In the final weeks of September 2010, assessments of every MLB club will start to be released faster than zombie movies just before the Christmas holidays. What worked, what failed, who delivered, who did not, what was missing, what was a great idea and what turned out to be a very bad idea. Time will be devoted to every MLB team to dissect and thoughtfully examine their 2010 performance— I would say about five to ten minutes to do the Pirates, Nationals, Cleveland, and Kansas City Royals, and probably about six months for everyone else.
But let’s take some time, now, to examine what the keys for a successful 2010 Giants season look like, and assess the success of their off-season retooling projects. As it stands, most baseball mavens and seers pick the Colorado Rockies to win the National League West, which, if true, means the Giants must win the NL Wild Card— a difficult scenario. Instead of finishing first in the semi-weak Western Division, the Giants would have to collectively beat the second best teams in the NL East and NL Central, and the third best team in the NL West. On paper, as they say, it will be a lot easier to beat Colorado, LA, and Arizona.
Here is a quick view of three essential areas that have to come together for the Giants to take the National League West:
Issue #1: The bullpen will have to continue to be as dominant in 2010 as it was in 2009.
The 2009 Giants bullpen posted the second best bullpen ERA in baseball, 3.49 to the Dodgers 3.15— the Giants bullpen allowed 179 earned runs, second to St. Louis’ 178. Jeremy Affeldt (1.73), Brian Wilson (2.74, 38 saves) and Brandon Medders (3.01) will be joined by a healthy Sergio Romo, and excellent prospects Dan Runzler, Waldis Joaquin, and Henry Sosa (6-0/2.36 at AA). In addition, the Giants brought in monster innings-eater Todd Wellemeyer from St. Louis, who can consume long relief innings and also spot start.
Question: Is the Giants bullpen improved, the same, or worse than 2009?
No question about it, the Giants bullpen has improved greatly with the maturing of Medders, Joaquin and Runzler, the emergence of Sosa and a healthy Romo. Jeremy Affeldt won the 2009 MLB Setup Man of the Year award, and Brian Wilson has proven he is among the elite closers in the game. As good as they were in 2009, this group could emerge in 2010 as the best in baseball.
Issue #2: The revised Giants offense has to provide much better run support for the best starting pitching in baseball.
The dismal numbers put up by Giant hitters the past two years have been chronicled to death. The Colorado Rockies scored 804 runs in 2009; the Giants crossed the plate 657 times— which was only good enough for third place in the NL West, seven games behind the Dodgers. Aubrey Huff is the big gamble here, an extra base slugger with a great RBI history, knocking in 85 in 2009, arguably his worst career year. Huff is sloppy seconds to Adam LaRoche, and any number of unknown power hitters who have declined to play at spacious AT&T Park. The signings of Mark DeRosa and Bengie Molina will also mean extra base hits and RBIs, but this is a line-up that will have to prosper without a legitimate 30+ home run hitting threat. A difficult task.
Question: Has the Giants offense improved, is it the same, or is it worse than 2009?
The Giants’ ability to score runs has improved just enough to compete with the speed and power of Colorado and the supercharged line-up of the Dodgers, the two main obstacles between the Giants and the playoffs. In the playoffs, this line-up of professional hitters could easily support the Giants’ outstanding starting and bullpen pitching and go deep into the post season.
Issue #3: Infield and outfield defense.
New ways to measure the real impact of player defense on team wins and losses are sweeping through baseball’s more progressive front offices. MLB.com’s Doug Miller recently wrote an excellent article describing what happened to the Seattle Mariners in 2009, when they upgraded their outfield defense and dramatically improved their win-loss record, even though the team scored fewer runs than in 2008. On a Giants team that is crossing its collective fingers in hopes their newly patched together offense will produce, their mediocre defense may be the breaking point in 2010.
Despite so many young infield prospects waiting in the wings, the Giants will again trot out the slowest and least proficient infield in the National League. Even the Israelis and Palestinians agree that Pablo Sandoval should play first base, now and for the next fifteen years. His lack of range and poor footwork are not compensated by a quick and accurate arm. Edgar Renteria will continue his dismal 2009 fielding performance at short, which will cost Giant starters runs all year. Renteria had bone chips removed from his elbow in the off season, which should help his hitting, but unless further surgery removes the iron from his glove and posterior, the Giants’ defense is anchored by… an anchor. Freddie Sanchez and Aubrey Huff round out a profoundly sub par group.
The majority of 2010 Giants outfielders will provide no back-up to the infielders. Literally. Newly appointed left fielder, former infielder Mark DeRosa, and the bench players who will see time in left field, bring no arms and poor range to the battle (even compared to normal left fielders). Aaron Rowand may be the second best centerfielder on the team (to Andres Torres), but he will be out there almost every day. He gives his all, but this team needs more than an occasional ESPN highlight of the plodding Rowand crashing into the centerfield wall. If Nate Schierholtz wins the right field job, he becomes the team’s only standout defensive player. Schierholtz’s positioning, footwork, and hard, accurate throwing make him among the finest right fielders playing the game.
Question: Will the Giants poor defense be a difference-maker in 2010?
Even more than the obvious concern about driving in runs, team defense will be the biggest stumbling block to a successful 2010 Giants season. What good does it do for the front office to improve on last year’s paltry run production if a mediocre defense is giving those runs right back?
If there’s a single off-season regret here, it’s that the Giants didn’t aggressively go after former Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre. Not only would Beltre have dramatically upgraded the team’s overall defense, he would have provided a better bat in the fourth hole than Huff, and Beltre at third would have moved Sandoval to his rightful place at first base. The Red Sox will soon discover how valuable Beltre really is.
So if the Giants can keep their defensive liabilities in check, and if by mid-season they can bring Buster Posey, Thomas Neal, and/or Brandon Crawford into the everyday line-up, this team could move to the top tier not only in the National League, but in all of baseball.