This is my annual Q&A on factors that I believe are critical in any scenario regarding the Giants success in the upcoming season, from highest to lowest.
Q1: Barry Good or Barry Bad
I've written a number of posts on Bonds and he is still the stick that stirs the Giants offensive chances, centerpiece or no centerpiece. Clearly, there is no precedence for a 42 year old, and soon to be 43 year old hitter, to continue to still be at the top of his game enough to be among the league's best hitters. Ted Williams probably could have done it if he felt like it, but he didn't try. Most hitters succumb to age and fade away before they reach their late 30's, let alone 40's.
Here are some publicly available projections on the web for Bonds, scroll down to the section for 2007. They expect around 329 AB, 444 PA (approximately since not all project HBP, SF, SH), 24 HR (meaning he's expected to pass Aaron by season's end), 74 runs, 64 RBI, .283/.468/.568/1.036. Plus throw in 3-4 steals. Not too shabby for anyone at any age, let alone 42-43.
He seems to be healthy and doing well in spring training. He is being moved to the third spot and we'll see how it goes. We'll never know how bad this move really is, but theories range from this being a non-move to one that will hurt the Giants ability to maximize their scoring opportunities. From my post here, I believe that this is going to hurt them.
However, the lineup seems to be pretty balanced, top to bottom, with no true under .700 OPS baddies (Perez) but not many goodies above .800 (Durham, Bonds), so maybe the point about where Bonds bat is relatively a non-factor. All the other regulars have been in the .700 OPS club and while that is not great for middle of lineup type of guys - 3, 4, 5, 6 - Bonds and Durham occupy two of the spots and a third, Klesko/Aurilia, could combine to be over .800 if Klesko is back to "normal" (more on that later).
Bonds has been pretty good - except for his knee incident that started everything - about avoiding injuries so it is pretty much him against Father Time, and Bonds has been beating him bad for years now. And while the circumstantial evidence that he was an abuser of performance enhancement drugs has been significant, I think if he has another good season that builds upon last season, he has to put some doubters on edge regarding how much steroids/HGH really helped him during his out-of-the-world streak.
Given that Jason Grimsley was harangued by G-men to try to entrap Barry Bonds into giving it all up, showing how desperate they are to get Barry, clearly the government is being driven by certain people who have Barry in their cross hairs. I would bet that Barry and his home has been under surveillance since Balco blew wide open and that any and all packages that are headed to Barry are examined to the greatest degree possible and that anyone associated with Barry will feel the prying eyes of the government to see if they might be involved as well. And thus far, nothing.
So if Barry can ignore all the other "stuff" and hit as well as the projections, that is the minimum requirement for the Giants offense to be OK. Without him, it is very improbable, if not impossible, and the season will sink pretty fast, much like 2005.
Q2: Klesko Good or Klesko Bad
As I have noted in posts like these, I think Klesko can be the magic sauce that makes the Giants offense move from just OK with Bonds to be above average. He could be the Ellis Burk addition of 2007, making the offense that much better. But will he?
Bochy says that Klesko is back to the Klesko of old. If so that is pretty potent. His decline started in 2003 and given that he was entering into his 30's, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Still, in his decline, with congenital problems with his shoulder where there is bone on bone contact, he was still a better hitter than any other hitter on the Giants other than Barry and Ray-Ray: he hit .263/.370/.440/.809 with 26 AB/HR and still a great eye, with his BB/K ratio at 0.93 (best hitters are above 1.00). The year prior to that season, he hit .300/.387/.537/.924 with 19 AB/HR and 0.88 BB/K, and that's very good.
If so, that means that there is not that great a drop in the offense when the annointed LF is in the lineup for when Barry isn't playing - Barry projected 1.036 OPS, Klesko last great year .924 OPS. That's better than inserting in sub-.700 Steve Finley into the lineup (he recently realized that no one thinks of him as a starter so he accepted a job as a backup somewhere) whenever Barry or Moises sat.
On a side but related note, people talk about the drop in offense now that we lost Moises, but really, with him missing so many games, it was really MoiseLey who played "RF" and MoiseLey combined was only a mid .700 hitter at best. The additions of Roberts, Klesko, and Aurilia I think will more than make up for the losses of Alou, Finley, Hillenbrand, Niekro, in the lineup, just because of how bad those other (and still another to be discussed, Winn) hit in 2006.
