Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Outfield

Not so long ago, if you asked a Giants fan who belonged in the outfield in 2012, you would get all sorts of answers. I figured that if one could accept the premise that Carlos Beltran would not be returning, the starting lineup would be Melky Cabrera in center, Nate Schierholtz in right, and Brandon Belt in left. I'd ponder a world where Huff--started at first by a stubborn Bruce Bochy and/or front office-- would come out in the 7th, Belt would move to first while Cabrera moved to left, and Andres Torres would patrol center field. I had even pondered Grant Brisbee's argument that we ought to consider another season with Cody Ross. Just because he really pisses off the Phillies.

Maybe I even pondered the situation too much. Then the winter meetings came, I joined Twitter, and Andres Torres and Ramon Ramirez were traded to the Mets for Angel Pagan. And it seems that since the Cardinals sunk the Phillies' chance at the World Series in 2011, and since the Giants will be fielding a team without Ross or Ramirez, well, the Phillies might not even remember why they used to get so wound up about playing against San Francisco, why Charlie Manuel would split hairs to prove to himself that Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain weren't great pitchers. And, while I am on the topic, as much as I'd hate to see it, I might feel a fleeting moment of joy if the Cardinals signed Ross. By the way, did I mention that I'm going to miss Torres?

Now, the outfield is set. Bochy and Sabean have hinted otherwise, but at the moment I can't imagine that they would trade for Pagan, after trading for Cabrera, without the intention of fielding him in center on opening day and beyond. The only person whose starting cred is actually endangered is Schierholtz, who was one of the few Giants who deservedly played his way into the lineup in 2011. Before I even start digging up stats, it's clear that last year was his best so far, with the exception of that season-ending broken foot. Stats or not, though, his job is in trouble due to that logjam at first base.

At least management is talking sensibly about sticking Huff in the outfield, and not Belt. Before the trades, I figured that Belt would get the most playing time in left, which made that seem like a good idea. With Melky and Pagan, Belt will probably fare better if Bochy figures he's got to pencil him in at first, and Huff in right or left field. With these kind of roster acrobatics, Schierholtz will probably fare better if he's a swell or magnanimous guy, because it could be long season of jogging out to right in the seventh inning. Either that or the crime-scene tape:

The real winner, I'd have to say, about this arrangement isn't who you would think. With two future free agents starting in that great expanse of AT&T park in 2012, I'd have to think it is  the up and coming--as in, dare I say it, the September call-up--Gary Brown, prospect extraordinaire.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Trade Rumors

Via Andrew Baggarly on Twitter:
Stanford guy, switch hitter. Would be fit for SF if BOS needs relief. RT nickcafardo A few teams asking about Sox utilityman Jed Lowrie.
I don't go too far on the trade speculation thing, but I have a friend who has been a life-long Red Sox fan. Which means I've watched a lot of Red Sox games over past few years. So I am familiar with Lowrie as a player, and familiar with the fact that Boston needs a serious overhaul in the pitching department, and not just a Zito-Lackey trade. There were rumors within the last few months that the Bosox might be interested in Jonathan Sanchez, but  that clearly didn't happen.  Of other pitchers of interest, I doubt that they would be interested in Ramon Ramirez a second time through, but trading for Jeremy Affeldt seems a possibility.

What would the Giants get in Lowrie? He had a good run at the beginning of the season (a .389 OBP in April), which more than likely caught some scouts' eyes, but finished the season, after some trouble with injuries, with a .252/.303/.382 (AVG/OBP/SLG) line. That is not exactly eye-catching, but for the Giants' shortstop dilemma, we should be thinking platoon. In that case, how did Lowrie fare against left-handed pitching? In 2011, with 117 plate appearances, he put up a .330/.353/.523 line, which is fairly close to his career numbers: in 314 PA he put up a .326/.385/.534 line. Within the context of other potential candidates for utility infielder, Lowrie's strengths play to the Giants' weaknesses, without the steep price tag.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Bochy and Sabean Extended Through 2013

The Giants have announced that Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean have been signed through 2013, with options for 2014. This, of course, is no surprise. We've always figured that Bochy and Sabean were staying put, all part of the plan, just like locking up Cain and Lincecum for the next few years, or like filling out the roster with veterans.

