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This following preview is dedicated to the city and people of San Francisco, who may not know it, but they are beautiful, and so is their city. This is a very personal preview, so if the reader cannot understand it, particularly those of you who are Canadian residents, save up all your bread and fly Trans-Love Airways to San Francisco, U.S.A. Then maybe you'll understand the preview. It will be worth it. If not for the sake of this preview, but for the sake of your own peace of mind.

Just so everyone knows, I don't know anything about the San Francisco Giants. I know they have Vinny Chulk; that's about it. As I type this, I've got about six tabs open, with articles and statsheets and stuff that I'm putting together on the fly. We can learn together! But here's a list.

Chicago Cubs: 98
Cleveland Indians: 58
San Francisco Giants: 52

That's not the number of wins projected for these teams this year. That's how many years it's been since these teams have won the World Series, and with the recent successes of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox, how grateful do you think the Giants and Indians are to the Cubs, for keeping all the heat off them? Since their last championship, the Giants have been good at times, terrible at other times, and are coming to the end of a talent cycle that took them to the World Series in 2002. Heading into the off-season, the Giants announced their intention to get younger (last year, ten guys who were 35 or older got significant playing time with the Giants, and three guys in their forties got at least some playing time)... but that's not how it worked out.

Not that I fault the Giants for this. Sometimes things just don't go according to plan. The Blue Jays, after all, had plans to re-energize their minor-league system. I don't have anything bad to say about Toronto's minor-league system, but is it as good as the Jays planned it to be? Anyway, the Giants aren't as young as they planned to be.

Context. Last year, San Fran finished third in a mediocre division (because of the crazytime standings of the NL West, they were actually only a half game out of last place) with a 76-85 record, eleven and a half games back of the two first-place teams. Let's not kid ourselves: when you're in a mediocre division, and don't win it, you're probably a mediocre ballclub. When your won-lost record is a few games below .500, you're probably a mediocre ballclub. And when the only thing technically keeping you out of last place is a rainout, you should feel dashed lucky to be a mediocre ballclub.

So here's the question. If you're a team that hasn't bagged the buffalo in over half a century, if you've squeezed about all you can out of your current crop of players, if you've drifted below .500 the last couple of years, and if your response to all this has been to bring in more veterans, then... will these veterans help bring a World Series championship to San Francisco? This year?

Well, stranger things have happened.

Look at the major changes:

Jason Schmidt out, Barry Zito in. Will this improve the team? Maybe a little. Probably it'll be about even.

Bengie Molina in, Matheny and Greene out. Will this improve the team? Let's say yes. But, you know, we all saw Molina last year, and he has his strong points, but if he's a big difference-maker, he kept it a secret from me if no-one else.

Russ Ortiz in, Jamey Wright and Tim Worrell and Mike Stanton out. Will this improve the team?

Well, will it or not? Speak up!

Steve Finley out, Dave Roberts in. Will this improve the team? Finley's probably done, and about time too, while Roberts has actually become something of a ballplayer in recent years, and may remain one.

Shea Hillenbrand out, Ryan Klesko in. Will this improve the team? Tough to say. Hillenbrand's not much, and Klesko has been by far the better player, but Klesko is also going to be 36 and is coming off an injury year.

Moises Alou out, Rich Aurilia in. Will this improve the team? Probably not. Alou was good when he was in the lineup, but is pushing 40; Aurilia is a few years younger, but only a few years, and probably won't do what Alou did last year.

Those are the offseason moves. The other two things that can affect a team's fortunes are young players maturing and old players aging. The Giants have lots of old players, so that's not a good sign, but they also have a few young ones, like starting pitchers Matt Cain, Noah Lowry, Jonathan Sanchez and Tim Lincecum (Cain and Lowry are already in the rotation, and the other two are banging on the door. Really, the age problems on the Giants are among the position players). If one or two of those guys puts it together, that's a pretty good combination with Zito and Matt Morris. The starting rotation looks pretty solid. Not too solid, as San Fran starters were 7th in the league in ERA last year, but if the Giants can pretend that they didn't sign Ortiz, they can pretty easily find five guys who aren't a waste of time and who have the potential to be really good.

(I've decided for no particularly good reason that I'm going to be cheering for this guy Lincecum. He's a 23-year-old righthander who only seems to have one year on his professional resume, but it was a good one. Baseball Prospectus has decided that the Giants have no chance unless they bring him north to start the year.)

The bullpen... not quite as encouraging at first glance, but it's a little like the rotation in another way. Armando Benitez is the closer, which is fine. I mean, I know nobody trusts him, but it's fine; he's a good pitcher and plausible in the role. Behind him are Steve Kline and a bunch of young guys, including Kevin Correia, who was pretty good himself last year. This bullpen is like the rotation in this way: you can see how it could work out okay. There are reasonable veterans and up-and-coming young pitchers; no reason in the world why they can't be a perfectly good pitching staff. And that would be an improvement over last year, when the Giants were 12th in the league in overall ERA.

