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2007 San Francisco Giants Team Preview

by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
March 4, 2007


2006 Record: 76-85 (3rd Place NL West Division)
2006 Runs Scored: 746
2006 Runs Allowed: 790
Pythagorean 2006 Record: 76-85



The Giants’ 2006 season will be best remembered for Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list.  Fielding one of the oldest teams in baseball history played a large role in the squad’s ultimate failure.  The team was so old, in fact, that they became the first team in history to field a trio of forty-year-old outfielders.

Following the conclusion of the season, Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan vowed the team would get younger and healthier.  GM Brian Sabean admitted that the organizational strategy of surrounding Bonds with veterans had been flawed and promised to change paths.  With 11 players filing for free agency at season’s end, the team did in fact get an overhaul, and they did actually get younger.  After all, it’s hard not to when you subtract Steve Finley (41), Moises Alou (40), Mike Stanton (39), Tim Worrell (38), Mike Matheny (36) and Jeff Fassero (43).  But don’t go confusing these guys for the Florida Marlins, either, because while the average age of the Giants’ current 40-man roster is just 28.58, the average age of their projected starting eight is 35. 

Catcher
2006 Starters -
Mike Matheny, Eliezer Alfonzo
Projected 2007 Starter -
Bengie Molina

On May 31 last season, Matheny took a 100-mph foul ball off his face mask that left him with serious post-concussion syndrome effects, which would eventually force him into retirement.  His replacement in the lineup, the ten-year minor league veteran Alfonzo, started hot (.301 BA, .566 SLG, 9 HR in his first 40 games) but cooled considerably (.280 OBP, .653 OPS, and 3 HR in his next 47).  Astoundingly, he also drew just two unintentional walks in 309 plate appearances.  Defensively, he was a far cry from the four-time Gold Glover, especially when it came to balls in the dirt.

Alfonzo returns in 2007 but as the backup to new starter and two-time gold glove winner Molina.  The Giants signed Molina (32) to a three-year, $16 million dollar deal even though nobody else reportedly was offering more than a one-year deal.  While Molina’s defensive skills aren’t what they used to be, he’s still a considerable upgrade on Alfonzo.  He’s coming off a career year offensively that saw him hit a career high 19 HR and slug .467, also a career best.  Alfonzo, meanwhile, could thrive in a backup role, and the pair could make a pretty good offensive combo.  The Giants in fact will be counting on him to come back strong in his sophomore campaign, seeing as Molina has averaged just 114 games a year in his seven full seasons. 

First Base
2006 Starter -
Shea Hillenbrand, Lance Niekro, Mark Sweeney
Projected 2007 Starter -
Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko

Aurilia returns to the fold in 2007 after revitalizing his career in Cincinnati by hitting .300 with a .867 OPS while slugging 23 HR and driving in 70.  Was it the byproduct of playing at the hitter friendly Great American Ballpark?  Looking at his home/road splits suggests not. 

Home - .308/.363/.533/.896, 13 HR, 39 RBI – 64 G
Road - .291/.333/502/.835, 10 HR, 31 RBI – 58 G

Richie (35) however thrived primarily against lefties in ’06 (.347/.406/.680/1.086, 11 HR) and could face a platoon situation with Klesko, who re-joins manager Bruce Bochy after both left San Diego following back-to-back 1st place finishes.  Klesko (35) missed most of last season, but returned late in September going 3-for-4 and reaching base five times in six pinch-hit appearances.  If healthy, he could provide the Giants with some much needed added pop from the left side of the plate as well as improved on-base ability (.372 career OBP).  In addition to first base, he will also be counted on to help fill in for Bonds from time to time and provide the team with power potential off the bench.  Aurilia could also see time at 3B (with any luck).