Which means two more years, at least, of the debate between the pro-Bochy camp, who point out his skills with handling pitching and the whole World Series thing, and the anti-Bochy camp, who begrudge his ever present veteran-philia, which is aided and abetted by Sabean.

Before we fire this up (whenever I get around to pondering the merits of Belt, Pill, and Huff), it struck me that Bochy's love of veterans might be ever so slightly overstated. 

True, it's easy to get fired up when Belt or Crawford were sitting on the bench while Rowand, O. Cabrera, and Huff were all out on the field (see how these things blur together? I don't even think those five were together on the 25 man squad at any point in the season)--there are eight position players in the lineup at any given time. Yet he doesn't hesitate with the rookie (or younger) pitchers. Sure we could think of Dan Runzler starting against Houston, but he stuck with Bumgarner through the 0-6 start--and he's also benched the veteran Zito numerous times (including, of course, the 2010 playoffs). I think I've just argued myself into the 'pro' camp, but if the plan is "pitching, pitching, and more pitching," then I can't argue (just yet?) with another two years of Bruce Bochy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Lockout

Dave Zirin's books, such as What's My Name, Fool?, have brought me around to the idea that despite the perennial fan habit of complaining about mediocre overpaid players, we ought to always place these salaries within the context of how much money the owners of professional sports rake in. This is crucial when understanding collective bargaining agreements in professional sports--the most prominent players are often excoriated for greed, when sometimes the sticking point is the minimum salary for, in baseball terms, the minor leaguers and replacement players.

This issue has resurfaced with the NBA lockout. Here's Zirin: 
The 21st century athlete—particularly the twenty-first-century African-American athlete—gets regularly blasted for being a weak, watered-down shadow of their more principled forebears and only caring about the money. Entire books (see Shaun Powell’s Souled Out) have been written examining their ego-driven materialism and absence of social conscience. Yet here are today’s players rejecting a deal from David Stern that would have guaranteed them their entire current contracts if they were only willing to sell out the ballers of the future.[...]
But after the players had given back $300 million in revenues, the owners wanted more. They wanted the freedom to limit the future compensation for the sport’s “middle class” role players and to be able to send anyone on their roster to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to five years while dropping their salaries to $75,000 a year. The players, without dissent, said no.
Perhaps it's a bit much to consider the highest paid professional athletes as part of the 99%. But the managements of all sorts of industries (including universities dealing with part-time professors) often try to negotiate a current raise while taking away the abilities to bargain in the future. And if the union in question can stand up to this tendency, it's commendable in any industry.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What Can the Winter Leagues Tell Us?

I spent Friday evening having a few drinks and talking baseball with Tao of Stieb, whose blog is responsible lately for most of the traffic to this site. When the conversation turned toward the fall leagues, I mentioned that I had discussed Hector Sanchez's offseason in Venezuela not so long ago. I had written:
They could rush Sanchez because he projects potential at the plate (with that .381/.458/1.030 line in Venezuela--in 21 at bats). However, Sanchez could use more time behind the plate in Fresno (I know, it does sound like a total bummer when you say Fresno) than he would get in San Francisco.
I feared that a more sabermetrically inclined reader would figure that, despite those bold numbers, I should know that it's a small enough sample to be virtually meaningless. Now, I did say projects potential as a signal that I knew better than to draw too much of a lesson from those 21 ABs. And I won't try to draw a lesson from his current sixty ABs and the .400/.446/.600 AVG/OBP/SLG line, especially because this doesn't speak to his needing regular work behind the plate (on a different note about the previous post: I admit that I can't figure out why I thought he might be used as a trade chip...but that was the pre-Melky era).

