Numerous experts say that defense wins championships in football and pitching is the key to success in baseball. So why haven't the San Francisco Giants been able to take advantage of their decorated rotation?
There's no clear-cut answer to that loaded question, but an anemic offense is an easy scapegoat for San Francisco's absence from the postseason. The club has finished no better than third place in the NL West in each of the last five years, and there hasn't been any playoff baseball in the Bay Area since Felipe Alou managed the club back in 2003. That was also the last time the Giants reached the 100-win mark and finished atop the division standings.
The Giants didn't have much pitching seven years ago, let alone two starting pitchers with three Cy Young Awards between them, and will once again ride the arms of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito. Lincecum has won pitching's top award in back-to-back campaigns, while Zito was a recipient of the AL Cy Young Award back in 2002 as a member of the Oakland Athletics. Lincecum and Cain, however, are two of the top hurlers in the National League and will be counted on to lead Bruce Bochy's club back into the postseason even though they haven't sniffed a playoff game in their careers.
Lincecum came out smelling like roses this offseason instead of the marijuana he was busted for during a traffic stop back in November. Last season's All- Star starter, Lincecum, nicknamed 'The Freak', earned enough money to singe when the Giants finalized a two-year, $23 million contract with right-hander in February. The front office hopes the deal won't go up in smoke, but they know better than to count out one of baseball's most-intriguing hurlers.
With a lack of power in the lineup, not counting third baseman/first baseman Pablo Sandoval, veteran general manager Brian Sabean didn't do much to help the batting order this offseason. Unless he believes Sandoval can do it all offensively, Sabean will feel the California heat if the Giants fall to doormats in the NL West by the All-Star break. Center fielder Aaron Rowand, shortstop Edgar Renteria and second baseman Freddy Sanchez will provide veteran leadership, but the turnstiles will be oiled for Sandoval fans.
Sandoval or not, however, the Giants are once again facing an uphill battle to claim NL West supremacy.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2009 edition of the Giants, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
RHP Brad Penny, RHP Justin Miller, RHP Bobby Howry, LHP Randy Johnson, RHP Merkin Valdez, OF Randy Winn, 1B Ryan Garko, INF Rich Aurilia, LHP Noah Lowry
An offseason workout regimen has Sandoval down a few pounds from last season, and the exercise has paid off in the field. Sandoval took the National League by storm a year ago by hitting .330 with 25 homers and 90 runs batted in through 153 games. 'Kung Fu Panda' will most likely get the starting nod at third base over veteran Mark DeRosa. The free-swinging Sandoval has earned the respect of fellow Venezuela native and Chicago Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano, whose history on Sandoval goes back a few decades. Zambrano claims that Sandoval will be one of the best hitters in the NL this season. Maybe he'll feel the same way when the two go head-to-head this season.
Taking over at first base will be Aubrey Huff, who is entering his first season with the Giants. Huff spent parts of 2009 with Baltimore and Detroit and combined to hit .241 with 15 home runs and 85 RBI. He also scored 59 runs, a category in which the Giants struggled last year. San Francisco can only hope Huff reverts back to his 2008 days, when he clubbed 32 homers and knocked in 108 runs for the Orioles.
Another veteran, shortstop Edgar Renteria, is hoping to bounce back from an injury-riddled and subpar 2009 campaign, his first in the Bay area. Renteria didn't do much to wow the crowd over and hit .250 with five homers, 48 RBI and 50 runs scored. The slick-fielding World Champion noted that he was embarrassed for his poor effort a year ago and hopes to revert back to his days of relevance on the diamond. Bone chips and spurs in his right elbow certainly didn't swinging a bat or throwing a baseball any easier, but there's no chance Juan Uribe will be spelling Renteria any time soon. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez is another player hoping that injuries will not doom another season. Sanchez was bothered by shoulder and knee issues a year ago, and apparently did enough to earn a two-year contract extension in October.
Sanchez, a three-time All-Star, hit a combined .293 in 111 games with the Pirates and Giants in 2009, recording seven homers, 29 doubles and 41 RBI. He gives San Francisco a lethal double-play combination with Renteria. Behind the plate will be Bengie Molina, who is approaching his fourth season with the club. Molina belted a career-best 20 homers in 2009, while batting .265 with 80 RBI and 52 runs scored. He reached the 80-RBI mark in each of his three years with the Giants. Molina, perhaps one of the best callers of the game behind the dish, signed a one-year deal to stick around in January. He'll definitely continue to have an impact on the rotation, including promising youngster Madison Bumgarner.
Rowand has had back-to-back subpar seasons with the Giants, and leaves many to wonder whether he'll get back to his Philly form. In his second season with the Phillies back in 2007, the hard-nosed Rowand slugged a career-best 27 home runs and knocked in a career-high 89 runs. The product of Cal State Fullerton and longtime White Sox outfielder, Rowand still has three years left on his five-year, $60 million contract. Rowand shed a few pounds in the offseason, but that will not quiet the boos from the home faithful is he starts off the season on a down note. A possible leadoff hitter this season, Rowand hit .294 with a .341 on-base percentage and a .468 slugging average at the top of the lineup for some time in 2009. Maybe the 20-to-25 mile bike rides he went on during the offseason will help him adjust to the rigors of leading off.
Right fielder Nate Schierholtz is entering his fourth season with the ballclub, and will take over for Randy Winn, who headed across the country to play for the New York Yankees. Schierholtz appeared in a career-best 116 games a season ago and registered a .267 batting average, five homers, 29 RBI and 33 runs scored. The lefty hitter is an athletic talent and may platoon in right field with Andres Torres and Eugenio Velez. Schierholtz started 61 games in right field last year before shining for Carolina in the Puerto Rican Winter League this past fall.
