Big Six Questions for 2009 Giants
As has been my tradition, each year I've been honoring Giants great, Christy "Big 6" Mathewson (there were no player numbers back then, but he got nicknamed with what New Yawkers called one of their firetrucks) by going through a number of Big 6 lists. Today, with the start of the official baseball season staring us in the face, I will go over my Big Six Questions for 2009 Giants.
Q1. Young Position Players: Ready for Majors?
I think its clear that how well the Giants do in 2009 is inextricably tied to their young hitters. Not that the pitching isn't as important, or even more important, but their level of expected performance can be projected relatively reliably, whereas how the offense does can vary widely. Thus, while the pitching looks to be a very good unit in 2009, it will be the offense that determines how far the Giants will go.
Will Pablo Sandoval hold up defensively enough at 3B? Can he continue hitting? Will Fred Lewis be able to power up batting 3rd instead of lead-off? Will Ishikawa be able to hit well enough, both overall and against LHP? How will Burriss hold up at 2B, can he hit well for the season?
Now the Giants will be covered to a certain extent: Aurilia and Bowker would be sufficient at 1B, plus there's the wild cards of Jesus Guzman and Phelps; Frandsen could take 2B or 3B, should either falter there; Schierholtz could take RF should any OF be out for an extended period, with Winn moving to the injured player's position (unless, of course, he's the injured party). Still, the projections for the young players are relatively modest - understandably so. And based on projections, the Giants look to be at .500 or under. And that's with the pitching staff pretty much fully accounted for, performance wise. That is, there is not much room for over-performance among the pitchers to boost the Giants above .500, looking at their projections.
Thus, the only way the Giants can hope to make the playoffs is if the Giants offense can deliver more than expected. And that's basically tied to the young players because we know what we can expect from Winn, Molina, Renteria, and Rowand (though the latter two could have an upside surprise). Thus, can Sandoval, Ishikawa, Lewis hit 15-20 HR in 2009? Can Burriss do as Lansford asked and hit for more power? Can they deliver roughly 800 OPS instead of the low to mid 700's OPS projected for them? Can they field OK overall? Can they be the little engine that could?
I think that the offense will surprise fans this year, and that we will have some good things to cheer about regarding our young starters. However, most probably at least one of them will fail, and we will have to go to someone in the minors to pick us up.
Q2. Barry Zito: Finally There?
As crucial as Zito doing well previously was, he is even more crucial in 2009, even as he takes the mantle of 4th starter in our rotation. Because we pretty much know that Lincecum, Johnson, and Cain will do well up top, and Sanchez can easily be a #5 starter (if not much better), and hold their own, our 2009 season's success could hinge on how well Zito does in the #4 spot.
If he does as poorly as he has done overall in the past two seasons, we will probably be at .500 or below. However, if he does as well as he did for an extended period at the end of 2008, he could win in the mid-to-high teens, and the team probably would end up over .500 for the season.
The good news is that his length of success last season was longer than in 2007, plus, as I noted in a number of posts, his strikeout level increased to levels not seen for him since his early career. In addition, reports were that his velocity had returned to early career velocity of around 87 MPH, which supports the premise that 2009 could be a good year for him overall. I think he can do it.
Q3: Jonathan Sanchez: Ready for Breakout?
As the #5 starter, he could pitch as badly as he did in 2008 and still do OK for us. However, if he can continue the excellence he showed with his sub-4 ERA before tiring in 2008, then he could win in the mid-to-high teens for us in 2009. As his PQS scores last year showed, he can be totally dominating when he is on. And he was on for an extended period from May to June, once he got over early season problems. His success is not as crucial as Zito because, well, we still have Zito for another five seasons at around $500.
Q4: Will Affeldt and Howry be like wall?
A major weakness of the Giants in 2008 was their bullpen. While Romo and Hinshaw had nice performances, besides Wilson, the bullpen was relatively bad or in poor health, resulting in numerous leads inherited from the starters being blown. A prime example of that was Tim Lincecum, who would have had 22 wins last year had the bullpen not blown five of his leads. Affeldt and Howry are here to fix that, but both have question marks.
Affeldt had his one and only really good season in 2008, though he was showing good signs of figuring it out in 2007. Most analysts before the Giants signed him said that he was a good speculative for saves because he was closer material. If so, he and Wilson could make games a 7 inning game. But, again, this is not set in stone, what if 2008 was a fluke?
Howry had almost the opposite problem, in that 2008 was his one and only bad season in a long while. Previously, he was one of the best relievers in the majors for a long stretch of time. If he can return to some semblance of that peformance, then along with Affeldt, the Giants have reduced the game to just 6 innings. But what if 2008 was the start of his decline phase of his career?