And yet I think in the case of Brandon Crawford that the Arizona Fall League can tell us something about the Giants' 2012 roster. We can safely put aside the .304/.329/.456 line (in 79 AB), because Crawford is 30 spots behind Jedd Gyorko's league leading .437/.500/.704 (71 AB). We can assume, with those numbers, that the hitting is outclassing the pitching in the AFL. Instead, we should look at any numbers that point toward aspects of Crawford's performance that require more work--or, more succinctly, weaknesses at the plate. Or, more specifically, trouble with left-handed pitching.

v. RHP: .356/.387/.542 (59 AB) 
v. LHP: .150/.150/.200 (20 AB)  

Again, it's a small sample, but the difference throws his 2011 numbers in a new light: against righties he hit .217/.301/.307, and against lefties .133/.212/.233. Which leads me to believe that we can expect the shortstop position to be a Crawford/veteran platoon in 2012. Then the question is: who? I doubt they'll be sewing "Reyes" on a Giants uniform any time soon, but there was talk of Willie Bloomquist (who ended up sticking with the Diamondbacks), speculation about Jimmy Rollins, and then Andrew Baggarly's twittering: "Giants are looking for a SS as a fallback to Brandon Crawford. I can tell you Clint Barmes has some big fans on the Giants coaching staff." I want to say something about Miguel Tejada or Orlando Cabrera, but I just can't do it. And I can't quite bring myself to end it on that 'eighth spot in the lineup' note...

So Tao mentioned that he sometimes wished they would broadcast the Arizona Fall League games, for those of us coming down from watching the Majors all summer. However, he noted then that we'd be left looking for the next league after that, until spring training, until...what? has a year round package? Maybe that's not so bad. But maybe it's too soon to cast the harsh light of the camera's eye on the Jedd Gyorko's and the others who are hashing it out in the minor leagues.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Giant Steps

I'll admit it. There is a major gap in yesterday's story. No, there are two. The second, a fuller account of who could play what in the outfield (I'd say Belt, Cabrera, Schierholtz until further notice), I plan on addressing sometime soon. The first, I just couldn't type. I think it's probably why I experienced a broader range of emotions over a trade than I had expected. Like denial, fear, anxiety, denial. Sanchez traded to address offense problems? Makes perfect sense. The consequences beyond Melky Cabrera? Like Barry Zito...fifth....strtr...

See? It's tough to type. So Bruce Bochy decided to clear the air. It's time, he said, to move on to acceptance:
You've got until March to get used to it. Unless [Brian] Sabean can, through some combination of blackmail and/or boozed up sentimentality, convince Brian Cashman or Ben Cherington otherwise.
No. He didn't say that. He said:
I'm not gonna hide from it: Barry Zito is our 5th starter next year.
There. Stop hiding. The denial. The fear and trembling. It's time for acceptance.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Cabrera/Sanchez Trade

At some point in the 2011 season, I started telling a joke about how a player's lackluster performance could land him a trade to Kansas City.

I don't exactly remember why I chose the Royals as the butt of the joke, but their team certainly qualifies over the last few years as a kind of baseball purgatory (not unlike the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Washington Nationals), although I do get the feeling that it had something to do with Jeremy Affeldt's cromulent month of May, which was reinforced by his season-ending incident with those frozen hamburgers.

The Melky Cabrera trade, then, surprised me because I hadn't quite imagined that Jonathan Sanchez would end up there. It always seemed like the destination for somebody else...aside from Affeldt, if you could put aside the payroll factors, the Aaron Rowands and Barry Zitos of the world. Somebody like Sanchez, I thought, could shape up. Sure, that walk ratio is horrendous, but his strikeout rate (9.355 per 9 innings since 2006) surely means something. But as I've mentioned before, who the Giants will put on offer to trade does not take place in a vacuum. They've got four solid starters, and two or three fifth starters, with one who has a contract that means he can't be traded and he can't be kept on the bench. 

That meant Sanchez was going to be moved to address the Giants' weaknesses on offense. Say whatever you want (especially about that 2010 season), but I think that Melky Cabrera's 2011 numbers show that he will be a good addition to the team: the 201 hits, the 18 home runs, the 44 doubles, the .305/.339/.809 AVG/OBP/OPS line, certainly outpace most of the 2011 Giants, and especially whoever happened to be the first guy standing in the batter's box--although his walk/strikeout ratio (35/94) leaves something to be desired.

If I had to forecast the 2012 season, I'd say that Cabrera is not quite Carlos Beltran, but he's not Coco Crisp either (and if you read the McCovey Chronicles, Grant Brisbee seemed to think that Crisp's acquisition was a fait accompli). The trade also makes me wonder how the Giants' perceive the free agent market. If I had to guess, maybe they think Beltran will find that his talents fit with an American League team as a designated hitter, and they weren't ready to make an expensive "lateral move" (in Brisbee's words) for Crisp. In this case, acquiring Cabrera makes a lot of sense--no matter how much I wanted to see, for different reasons, an improved Andres Torres or Cody Ross out in center field.

