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2007 Team Preview: San Francisco Giants

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2006 W-L: 76-85 (3rd place)

2006 Pythag: 76-85

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

Barry Zito, Ryan Klesko, Dave Roberts, Rich Aurilia, Bengie Molina, Russ Ortiz, Tyler Walker

Going:

Jason Schmidt, Shea Hillenbrand, Steve Finley, Moises Alou, Mike Matheny, Tim Worrell

The Giants In a Nutshell:

This has got to be the only team that could get younger by signing a bunch of guys in their mid-30s to multi-year contracts.  I'm not going to spend this entire preview making fun of Brian Sabean, but with a game plan that looks like that, it's tough not to.  There are definite improvements here, at least in the short term: Dave Roberts will outhit Steve Finley, and Ryan Klesko ought to give a boost at first base and in left field when Barry Bonds is out of the lineup.  But with all the returning players just another year older and without a lot of upside, it's tough to see this team cracking .500.

Offense:

Relative to league average, the two most glaring holes in the Giants offense last year were at the infield corners.  Giants first basemen hit 257/308/411, while third basemen (AKA Pedro Feliz) hit 236/274/410.  Especially at first, that's just plain awful.

To solve those problems, Sabean brought in Klesko and Rich Aurilia (and kept Feliz).   They are big question marks: both are power hitters in their mid-30s, the age at which most players decline.  Aurilia had a very strong 2006, his first above-average offensive performance since 2001.  He was aided by an incredible performance against lefties, and Bruce Bochy would be well-served to use him in a platoon to take advantage of his remaining skills.  Despite his showing in Cincinnati last year, Aurilia is not going to slug 500 in Pac Bell; he'll be lucky to crack 450 if he plays everyday.

Klesko is even more of an unknown.  He'll turn 36 in June, and only managed six plate appearances last year.  The downside is obvious: his career is all but over.  The upside, though, is huge: Klesko has never posted an OPS+ below 111 or an OBP below 334.  His career numbers are 280/372/507, and that includes a couple of years in Petco.  If he returns from injury to play the way he did beforehand, he will be worth at least a couple of wins to the Giants over last year's alternative.

Beyond those two major changes, the Giants offense looks very much like it did last year.  Roberts replaces Finley, which will probably be worth something, though not as much as you'd think by looking at Roberts's recent stats.  He's yet another player in his mid-30s, and those years are less friendly to speed demons than to sluggers who get on base a lot.  

Bengie Molina takes over for Mike Matheny and his grab bag of replacements.  Molina is a better hitter than he's often given credit for; but--pardon the repetition, it isn't my fault, honest--he'll be 32 next year, which is often the beginning of the end for backstops.  He'll be better than the guys he's replacing, but not by more than about a win to the bottom line.

Returning are Barry Bonds, Omar Vizquel, Randy Winn, and Ray Durham.  (And Feliz, who may not see nearly as much playing time this year.)  All, of course, are past 30.  Vizquel and Winn are known quantities; we can put them down for what they contributed last year.  Durham, though, is primed for a fall.  He posted his career-high slugging percentage last year; like I said with Aurilia, I wouldn't bet on him topping 450 this year, let alone 500.

And as Giants fans have become accustomed to, Bonds is the big question mark.  100 extra plate appearances from him (instead of, say, Jason Ellison) would make more of a difference than any of the other reinforcements Sabean brought in.  On the other hand, he hasn't topped 600 since 2004.  Especially since we're talking about a 42-year-old whose drug regimen may be in flux, the potential for decline is greater than the possibility of a bounce back to his 2003 or 2004 level of production.  Having Klesko around to fill in helps matters, but there are enough old guys on this team that the Ellisons and Kevin Frandsens will find their atbats.

It's a cop-out, but I think the sum total of all these changes is a wash.  Each one of the replacements will be worth a win or so if healthy.  Of the returning players, a few will decline by the same amount.  There's plenty of possible variance in both directions, and given the average age, there's more downside than upside here.

Starting Rotation

Despite getting 21 starts from Jamey Wright, the Giants had a surprisingly solid rotation last year.  Wright's ERA+ of 87 is just a notch below the average for starters, and his was the worst of any pitcher who got multiple starts.  While the Giants ought to have a strong starting five again this year, it's tough to see this season's group representing a big improvement.

The biggest change, of course, is replacing Jason Schmidt with Barry Zito.  I have no doubt that Zito is a better bet than Schmidt going forward--especially beyond 2008.  On the other hand, Schmidt was great last year: by ERA+, he was better than Zito has been since 2003.  Barry ought to capably fill the shoes of the former ace, but expecting him to carry the Giants to the postseason on the strength of his magnificent weak-fly tendencies is foolish.  The Giants will be lucky if he improves the team in the short-term at all.

