Question 1: Pablo or Panda?!?
Many people are saying the Giants are standing pat, going stagnant, but they are wrong. The Giants are betting on several players returning to their prior production, one of whom, in a big way, one of them being Pablo Sandoval.
Will he be the Pablo of 2010 or the Panda of 2009? Of course, nobody knows, but I think Panda will be back. I've gone over his personal problems before, so I won't go there again, but the thing I should have emphasized more before is that he's a classic bad ball hitter in the mode of Vlad Guerrero, Manny Sanguillen, and others like them, who instinctively can swing and connect with the ball. So his problems at the plate in 2010 was more mental and not physical. Most people without a knowledge of the history of the game just don't understand that, and those who do have a knowledge are ignoring it.
If he can harness that with Barry Bonds' tutelege, that would be great, but really, people should just be happy that he can do what he has shown he can do. People are going in the opposite way of the pendulum today, towards the sabermetric side, and just put him down for not taking walks. It don't matter he can't walk when you can hit like he showed he can in 2008, 2009, and April 2010. Hitting is ALWAYS more valuable than walking when he supplies the power that he does.
Of course, it would be great if he could take more walks, but WAIT, he actually wasn't that bad at it, the league average was 9.0% for BB% in 2009, and he had 8.2%, and the league average was 8.5% in 2010, and he had 7.6%, both within spitting distance of the league average. It is not like he was like Bengie Molina or Juan Pierre or anything like that. And his strikeout ratio was about the same as it was in 2009. And once he started hitting for homers in June, for the rest of the 2009 season, his BB% was 9.7%. I wouldn't be surprised if he beats the league average in 2011.
The main issue in 2010 was actually his BABIP. It was at or above .350 in his two prior seasons, was only .291 in 2010. As I noted, April 2010, he was basically the hitter he was before, and looking at the BABIP, it was, roughly, as his BABIP was .382. After that, he couldn't really get it over .300, for the most part.
Now, if it was because, as people posit, his poor plate discipline catching up with him or, as others say, his contact lens and vision problems, then why didn't his strikeouts skyrocket? It didn't, overall it was essentially the same as it was in 2009 (13.1% in 2009, 13.2% in 2010, an increase of roughly 0.25 strikeouts on a ratio basis, in other words, basically the same). For those theories to work, he should be striking out at a higher rate at minimum, and really, if these were correct, he should be striking out loads more, particularly for those who cite poor hitting approach: 13% strikeout rate is among the best in the majors, and he did that with his "poor plate discipline" or even his poor vision. If either or both were true, his strikeouts should have gone up a lot based on their theory.
In case it is not obvious, this is my opinion, you can call it psuedo-psychology if you wish, but I counter that is more poor analysis on the part of others. I'm happy to wait for the season to start and we'll see who is right and who is the psudo.
Question 2: Will Brandon Belt Belt?
One of the real no-brainer question of the spring. Some think he's a sure thing, but judging by how poorly he did in AAA (albeit small samples), he will probably need some time in AAA to prove himself after a 2010 season where he proved himself all through the minors plus the AFL, giving the lie to the Sabean Naysayers who say the Giants mishandle position prospects. The problem, as I've said before, is that the Giants position prospects haven't been that good.
But he could still break out and make the team with a great spring, and by that, it won't just be hitting well, many players have done great in spring only to fizzle in the regular season, Bowker being the latest example, Randy Elliott being a well known example to Giants fans of a certain age, but rather he will have to show the coaches that he knows what he is doing rather than just being lucky, as I think the Giants will err on the conservative with him.
So I can see the Giants sending him down while he's raking and the Sabean Naysayers will have a knipshin.
Whether or not the Giants are doing this because of control of the prospects, which is an understandable on the part of fans, people also need to remember that management needs to think long-term, we should want our team to get basically an extra year of control over the player. Let's put it this way, aren't you glad we got an extra year of enjoying Lincecum, Posey, and Bumgarner?