And, in addition, if he is hitting that well, he's probably the starting 1B against RHP, which makes Bochy's decision become "who plays 3B, Aurilia or Feliz?" And if Aurilia is hitting like he did last season (above .800), it is probably him, but if he is hitting like he was before (.700's or less), then it becomes whoever between Feliz and him are hitting well at the moment. And Feliz is actually an acceptable offense at 3B when he is fresh - his hitting takes a huge dip from the first half to the second half - so Aurilia could find himself sitting much more than he thought he might when he thought he was the starting 1B.
However, as much as I like Frandsen, I can see Aurilia taking over for Vizquel a lot during the season because Vizquel has been in the habit of hitting around .700 every other year for a number of years - like his body tires out or something before recovering - and he's due for 2007. If he's hitting that poorly, I can see Aurilia getting a number of starts there "to keep Vizquel fresh and to give Aurilia starts since Klesko is getting most 1B starts."
Q3: Morris/Lowry Good or Morris/Lowry Bad
As I've written in a number of posts regarding the starting rotation, I think that it is best to view Lowry and Morris as a tandem pair for the #3 and #4 spots in the rotation. And despite their problems last season, I think that both can return to their former performance levels of prior years. According to research on starting pitchers (In The Hardball Times) they both pitched as well any #3 and #4 starter in 2006, despite their problems. If both are healthy, they both should pitch much better than that.
But will both do that? While there is a possibility that happens, the more conservative move is to assume that one will do so and the other will pitch like 2006 (I don't think that it is likely that both perform like in 2006).
The reasons why Lowry should pitch well is that when he was healthy, in 2005 and 2006, he was able to pitch at a high 3 ERA performance level, for a year and a half, which is #2 starter performance. His performance did not lag with repeated exposure to hitters, in fact, he had his patented late season surge (around August) both years, showing that when he is on, he is totally dominating. There is a physical reason for his poor 2006 season - his strained oblique muscle in his first start of the season - and if you look at his key indicator stats month by month (K/9, BB/9, K/BB), they improve month by month until he had his injury in September, when the wheels came off. He even had his August surge too. In fact, his good walk rate remained good during his struggles, which allowed him to continue to do relatively well, but his strikeout rate plummetted. You can do OK like that but not as well as Lowry was before.
The only question mark is whether he is fully recovered and that is where it gets less likely for him to do well. I recently read that he is still experiencing something with that oblique muscle, which had caused him to change his throwing mechanics, and which obviously affects his pitches. But he has been throwing much better this spring, so I expect him to hit the ground running when the season starts.
Morris is a controversial area for Giants fans. People see his salary and think, nay, demand, that he should be a top of the rotation starter. Yeah, it stinks to pay so much for so little, thus far. However, instead, I think fans should focus on what he can do in the context of the Giants rotation. He is nominally the 4th starter based on his stats from last season. Unfortunately, he had so many things going on that it is hard to read what exactly to expect from him in 2007.
Of course, I think I see, but others disagree, so I'll note them again here. First, Morris pitched poorly in the beginning of the season and a number of people (including myself) attributed that to being overamped trying to pitch well to justify his new contract and to please the fans. But even if you don't give him that, he pitched well enough to drive his ERA down to the low 4 area, #2 starter area, by mid-July. He then bounced around the mid-to-high 4 ERA range after that until September when his ERA blew up because of the mysterious rib injury that he suffered somewhere, somehow, sometime in August or perhaps even July. In any case, his ERA was still in the mid-4 range when August ended. Thus, even with all the problems Morris had last year, until his rib injury kicked in in September, he was pitching like a #2/3 starter overall.
That is a huge advantage over other teams if your #4 starter is pitching like a #3 and your #3 starter (Lowry) is pitching like a #2 starter. And keeping the runs given up down is key to the Giants winning because the offense is not too good but not too bad either, with only Bonds as the clearly above average player, and Durham and Klesko as possibly better than average. In addition, there will be platooning most probably with Roberts (Linden) and Klesko (Aurilia and Bonds), so that will help the offense be more balanced against LHP as well as RHP.
One of my problems in my previous analysis of what is going to happen in a season is that while I think it is a higher probability that each of the players does well, however, cummulatively, I should be ratcheting down the good expected outcomes, since by random chance, there will be poor performances popping in. So instead of saying that both will pitch like a #2 in 2007, which I think both have a good chance of doing, individually, I examine the odds of the two of them pitching like a #3 and #4 starter in 2007, and I think it's likely that one of them will be able to pitch like a #2, with the other pitching at least like a #3 starter (ERA below 4.84). Even in their poor 2006 season, both pitched like a #3 and #4 starter, so I don't think that it is much of a stretch to say that the two, in tandem, will pitch like a #2 and #3 starter, which would be an advantage over most other teams in the middle of the rotation.
