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2012 San Francisco Giants: Cain They Score Enough? Spring Preview
by Richard Van Zandt,
April 3, 2012

The Giants’ quest for back-to-back World Series Championships in 2011 was derailed on the night of May 25. That was the night Scott Cousins slammed into San Francisco catcher Buster Posey in a violent (and avoidable) collision at home plate, knocking the reigning Rookie of the Year and catalyst of the Giants 2010 World Series victory out for the season with a fractured leg and torn ligaments in his ankle. Without Posey in the middle of their lineup, coupled with injuries to several other vital players as well as subpar performances from other key veterans, the Giants struggled to score runs, as they saw just 570 runners cross home plate, or just 3.52 per game. Only the Seattle Mariners offense floundered more than San Francisco’s.

2011 Standings - NL West
West W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Arizona Diamondbacks 94 68 .580 0 51-30 43-38 731 662 .545 70-44 20-24
San Francisco Giants 86 76 .531 8 46-35 40-41 570 578 .494 60-58 26-18
Los Angeles Dodgers 82 79 .509 11.5 42-39 40-40 644 612 .523 58-59 24-20
Colorado Rockies 73 89 .451 21 38-43 35-46 735 774 .476 48-66 25-23
San Diego Padres 71 91 .438 23 45-36 36-45 593 611 .486 52-61 19-30

The 2011 Giants registered the second-lowest team batting average (.242), slugging percentage (.368), and OPS (.671) in the National League, as well as the lowest on-base percentage (.303). Their .219 batting average with runners in scoring position was the worst in the big leagues, while their .173 mark with 2 outs and RISP was the worst mark in the last 30 years for which such data is available. Their batting average with runners on base (.233) was also the worst in MLB.

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Melky Cabrera OF
Angel Pagan OF
Clay Hensley RP
Ryan Theriot INF
Gregor Blanco OF
Joaquin Arias INF
Yusmeiro Petit SP
Departed Pos.
Jonathan Sanchez SP
Ramon Ramirez RP
Carlos Beltran OF
Cody Ross OF
Jeff Keppinger INF
Orlando Cabrera SS
Mark DeRosa Util
Pat Burrell OF
Mike Fontenot INF

Considering all that, one can be forgiven for forgetting that San Francisco ended the ’11 season in second place in the NL West with 86 wins. The primary reason for such contradictory success? Pitching. Essentially the same pitching staff, just one year earlier, carried the Giants to their first World Series title in 52 years. Co-aces Tim Lincecum and the newly minted Matt Cain, along with 21-year old left-hander Madison Bumgarner and journeyman Ryan Vogelsong, led the Gigantes to the second-lowest team ERA (3.20) in baseball, behind only the Philadelphia Phillies. The Giants were 73-19 (.793) when scoring three or more runs in 2011, and 55-9 (.859) when scoring at least four in a game. When scoring one run or less, however, their record was just 2-34 (.056). Overall, they posted a .667 winning percentage (84-42) when scoring at least two runs in a game. Had they simply scored the league average of 4.13 runs per game (or exactly 100 more runs than they did), it’s quite conceivable to imagine that they could have overcome the Cardinals to win the Wild Card, or even have edged the Diamondbacks out for the NL West crown.

The return of their vaunted pitching staff, effectively intact, is the number one reason for optimism in 2012 if you’re a Giants fan. The second most obvious reason for optimism is the apparent return to health of Posey, who was named the league’s top rookie in ’10 when he batted .305 with 18 home runs in 108 games.

But those aren’t the only reasons. The additions of Melky Cabrera and speedy Angel Pagan lead a revamped outfield, while second-year 1B Brandon Belt is primed for a breakout season. Additionally, second-year shortstop Brandon Crawford, a defensive wiz with the glove, has shown good strides at the plate since the end of last season, batting .276 in the Arizona Fall League and hitting well over .300 in the Cactus League. Given that, it’s reasonable to assume that the 2012 Giants have a pretty good shot at surpassing the number of runs scored by the 2010 World Series winning squad (697), which, with their talented pitching staff, gives them a pretty good shot at returning to the post-season.

Madison Bumgarner

Key to the goal of returning to October, however, is obviously the health of Posey. It will be important for the Giants to keep him fresh and in the lineup as often as possible, which likely means increased action at an already overcrowded first base. That’s where Aubrey Huff returns for the final year of a two-year, $22M contract after a disappointing 2011 campaign in which he watched his OPS plummet over .200 points to a paltry .676. Due to the amount of money owed to him, Huff will likely get the first crack at the job ahead of Belt.

But make no mistake: Brandon Belt is going to be a very good big league hitter. Through his first 22 Cactus League games, Belt was batting .379 with 10 extra-base hits and an OPS over 1.000. Still, the Giants brass claims he needs to make more adjustments, wishing to see him move further back in the box and stand up straighter so that he can better hit the fastball. Therefore it’s possible we’ll see Belt open the year at Triple-A Fresno, though he’s certainly pushing the issue with his strong performance. I personally believe that by season’s end Belt will be the Giants regular first baseman, giving the club a potent homegrown threesome in the middle of the lineup, along with Posey and third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval rebounded well in 2011, both at the plate and in the field, from a weight-induced down year in 2010 and looks to become known as one of the top third basemen in the game in 2012.

