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2011 San Francisco Giants Team Review

Part 2: Where Do They Go From Here?

by Richard Van Zandt,
November 20, 2011

Back to Part 1

Immediate Priority: Pitching

The most obvious and glaring need for San Francisco is to acquire more offense. Too many great pitching performances went unrewarded this past season thanks to the Giants' hapless hitters and that simply cannot be repeated in 2012, not if the goal is another championship. Acquiring Melky Cabrera from the Royals in exchange for the talented-but-inconsistent Jonathan Sanchez (along with minor leaguer Ryan Verdugo) was certainly a step in the right direction. At the same time, however, they cannot overlook what got them their first championship in 54 years: their pitching. 

Lincecum is once again arbitration eligible after finishing up a two-year, $23 million deal while Cain is due to make $15 million in 2012, up from $7 million in ’11, entering the final year of his contract.  Locking up that pair of aces is Sabean’s most immediate priority this winter, as it should be. While Lincecum has stated a preference for a shorter deal, it would behoove San Francisco to reward their two-time Cy Young winning ace with a deal of at least three years, back-loaded to ease the financial constraints of Zito’s mind-bogglingly bad contract, which still has two-years and $46 million remaining (including the $7M buyout of his 2014, $18M club option). Such a move would also buy out a year or two of free agency.  A similar multi-year deal with Cain would ensure several more seasons of high expectations beyond 2012, especially with Bumgarner under team control through 2016.

But while re-signing that dynamic duo is their first priority, the Giants also need to focus on rebuilding the bullpen, which began the winter facing plenty of uncertainty with Romo, Ramirez, and Casilla all arbitration eligible; Lopez and Mota potential free agents; and the club holding a pricey $5 million option on Affeldt.

As to the latter two players, Sabean moved quickly to keep the status quo, exercising the club’s option on Affeldt and re-signing Lopez to a two-year, $8.5 million deal.  The team is certain to offer Romo a contract, but Ramirez and Casilla could be non-tendered in order to save money as the team looks to younger pitchers such as Steve Edlefsen and Dan Otero and possibly even 2010 draftees Heath Hembree and Seth Rosin. The 38-year old Mota most certainly would have to accept another minor league deal, as he did last winter, in order to return.

It won’t be an easy task to keep the bullpen intact. Wilson’s expensive $8.5 million price tag for 2012 - up from $6.5 million this past season - could further complicate matters. Examining salary numbers exemplifies why trading Wilson might be in the Giants' best interests going forward.  Payroll is expected to be in the $125 million range.  With Affeldt’s option exercised and Lopez re-signed, the club now has over $81 million committed to just seven players, including the $13 million still owed to Aaron Rowand. And that doesn’t include Lincecum, who is sure to approach or top the $20M mark after earning $13 million in ’11.

Additionally, no fewer than 13 Giants are up for arbitration, although only Lincecum, Sandoval, Romo, Schierholtz, Vogelsong and the newly acquired Cabrera are certain to be tendered qualifying contracts.  That leaves Casilla, Ramirez, Torres, Keppinger, Fontenot, and Emmanuel Burriss on the arbitration bubble. Eli Whiteside is sure to be non-tendered. Once all arbitration raises are accounted for, there won’t be much left over to bring in outside talent.

Trading Wilson and acquiring a less expensive option to close would give San Francisco the payroll flexibility to add more offense. The Texas Rangers, with offense to spare, have long contemplated moving Neftali Feliz to the rotation and acquiring Wilson (in exchange for David Murphy?) would allow them to do just that. They could also choose to let this winter’s loaded free agent closer carousel play itself out and see if there is any interest among the teams left standing when the music has stopped.  The Giants could then turn the ninth inning over to free agent Heath Bell (3-years, $24-27 million, back-loaded?) or possibly even Joe Nathan on a one-year, incentive laden deal. With Hembree (41 saves in 66 professional appearances) looming on the horizon, a short-term option might be the most appealing.

Wilson has proven himself to be one of the best closers in the game, having collected 163 saves since 2008, the most in baseball. He has been a force in the bullpen and in the clubhouse, becoming a fixture in Giants lore by closing out the final game of the 2010 World Series. Yet despite being used more judiciously in 2011 by manager Bruce Bochy (Wilson had ten saves of four outs or more in 2010 but none in 2011), he missed four weeks in August and September with inflammation in his elbow after opening the year on the DL with a strained oblique. And while he posted a respectable 3.11 ERA, his strikeout numbers were down and his walk numbers up.