What about the so-called purgatory? I'd like to think that if the Royals turn things around and become contenders, that Sanchez would have an important part to play there. Then I would have to make jokes at another team's expense.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The (Other) Catcher

At some point during the twilight of the Giants' playoff hopes--just a few games before the Diamondbacks eliminated them on the way to a futile postseason bid--I had an unlikely moment of fan angst. In the midst of the 12-5 home run derby in Colorado (including Matt Cain's bomb to center field), as Eli Whiteside racked up an 0/5, I had a moment of panic. Who, I thought, is going to fill that offensive void in the catcher's position in 2012? (1) Who, after the Whiteside/Stewart platoon, is going to anchor the team at the plate?

It's easy to lose perspective during a 162 game season, whether (I imagine) you're a player or a spectator. And at some point between one flailing Whiteside swing and another, I had forgotten the obvious answer: Buster Posey.

But Posey still needs a backup catcher, which in 2011 we discovered to be a tricky situation. Let's assume a few things for ease of presentation: first, the Giants won't be spending free agent money on a back up catcher. Second, as last September demonstrated, Hector Sanchez is not yet ready to assume what could be a prominent backup position, depending on whether the Giants decide to transition Posey to another role (as first baseman--as if they need another car in that pile up--or as designated hitter at the interleague games at AL stadiums). 

That leaves Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart. You can't make a decision between the two on offense, even though I'd like to point out how Whiteside's OBP dropped from .327 to .220 to .118 from July to September, while Stewart's bounced from .333 to .250 to .290. While this casts some light on their season stats, Whiteside's .197/.264/.574 to Stewart's .204/.283/.592 line (AVG/OBP/OPS), the choice between who returns in 2012 will (or should) be made on defense. 

And here, I would suppose that the biggest difference has to do with their response to base running: given that their fielding percentages were about as close as the their batting averages (Eli's .991 to Chris' .986), Stewart threw out nearly forty percent of steal attempts (34 SB to 22 CS, but note the 7 throwing errors, some of which occurred during these situations, as I recall) while Whiteside caught slightly over twenty five percent (53 SB to 18 CS) (2). If the Giants won't have a bat with the backup catcher, they may as well stick with Stewart on defense.

Of course, these points are moot if assumption two doesn't hold. They could rush Sanchez because he projects potential at the plate (with that .381/.458/1.030 line in Venezuela--in 21 at bats). However, Sanchez could use more time behind the plate in Fresno (I know, it does sound like a total bummer when you say Fresno) than he would get in San Francisco, and Bochy does love those veteran players like Stewart or Whiteside. I think that we won't see Sanchez until later in the season, but if the Giants need a piece for the playoff puzzle, and Posey stays healthy, you never know if Sanchez won't be wearing an opponents' jersey.


1) Note that I almost wrote: who is going to fill the eighth spot in the line up that so often pulled rallies into the abyss? But since Posey bats clean up, this means that some other player is going to occupy the eight slot. Let us hope that he (or they) can clear the catching platoon's numbers.

2) For reference, Posey threw out around 35% of steal attempts (27 SB to 15 CS), with a .995 fielding percentage.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Rotation

During 2011, pitching was the most dependable part of the Giants, and there are many reasons to think that it will play a significant role in whatever success may come in 2012. If we could call starting pitchers reasons, then four of them--Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong--had, despite those pesky win-loss ratios, outstanding seasons. Take a look at the  National League top ten ERAs on the season, and they are all there: Vogelsong at number 4 (2.71), Lincecum 5 (2.74), Cain 8 (2.88) and Bumgarner at 10 with 3.21. Perhaps you're not convinced by ERA.  We could look at FIP, and then Bumgarner (2.67) and Cain (2.91) both rank in the top 5. Lincecum, despite an increase from previous seasons, is not so shabby either, at 3.17.

Now, of course, the numbers aren't the whole story. Or, at least, they say different things for different pitchers. Lincecum's numbers have worried some, given that they seem to show that batters are finally figuring out how to hit against him. With Cain they show how important he is to the rotation, and with Bumgarner they are the kind of thing that, barring any future outings against the Twins, show a lot of promise.