Cy Young Candidates
Tim Lincecum has two of his own and Matt Cain now has the richest contract ever for a right-hander, yet they might both end up playing second fiddle to 22-year old Madison Bumgarner
MVP Candidates
The Giants have a pair of ‘em in Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey

Another couple of looming questions are, 1) how long, if at all, until Freddy Sanchez returns to the San Francisco lineup, and 2) who will play second base in his absence. Sanchez dislocated his right shoulder and damaged his labrum last June while diving for a ground ball and will open the year on the disabled list. He has yet to show his surgically repaired shoulder can make the kind of throws required to play the field and recently received a shot of cortisone after his recovery had hit a plateau. The longer Sanchez remains sidelined, the more you begin to wonder if the fragile second baseman’s career just might be over.

After a strong spring in which he’s done everything asked of him, Emmanuel Burriss appears to be the favorite to get the first shot at second base in Sanchez’ absence. Ryan Theriot, meanwhile, is certain to make the roster as the backup at both second and short after the release of Mike Fontenot last Friday. Although Fontenot, a teammate of Theriot’s both in college at LSU and in the majors with the Cubs, had a better spring, Theriot makes the roster based on his ability to hit from the right side of the plate. Veteran utility infielder Joaquin Arias, a non-roster invitee on a minor league contract, has also impressed the club, further easing the parting with Fontenot.

Giants Fun Fact
The Giants never scored fewer than 750 runs in any season between 1996-2004 but have not scored 750 since, only eclipsing the 700 mark once (in 2006).

Then there is the question of who will back up Posey, not an unimportant question given Posey’s health concerns, not to mention the 39 day games after night games on the schedule. Coming into camp, the only competition was between holdovers Chris Stewart (.204 BA/.592 OPS in 2011) and Eli Whiteside (.197/.574), but the performance of rookie Hector Sanchez, batting .390 through 19 games with a team-high four home runs, has the Giants brass re-thinking that idea. It’s possible that the club could carry three catchers to begin the year, though a stated desire to take 12 pitchers with them back to San Francisco could hinder that plan. Neither Whiteside nor Stewart has established themselves at the plate, so competition for the primary backup will come down to defense. In that regard, Stewart would seem to have the advantage. According to The Fielding Bible Vol. III, Stewart’s defense was good for 12 defensive runs saved in 2011 while Whiteside’s defensive play cost the team two. Stewart has a rocket launcher for an arm and is a better ball blocker, while Whiteside also has an option remaining. It should be a no-brainer. The only question should be whether or not to carry the switch-hitting Sanchez as a third backstop, or play him everyday at Fresno in order to refine his defense. If I had a vote, it’d be to keep Sanchez. His ability to hit, and hit well, from both sides of the plate makes him a good option off the bench late in games and better allows the team the flexibility to pull Posey early from games that are quickly out of hand, which is going to be important this season given the uncertainty about how many games Buster ultimately will be able to catch.

The number one player I am excited about seeing added to the Giants offense for 2012 is Cabrera. Acquired from Kansas City in exchange for talented but inconsistent pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, the switch-hitting outfielder batted over .300 from both sides of the plate for the Royals in a breakout 2011 season that saw him collect 201 hits, 44 of them doubles along with 18 home runs. The 27-year old former Yankee prospect has had an eye-opening spring and should provide a big boost to the offense this year. Where he plays in the outfield will depend on how the rest of the outfield shakes out. Pagan is the likely opening day starter in centerfield, but his poor spring coupled with the exciting play of Gregor Blanco, the reigning Venezuelan Winter League MVP, will probably mean a short leash. Also to be determined is whether or not Nate Schierholtz can hold down the everyday right field job. Due to his defense and deadly throwing arm, he is the default right fielder of choice, but he too has struggled at the plate this spring while Blanco (12/13 SB) has shined. Like Pagan, he will need to produce early or face relegation to the bench, although if Belt continues to push his way onto the opening day roster, you may see Cabrera shift over to right with Huff shifted to left.

While pitching may be the team’s number one reason for optimism, it’s not as though the Giants are without pitching concerns. The biggest worry for pitching coach Dave Righetti is fifth starter Barry Zito, owner of perhaps the worst contract in baseball history, which still has two-years and $46 million remaining. Despite tweaking his mechanics in the off-season while working with noted pitching guru Tom House, Zito got lit up like a Fourth of July fireworks spectacular in his last two spring starts, and altogether has allowed a whopping 44 base runners in six spring starts covering just over 19 innings. He barely registers 80 mph with his “fastball” nowadays and doesn’t possess the Jaime Moyer-type of pin-point accuracy needed to survive at this level with that kind of (lack of) velocity. It’s uncertain how long the Giants brass will stick with the former AL Cy Young award winner, or what they’ll do with him once he has tanked, but waiting in the wings to take his spot in the rotation are Yusmeiro Petit, formerly with Arizona, and rookie Eric Surkamp. Still only 27, Petit has impressed in camp with eight shutout innings of work and will open the year with Fresno while Surkamp opens the year on the DL with a strained flexor tendon.

Brandon Belt

Righetti’s other main concern among his pitchers is closer Brian Wilson’s durability. He missed time with a strained oblique early in the year and with an elbow injury in September. He has passed every test thus far this spring and last week, after pitching in back-to-back contests for the first time, was declared ready to go by manager Bruce Bochy. Nevertheless he will be watched closely as the season goes on.

Final Word

Pitching and defense win championships, but you need enough offense to get you there in the first place. That is the delicate balance the Giants have been trying to figure out the past couple of seasons. Whether or not they make it back to the World Series this year depends in part upon how much offense they can muster. Is the return of Posey, along with the acquisitions of Cabrera and Pagan and the emergence of Belt, enough to get them over the hump and back to October baseball? With pitching as talented as they have, I think it will be.

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