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.

Homestretch: The 1967 AL Pennant Race, Part 3
A tight race shows no signs of letting up.

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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RoundHeadedKid
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RoundHeadedKid

A nice little snapshot of Sabean’s “work”.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
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… Read more »
obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
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)… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“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… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

“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.

DrBGiantsfan
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DrBGiantsfan
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… Read more »
DrBGiantsfan
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DrBGiantsfan

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.

Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“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… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder

“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.

DrBGiantsfan
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DrBGiantsfan
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… Read more »
Steve Treder
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Steve Treder
“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… Read more »
marc
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marc

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.

DrBGiantsfan
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DrBGiantsfan
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… Read more »
The Miracles
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The Miracles
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… Read more »
Juancho
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Juancho

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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