If both do as they appear capable of doing, perhaps the bullpen success rate for Lincecum would rise, so that instead of losing 5 leads, he lost only 2 leads, which would add 5-10 wins overall to the team in 2009 versus 2008. And the Giants have some backup in case either falters. Romo and Valdez delivered very good performances, albeit over short stretches of time, in 2008; Hinshaw, Matos, and Sadler are close to figuring things out, plus, if need be, Bumgarner and Alderson most probably would be ready to relieve by mid-season (which would be an emergency type of call up as the Giants know that their long-term value is in starting).
Q5: Will Bochy be rehired?
I haven't been totally impressed with Bochy. But I haven't been as dissatisfied as many Giants fans appear to be. Contrary to the hype, I haven't found him to be anti-young players. He has given them plenty of opportunities to show what they got, particularly at the end of the season when the team was pretty much out of contention. How can anyone accuse him of this today when his pitching staff is overwhelmingly young. And just because he hadn't given young position prospects much chance, the fact is, until the current crop of young prospects being given a chance this year, none were really good enough to warrant an extended chance, none were ever on anybody's top 50, top 100 overall prospect lists. Just because they were young did not mean that they were good.
The main reason I would keep Bochy around is because of continuity for the young players who would make the team in 2010. When there is a new manager, the young players will be put under additional pressure to perform and impress the new manager in 2010 instead of being themselves. Why give the players an additional obstacle when most managers have minimal effect over the win/loss record?
Still, if the team falls on its fact and suffer another season like the last two, I think it would be time to change the manager, as it would have underperformed. This team should be closer to .500 than what it did the last two seasons. I like that he has integrated many young prospects into most of the pitching staff, but I would have been more careful with the young starters (though I don't think that what he did deserved the outrage it generated), so he's not perfect. I can only OK with him around again as long as he doesn't screw things up.
Q6: Will Sabean be Rehired?
I think Sabean should be rehired, even if the team tanks. The team is nearing completion of its rebuild. I like what he has done, particularly with the pitching staff. Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times did separate studies on the factors that lead to team success in the playoffs, and both, though using different methodologies, came to the same conclusion: pitching and defense are they keys to playoff success, core to a baseball team, while offense is just hygenie, as it does not add value in the playoffs, but rather is context (using Geoffrey Moore's terms for businesses), which means that while it is useful, it is not core to winning in the playoffs.
In addition, the prospects he has collected appear as if he had read BP's book and followed it. He has focused on high strikeout pitchers, which are tied to playoff success, and got a closer who seems to have what it takes to be a very effective closer, another key. And he has usually gone for strong defensive position players when possible, he is known for shooting for defense when possible. In particular, speed players tend to be better defensive players. In addition, the only offensive stat that is remotely tied to playoff success is stolen base attempts, not stolen base success rate, which to me shows that speed and aggressive play is a key to playoff success, and these are shown by stolen base attempts.
In any case, I think Sabean has already earned the chance to get an extension to guide the Giants over the next two years. The pitching staff is nearly rebuilt, almost to perfection, and the starting lineup is starting to shape up pretty nicely, and should be ready within 1-2 seasons. The team should be contenders starting in 2010, and if Sabean do the right things, the Giants should content at least to the end of its mortgage, in 2018, led by Lincecum and Bumgarner on the pitching staff. Thus, Sabean has to figure out by 2010 who the right manager to guide the team over the next decade should be and put that person in place. That, for me, is the litmus test on whether he should be given an extension beyond 2011 or not.
Giants in 2009
I am going fanboy for the rest of this post, I normally would do this in a different post, but the season starts tomorrow (rain willing). During the offseason, I've been mainly going over what scenarios appear likely, what projections others have put together regarding the Giants and what that means for the Giants in 2009. Now I'm going to discuss how I think things should work out in 2009.
I'm excited by the whole team. Obviously, the pitching is to die for. If Zito and Sanchez can pitch to potential and Johnson stays healthy, the pitching staff could end up with a collective ERA under 4.00. I think Zito and Sanchez can do that, and even if Johnson proves to not be healthy or productive, I think Joe Martinez and Keven Pucetas are close enough that when and if Johnson prove to need replacing, they will be ready to come in and produce adequately enough.
The bullpen if everything falls in place, could be a monster. Obviously, Wilson, Affeldt, and Howry would have to do what is their potential. But if Romo can come back from his injury, Hinshaw can improve slightly on his walk rate, and Valdez can stay healthy, the bullpen could be as rock solid as LA's was in 2008. This, I am not as sure of, but I think overall will be 1) an improvement over 2008's bullpen, and 2) good enough to keep the starters' leads safe.
The offense I think will be better than most think. Winn and Molina should be veteran rocks again. Renteria should be a huge improvement over 2008's SS, even if he does as poorly as he did in 2008; I think he will do even better, because he showed that his offensive skills were undiminished in the second half of 2008, showing that his overall numbers were a victim of a very poor start in 2008.
