NL West Preview: San Francisco Giants

With a name like Angel Pagan, it is just fitting that we are not sure whether the Giants' new center fielder will be a meaningful asset or not.

The Giants won the World Series in 2010 on the strength of a white hot pitching staff, timely hitting and the best month of Cody Ross' life. In response, Brian Sabean did essentially nothing to improve the Giants roster for 2011, and San Francisco ultimately missed the playoffs. Okay. That is somewhat understandable. The championship hangover is real.

In a disappointing 2011, the Giants' lineup returned to its substandard performance. In response, Brian Sabean did...essentially nothing...to improve the Giants roster for 2012. The ousting of Bill Neukom brought on the regime of Larry Baer, which has led to mass fretting from the Giants faithful. Carlos Beltran signed elsewhere without much resistance, and the highest profile free agent to sign with San Francisco was Ryan Theriot.

The announcement of the record-breaking extension to Matt Cain might ease the pain of Giants fans, but its haughty sum may preclude an extension to Tim Lincecum as well. A franchise in San Francisco with its recent history of on field success certainly should be capable of signing two of Cain, Lincecum and a halfway impact free agent. There is no doubt an elite core in place. It is just difficult to understand how the front office has failed to supplement it in free agency. Maybe it is all Aaron Rowand's fault.


Additions

CF Angel Pagan (trade), LF Melky Cabrera (trade), RHP Yusmeiro Petit (FA), 2B Joaquin Arias (FA), OF Gregor Blanco (FA), RHP Clay Hensley (FA), 2B Ryan Theriot (FA)

Subtractions

RF Carlos Beltran (FA), LHP Jonathan Sanchez (trade), IF/OF Mark DeRosa (FA), OF Cody Ross (FA), RHP Ramon Ramirez (trade), CF Andres Torres (trade), IF Orlando Cabrera (FA), LF Pat Burrell (retired), CF Darren Ford (released), 2B Jeff Keppinger (FA), IF Mike Fontenot (released), RHP Waldis Joaquin (released).

Returns

C Eli Whiteside, RHP Guillermo Mota

Projected 25-Man

Lineup Bench Rotation Bullpen
1) Angel Pagan - CF OF - Gregor Blanco 1) Tim Lincecum Closer - Brian Wilson
2) Melky Cabrera - RF OF - Nate Schierholtz 2) Madison Bumgarner Set-up - Sergio Romo
3) Pablo Sandoval - 3B 1B/2B - Brett Pill 3) Matt Cain MR - Santiago Casilla
4) Buster Posey - C IF - Ryan Theriot 4) Barry Zito MR - Jeremy Affeldt
5) Aubrey Huff - LF C - Hector Sanchez
MR - Javier Lopez
6) Brandon Belt - 1B

MR - Clay Hensley
7) Emmanuel Burriss - 2B MR - Dan Otero
8) Brandon Crawford - SS LR - Guillermo Mota

Lineup

As always, the lineup stubbornly holds the Giants back from being an elite team. That is as sorry of a 7-8 as you will find in the league. Burriss has a 60 OPS+ in his career, Crawford hit for a 66 OPS+ in the majors and a 44 wRC+ in AAA in 2011. But hey, the Rockies got Marco Scutaro for Clayton Mortensen. The Giants appear to have come to their senses with Brandon Belt, who is going to be given the majority of starts at first base for the first couple weeks of 2011. Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera have been very good in recent years, but also pretty bad. How they set the table for Panda/Posey will be a big story, as will Aubrey Huff's return from a pathetic 2011. Freddy Sanchez is on the disabled list (of course), and I wouldn't expect much from him going forward. With Posey and Belt in the lineup, there is an opportunity to improve, but this lineup will still be among the worst in MLB, which is just difficult to understand during their strong contention window. They should at least be solid defensively at every position, except for when Huff is in the outfield.


Bench

Brandon Belt pushes Nate Schierholtz to the bench, giving San Francisco a legitimate left-handed bat to act as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement for Aubrey Huff in the outfield. Brett Pill will play first base against left-handers and may steal a few innings at second. Gregor Blanco is the spring training darling who might actually have figured things out and Hector Sanchez is a talented young catcher. Really, even including Mr. TOOTBLAN himself, the bench is pretty decent considering the sorry lineup. All five of them will likely be in the starting lineup each week.

Rotation

They aren't the Phillies, but that rotation is still strong. Their 2011 starters finished 2nd in the NL with 17.6 fWAR, well ahead of the 3rd place Dodgers (13.8), and all of those names are back. Ryan Vogelsong, who signed a 2-year $8.3million deal after posting a 2.71 ERA (3.67 FIP) in 28 2011 starts, will begin the year on the DL with a strained back. He is likely to return when San Francisco needs a fifth starter April 15. Until then, it is Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner (each in the top 18 in FIP in MLB in 2011) plus Barry Zito. Sixth starter Eric Surkamp is on the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon. Is this the year injury actually strikes? That is what it would take to knock the Giants out of contention on account of their pitchers.

Bullpen

Brian Sabean likes having a good bullpen. He moved quickly to extend Javier Lopez to a two year deal and picked up the $5million option on Jeremy Affeldt early in the offseason. That tied up nearly $10million in payroll on the left side of the bullpen. Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo return as a strong back end, Guillermo Mota was resigned as the long man, and Clay Hensley joined the strong pen. Dan Otero took the 8th spot in the pen with the four-man rotation until April 15. It is essentially the same bullpen that ranked 2nd in the league in fWAR, with Clay Hensley replacing Ramon Ramirez.

Why They Could Good

This section is always the same for the Giants. The pitching has a long track record of being not only exceptional but reliable. There is some potential in the lineup to have strong years - the first six have all been above league-average bats in at least one of the last two seasons, with the exception of Brandon Belt, who has scorched the minor league earth. If four, or maybe even five of those bats, can repeat that feat in 2012, the lineup will be plenty good enough to ride the pitching into the postseason.

Why They Could Be Bad

This section is always the same for the Giants. The hitting has a long track record of being among the worst in the league. With career years raining down everywhere in their championship season, they still only managed a 95 wRC+ as a team. Brian Sabean changed out the top of the lineup with Cabrera and Pagan, but neither are likely impact moves. Should the lineup remain one of the worst in the game, which is likely, one extended injury to their rotation is enough to seriously hamper their playoff chances.


Prospect to Watch - RHP Heath Hembree

Brandon Belt is no longer prospect eligible, which makes Eric Surkamp the only top 10 Giants prospect guaranteed to play in San Francisco in 2012. But Surkamp is boring. We saw him last season, and as long as the rotation is healthy, he won't see time as a starter by design. So I'll highlight Hembree instead, who very well could be the reason the Giants let Brian Wilson and his beard walk as a free agent after the season.

Hembree was selected in the 5th round of 2010, two picks behind the Rockies' selection of Josh Slaats and a round after Russell Wilson was chosen. In his first full year in pro ball, a 22-year-old Hembree outclassed High-A ball with a 0.73 ERA In 26 appearances, then went on to thrive in AA with a 2.73 ERA in 28 games. He boasts a mid-90's fastball with movement, a plus slider and a decent changeup. Hembree will start the year in AAA Fresno but is likely to surface at the big league level late in the year.

Grant on the Giants

Giants Baseball: Finishing 29th in runs scored for four out of the last seven years means that there was always at least one team that had it worse! Suck it, Mariners!

Conclusion

Without unforseen blossoming from the lineup, the bats are too poor for the arms to carry San Francisco to over 90 wins. They have the lowest floor of any team in the division, health permitting, and should be in the thick of the dual wild card race in September, if not the division.

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