The 2012 San Francisco Giants– Three Questions (and Three Answers): Question #1

The San Francisco Giants are bringing something special to the start of the 2012 Major League season (at least on paper): the best balance of pitching and offense the team has put together since 2003.

That year, the Giants won one hundred games but lost the League Divisional Series to the Florida Marlins 3-1. Barry Bonds put up an astounding .529 OBP in 130 games, with 90 RBI, 111 runs scored, and a 1.278 OPS. Starter Jason Schmidt went 17-5 with a .953 WHIP.

The intervening six years saw the team get cheaper, older, slower as the front office first shut down and then began recovering from the Bonds era. This tedious period of wandering in the desert produced zero post season appearances and there was a sense that the ship was rudderless.

sanfransiscogiantsballlogoIn the middle of a parade of elderly shortstops and minor league hitters who couldn’t, very positive things started to happen: GM Brian Sabean’s pitching-centric draft strategy began producing picks like Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner who developed and bloomed into top of the line starters. It all came together in 2010 with the addition of just enough hitting to propel the Giants to the post season and a World Championship. 
 
Last season the team played well enough through late July, actually holding down 1st place until early August before hitting a large wall. That’s when the patched together offense from 2010 faltered, several trades proved unhelpful, and a season of poor middle infield defense caught up with the starting pitching. After the highs of 2010, the 2011 season was an extremely unwelcome journey back to earth.

With the April 6th Opening Day at Arizona only one month away, three questions will determine whether the San Francisco Giants will regain their mo and head into the post season with a goal of capturing their second World Championship in three years:

2012 Question #1: Did the Giants’ front office add enough offense in the off-season to support the teams’ dominant starting and bullpen pitching?

Probably not, but…
The addition of centerfielder Angel Pagan from the New York Mets is a huge upgrade offensively and defensively over Andres Torres. Pagan’s performance at lead-off will be the earliest indicator of whether or not this team will score more runs in 2012. While the Giants scored the second lowest number of runs in the Majors last year, with their quality-start pitching taking the mound every day the offense only needs to move up to the middle of MLB run production to win a boatload of baseball games.                  

San Francisco’s other big big-bat acquisition involved trading lefty starter Jonathan Sanchez for Kansas City outfielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera put up some scorching numbers in the American League last year and he will be a free agent at the end of 2012. But…  last year Cabrera had a career year in a hitter’s ballpark and he has a history of conditioning problems.

What Melky Cabrera does in the first two months of 2012 will be another critical indicator of whether Giants have enough gas in their offensive engine to drive this team into the post season. If Cabrera flexes his swing to use the alleys at AT&T Park to his advantage, and he adds the ingredient of speed, he could be a huge run contributor for the Giants.

There is one additional piece the San Francisco Giants can add to their offense in 2012 if they choose to do it: start Brandon Belt every day at first base. 

On the surface there appears to be a battle for playing time between Belt and Aubrey Huff– but that’s not what’s really going on here. After 2010, Huff was signed to a $22m two year contract and he tanked badly last year at the plate. I agree the Giants need to see if Huff can earn his $11m this year and contribute to the offense– but he should do that from left field. And Brandon Belt should be the everyday first baseman.

The real problem is the front office’s surreal commitment to starting Nate Schierholtz in right field. Aubrey Huff will initially play almost every day so manager Bruce Bochy can assess if Huff will rediscover his ability to drive in runs. Which means that either Brandon Belt or Nate Schierholtz plays every day. And that, as they say, is a monumental no-brainer.

Nate Scherholtz is a 28 year old lifetime back-up outfielder whose highest career RBI totals are 29 in 2009 and 41 in 2011. His career OPS is .725. Bill James, in his essay “The 96 Families of Hitters”, classifies a .725 OPS as “average”. “Below average” starts at .699. And to get Nate Schierholtz’s near-below average bat into the line-up the Giants are going to sit a promising young power hitter like Brandon Belt?
 
Oh, wait. Schierholtz has another skill: he has one of the best right field arms in the game. And that is so cool, right?.

But think about it for more than three seconds. The Royals’ Jeff Francoeur led the Majors in assists from right field in 2011 with 16 in 153 games– which is very good. Schierholtz-like, you might say. Excluding putouts, that means Francoeur created an out with his arm about once every 10 games.

But during those 10 games, Francoeur had about 40 at bats– forty chances to create a run. And what did he do? Francoeur had an .805 OPS in 2011, knocking in 87 RBI, with 20 home runs, 77 runs scored and a .285 BA.

With Nate Schierholtz-type offensive numbers, the ability to merely throw out 16 runners over 153 games is an absolutely terrible trade off in right field. But somehow the Giants braintrust thinks it’s a great idea.

What this Giants team really needs is some actual defense at the shortstop position, not in right field. In right field San Francisco needs an RBI-generating bat who can adequately field the position. Maybe Melky Cabrera will get 7 assists instead of 16 from right field, but he’ll create runs with his bat. 

And more than anything else, runs are what the San Francisco Giants will desperately need in 2012.

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