Add to that the great spring of Russ Ortiz, who is capable of #2 starter performance but is slotted #5, and among the three of them, I don't see why we cannot expect at minimum a #2, #3, and #4 type of performance from our #3, #4, and #5 starters. Obviously, if everything went our way, the Giants could potentially have 3 #2 type performance from these three starters, and hence why I've been saying that the Giants have a good chance of winning the division and doing some damage in the playoffs, because when you have dominating pitching from your starting staff, as a whole, that's when the value of pitching outweights the hitting of individual position players who play everyday.
Q4: Cain Ace or Cain Sophomore Jinx
I have written about Cain's change in 2006 season in a number of posts plus here is a a quote from an artice on Cain on sfgiants.com that really made me fall in love with him:
"That's going to come sooner or later, hopefully," said Cain, appearing intrigued by the possibility of achieving a no-hit milestone. "You want to be able to do that once."
Cain also possesses an aptitude that has hastened his improvement. When he's presented with something new, said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, "you don't have to tell him twice."
Thus, when Cain answers a question about how his perspective has changed now that he's in his third big-league camp, his well-worn response sounds more genuine than hackneyed. He truly understands the pitfalls of complacency, although the notion that he won't make the season-opening rotation is ludicrous.
"I have to compete like usual," said Cain, who finished 13-12 with a 4.15 ERA last season and tied for fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting. "There are always guys coming in here kicking to come up. I feel like I always have to perform to earn my spot."
After all, Cain was among those ambitious prospects not long ago. "You've
got guys who want to come up as badly as you did at that time," he said.
Clearly, I don't think that Cain will have much problems pitching like an ace in 2007, but again that is not a conservative stance. So instead I use his 2006 season as a model for 2007. Will he have a sophomore jinx?
Looking at his 2006 season, he got better as the season went along, showing that while hitters might have been learning about him through repetition, Cain learned even more about the hitters and did even better. I would say that the odds favor that he should do at least what he did in 2006, that he will not regress from where he was last season, and he was a #2 with his 4.16 ERA. Obviously, the upside is that he attain full-blown ace status (which would happen if he repeats his second half 3.38 ERA).
Like with Morris and Lowry, I have been pairing up Cain with Zito when viewing performances overall, and I think that while both are capable of ace status, I think it is conservative to say that out of Cain and Zito, one will be an ace (ERA under 3.78) and the other will be a #2 (ERA under 4.31). The average NL ace had an ERA of 3.51 and average #2 had an ERA of 4.04, and that is not something to bet on as Zito hasn't reached 3.51 in ages and it is too much to expect Cain to do that (yet, that is). But I don't think it is too much of a stretch to say that both should have ERAs in the high 3, which is about what you get when you average the average ace with the average #2 starter (ERA of 3.78 to be exact), so I think the Giants will be covered overall there with Cain and Zito in comparison with other #1/#2 tandems.
Q5: Zito Good Enough or Zito Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail
I've posted a number of articles about the Giants $126M man (that's some inflation over the $6M man :^), since the Giants signed him to his lucrative contract. After his funky introduction to the Giants - "here's my new pitching motion, hope you love it" - he has been quietly good all spring, pitching like Zito has shown that he can, but with some tweaks and improvements. From what I've read since he was signed, Zito is like the pitching equivalent to Barry Bonds in terms of nutrition, working out, and trying to find that extra edge that will give you an advantage over the other team.
That gives me encouragement that the long contract won't be an albatross on the Giants payroll the way that Nen's contract, Alfonzo's contract, or Benitez's contract, were. As I had noted before, given the inflation rate of salaries, particularly pitcher's salaries, because Zito's contract starts out low initially, the average pitchers's salary will have caught up with Zito's high priced portion of the contract and thus, as long as Zito can pitch like an average pitcher, like a #3 type pitcher, the Giants will be OK as long as he is healthy and can pitch. And given his track record and maniacal devotion to being the best physically and mentally, that seems like there's a good chance that he can do that.
In addition, I just realized that even if he starts scuffling by the end of his long contract, the Giants should be covered pretty well by then because of Sabean's (and Tidrow's) focus on pitching. Over the intermediate term, the Giants should have a rotation full of cheap starters and relievers: Cain, Lowry, hopefully Lincecum and Sanchez too, then the crop of relievers here and coming up. As expensive Zito's contract will be, that would be made up by how cheaply we will be paying for starting pitching for our other young starters and relievers. Potentially, our whole pitching staff could be paid less in aggregate than Zito alone, starting midway through the contract.