The Giants offense is harder to figure. First, it revolves around Barry Bonds, and who knows what he's going to be able to contribute? Sure, he's dangerous, but a) how long can he keep it up, b) how often can he play, c) his performance has fallen off in the past couple of years into the realm of the merely mortal, and d) there are some outside factors surrounding the man which may prove to be a distraction to him if not the whole team. Second, the San Francisco hitters were middle-of-the-pack in the NL last year. This year, everyone's a year older on the one hand, while on the other hand some of the player turnover has made the lineup younger if not actually young, and, as far as I can tell, better if not actually good.

One guy a lot of people are seizing on is Ray Durham. Last year, Durham had... well, okay, let's go ahead and call it a career year. Certainly he's never hit for power like that before; he slugged .538, clearing .500 for the first time as a major leaguer. He's 35 this year, though, and almost nobody thinks he's going to do it again. My question is, what's he going to do instead? If he does what he always does (.281/.354/.443, which are not only his career numbers but also very representative of a typical Durham year) then I don't think the Giants will complain, even if it is a step back. If he starts to act like an average 35-year-old second baseman, though (and, as Gabe Kaplan would put it, the average performance of a 35-year-old second baseman is unemployed), then that's a problem. Now apply the same analysis to everyone else the Giants have who are in their mid-thirties or older: Vizquel, Bonds, Roberts, Klesko, Aurilia, and let's throw Bengie Molina in there too.

So what do the Giants have to hope for? The kind of modest improvement that is most likely for this team might be enough to push them over .500, but won't get them all the way to first place. 76-85, after all; that's not knocking on the door. And there are two teams ahead of them, and two more right beside them. Besides, this business of loading an also-ran team with veterans... does it ever work?

I got the notion to check what the Blue Jays have done in similar circumstances. Toronto has had four seasons in its history in which the team finished with a number of wins in the 70s. Here's what happened a year later:

1982: 78-84. 1983: Bobby Cox's Jays emerge from the expansion doldrums and surprise the league with an 89-73 season.
1996: 74-88. 1997: Roger Clemens' first Cy Young award as a Jay doesn't save Cito's job or help the win total; Toronto finishes 76-86.
1997: 76-86. 1998: Tim Johnson's Jays are going nowhere until the trade deadline, at which point he starts playing young guys. Clemens is great again and the Jays pull in at 88-74.
2002: 78-84. 2003: Everything clicks in Ricciardi's second year as Halladay, Delgado and Wells turn in career performances, and the Jays make it to 86-76.

It looks from that like a team with San Francisco's type of record can indeed make a big jump forward if they're willing to commit to young players. Not young players across the board, but in significant numbers. There are three examples there of a Toronto team vaulting from the 70s to the high 80s in the win column with just such a strategy, and you can win the NL West if you're in the high 80s. Unfortunately, committing to young players is just what the Giants didn't do, in the lineup at least, and so I'm going to have to predict that it's going to be just another year in San Francisco. The fifty-third of its kind.
Looking From My Back Door, Wondering Which Way To Go | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
kinguy - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 12:46 PM EST (#164107) #
So in short, what you're saying is that there may be some long San Franciscan Nights in order for The Animals in the stands of AT&T Park this season.
paulf - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 01:36 PM EST (#164117) #
If you must watch the Giants, do so when Matt Cain is on the mound.
Mike Green - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 03:21 PM EST (#164123) #
BP suggesting that Lincecum start the season in the Show?  If they mean as a starter, that's silly. As a closer, I can see it.

He's pitched 31 innings in the minors, none of them above A ball.  Occasionally promotion from A ball to the Show will work.  Dwight Gooden did it, and the Mets got 6 excellent low cost seasons out of him.  But, for every Dwight Gooden, there are quite a few failures, and Lincecum doesn't have Gooden's talent (how many do?). The success rate on quick closer promotions is much, much better.

Matthew E - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 04:05 PM EST (#164130) #
No, they're saying 'long relief' for Lincecum. They're comparing him to Johan Santana when the Twins first picked up Santana.
Mike Green - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 04:29 PM EST (#164131) #
Long relief.  Whatever for?  That doesn't accomplish the goals of maximizing the club's chance of either winning this year or winning in the future well. 

If a club thinks that a pitcher like Lincecum is almost ready, give him half a season of startsin double A/triple A and then if he succeeds,  and then promote him to the major league rotation. That's the Clemens approach.  If a club thinks that he needs a little work (on his control say), then give a year in double A/triple A, and possibly start him a la Santana in the bullpen (for 1/2 season only).  If they think he's ready, use him as a closer.  

Promoting a pitcher directly from Single A  to long relief burns service time for a low leverage role and a sub-optimal development pattern.  Ick.   I don't think that the Giants are likely to do it anyways.

Mick Doherty - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 05:05 PM EST (#164133) #
Really nice piece, Matthew. Positively Gizzi-ian in its tone and presentation. Longtime readers of Da Box will recognize that as a high compliment.
Matthew E - Wednesday, March 07 2007 @ 05:33 PM EST (#164137) #
Thanks. I appreciate that. Especially since I wasn't really pleased with it in the first place.
Looking From My Back Door, Wondering Which Way To Go | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.