Second Base
2006 Starter -
Ray Durham
Projected 2007 Starter -
Durham

Durham returns to the Giants on a new two-year contract coming off a career year in 2006.  The diminutive former leadoff hitter batted .293 with a .360 OBP and set career highs in HR (26), RBI (93) and SLG (.538) while most often hitting 5th behind Bonds.  In fact, Durham hit .317/.380/.608/.988 with 21 HR and 66 RBI in 356 PA out of the five hole.  At 35, he may not repeat hit ’06 performance, but he’s not likely to see a dramatic drop off either.  The health of Durham’s legs however – a sore spot throughout his Giant tenure – will go a long way towards determining the fate of the ball club.

Third Base
2006 Starter -
Pedro Feliz
Projected 2007 Starter -
Feliz

There really can’t be anything more to be said about Feliz’ shortcomings than what I’ve already expanded on at lengths here.  But in short, Pedro will give the team solid defense at third base and produce just enough pop at the plate to mask his considerable inadequacies with the bat.

Shortstop
2006 Starters -
Omar Vizquel
Projected 2007 Starter -
Vizquel

Vizquel, the owner of the highest lifetime fielding percentage among all shortstops in major league history, won his second consecutive NL gold glove last season and 11th overall after making just 4 errors in nearly 600 chances and setting a franchise record with his .993 fielding percentage.  He had a productive season at the plate as well, batting .295 with a .361 OBP out of the two hole while stealing 24 bases and scoring 88 runs.  He also came through in the clutch, batting .313 while runners were in scoring position, a mark that jumped to .359 (with a .453 OBP) when two men were out.  The knock on Omar, though, is that he fades as the season wears on.  He is a career .249 hitter in September (his worst month by far) and has batted just .218 combined over the past two Septembers.  With Vizquel due to turn 40 in April, another key to the Giants season will be keeping him fresh for the stretch.

Utility
2006 -
Jose Vizcaino
2007 -
Kevin Frandsen

That task will fall to Frandsen, who honed his skills at both SS and 3B (in addition to his natural 2B) during an impressive winter ball campaign (he hit .388/.480/.588 with 8 SB and just 4K in 85 AB) and will serve as the primary backup infielder. He delighted fans in his ’06 rookie campaign with his hustle, although that didn’t translate into production at the plate (.215/.284/.323).   Like many Giants from last season, he needs to improve his patience (3 BB in 102 PA).  Still, the Giants would be well served to work his youthful enthusiasm (he will be 25 in May) into the lineup as often as possible in 2007.

Outfield
2006 Starters -
Barry Bonds, Steve Finley, Moises Alou, Randy Winn
Projected 2007 Starters -
Bonds, Dave Roberts, Winn

As Bonds resumes his quest for the all-time HR record, he will be joined in the OF by the swift-footed Roberts.  Roberts adds a dimension that has been sorely lacking in recent years: speed.  Roberts stole 49 bags last season (in 55 attempts) and has averaged 39 a year over the last five.  Last season, he led all major league LF with a +16 on expected plays above average, and was also the only qualifying LF not charged with an error.  Hamstring problems have dogged him his entire career, however, and he has never appeared in more than 129 games.  With Bonds set to turn 43 in July, a lot hinges on the health of Roberts’ 35-year-old legs and his ability to convert to CF. 

The same can be said for Winn who was dogged by knee problems on his way to his worst major league season (.262/.324/.396/.720).  A career .280 hitter versus lefties, the switch-hitting Winn batted just .219 last season against southpaws.  While a repeat of his off-the-charts performance in ’05 for SF is out of the question, the Giants hope they will this season see the same Randy Winn who hit .296 from 2002 through 2005.

Bonds returns to the team on a one-year contract needing just 22 home runs to pass Hank Aaron.  But the number that should interest all Giants fans, and indeed all baseball fans, is 159.  That’s the number of hits Bonds needs to reach 3,000.  He had 99 in 2006 and a repeat of that performance, or close to it, would leave him well within striking distance in 2008.  Is Bonds likely done after this season as most assume he is?  Baring legal complications, I wouldn’t bet on it.  Not when he could become the first player in history to record 3,000 Hits, 500 SB and 700 (800?) HR.