Rowand I am not as sure of, but assuming he can stay healthy, he should be able to better his numbers of 2008 and be a plus CF offensively. Given his gamer attitude and professional pride, I think he realizes that his health is what he needs to earn his contract and not get all these fans saying he's a bust, and that shame will drive him to produce what he is capable of in 2009, much like how Winn, after initial fans' discontent over his contract, won the hearts of Giants fans.
The young players will overall be better than projected. Lewis should be improved by not having to deal with his bunion on his operated foot anymore (he still has a bunion on his other foot, though his new Nike specially designed shoes are suppose to protect it) and being freed to use his power. He has demonstrated that he can bring the power when the occassion needed it, like those grandslams.
Both Burriss and Sandoval have had excellent strikeout rates coming up the minors and kept it up in the majors. That bodes well for future success in the majors as hitters for the two of them, though Burriss still needs to improve his power to truly be effective offensively. I think it's his defense that will keep him around longer to allow him time to figure out how to hit for more power. Sandoval is simply a good hitter and despite his free swinging ways, because he has the skill to square up even the best pitched balls, he will continue to hit for a high average and not strike out that much; whether he walks more will depend on how willing pitchers will become in terms of giving him a free passes, even if they were not intentional. Still, it would not surprise me if he figures out how to take more walks somewhere along the line.
Ishikawa appears to have worked diligently to figure out the areas of weakness for him as a batter and while he still strikes out more than one would like, he has shown that he knows how to take walks coming up the minors, and obviously has shown that he has tremendous power. His hitting against LHP has not been that bad, there are plenty of left-handed power hitting 1b in the majors who do a lot worse against LHP. And he plays great defense to boot, at a key position. It would not surprise me if he supplants Molina as the clean-up hitter by mid-season, though I would not expect it.
Nonetheless, I think the odds of all of them succeeding together is very slim, to think that they will is a pipe dream. The key, however, is that I am saying that overall the team will do well, and I think it can because we have a lot of backups ready to contribute in case someone falters or underperforms for whatever reason.
Schierholtz has been ready do start for two seasons now, covering both Lewis and any extended injury (like Rowand; I think if he injures himself like he did in 2008, they will just sit him on the DL for a long time to heal properly). Frandsen as well, when not injured, and he can play 2B and 3B. Aurilia should be able to hold the fort for a while at 1B if the needs arises. The J's, Jesus Guzman and Josh Phelps, should be able to pitch in as well at 1B if needed.
The old guys are covered too. If anything should happen to Molina, I think the Giants would not hesitate to move Sandoval behind the plate for the rest of 2009 and bring up Frandsen to start at 3B. In any case, Posey looks ready to start for us in 2010. Schierholtz protects the whole OF. Even Renteria is covered as Burriss would slide over to SS and Frandsen would start at 2B. There is a lot of fail-over switches that can happen should something bad happens to anyone in the 2009 Giants starting lineup.
Thus, while I would not predict that the Giants will make the playoffs, neither would I not be surprised if they do, they are capable of winning the division, it is a matter of players performing to their potential and putting everything together as they have shown in bits and pieces over the years, that and the likelihood that most NL West teams will be around .500 much of the season, including the analysts' favorite, the D-gers. When you are that close, a good run at the end can win the division for you, much like how teams have won the NL West the past couple of years.
At minimum, they should be around .500. I would be disappointed if they are still losing enough to get a Top 10 pick overall. I would fire Bochy if that happens.
And, while I would give Sabean a two year extension whether the team does well or not in 2009, I would put him on notice that any future extension will depend on him having the right manager in place to guide the team going forward from 2010 on. Expectations will be higher going forward, and he should put the manager in place that he believes can keep the Giants winning over the next decade, whether that be Bochy or whomever.
He has done a good job assembling a farm system full of talent, now he has to find the right person to guide them to the finish line, and if a World Series Championship is not attained during the Lincecum-Bumgarner era, then it would be time for new blood at GM (as well as managing partner).
Speaking of whiom, I like the changes that Neukom has put in place for the Giants in his short time at the helm. I think he can lead us, finally, to a World Series Championship. He is making sure that the Giants have the money to fund development and the infusion of talent it needs to move forward. He has authored "The Giants Way", which will guide the entire organization, from top to bottom, on how he expects things to be done. He is willing to get the money if there is a good prospect out there. I think if there was another young strong hitter available as a free agent (his Barry Bonds), he would find the money that enables the team to bid for him.
He has been better at marketing the Giants to fans than Magowan ever was. He didn't succumb to the "new boss, shows who's boss" style of management and didn't clean house just to clean house, just because he can, he's being deliberate in his decision making. He has publicly supported his GM but has stopped short of saying he'll be around necessarily, next season. I've been greatly impressed.
Play Ball! Go Giants!