The most realistic place to expect improvement is from Matt Morris.  He posted the worst ERA of his career in 2006, and ought to bounce back at least into the 4.50 range.  If he returns to anything close to his career average, he'll be worth a couple of wins to the Giants bottom line.  The best part about that possibility is that there isn't a whole lot of downside: like any pitcher, he could blow his arm out and miss the next season and a half, but Morris has started 27 or more games in the last six years; good or bad, he'll give the Giants 200 innings.

It's easy to predict an earth-shaking breakout for Matt Cain, but the forecasting systems aren't quite so optimistic.  PECOTA has him taking a mild step back to 4.23, while ZiPS gives him a positive nudge to 4.01.  4.01 was Cain's FIP last year, so while it's hard to discount Cain's long-term potential (he's 22), a more reasonable short-term expectation is for him to consolidate his gains for 2007.

The question mark, as it is for so many teams, is the 5th starter spot.  It should come down to Brad Hennessey, Jonathan Sanchez, and Russ Ortiz.  One of the losers will probably head to the bullpen, with the other going to Triple-A (or, in Ortiz's case, perhaps the Orioles).  Hennessey may never fulfill all of the Giants hopes for him, but he has proven in limited opportunities that he's a dependable back-rotation starter.  He's the safe bet of these three.

If you want upside, though, go with Sanchez.  PECOTA likes him for a 4.57 ERA, which doesn't set him apart, but doesn't tell the story, either.  With the exception of Tim Lincecum, Sanchez may be the best prospect in the Giants system.  That doesn't make him an ace in utero, but it does suggest that he could give the Giants more than 150 mediocre innings, which is the alternative this year.

[Insert paragraph-long Russ Ortiz joke here.]

The Bullpen

As I've complained about before, bullpens are hard to preview, especially before spring training games start.  Between now and April 1st, Armando Benitez could get hurt (or get well, for all I know), and the Giants could decide to turn Ortiz into a setup man.  That said, I'll do what I can with the information I have.

At this point, the Giants 'pen doesn't look much different than it did at the end of the year last year.  Now that Wayne Krivsky runs a team, mediocre veteran relievers have gotten more expensive, which may be why Brian Sabean didn't sign any.  In fact, Sabean has done a very nice job putting together a credible bullpen on a tight budget.  (Whether he should've limited his bullpen spending while buying more 30-something position players is another story.)

Benitez and Steve Kline are the only guys in the pen making much more than the minimum, and pitchers of Kline's abilities are much more expensive on this year's market.  Benitez, however, could produce exactly as much as the recently-retired Tim Worrell will; he's claiming health, but arthritic knees don't an ironman make.

Beyond presumptive closer Benitez and lefty-specialist Kline, the remaining four or five spots are up for grabs.  As I mentioned, one of the losers of the fifth-starter competition will probably become a swingman.  The rest of the jobs will go to some combination of Kevin Correia, Brian Wilson, Scott Munter, Vinnie Chulk, Tyler Walker, and another battalion of nameless middle-relief guys (okay, technically they have names, but if you know them all, you're a step or two of me).  

Correia had a breakout campaign in '06; unless the Giants decide to make Sanchez or Lincecum a reliever for a year, Correia may be the best bet to take over for Benitez when such a replacement is needed.  

Second verse, same as the first: while the cast of characters has changed a little, there's not much in the pitching staff to get excited about.  Cain could break out and give the Giants a few extra wins; Zito could return to Cy Young form and join Cain to form a tandem of aces; guys like Munter and Chulk could reach their good-setup-man ceilings.  But most of these things won't happen.  Sabean achieved roster churn, but the only discernible benefits were substantial transaction costs.

All Together Now

By now, my conclusion ought to be clear.  Even if all the players the Giants signed perform as you could reasonably expect them to, they don't represent much of a benefit over last year's version.  It's easy enough to see them creeping up to 80 wins or so, but much beyond that is a stretch.

The real downside of Sabean's moves this offseason is that, in order to tread water in the short term, he's spent a lot of long-term money.  I'm not even too concerned about Barry Zito's deal--if any pitcher was ever worth that long-term of a deal, Zito may be that guy.  But nearly every other player Sabean signed or re-signed this offseason got a second or third year on their contract.  He spent a lot of money on mediocre players (Roberts, Aurilia, Molina) for 2007, and kept on committing to an aging team as those players continue to decline.

Every other team in the NL West has a lot to look forward to: the division is stocked with prospects like no other.  But aside from graduating Tim Lincecum, the Giants will have to spend on free agents just to keep up.  If Sabean can't do that intelligently, he'll rapidly turn the Giants into the Pittsburgh Pirates of their division.