Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Merc's Top 5 Question for 2008

The Merc ran their version of the Top 5 question article - a newspaper staple the past few years - the other day (remember there's only 7 days from publication to view). I liked the questions that Baggarly addressed - I think most readers should know by now I like Baggarly the most among the various Giants columnists and this article just helps to confirm that.

1. Who will take command of the clubhouse?

This is a good question now that the aura of Bonds will no longer be in the clubhouse. From what I've read this off-season, Bonds had given Zito one of his locker stalls when Zito signed with the Giants and recently it was noted that Matt Cain was asked by Zito to take over one of the stalls that Bonds had - though not THE locker stall, whatever that means - so it looks like the next generation is starting to gel, with Zito and his long contract, and Cain and his excellent performance.

The signs are encouraging that some of the players are excited about the opportunity to put their stamp on the new Giants, to make a statement. There is a nice article today by Ann Killion about Matt Cain, though I should note "welcome to the bandwagon" to Ann, I was writing about the pitching as our new centerpiece last off-season. There have been other articles with players where they are working hard to compete for a job.

While the veteran position players will obviously take a bigger role in things, I think the contracts that Zito and Rowand have will automatically make them focal points going forward, particularly for Rowand since he's clearly the best position player. Zito, at least, is cognizant of his limitations and of the need to pitch within his abilities and is willing to mentor the young pitchers like Cain and, I assume, Lincecum eventually.

I don't think anyone should discount that type of help, being a major leaguer is a big adjustment as it is, and Zito has gone through experiences that will be helpful to our young pitchers, I believe. Mentors are important, whether in baseball or life in general, mentors can help accelerate the process of getting over all that and contributing fully to the organization. A mentor can help you get the most of your talents and reaching your potential sooner.

In addition, it seems like things are changing the way Bochy wants, to get the Giants to become warriors who are going to battle, starting with the signing of Aaron Rowand. But even before then, I think Cain definitely had this "warrrior" attitude and from what I can tell, Lincecum should also have this attitude, you don't overcome all the negatives coming your way and achieving what he has done in his career in college and the majors thus far.

The Giants columnists overall have been doing a good job noting the changes in the attitude of Giants. There have been a lot of articles about this change and I will be disappointed if the pitchers do not take command of the clubhouse. Both Cain and Lincecum should be the focal point going forward and, with Zito's help, the starting rotation should be on the road to becoming the leaders in the clubhouse.

As a sidenote, KNBR posts interviews on their site and Bochy noted the other day that the Giants are leaning towards a Right/Lefty rotation of Cain, Zito, Lincecum, Lowry, Correia, where Correia is the front-runner for the #5 position right now. This would be fine for me, though I would still prefer Zito, Cain, Lowry, Lincecum, Correia, as that would put less pressure on Cain plus then Cain would be the starter for our home opener (Zito would be in the above configuration; Zito in my configuration would pitch in the home opener for the D-gers).

2. Will the young guys seize their chance, and will the veterans begrudge them?

A good, though obvious question. Given all the talk about the Giants possibly trading for a 3B (seems like from recent comments that Ortmeier will be given a huge opportunity to start at 1B), I have to think there's something to that, the old "where there's smoke, there's fire" rubric. But I think we need to remember that part of the duties of management is to put a fire under the players they have now, so I think that is part of the talk too.

Frandsen is basically being thrown the challenge to do well coming out of the gate in spring training. If he can hit like he did in September last season - 20 starts in 21 games, 83PA/73AB, .370/.427/.479/.906, 1 HR - I think that the impetus to trade would be totally squelched. Even if he hit like he did in Aug/Sept - 42 games, 131 AB, .290/.342/.435/.777, 4 HR, 33 AB/HR - I think that the Giants would be hard pressed to trade, mainly because of the recent statement by Sabean about finding someone who would be "dramatically" better than the players we currently have, and there are few players dramatically better than .777 OPS, 33 AB/HR, who would not cost the Giants Cain and/or Lincecum to obtain.

