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Team Preview: San Francisco Giants

Fifty-six years in San Francisco and one World Series title. Most Giants fans are probably set for another fifty-six years, and for some it’s time to get greedy. Unfortunately, despite some fundamental flaws that existed even during their improbable title run, the team did little over the offseason to inspire confidence. Can their mix of flawed veteran position players and elite starting pitching fuel another run?

The Starting Nine

CF Andres Torres
2B Freddy Sanchez
1B Aubrey Huff
C Buster Posey
3B Pablo Sandoval
RF Cody Ross
LF Pat Burrell / Mark DeRosa
SS Miguel Tejada

For a team that scored the ninth-most runs in the National League last year, this lineup isn’t as bad as the reputation that precedes it. Six of the nine regulars were above-average, and the other two – Sandoval and Tejada – sported wRC+ numbers above 90. A little bounce-back from the slimmer Panda might mask some every-other-year regression from Aubrey Huff, and the overall effect might be similar. For every inch that Torres gives up, a full year of Buster Posey and Cody Ross might gain back.

The problem is that, aside from Sandoval and Posey, none of the players listed here own much upside beyond what they showed last year, at least on a rate level. And even though a healthy Mark DeRosa might shore up the bench and help in left field, it’s unclear how much more he’s worth than Mike Fontenot at this point in his career. DeRo’s league-average bat is now supplemented by a below-average glove at the corners.

At least the team has super-prospect Brandon Belt waiting in the wings. If the team’s number one prospect is as good as expected, he could give the middle of this aging lineup the youthful jolt they need. Judging from Huff’s aging glove and Belt’s raging athleticism, it’s probably left field that’s crying out for the strapping Belt.

The Pitching Staff

RHP Tim Lincecum
RHP Matt Cain
LHP Jonathan Sanchez
LHP Madison Bumgarner
LHP Barry Zito

CL RHP Brian Wilson
RHP Sergio Romo
LHP Javier Lopez
RHP Santiago Casilla
LHP Dan Runzler
RHP Guillermo Mota
LHP Jeremy Affeldt
RHP Ramon Ramirez

The rotation is obviously the strength of this team. Even if Matt Cain is a candidate for regression – either because he’s outproduced his peripherals or because he put up a career-high innings total last year – he’s an above-average pitcher who fits his home ballpark to a T. And, let’s not spend any more words on him here, as very smart people are still trying their best to figure him out.

Speaking of regression, though, it’s worth realizing that most of this rotation just hit career-high single-season innings totals. Lincecum pitched his second-most, while Sanchez, Cain and Bumgarner reached new heights. It’s a young staff, but we’ve seen other rotations take a hit after pitching deep into the postseason. And, judging from the signing of retread Brian Lawrence, there’s not a ton of depth waiting in the wings.

Could the bullpen shoulder more of the load in the coming season? There are enough young (and exciting) arms in the collection to make it work. Beyond The Beard, there’s the lesser-known but equally-impressive beard (and arm) of Sergio Romo. Santiago Casilla (aka Jairo Garcia) brings heat and induces ground balls but has struggled with inconsistency over his young career. And then, since you can never have too many LOOGYs, you’ve got your standard three left-handers in the pen. Overkill!

Key Player

Apologies to Brandon Belt, who so obviously has next, but it’s Aubrey Huff that matters most to the Giants in 2011. Or, at least he matters most first. Because if Huff doesn’t manage to at least approximate his work from last season, then it will fall on Sandoval and Belt’s broad shoulders to lift the offense out of stagnation.

If it seems like Huff has oscillated from useful to replacement over his career, it’s because he has. In fact, he’s been fairly consistent in his inconsistency. Since 2004, here are his WAR totals: 4.6, 0.1, 1.3, 0.7, 4.0, -1.4, 5.7. So if the pendulum continues to swing as it has, he’ll have a poor 2011. Mostly, his power seems to be at the root of his swings. Check out his career ISO graph.

It’s not his BABIP that’s causing these swings either: since 2004, his best BABIP has been .310. His flyball percentage has been fairly consistent over that time period, too. It’s probably nothing, but you can see that Huff encountered his fastest fastballs in 2007 (91.3 MPH) and 2009 (91.4 MPH), and those were two of his worst power seasons. Since he feasts on fastballs (+148.8 career runs by pitch type values), that could mean something. Or it could mean nothing.

His career-best walk rate will probably relax toward the mean, but if Huff can manage to retain his power, he’ll be enough of an anchor to make this team work. The projections assume he’ll take a step back with the bat (.174-.186 ISOs), but even that more reduced power level might be okay if Sandoval picks up some of the slack. The real danger is that Huff drops to the league-average power levels he’s shown in his bad years while his walk rate also falls back to career levels (8.3% BB% career). Then he’ll be close to a negative on both sides of the ball. Then there will surely be a panicked call to Fresno, a mid-season trade – or both.