Infielder/outfielder DeRosa is currently penciled in to start at right, but can still be pushed by either John Bowker or Velez. DeRosa, who broke into the league in 1998 with Atlanta, spent the 2009 campaign with both Cleveland and St. Louis and hit .250 with 23 homers, 78 RBI and 78 runs scored. The University of Pennsylvania product may see time at third base as well, but will be best suited to play outfield in his first season by the Bay. DeRosa inked a two-year deal in the offseason and had surgery on his left wrist following the end of the season. He believes he'll be ready for Opening Day.
Lincecum gives the Giants perhaps the best rotation in the division and is arguably the nastiest pitcher in the National League, and that's not because of his back-to-back Cy Young Award seasons. It's mainly his fastball, curve, slider and whatever the medium-build hurler throws at his opponents. The deceptive ace has made at least 32 starts in each of the previous two seasons and has won at least 15 games over the short span. An innings eater and strikeout king, Lincecum is averaging 263 K's in the past two years.
Cain completes the 1-2 punch with a healthy mix of power and finesse for the Giants, who were second in the Major Leagues in team earned run average in 2009. Most teams in the majors would love to have two of the best young pitchers at the top of a rotation, and Bochy is lucky to have that here. Cain, who just inked a three-year extension that will keep in the Bay Area through 2012, is entering his sixth year with the organization and had one of his finest seasons as a pro a year ago. He made 33 starts and recorded a career- high 14-8 record with a 2.89 ERA over 217 2/3 innings. Cain, an All-Star in 2009, is averaging almost 33 starts in his last four seasons, and serves as a nice change of pace in the No. 2 spot behind Lincecum. The scary thing about the two is that they have more room to develop further.
It's been discussed often that Barry Zito has yet to live up to his lucrative contract since he hasn't recorded a winning campaign in the three years as a Giant. Zito hasn't been the same since winning the 2002 AL Cy Young Award with Oakland back in 2003, when he compiled a 23-5 record in 35 starts with a 2.75 earned run average over 229 1/3 frames. The southpaw hasn't posted no more than 16 wins since his award-winning season, racking up an average of 12 wins a year. Bochy has had his fingers crossed with this guy for a long time, and his patience has to be running thin. The first of three possible left-handers in the rotation, Zito has four years remaining on his seven-year, $126 million contract and is 31-43 in the three years since he signed with the Giants. Zito knows he's struggled by the Bay and that the chances of moving back to the No. 1 slot are slim, but at least he's still focused on making good on his deal.
Jonathan Sanchez is slated to pitch in the No. 4 spot this season after saving his own job a year ago. He was 0-4 in seven starts before tossing a no-hitter -- San Fran's first in 33 years -- on July 10 versus San Diego, and went 6-4 with a 3.46 ERA in his last 16 starts. Sanchez, who finished fourth in the National League with 9.75 strikeouts per nine innings and a .221 opponents' batting average, started the 2009 campaign as the No. 5 starter, but moved up a notch after Randy Johnson tore his rotator cuff in early July. Sanchez is an above average pitcher, but will not capture headlines the likes of Lincecum and Cain will this season. The retirement of Johnson was the only loss for a rotation that will unveil heralded rookie Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner is San Francisco's top pitching prospect and made four relief appearances, one of which was a start, last season. He compiled a 1.80 ERA with 10 K's and three walks through 10 innings of work. The Giants, though, optioned Bumgarner to Triple-A Fresno, and will decide between Todd Wellemeyer or Kevin Pucetas as the No. 5 starter. Giants fans, however, haven't seen the last of Bumgarner.
Brian Wilson has served as the main closer the last two years, and is coming off a 38-save campaign in 2009. Wilson, who made the All-Star team in 2008 thanks to 41 saves in 63 chances, lowered his ERA from 4.62 to 2.74 last summer. The right-hander, who signed a two-year extension on Sunday, out of LSU is poised for another 40-plus save season. He has 79 saves in the past two years and is 11-13 with a 3.73 ERA and 86 saves in his career. Set-up man Jeremy Affeldt had the lowest earned run average among all NL relief pitchers at 1.73. The lefty reliever has a knack for inducing batters into double plays, and there's nothing wrong that for a team that lacks offense but has a straight jab of a pitching staff. Like Wilson and Cain, the Giants agreed to an extension with the sinkerball specialist Affeldt, who could have been a free agent at season's end. Dan Runzler, Sergio Romo, Brandon Medders and Joe Martinez will also see time out of the bullpen.
Bochy has a few speedsters to go to off the bench in Uribe, Velez, Andres Torres, while Bowker, Fred Lewis, Travis Ishikawa and Kevin Frandsen are also at the manager's disposal. DeRosa will also get a breather once in a while from the outfield. Catchers Posey and Eli Whiteside still have some learning to do before they earn a more productive role. Right now they'll try to help a Giants group of inexperienced reserves.
If the San Francisco offense can live up to just half of the hype its pitching staff is creating this season it would be an easy choice to compete with Los Angeles for division bragging rights. Not too many teams in the majors can excel if half of the problem is hitting the baseball. As previously stated, Sandoval can't do it all alone, and will need Rowand, Renteria and Sanchez to pick up the slack. There's certainly good odds for an NL Wild Card berth with Lincecum and Cain chucking fastballs, but chances for the Giants' first division title since 2003 is a long shot.