Then there is the matter of how well Zito will pitch. In this case, the future can wait, what can he do for us right now. As much as saber-theory hate pitchers like Zito, Ortiz, Rueter, they were successful for a long time doing what they were doing. So you cannot blanket apply those princicples on Zito, as I learned soon after looking at Zito sabermetrically. He just plain makes hitters unable to get hits off of him and that makes up for his walks, flyballs turning into HR, and low strikeout rate.
Even without that, just statistically, while his stats do not scream "best contract ever given a starting pitcher ever" nor do they look like Cy Young type of seasons, they have been still pretty good, in the 3's for the most part, and that is great to have in your rotation, where you plug him in and can expect something in the 3's. And that's what I expect, particularly since ERA's are typically lower in the NL than the AL, which makes a lot of sense since there is that easy prey, the pitcher, waiting in the 9th spot, an easy out for the most part, in fact an easy strikeout as well. Unless there is an injury of some sort, I expect Zito to do well and deliver a high 3 ERA at minimum, and potentially something in the mid-3's, which would be just awesome, when paired with Cain, as I noted above in the Cain section.
With Zito/Cain paired as well as any team's #1/#2 and Lowry/Morris/Ortiz looking capable of at least a #2/#3/#4 performance out of the #3/#4/#5 slots, the Giants starting pitching will keep the Giants in a lot of games. With an average or perhaps better offense, the Giants can win a lot of games if the starting rotation can pitch like they are capable of.
Q6: Randy Winn Good or Randy Winn Bad
Randy Winn can be a key part of the offensive equation. He is, right now, an odd puzzle piece of the lineup where you don't know where to put him. Leadoff is taken by Roberts and Vizquel owns #2. Bonds just took #3, which is one that I thought would have been good to have Winn at, which means Durham is #4. You obviously don't bat Winn 5th, so that leaves #6, 7, and 8, and right now Bochy seems to want to bat him 8th. And if he hit like he did in 2006, particularly the second half, that's exactly where he should be hitting.
However, I believe his second half of 2006 was as flukey as his 2005 with us, when he suddenly became Barry Bonds for a month. As I noted in another post, if you look at his 2005-2006 stats together, they look like any other season he has had for most of his career, once he became a starter. Look at the splits 1st half vs. 2nd half: .275/.345/.440/.785 with 8 HR in 298 AB vs. .247/.289/.349/.638 with 3 HR in 275 AB. The first half is vintage Winn, the second, a horrible mess. So I think he will return to have a regular Winn type of season, about what he did in the first half of 2006, only over a full season.
And that will be critical to the lineup because then there will not be any sucking hole in the lineup with a sub-700 OPS starter. Last year, Finley, Winn, Alfonso (after first month), Feliz (all of the second half of the season), and the 1B, were batting somewhere in the 600's OPS, just killing the offense. This season, however, we got Roberts, Vizquel, Bonds, Durham, Aurilia/Klesko, Molina, Feliz, and Winn, there should not be one bat under 700 in the bunch, though Vizquel might be right there at 700 all season. And Linden and Frandsen appear ready to hit above that when they come in and spot-start.
As much as people say that Durham won't hit like that again, he has consistently been an above 800 hitter for a long while now - I think 2006 balances his 2005 - and as long as he hits around 820-850 OPS, he will be fine. Roberts could be affected by AT&T but he's never been much of a HR hitter, so I think his hitting there will be fine, despite being a LHH. Vizquel should be at least 700, and with Bonds now hitting behind him, that could help him out and get him more good pitches to hit. Bonds will be Bonds. I think Klesko will force his way into a platoon in the lineup and that Bochy will be playing Aurilia all around the infield (though that will take starts away from Frandsen), particularly at 3B if Feliz falters again. Feliz will play as long as he hits - and a 790-ish OPS is nothing to sneeze at - but with Aurilia and Frandsen around, he's going to sit if he isn't hitting that, so the offense will still be OK if he messes up. Molina has been a consistent 700's range OPS so I don't think he'll be a problem.
So that leaves us with Winn. As I noted, he really stunk in the second half. But that is one half out of many seasons of good play, where he had a high 700, 800-ish OPS most seasons. If the second half of 2006 is the real Winn, then the lineup could be in trouble, because while Linden might be a good replacement for Winn, he's also backing up CF plus LF sometimes, if Klesko plays 1B and Aurilia or Feliz is sitting. He can only play one position at a time. Thus it is a key factor if Winn can return to his former form, else the dominos start falling.