And to those who said it might have cost us in 2010, all I can say is: how did it cost us, the Giants are the World Champs.
Question 3: Who Will the Outfield Starters be?
To most, it would not seem to be that big a surprise: Burrell in LF, Torres in CF, Ross in RF. But this is a corrolary to Question 2, because the outfielders are not only competing with each other, they are competing with Brandon Belt, who if he makes the team, pushes Huff to the OF, leaving one less OF spot and then the musical chairs started.
However, Huff is now a year older on the wrong side of 30 and now has one bad season followed by one great season (albeit two great seasons out of the last three), and history is full of players who have one last great season, signs a contract, and is eatting dust the rest of the way (Robby Thompson is one Giants example).
Even if Belt does not make the team out of spring training, almost all the potential starters have question marks that need to be answered. First off, Torres is alwo a year older on the wrong side of 30 and haven't put together a full season of superior performance, though it is not totally his fault, he just figured out hitting before the 2009 season, and any team would make him prove himself (he did strike out an inordinate amount of time in 2009, which is not something you want to see out of your lead-off hitter). El Lefty Malo has made the point numerous times on his blog that his health is something we need to watch out for, given his age and body type (sprinter type something have lingering hamstring problems). I'm hopeful that his perseverance to improve as a hitter indicates the way he thinks, and he'll do all he can to avoid physical problems, unlike, say, Ray Durham or Aaron Rowand.
Ross is coming off a sub-par season, and it wasn't like he was consistently good previously, he only had two good full seasons previously. However, he was with a sinking team with a lousy owner. Once he was given the chance to start for the Giants in September, he hit like he did in 2008 and 2009, plus, of course, had his great playoff series. Still, he turns 30 and that is an age milestone warning sign, maybe he just got hot for a month, just at the right time for the Giants.
Burrell is also on the wrong side of 30 and the eldest among the probable starters (though just barely ahead of Huff). He's also a statue in the OF, though an above-average statue, as his defensive stats, per Baseball-Reference.com, says that he added a win with his defense, and according to the same stats, he was actually average in LF with Philly, contracting his image as a poor fielding and suggesting that perhaps defensive stats are still in need of tweaking, giving all the poor commentary on his fielding over the years. Either that or most LF are just that bad, that is where teams put their poor fielders just because of their bat, because, after all, these measures typically compare the player with other players playing the same position that season. Still, despite his great season for the Giants in 2010, most remember his poor 2009 and early 2010 with Tampa Bay and the scuttlebutt during the off-season was that Burrell wasn't going to be a starter. After seeing a guy hit like that in 2010, I find that hard to believe, but it is true that players his age is stumbling down their decline years, so we will see.
Then there is Aaron Rowand, Nate Schierholtz, and Mark DeRosa, the potential bench players. Rowand, as gamer as he was made out to be, got to be hurting psychologically. He probably won't get better until he leaves the Giants, but if he is as mentally tough as he was made out to be, Rowand, when he's going good, is actually a pretty good player: unfortunately, he can't sustain that good streak for very long before getting injured in a Giants uni, and his season is toast. Schierholtz is similar in that he would be world-beating for 2-4 weeks and look like the second coming, then he would hurt something and come back too soon, making his stats look bad overall. If either can stay healthy, Ross could have a hard time keeping his spot in the starting lineup and Burrell too.
DeRosa has been an excellent (+1 win) defensive player at four different positions (2B, 3B, LF, RF) and come up as a SS, so I think he probably would be passable in CF and 1B as well, and could start a game or three at SS - I would rather have him in there than Fontenot, just saying - so he's probably not making the starting OF, he's going to be rotating around those four positions and, if his batting stroke is back, probably get into 100-120 games with maybe 15-30 starts at each position, get some DH duty, plus a lot of defensive replacement duty, and be the first guy to start if anything happens to Sanchez at 2B or Sandoval at 3B. He's not going to get to start in the OF unless his surgery improves his hitting against RHP, which is the thing that has held him back offensively, though he's still OK against RHP, just not good.