Despite all the banter in the community boards about Sabean and the Giants, the fact is that the Giants did well this off-season of transitioning to youth. Rowand obviously is much younger than Bonds, and even if the young OFs don't get to start, just because you are young don't mean you deserve to start over a vet. People give it short-shrift, but the reason vets are wanted is because we know how they are going to produce relatively consistently. And some scoff at re-signing Vizquel, but frankly, there was not any better options at SS in the free agent market, in terms of ability and age.

That said, the Giants kept their young pitching intact and did not acquire any middling talent - Rowand is clearly better than any of the young OF prospects - that could take significant ABs away from young players. Frandsen and Ortmeier look to be given the chance to show what they can do in spring training and I believe that if they do well enough, the Giants will give them a starting position. And as Sabean always say, the roster is always fluid, so while some focus on the Giants trading FOR somebody, it also means that the Giants might be trading AWAY someone, particularly in the outfield given all the young prospects we have in the OF.

As I've noted before, I hope it is Winn traded and not Roberts, both for more ABs for the young prospects as well as getting more in prospects from the trade itself and particularly because RF is Nate Schierholtz's natural position. But I am not vehement about this, unlike others, I just believe that the Giants need to trade one of Winn and Roberts to free up ABs for our prospects, we need to see what they can do so that we can plan better for 2009.

I also think that Durham will be traded away if he does not at least hit better than Aurilia. His main value is as a hitter - he doesn't steal much anymore, he's never been a defensive whiz, he doesn't play other positions, at least not without "preparing" for it during spring training (much like he didn't listen to the Giants about how to prepare his body after he started getting injured regularly, I don't expect his to happen either) - so if he doesn't hit, he don't have much value.

And the more I think about it, unless he can hit like he had previously, above 800 OPS, he is probably gone. If he's still worse than he was before, I think the Giants will either trade him away, assuming he's hitting OK but not like before some team will want him with the Giants contributing $3-4M, or release him, if he hits as poorly as he did in 2007. Only if he is hitting great, meaning that he could bat in the middle of the lineup with Rowand and Winn, can I see the Giants keeping him, if he is middling, we have a lot of middling hitters, we may as well move him in a trade and see what others can do.

3. How do they form a competitive lineup?

I know that most don't agree but the Giants lineup should be good enough to help the team get to .500. Using the lineup calculator and using the Giants projections available on Fangraphs, the Giants lineup - which most scuttlebutt says is probably Roberts/Davis, Frandsen, Winn, Molina, Rowand, Durham, Ortmeier, Vizquel - looks to produce around 4.20 runs per game. With the pitchers allowing runs at 4.44 runs per game in 2007 and looking to get better given more Lincecum starts, better Zito starts, a ready Wilson, and no Morris, Ortiz, Benitez, that puts the Giants at a Pythagorean of roughly .500.

Of course, .500 is nowhere near competitive with the NL West as it is currently constructed. However, they are not all bullet-proof either. Colorado and Arizona have a lot of young players who now needs to prove that they can do it again. Arizona, in particular, over achieved their Pythagorean and should have been under .500 themselves; adding Haren helps but not to the tune of getting them easily up to 90 wins again. I think the D-gers will suffer from the addition of Andruw Jones, both in that he's not going to be like he used to be as a hitter and for the chaos that throws their outfield in, Kemp and Ethier should be starting but this uncertainty should affect the overall team chemistry and production. The Padres look most likely to repeat what they did, but Peavy is only one year removed from a thoroughly average season and Maddux has to start declining at some point and Hoffman has been looking more ordinary every year, plus they have Scott Hairston penciled in for LF.

So, it is not inconceivable to me that the rest of the NL West have a regression year in 2008 and return to the .500 level, so the Giants could be competitive for parts of the 2008 season. And if Frandsen and Ortmeier can repeat their success in hitting late in 2007, that would boost our offense and our winning. Still, expecting the Giants to be competitive all season long would be a pipe dream, I think we should just focus on how well the young players do and hope that the Giants can give the young players a lot of experience and see what they can do. Anything else would be a bonus, much like it was in the 1997 season.