2006 Outfield Reserves: Jason Ellison, Mark Sweeney, Todd Linden
2007 Outfield Possibilities: Linden and Sweeney, Ellison or Dan Ortmeier

Linden (26) enters camp the odds on favorite to win the top backup OF job (even taking fly balls in center field), which means that should the team decide to carry 12 pitchers there would be room then for just one more position player.  Klesko’s presence puts OF/1B/PH Sweeney (37) squarely on the bubble.  He will have to fight off challenges from much younger players Ellison (28 and out of options) and Ortmeier (25) to win the spot.  Sweeney, like Klesko and Roberts, has ties to Bochy, also having played for him in San Diego.

Starting Pitchers

2006 Starters: Jason Schmidt, Matt Morris, Noah Lowry, Matt Cain, Brad Hennessey

2007 Projected Starters: Barry Zito, Cain, Morris, Lowry, Russ Ortiz

There’s a new Barry in town.  The former Oakland ace jumps the bay to lead a solid core of starting pitching that mixes veteran presence (Morris, Ortiz) with youthful talent (Cain, Lowry).  Cain may be so good, in fact, that he could supplant Zito as staff ace before the year is out.  The team likes him so much that after just one full season they locked him up this last week with a four-year deal (with an option) that is said to mirror the $9.25 million deal given to Lowry last spring.  A lot will depend on how well Morris and Lowry can bounce back from sub-par performances in 2006.  Both pitchers had losing records and ERA’s approaching 5.00 last season and both will be counted on to turn things around.  Ortiz, meanwhile, enters camp as the front runner for the 5th starter’s role despite going 0-8 with an 8.14 ERA in ‘06, but he will face competition from Brad Hennessey and impressive young lefty Jonathan Sanchez and possibly even dark horse Tim Lincecum.

But the spotlight in ’07 will fall squarely on Zito, the Giants new $126 million man.  If Zito can deliver his usual 15 wins (he’s averaged over 14 ½ in his seven big league seasons) then the Giants should at least be competitive in the NL West.

Bullpen
2006 Mainstays
: Armando Benitez, Kevin Correia, Steve Kline, Mike Stanton, Vinny Chulk, Brian Wilson
2007 Likely Bullpen: Benitez, Correia, Kline, Chulk, Wilson

Aside from 3B, the most obvious deficiency for the Giants is their bullpen.  Correia blossomed last season into a fine set up guy, but he was the lone bright spot in a pen that was leakier than a sieve. They enter the ’07 season without a reliable closer unless Blownitez is able to both return to health (arthritic knees) and form (8 blown saves in 25 opps in ‘06).   The club likes Wilson for the task despite his having walked 5.40 batters per 9 innings last year (combined major and minor league) and in 30 big league innings, posting a 1.77 WHIP along with a .281 BAA.  If both struggle, however, Lincecum may just wind up cutting his teeth in that role a la Papelbon.  Another question altogether is, would the rest of the pen be able to deliver him many leads to save?

The Final Word

OK, so the strategy of surrounding Bonds with veterans didn’t exactly go the way of the 8-track cassette, but nevertheless this team is younger than it was last year.  Most importantly, the starting pitching is strong.  Is it a team built to win that elusive World Championship?  I don’t think so.  But their starting pitching will keep them in the game more often than not, and with any luck the offense will get them just enough to negate what the pen will have a chance to give back.  It’s definitely a team that can get better, but with a future rotation of Zito, Cain, Lincecum, Lowry and Sanchez, I have a feeling that it will sooner rather than later. 

The Dodgers are the early front runners for the NL West, and the Padres cannot be overlooked either, but this veteran squad could and should stay competitive deep into September as they usually do.  The experience of Bruce Bochy should also help to keep them in it.  Just as it was last season, though, health (read as injuries) will be the biggest key to the Giants' 2007 season.




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