So really, this is just another application of last year's risk mitgration practices that the Giants have been doing in recent years, where we can cobble together a performing starting lineup out of the people who are left standing after others have fallen, either physically or in performance.
Question 4: Playoff Starting Pitchers' Fatigue?
This is another obvious area for people to focus on, due to the large number of extra innings pitched by the starters, particularly for Lincecum and Bumgarner, and Sanchez because he basically hit the wall during the playoffs and wasn't that good in his last three starts. The Chronicle listed the grim stats as a part of their excellent series of daily articles about the Giants leading up to Spring Training (I wish they would provide one page to access all of the whole series):
- Lincecum: pitched 21.3 more innings than he ever did
- Cain: pitched more innings before the playoffs started, a total of 27 more innings than his high before.
- Sanchez: pitched more innings before the playoffs started, a total of 43.3 more innings than his high before (and as noted, it showed).
- Bumgarner: pitched 44.3 more innings than what he says he did in 2008 between Class A Augusta, their playoffs, and Arizona instructional league
I'm not that worried. Krukow's standard is jumping 25 more IP than the season before. Lincecum was under that and Cain was only 2 IP above that. FYI, they made much larger jumps in their first major league season and no bad effects showed up in the season afterward. Both of them should be as good in 2011, particularly Lincecum, who had some learning pains in 2010 plus learned a new pitch that now gives him an out pitch against any hitter. I would not be surprised by a sub-2.00 ERA season and approaching 300 strikeouts in the season.
Bumgarner, as I noted previously on another post, threw a whole lot more pitches between starts when he was in the minors. At roughly 20 IP over the 25 limit (and remember 2008 was an even larger jump for him from 2007 because of his turning pro) and assuming 15 pitches per IP (should be on high side for him), that is 300 extra pitches. With 24 starts in Augusta that season, all he had to do was roughly 15 extra pitches in-between starts to make up that difference, and remember, he was amazed that MLB starting pitchers threw so little in between starts and had said publicly that he would scale back his throwing because he suspected it was the cause of his poor velocity in late 2009. Plus, he was effortlessly throwing mid-90's in the World Series game and he felt fine when he started pitching again in January, he was not fatigued at all.
Sanchez is the biggest worry, but even then, I am cautiously optimistic. He has made an greater leap in IP before, when he became a starter in the majors in 2008. That did not affect him in future seasons, his ERA has dropped sharply two years in a row. He had deadarm in 2008, when he hit the wall he was pitching very well for a good dominant stretch and had an ERA just under 4.00 at that time, but he was great down the stretch in late 2009. He also has Scott Boras as his agent, and as much as I hate his tactics from a team perspective, he certainly seems to have it going for his clients and has a physical fitness center somewhere in Arizona that helps his clients train and be fit. He has a big investment in keeping Sanchez's performance at a high level in his last two season left with the Giants and will certainly make sure Sanchez gets the best medical advice on how to survive this jump in IP.
While the starters must and will be monitored by the Giants, I am not worried for the most part. Should one starter go down for a while, while Suppan or Runzler will not be an ideal long-term solution as the #5 starter, the Giants survived 2009 OK with very poor pitching from the #5 spot for much of the season, until Penny joined, and we now have a much better offensive team than we did back then. The key is surviving to the end is keeping four of our starters healthy and performing, not all five, a luxury we can do now that we have a better offensive lineup to trot out there.
Question 5: Who Will Win the Last Spot in the Pitching Staff?
The pitching staff is pretty much set, much to the joy of all Giants fans: Lincecum, Zito, Cain, Sanchez, Bumgarner as the starting pitchers, Wilson, Romo, Affeldt, Lopez, Ramirez, Casilla in the bullpen. That's 11 and the Giants normally carry 12 pitchers. Suppan, Runzler, and a bunch of players signed to minor league contracts will vie for that spot.