The shelf life of a closer can be precariously short and at it would behoove Giants management to at least consider the option of dealing their All-Star closer.

Top Priority: Offense

With the acquisition of Cabrera, the Giants have added a 27-year old who is coming off a breakthrough season and can play all three outfield positions. He attained career highs in hits (201), doubles (44), home runs (18), runs (102), runs batted in (87), stolen bases (20), batting average (.305), slugging (.470), OPS (.809), and OPS+ (121), all while making just $1.25 million. The switch-hitting Cabrera even hit over .300 from both sides of the plate.  In line for a nifty raise in arbitration, Cabrera is still likely to represent a savings of $1-2 million from what Sanchez would have earned in ’12.

His versatility gives the Giants options as they look to upgrade their offense, though his shaky defense increases the chances that they will offer arbitration to Torres, who could serve as a fourth outfielder and defensive replacement for Cabrera in centerfield late in games. A better (and cheaper) option for that role than Torres could be Endy Chavez. Defensively strong and versatile enough to play all three outfield positions, Chavez, is a .274 career hitter who batted .301 for the Rangers last year while making just $1.25 million. Torres made $2.2 million, and would be sure to receive a raise through arbitration despite his poor production.

Another option to improve the offense, and certainly the most discussed one, would be to re-sign Beltran, although the cost might be prohibitive. While Beltran posted solid numbers after his acquisition, I have to confess that he did not impress me as much as he did other people. Be it his slow start for San Francisco (.244/.261/.356 in his first 11 games before going on the DL), the fact that he hit just .238 with runners in scoring position for the Giants, or his seemingly indifferent attitude, I can’t really say I’d be fussed if the club went in another direction. One way or another they’ll need to add another potent bat and short of landing a pipe-dream such as Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, Beltran is probably the best option that exists on the free agent market. But certainly not the only one.

Versatile free agent Michael Cuddyer could also appeal to the Giants, both as a corner outfielder and as insurance at second base in case Freddy Sanchez is not ready. Grady Sizemore could also be a potential option as a short-term bridge to top prospect Gary Brown, although he seems likely to end up back in Cleveland. And Josh Willingham, who belted 29 home runs across the Bay for Oakland, has also been widely speculated upon, as has his teammate, Coco Crisp.

Far less likely, yet far more appealing, would be 26-year old Cuban and soon-to-be free agent Yoenis Cespedes, a five-tool centerfielder who defected in the summer of 2011 after belting 33 home runs in 90 games during the 2010-11 season to set a new league record. He is expected to receive a larger deal than the 6-year, $30 million deal awarded to Aroldis Chapman by the Reds in 2010, seemingly putting him out of the Giants reach financially.  But could a rich-but-heavily-back-loaded deal keep him from landing in Miami or Chicago?

Many Giants fans have been clamoring for Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes to play shortstop, but both would be too expensive and, in my opinion, bad acquisitions.  While I would have been willing to go all out in a deal to acquire Reyes this past July for a short-term run at glory, I would not be willing to commit the years and dollars necessary to acquire him now as a free agent. The same goes for the soon-to-be 33-year old Rollins, who is said to desire a five-year package.

Instead, I would propose the Giants sign a stop-gap that could provide stable defense and some measure of respectability on offense at a reasonable price, while splitting time with Crawford, a defensive wiz whose bat needs more seasoning; someone who they can run out there 75-100 times a year and who, ideally, would possess the versatility to play second base as well.

This description fits free agent Clint Barmes to a tee. Barmes made just shy of $4 million in 2011 and would be far less expensive than either Rollins or Reyes, and his .244/.312/.386 slash line, far better than what the Giants shortstops were able to muster, was supplemented nicely by well above average defense for the Astros. The right-handed hitting Barmes would be an excellent platoon partner with the lefty swinging Crawford and he would also provide insurance at second base if Sanchez’ shoulder doesn’t hold up. The Giants, however, have competition for Barmes’ services from both Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

An alternative to Barmes would be free agent Ramon Santiago, who can play second, third and short, and batted .260 last season while playing for Detroit. Santiago is steady defensively and made just $1.25 million in 2011.

As for players returning from injury, all signs are pointing towards a successful return for Posey. Nevertheless, the team ought to insure themselves while at the same time upgrading their depth by signing a guy like free agent Ramon Hernandez.  Hernandez, who has not started more than 85 games in a season at catcher since 2008, was an oft-mentioned target after Posey went down and would be a much better alternative than either Whiteside or Stewart. Hernandez batted .282 with 12 home runs in 2011 after batting .297 in 2010, settling nicely into a role position behind the plate for Cincinnati the past three seasons, and would provide insurance in case Posey’s ankle gives him trouble next spring.