Particularly coming out of the 8th spot, he could be acting as the Giants bottom of the lineup lead-off hitter, getting on base and starting a rally in front of the top of the lineup. He gets on base, get to 2B via steal or pitcher sacrifice, then Roberts, Vizquel, and Bonds get a shot at driving him in. In addition, if his bat returns, he will be driving in runs as well from that position, for when the guys ahead of him are getting into scoring position. Most teams have a crappy hitter in 8th, if he hits like he is capable, .750-.800 range, then the Giants would have one of the best 8th place hitters around.
Giants in 2007
I normally publish a huge evaluation of the Giants lineup and pitching each season but I'm just too far behind in my work to do so this year. But I've done a lot of the basic work involved with that, so I've been writing to those facts in my posts, including this one.
The lineup, while not Murderer's Row, they are potentially OK to good (.750-.800 OPS) up and down the lineup. Plus there will not be many weak spots vs. RHP or LHP because platooning will put our best hitters in against the starting pitcher, unlike previous years when there were players who should have been platooned. The lineup will be as balanced as it has ever been and I think they can score just enough runs to support our starting rotation, scoring in the 4.5 runs, perhaps more, range. That's plenty if the starting rotation is as good as I think it could be, conservatively.
Meanwhile, the starting rotation could potentially be filled with #2 starter type of performances, high 3, low 4, and if they can do that, the Giants will not only have a winning record but could win the division. I think the Dodgers, despite their big signings, went backwards getting Pierre for the top of their lineup. He's going to kill rallies with his mega-low OBP (low relative to other top of lineup hitters). The Padres are betting on improved performances to maintain what they had last season, but have a rookie manager, who will make rookie mistakes sometimes, no matter how prepared he thinks he is. The D-backs are relying on too many youngsters, they would all basically have to do well for them to win. And Colorado I will worry about when they give me something to worry about.
Even if the rotation don't do that well, I think Cain and Zito will be able to do in aggregate as well as or better than most #1/#2 pairings. Then with Lowry, Morris, and Ortiz, I do not think that it is too much of a stretch to think that getting #2, #3, #4 type performances from the group of them is likely, and that would still keep the Giants competitive all season, even with our offense, even with our bullpen.
Our bullpen is a big area of worry, but, as much as I hate Benitez and think that he is not that good a person, the main thing is that when he is healthy and on, he's dominating, and he has been dominating all spring. Unfortunately, some players we were expecting more out of has not been delivering, but I think that the Giants have enough bodies in the minors that they can rotate relievers in and out for the first few months of the season and not seriously damage their chances of winning games, particularly with Bochy wanting to go to Benitez for more than one inning and Molina getting Benitez to concentrate on just getting guys out quickly and keeping his pitch count down (which he hopefully is working with Cain, Zito, and Ortiz on, as well).
Also, the setup men seem to be OK. Kline will be quietly good and Chulk I liked, his stats in Toronto were good, but I think the manager there just don't know what he is doing, so the main problem will be in middle relief. But you normally bring them in when the game is sort of out of hand anyway, so the odds of winning is usually slim at that point anyhow. And while some people say that our rotation is not innings eaters, I think all of them are capable of pitching 200 IP, which is 1000 IP out of 1400 or so IP. That basically leaves the 8th and 9th to pitch, normally, so for the close games, you bring out the big guns, but if the Giants have a good lead, you bring in the question marks and see if they can get out of the inning, allowing you to save your best relievers. If not, then you bring in the calvary to save the day, particularly with Benitez pitching more than 1 inning occassionally.
Thus, overall, I think the Giants will do well all season, and stay competitive for the lead. If the starting rotation is as good as I think it could be potentially, I think the Giants have a chance to not only win the division title, but to go deep into the playoffs. How can they not if the rotation is really balanced and all pitches like #2 starters? Just like a balanced lineup means no weak spots offensively, having a balanced rotation will mean no weak spots there either, and the back end of the rotation will easily take care of other teams's #3, #4, and #5 starters regularly. The bullpen, while weak, is strong enough where it counts: closer and set-up relievers. I think that it can be a good season in 2007 as long as the question marks above is answered positively, else the scenario is that we'll have another bad year like 2005 and 2006 and Sabean's job in danger (but that's a story for another post).