I'll bet that Runzler will end up in AAA Fresno to start recrafting himself as a starting pitcher. I believe that part of this exercise is to give Runzler more IP to work out his control problems, he just walks too many batters right now to be no more than a good reliever, but he would have closer ability with his strikeout rate if he could ever get that walk rate under 4.0, elite closer at under 3.0. And at just about the right time too, if he develops, as Wilson will be almost into his free agent years around that time.
I think Suppan will win that last spot, only Mota is the only real contender for that spot right now. If, that is, there is a spot.
Technically, there is no need for a long-reliever early in the season. Heck, technically no need for a 5th starter, but if IP is a concern with the pitching staff, you would help things by easing up on Bumgarner while piling on the other starters. So that spot could go to a position player, making this a trick question, a position player could win that last spot instead of Suppan.
Another reason this is the probably way to go is that there are so many potential OFs that the bench is full. Assuming that Belt does not make it as a starter to start the season and that the starters work out the way most of us think, that leaves Whiteside as the backup catcher, Ishikawa as the backup 1B, Fontenot as the backup middle infielder, Rowand and Schierholtz as backup OF, and DeRosa as backup corner positions. That is six bench players when there is only a five player bench when you carry 13 position players.
Given that Ishikawa is the most likely player to go once Belt makes the majors, I expect the Giants to showcase Ishikawa during spring training and work out some sort of trade. I've been thinking Seattle might want to give him a try since he grew up nearby and they could use a great defensive player since they rely on pitching with King Felix around. But any team that is re-building and looking for a starting 1B might be willing to give up some prospect that they have given up on but that the Giants like in exchange for Ishikawa.
I've liked Ishikawa for a while and think that he would be OK playing 1B offensively while shining defensively. He would be like a Rob Deer type, low-batting average, higher OBP because he can take some walks, higher SLG because he can hit the long-ball, but with the bonus that he is among the best fielders at 1B when starting regularly. I think he can stick around for a long while like Deer did in the AL.
Unfortunately for him, he did not seize the ring when given the chance in early 2009 and Huff returned to his regular hitting ways instead of duplicating his poor 2009 season. However, he'll have a nice memento for the rest of his life, knowing he contributed significantly to the team as a backup and as a non-grousing member of the bench, something Kevin Frandsen could have been doing for the Giants in 2010 had he didn't feel the need to mouth off to the press.
The only way he stays longer-term is if the Giants were somehow able to trade away Aaron Rowand during spring training. I think they will showcase him and let him hit and if another team is convinced enough by that performance that he is healthy and ready to contribute, like the Phillies or White Sox, two former employers who believe in him, the Giants might be willing to pay $6-8M of his $12M salary per season to get rid of him. If the other team wants any more than that, then he's basically being paid like a bench player by the Giants, so why not keep him around in case we need him for some awful reason?
Spring training should expose who will win this final spot on the roster, as many will be fighting to stay with the Giants via that spot.
Question 6: Will the World's Champ Crown Still Fit?
Sometimes when a player does great in his first season, he gets a swelled head and think very highly of himself, too highly. When you have a team like the Giants, winning it all in their first shot at it in the playoffs, it could lead to some over confidence on the part of some of the players, and the Giants the way they are built need virtually all their players to perform to their expectations in order for them to make the playoffs, which should be the goal of any team for the season, because the playoffs is such a crapshoot in terms of winning it all, in any case.
So far, all the players are saying the right sports platitudes about not letting it get to their head, keeping it real, and helping to remind their fellow players of that fact. But it is one thing to say it to the media, another to do that in the field and around your teammates. Huff and Burrell together, plus Cain and Wilson on the pitching side, look ready to prick the balloon of anyone who dares to be complacent. They have a chip on their shoulders because many people, including Giants fans (but not this one) are saying that the Giants in 2010 was a fluke.
Spring training should expose those who slacked off in any way, and with so many movable parts, the Giants could easily bench or even trade those players who are not sticking to the program.