Addition by Subtraction

It would be a bonus if the Giants brass could find a way to move Huff and open up first base for Brandon Belt, Brett Pill, or both.  Huff will be 35 next season and cannot be counted on to reproduce his 2010 numbers.

The left-handed hitting Belt struggled during his rookie campaign, but still clubbed nine home runs in just 63 games and is swinging the bat well in the Dominican Winter League, while the right-handed swinging Pill batted .300 and slugged .560 in a long-overdue September tryout. Both are fantastic defenders at first base, while Belt can also play left field. It’s not a stretch to suggest those two could at least match, if not better, the production they’d otherwise receive from Huff.

Above all else, however, the Giants need more than anything to find a way, some way, ANY WAY, to rid themselves of Zito and his ill-conceived, albatross of a contract. Zito has been an absolute bust for the Giants, going 43-61 with a 4.55 ERA in 146 appearances since signing a much ridiculed 7-year, $126 million contract prior to the 2008 season. His performance has been so bad and deteriorated so far that he was even left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely and spent much last season tucked away on the DL with foot and ankle injuries. 

Enough is enough. It has become apparent to anyone and everyone that Zito cannot be counted on to produce even decent numbers for a fifth starter, and is not well-suited for relief work. It would be in the best interests of all parties involved for the Giants and Zito to part ways without Zito ever donning the Orange and Black again. The clear impediment to that is the nearly $50 million still owed Zito, and while it’s easy to suggest eating that kind of money when it isn’t yours to eat, the Giants – short of finding a trade partner willing to swap really bad contracts – need to be prepared to do just that. This divorce needs to happen sooner rather than later.

Fixing the Fifth Starter Blues

With Sanchez gone, the leading in-house candidates for the role of fifth starter, currently, are Zito and Surkamp. Dealing Zito would leave them with only Surkamp, and while the rookie left-hander with a big 12-to-6 curveball displayed brief glimpses of why the front office felt confident enough to trade its number one pitching prospect last July, he also showed that he isn’t ready to pitch yet at the big league level. With or without Zito, the Giants will need to bring in a serviceable veteran pitcher or two on the cheap, looking to catch lighting in a bottle for the second consecutive year. Rumors have even tied San Francisco to free agent Roy Oswalt, though it’s hard to imagine him taking enough of a cut in pay from the $16 million he made in 2011 to make him a viable option.

Can Bam-Bam, Bring Back The Thrill!

Finally, I would suggest one more move by management, this one regarding the coaching staff. In two seasons since hiring Hensley Meulens as hitting coach, the Giants have finished 17th and 29th in the majors in runs scored. This past season, San Francisco ranked 27th (tied) overall in team batting average, 29th in on-base percentage, 26th in slugging and 27th in team OPS. The team batted just .219 with runners in scoring position, and with two outs that mark dropped to just .173, the lowest average, according to Giants beat writer Andy Baggarly, by any team in the past 37 years for which such data is available. They even set a major league record by hitting 21 consecutive solo home runs from July 6 through August 13, breaking the former record of 20 straight set by the 1914 Philadelphia Phillies.

Not unlike how things were under his predecessor, Carney Lansford, the Giants' offense under the direction of Meulens has shown absolutely no improvement in plate discipline and routinely fails to execute even the most basic fundamentals. In over 30 years of watching baseball, I’ve never seen a Giants offense as inept at the basics as this most recent incarnation. It’s time for Bam-Bam to go, and I can think of no better candidate to replace him than former Giants first baseman Will Clark. An experienced and respected hitter with a career batting line of .303/.384/.497, Clark would bring exactly the kind of savvy, no-nonsense attitude to the job that carried him through his 15 big league seasons.

The Final Word

One way or another, the Giants need to improve their offensive performance if they want to get back on top. The return of Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez coupled with the addition of Melky Cabrera isn’t going to be enough and they will have to make another move (or two) if they want to win the NL West next year. With a lack of financial resources, Sabean will have to get creative to add another couple of bats, but he’s got to find a way to do it. The Giants' pitching held up its end of the bargain in 2011, but their hitters consistently let them down. This winter Sabean has an opportunity to rectify that situation. If he fails, it’ll be him that let the pitching down in 2012.

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