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2008 San Francisco Giants
A New Era Dawns in The City by the Bay 2008 Spring Preview
by Richard Van Zandt,
March 15, 2008

Go back to Part One

2007 Starters   Barry Bonds, Dave Roberts, Randy Winn
Projected 2008 Starters   Dave Roberts, Aaron Rowand, Randy Winn

The Giants signed Aaron Rowand to a $60 million contract in part to bring to the club the kind of “warrior spirit” that Bochy spoke of towards the end of last season. Rowand is well known for his intense all-out style of play that has seen him go crashing into outfield walls at the expense of his face. As the first big acquisition of the post-Bonds era, the club will be counting on him to take a leadership role in San Francisco and help revitalize a clubhouse in dire need of revitalization. On the field, the club will be counting on his Gold Glove caliber defense as he patrols the spacious center field grounds at AT&T Park. At the plate, they’ll be counting on him to show that last season (.309 BA, 27 HR) was a true breakthrough and not a ballpark-enhanced aberration.

Comeback Candidate
Barry Zito
Will try to build on strong finish in ‘07 to regain elite status
Surprise Candidate
Brian Wilson
Hard to hit right-hander could become one of the game’s top closers
Disappointment Candidate
Aaron Rowand
Unlikely to repeat his ‘07 totals; the team should be pleased if he can simply stay healthy
Roberts is the expected starter in left for the Giants, but only if he can fend off second year players Fred Lewis and Rajai Davis. Roberts, 35, batted .260 last season for San Francisco in the first year of a three-year, $18 million deal. Bothered by bone chips in his elbow, Roberts hit just .216 before landing on the DL in May, but .274 after his June return (including .296 over the final three months). He was caught stealing just 5 times in 36 attempts to become the first Giant with 30 or more thefts since Bonds swiped 37 in ’97.

The 27-year old Lewis was horrendous defensively in both center and right field last year, but looked far more comfortable in the final two weeks of the season subbing in left for the injured Bonds. At the plate, he exhibited a very unusual trait among Giants hitters: an ability to get on base. The club’s second pick of the ’02 draft, Lewis drew 19 walks in 180 plate appearances last year and posted a .374 on-base percentage, second on the club to Bonds’ ML-best .480 mark. He has a .377 career OBP in the minors and has stolen 30 or more bases three times. Last year, he stole 14 bases in 16 attempts between Fresno and San Francisco.

Davis, 27, was acquired at the July deadline when Sabean picked Dave Littlefield’s pocket one final time, using Matt Morris as bait. The speedy outfielder hit .282 for the Giants while posting a .363 OBP and stealing 17 bases in 21 attempts. In seven minor league seasons in the Pirate organization, he stole 251 bases and registered a career .373 on-base percentage. His web gem last August 14 against the Pirates was the Giants’ defensive play of the year. It seemed he might get a shot to start in center until the club signed Rowand.

Winn had a very solid year in ’07, batting .300/.353/.445 while leading the club in hits (173), doubles (42), and extra-base hits (57). He also stole 15 bases in 18 attempts. Winn plays a tough right field fairly well. With their speed, the Giants outfielders should be able to cover a lot of ground and shrink the field this year.

Giants Fun Fact
Randy Winn played college basketball with Steve Nash at the University of Santa Clara
2007 Crew Eliezer Alfonzo, Guillermo Rodriguez, Mark Sweeney, Rich Aurilia, Kevin Frandsen, Rajai Davis, Fred Lewis, Nate Schierholtz, Dan Ortmeier
Projected 2008 Bench Eliezer Alfonzo, Guillermo Rodriguez, Eugenio Velez, Rajai Davis, Fred Lewis, Nate Schierholtz

The Giants could carry three catchers to start the year. Molina has had a history of leg injuries and has battled an injury to his calf this spring, so it’s possible that they will take both Alfonzo and Rodriguez north to San Francisco. Alfonzo has also been taking ground balls at first base in an effort to improve his versatility. With only 11 career walks – including just 2 unintentionally – in 376 career plate appearances, he is the epitome of a free swinger, but his 22 home runs this past year in Venezuelan winter ball (7 in the playoffs) made quite a favorable impression with management. While Alfonzo is a more dangerous hitter, Rodriguez is more patient at the plate and far superior defensively.