And a very interesting bit of info here is that the Giants are leaning towards an 11-man pitching staff, which means a number of things. One is that the Giants could have a bigger bench, allowing them to carry an extra OF (Schierholtz), extra utility (Velez), or three catchers. It would also mean that with one less reliever, the other relievers will get to pitch more when in there, instead of being yanked in and out. Thus specialists won't really fit in, the relievers will have to be able pitch to both LH and RH.

Third, and most importantly, I think that would force the Giants to put Sanchez in AAA and be a starter. I know Baggarly has Sanchez projected to be on the roster but I think the Giants, by having a smaller pitching staff, would want to have a pitcher who they project to be a reliever up in the majors, like Messenger or Taschner, or to keep a prospect like Jose Capellan, and finally devote development time to Sanchez as a starter. Particularly since Sanchez has only one more option year, starting in 2009, they will have to keep him up, no more futzing around with whether he is a starter or reliever.

However, I don't think the big questions are on Vizquel and Molina, who were mentioned in the article. Durham, Frandsen, and Ortmeier are the question marks in the lineup, with Rowand secondarily because of his position as the only true middle-of-lineup threat - I believe he's good enough to be one, but until he does, there is that question of whether 2005-2006 is the true Rowand or not. As the cliche goes, that's why they play the games.

Anyway, Durham, if he can return to a semblance of normalcy, would be a boon to the lineup, plus a better trading chip. And Frandsen and Ortmeier, if they can hit like they did late in the season, would be much better than projections say and would boost the lineup accordingly, the runs scored per game would rise from 4.2 to around 4.4, which could push us over .500, in terms of Pythagorean Wins.

4. What does Sabean have up his sleeve?

Another good question. As Baggarly noted, and this was widely circulated in October and November, Sabean thought that there would be a lot of trades happening this off-season. I think that having top young players like Miguel Cabrera, Johan Santana, Dan Haren, Nick Swisher, Delmon Young, Eric Bedard, being available and then traded, made it hard for teams to focus on the secondary and tertiary trades that the discussions might have led to, and once spring training was near, then teams probably felt that they may as well wait until then to see what they got before making a trade. A number of these trades lingered on until now, and there's still rumors of a Brian Roberts trade coming down the pike, as well as talk about Joe Blanton as well.

As Baggarly had scooped other columnists recently, he noted that Lowry is on the radar of some GMs. He also stated in this article that if Lowry has a strong spring, he could be a great trading chip for a middle-of-lineup hitting prospect, which would be nice, I'm not sure Lowry is worth that unless it's prospect with huge question marks but nice power. Again, it speaks to what Sabean has been saying this off-season: the Giants are in transition, they will make player moves that benefits today as well as the future, and they will only make a move when there is a significant improvement over what we have internally.

5. Will the bullpen inspire confidence?

Well, they can't all be gems, particularly at the end, still, the bullpen is a question mark that needs to be answered for the Giants. Baggarly brings a different take that I have not seen often, thankfully so, which is that there are still people internal to the Giants who think that the Giants should make Lincecum the closer and have a great troika of Lincecum, Wilson, Walker taking over the final three innings.

If I could slap the head of each and every one of these Giants employees who are suggesting this (mainly because Boston did the same thing first with Papelbon) and scream at them, "what are you thinking!", I would. Besides the obvious value of an ace-type starter over even a great closer, there is the competitive advantage of having a 1-2 punch of Cain and Lincecum in the rotation, both during the regular season and in a short playoff series. On top of that, Brian Wilson has a lot of good skills that will serve him well as a closer, their argument would have a better leg to stand on if we didn't have Wilson, but we do. Lastly, the Giants are not in the position to seriously compete in 2008, so why move Lincecum into a closer role, whereas we know that he is a great starting pitcher - his PQS DOM% was 67% in 2007, among the elite in all of the majors (!) let alone great for the Giants. Just say "NO" to Lincecum in the bullpen.

Giants Thoughts

Good article overall. Good questions, good bits of information. Such as the Giants probably going with an 11-man pitching staff, there might be 3 catchers on the roster or Nate Schierholtz would make a 6 man OF, and that there is still internal discussion over Lincecum being in the bullpen.

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