As to Vogelsong, well, where do you start? 

He not only knows how to feed rivalries in all the right ways ("I don't want to wear Dodger blue"), but he put up the kind of numbers that, following a long absence in the majors, made you wonder how exactly the so-called cognoscenti made decisions about who qualified for the comeback player of the year (or, really, the choice revealed their thought process: PLAYOFFS! PLAYOFFS! BERKMAN! Sure, Berkman had an off year in 2010, but Vogelsong hadn't even played in the majors since 2006). Of course, that's not exactly what his performance was about during the season. Judging by that I think we could expect two things: that his numbers won't be as stellar during the first half of 2012 (but if they are we'll take it), but that he won't have the same troubles late in the season as he did this year, which appear to be due to the workload (in 2010 he threw 95.1 innings of AAA ball, and this year he threw a combined 191 between AAA and the majors).

I don't exactly know why I spent so much time on the four starters we can expect to see next year, because it's the fifth starter spot that caused so much trouble this year: Jonathan Sanchez's stressful 5.86 walks per nine, Eric Surkamp's, uh, 5.74 BB/9 and ERA (look it up), and Barry Zito's whatever that was of a season. 

If Sanchez can't get it together for 2012, or ends up in the bullpen (or in the event that he's non-tendered, as they say, or tendered-traded), we'll need Machiavelli to help us sort it out. He'd tell us that we would want Zito to put together a good first half so that he can be traded away to a playoff drunk team before the deadline, leaving the Giants to cobble together the remainder of the season with possibly Sanchez, a post-Pacific Coast League Surkamp, a waiver signing and/or September call up--since you only need a four man rotation for the playoffs (What? Did you think Niccolò Machiavelli would settle for anything less?). It sounds crazy, but even this year people were floating the suggestion of a Lackey-Zito trade--which is a clear sign that things could be worse (Lackey posted a 6.41 ERA over 160 innings. In Boston that gives you a 12-12 record in 28 starts; with San Francisco he'd be lucky to post a win or two)!

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Postseason Quandary

Given that the Giants are not contenders in this postseason, I've worked out what might be called a 'Great Lakes' World Series scenario (and what Major League Baseball's accountants probably call the 'nightmare scenario') that would keep me interested in the playoffs:

In the NLDS, the Brewers beat the Diamondbacks, and the Phillies beat the Cardinals.
In the ALDS, the Tigers beat the Yankees, and the Rays beat the Rangers. 
In the NLCS, the Brewers defeat the Phillies
And in the ALCS, the Tigers beat the Rays.
World Series: Tigers v. Brewers

In a way, the postseason quandary ("should I pay attention to the playoffs this year?") is resolved through a process of elimination. After figuring out the teams that I would root against, I discovered that I felt that I could pull for the Brewers and the Tigers. At this point, the Brewers look poised to send the D'backs packing.

But I've considered a few alternatives if the Tigers can't pull it off. While I am indifferent to the Rays, there would be some poetic justice (or is that schadenfreude?) were they to defeat the Yankees on the way to the World Series, given that the Yanks dialed in the second half of game 162 as the Rays mounted their comeback victory for the wild card.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Plan

The plan is to write about the 2012 season of the San Francisco Giants. Which, I know, starts in Arizona on April 6 of next year, but it is necessary to start preparing now. Take, for instance, the Red Sox: they've already parted ways with Terry Francona, and the 2011 season is still warm (note that several GMs are probably wondering if it's too early to call him about next season already...). Admittedly, I'm not preparing in that sense, but I do have some spare time to ponder the significance of 2011 season and the preparations for next year.

In any case, the plan is to start by thinking, from a fan's perspective of course, about who the core players will be for the Giants going forward. Given that there are several positions where it is not entirely clear who will be standing there on opening day, I'll need to get on record about pressing issues such as whether I think Brandon Belt or Brett Pill should/could/will start at first (or left field, or Fresno, or...), so that I can either lord my predictions over who ever else gets in on the discussion, or, more than likely, make the table so that I can eat my words.

There's a 40 man roster and 25 spots, so I will do this in installments. I'll be warming up first with what is probably the easiest part of the equation: the starting rotation.