Velez is a player without a position, but if he can show enough defensive proficiency, he could become a super utility guy. A minor league Rule V draftee in 2005 and South Atlantic League MVP in 2006, he has seen most of his action in the middle infield, but a wrist injury last year led to him to the outfield. This spring, he has also seen time at third base and could be an intriguing option there. The fastest man to wear a baseball uniform since Deion Sanders, Velez stole 118 bases over the last two seasons in the minors and went 4-for-4 in a September stint last year with the big league club. He then followed that up with 14 more swipes in 15 attempts in the Arizona Fall League, and at latest count, he even had 9 more this spring. He has drawn frequent comparisons to the Angels’ Chone Figgins, while teammate Matt Cain has even suggested a similarity to Jose Reyes of the Mets.

Schierholtz enters the battle for the Giants’ fifth outfield spot with the numbers stacked against him. While he has minor league options remaining, Davis and Lewis do not. He hit .304 in his debut last year, although he failed to go deep in 112 at bats after hitting 63 in his last four minor league seasons. The Giants don’t think that Schierholtz, the club’s 2nd round pick in 2003, has anything left to prove in the minors, but unless a trade is made, that’s where he’ll likely begin the season.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry, Tim Lincecum, Matt Morris, Russ Ortiz, Kevin Correia, Jonathan Sanchez
Projected 2008 Starters Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry, Tim Lincecum, Kevin Correia, Jonathan Sanchez

The Giants’ starting pitchers in 2007 led the National League in innings pitched and were seventh in the majors in ERA. The strength of the club in 2008 should once again be their starting pitching, but nevertheless, questions abound.

Will they get the Barry Zito that allowed 79 base runners and posted a 7.82 ERA in nine starts from June 9 – July 27 or will they get the version that had a 3.13 ERA and a .224 BAA in 10 starts from April 16 – June 4? Will it be the Zito that allowed six runs or more seven times in a twenty game stretch or will it be the one that finished strong - allowing 3 runs or fewer while pitching six innings or more seven times in his last nine starts?

Can Noah Lowry get healthy and reverse a disturbing trend of increasing base runners and decreasing strikeouts? Can Kevin Correia finally be successful now that he’s back in the rotation? Can Tim Lincecum avoid a sophomore slump? Can Matt Cain get some run support for crying out loud?!?

Matt Cain
Cain was 7-16 last year despite a fine pitching line of 3.65 ERA/1.26 WHIP/.235 BAA. Three times Cain pitched at least 6 innings and allowed only1 hit. The Giants lost all three times. Eleven times he pitched at least 6 innings and allowed just 1 run or less. The Giants were 5-6 in those games. Cain’s 3.51 runs of support per game were the second fewest in the majors and the Giants scored 3 or fewer runs in 21 of his 32 starts. Throughout it all he never complained and along the way he improved his control, going from 4.47 BB/9 IP through July 18 to issuing just 2.21 per 9 IP in his final 13 starts. With a plus fastball to go with a strong curve and change, he is truly an ace in the making.

Lincecum struck out 150 in 146.1 innings and limited hitters to a .226 average, best in the majors among all rookie hurlers and fourth overall. He did that after allowing just one run in 31 innings in Triple-A to begin the year. Nicknamed “The Franchise,” Lincecum’s talent is not in question, but whether he can avoid the typical second-year let down is.

The biggest question mark concerns Lowry, who last year won 14 games to lead the Giants, yet walked as many batters (87) as he struck out and saw his WHIP rise for the fourth consecutive season (to 1.55). After missing the final month last year with left forearm soreness, he had surgery on his left wrist this spring, but could return by the end of April. It will be the third straight year Lowry has missed time due to injury.

In his absence, Correia moves into the number 4 spot in the rotation. He earned another shot as a starter last year when he finished up the season by going 3-1 with a line of 2.81/1.10 /.219 in seven starts.

