s worth of play isn’t typically the sort of performance that gets everyone talking about a team’s dynamite new offensive star. But let’s remember these are the Giants we’re dealing with here, who tied for 14th in the NL with a team GPA of .240. Anybody who can hit even a little bit better than average is big news in these parts.

And when that ability is presented in the package of a 22-year-old switch-hitter who has, at least ostensibly, the capacity to play both third base and catcher, well, hey, Giants’ fans may be forgiven for making a fuss.

Thus in Sandoval’s first full big league season, all eyes will be upon him. The first issue is whether he can handle third base on an ongoing basis. His natural position is catcher—at 5-foot-11, 245, that’s pretty obvious—but he’s blocked there by Bengie Molina in the immediate term, and quite possibly by Buster Posey down the road.

The second issue is what sort of hitter Sandoval will turn out to be over the long haul. His batting average is going to be good, but it surely won’t stay in the .340 range he flashed over the final month-and-a-half of 2008. Thus he’ll need to develop enough power to compensate for his utter absence of strike zone discipline.

If Sandoval proves unable to make it at third base, the only other place to put him will be first base. And while a GPA of .280 would be pretty good at third base, and darn good at catcher, it would be below average at first base.

Speaking of first base, who the heck’s going to play there, anyway?

The leading candidate is 25-year-old Travis Ishikawa, also entering his first full season in the majors. The good news about Ishikawa is that in 2008 he bounced back from a two-year minor league funk to hit the best he ever had. The bad news is that the better-than-ever Ishikawa produced a GPA of just .257 in his 104 big league plate appearances. He’s going to have to generate yet another significant improvement to be a serious first baseman.

If it doesn’t turn out to be Ishikawa or Sandoval at first base for the Giants, the other two aspirants are sophomore John Bowker and veteran utilityman Rich Aurilia, who platooned at the position over the balance of 2008, and neither of whom—you guessed it—hit even as well as Ishikawa.

In other words, unless something very pleasantly surprising occurs, the 2009 Giants will once again yield feeble offense from their crew at first base.

And for that matter, who the heck’s going to play second base?

Twenty-four-year-old Emmanuel Burriss and 27-year-old Kevin Frandsen have battled it out for the job all spring. Neither has yet played as a first-stringer in the majors, and neither has star potential, but both seem reasonably competent, and for whatever it’s worth, both have enjoyed good springs.

Of the two, Burriss has by far the better speed, and probably will provide more on-base ability. But he has precious little power. Frandsen has a bit of pop, and is better on the DP pivot, but he’s coming off of a season lost to a ruptured Achilles tendon, and was never the stuff of which pennant dreams are made, anyway.

Burriss appears to have gained the inside track. If neither he nor Frandsen emerges as the regular, next in line would be 27-year-old utilityman Eugenio Velez, who’s even faster than Burriss, but the rest of his game is questionable. A long shot is 25-year-old Jesus Guzman, a career minor leaguer with an intriguing bat but highly dubious defensive chops.

Whither Barry Zito?

As he enters the third season of his mammoth 7-year, $126 million contract, Zito stands at a miserable crossroads. Either he stabilizes, and manages to contribute as a moderately acceptable starter for at least some significant portion of the deal, or he continues his downward spiral, and fully realizes the potential he’s threatening as one of the most colossal free agent busts of all time.

Realistically, there is no third path of regaining his status as one of the better starters in the game, and validating the Giants’ choice of signing him to this contract. It’s all too vividly clear that’ll never happen.

The stabilize-versus-bust verdict effectively rests on the question of which Zito is it that the Giants can expect going forward: the Zito of the second halves of 2007 and 2008, or the Zito of the first halves? His combined post-All Star break record in both seasons has been a respectable 11-9 with a 4.34 ERA and a WHIP of 1.30. But getting there has been a disaster: Zito’s first-half record with the Giants has been 10-21 with a 5.27 ERA and a WHIP of 1.62.

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Overall Zito’s trendline is ominous: in his final three seasons before coming to the Giants, he’d surrendered 0.55 walks per strikeout. That figure rose slightly to 0.63 in 2007, and alarmingly jumped to 0.85 in ’08. Unless Zito arrests or reverses that momentum, his capacity to even hang onto a rotation spot will evaporate.

And there are five full years left on his contract.

So, just where are we here in the success cycle?

It’s plain that the Giants are in a rebuilding phase, of some sort. They certainly claim to be, anyway. Ever since declining to re-sign Barry Bonds following the 2007 season, they’ve issued all the predictable utterances about “turning the page” and “starting fresh” and “giving these kids a chance to play,” yadda yadda yadda.

And it is the case that the roster has generally gotten more youthful, and that a couple of the Giants’ youngest players (starting pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain) are legitimately terrific talents. But alongside the opening up of three-quarters of the infield to a youth movement, GM Brian Sabean has signed 33-year-old Edgar Renteria as a stopgap shortstop, probably just as the veteran begins his decline. And in the outfield, Sabean had already locked in over-30 nothing-specials Aaron Rowand and Randy Winn to lucrative long-term deals, blocking Nate Schierholtz, one of the few system-produced young position players who might be worth a serious chance.

All in all it’s apparent that Sabean doesn’t have a coherent master plan; basically he seems to be riding the Lincecum-Cain horse and crossing his fingers. To be sure, the Giants play in the one division in MLB in which if everything falls into place and they play .500-ish ball into the final couple of months, anything can happen. But this sort of “it could be worse” reality doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either for this year or the long run. The fact that a blind squirrel might find an acorn doesn’t mean he’s likely to so, or deserving of credit if he does; as has been observed elsewhere, “hope is not a strategy.”

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