Jonathan Sanchez, a 25-year old hard throwing lefty who made four starts in his 33 appearances last year, is the most likely choice for the fifth starter in the Lowry’s absence, although left-hander Pat Misch and non-roster invitee Victor Santos will also get looks.

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Armando Benitez, Brad Hennessey, Tyler Walker, Brian Wilson, Steve Kline, Jack Taschner, Vinnie Chulk, Randy Messenger
Projected 2008 Relievers Brian Wilson, Tyler Walker, Brad Hennessey, Vinnie Chulk, Steve Kline, Jack Taschner, Merkin Valdez

The Giants played a league-high 94 games last year decided by 1 or 2 runs and they won just 39 of them (41.4%). The bullpen, which lost an NL-leading 33 games and blew 23 saves (9th most in the majors), was a major contributing factor to the team’s last place finish, and Bochy cited it as an area that needed improvement.

In response Sabean did, well, nearly nothing.

Former Rookie of the Year Scott Williamson was brought in on a minor league deal, and 21-year old left-hander Jose Capellan was selected from Boston in the December Rule V draft. Williamson was soon released and Capellan was claimed off waivers by the Reds when the Giants began the process of returning him to the Red Sox. The team also released Randy Messenger, who was acquired last year from Florida in exchange for Benitez.

One very bright spot could be new closer Brian Wilson. Wilson overcame previous control issues to record six saves in seven opportunities last year while dominating opposing hitters to the tune of a 2.28/0.97/.188. More importantly, he walked just seven in 23.2 innings after issuing 21 free passes in 30 innings the previous year. He sports a high-90s fastball and a Robb Nen-esque slider that management feels can solidify a position that has been in flux ever since Nen was permanently sidelined after the ’02 World Series. Tyler Walker and Brad Hennessey will be the primary setup men from the right side.

If you’re looking for a dark horse to make an impact in ‘08, look no further than Merkin Valdez. Acquired in ’02 in the deal that sent Russ Ortiz to Atlanta, Valdez missed all of last season after having Tommy John surgery. He doesn’t throw as hard now, but has been throwing well and impressing Bochy, who said that Valdez has a presence on the mound. Lowry’s injury likely will force the team to open with 12 pitchers rather than the 11 they had intended. Valdez, who is out of options, could well be the one to benefit.

Left-hander Erick Threets is a longshot to make the pen. Control issues have plagued him throughout his seven-year pro career, and he no longer hits triple digits with his fastball, but he is out of options. The Giants will take a long look at Threets this spring as he battles returning vets Jack Taschner and Steve Kline for a role in the pen. Left-handed hitters last season batted .316 against Taschner and .318 versus Kline.

Outlook for the Season

In attempting to satisfy their fan base and keep AT&T Park full without Bonds, the Giants have resisted a full fledged rebuilding project and instead will try to slowly integrate younger players into an aging lineup. This decision will ultimately hurt the team with aging veterans taking at bats and invaluable playing time away from prospects that would otherwise project as the future of the team. Making this choice especially poor is the likelihood that the Giants will once again finish at the bottom of the National League Western Division.

The Opening Day lineup could very well feature seven players over the age of 30, while five of this season’s projected starters had on-base percentages of .317 or lower last year. On top of that, Bochy intends to bat a lead-footed catcher with a career .411 slugging percentage in the cleanup spot and Randy Winn (owner of a career .424 SLG) third, making it decidedly clear that without Bonds and his 1.045 OPS, the team that scored just 4.22 runs per game last year (2nd lowest in the NL) will struggle even further to get runners across home plate.

Additionally, Vizquel’s spring injury highlights a glaring lack of depth at a key infield position due to be manned by a player in his 40’s. At third base, the Giants will be counting on two players with a combined 130 games of experience there in the majors. That they would entertain the idea of such minimal upgrades in Crede and Inge, if you can really call either of them an upgrade, just shows the team’s desperation.

On the pitching side, the bullpen that proved leakier than a sieve in ’07 returns more or less intact, while the strength of the club – the starting pitching – also has many questions that will need to be answered.

For the Giants, after years of watching Barry Bonds blast home runs deep into McCovey Cove, the only thing historic about the 2008 season might just end up being a record number of losses.

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