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2011 San Francisco Giants: Ready to Repeat? Spring Preview
by Richard Van Zandt,
March 30, 2011

Buster Posey

World Champion San Francisco Giants. If you ask me, it’s got a mighty nice ring to it. Since 1958, Giants fans in the Bay Area have ached to hear those words. In 2010, as we all know by now, that long suffering torture finally came to an end. So, what do you do for an encore when you’ve just brought home the franchise’s first title in 56 years? Well, how about you go out and win another?

That is just what this 2011 San Francisco Giants squad is primed and ready to try to do. The bar has been set high this year, and not without good reason. The clubhouse is loose and confident. They walk with a swagger. The homegrown starting four that led the team through their successful post-season run returns intact as does closer Brian Wilson and his fearsome beard. The lineup is undeniably better than it was prior to the start of their championship season, even if the club’s most significant offseason move was merely swapping out shortstops Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe for former Oakland Athletic Miguel Tejada. There are, in fact, very few major questions needing to be answered this spring.

2010 Standings - NL West
West W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
San Francisco Giants 92 70 .568 0 49-32 43-38 697 583 .581 68-50 24-20
San Diego Padres 90 72 .556 2 45-36 45-36 665 581 .561 59-52 31-20
Colorado Rockies 83 79 .512 9 52-29 31-50 770 717 .533 49-52 34-27
Los Angeles Dodgers 80 82 .494 12 45-36 35-46 667 692 .483 57-55 23-27
Arizona Diamondbacks 65 97 .401 27 40-41 25-56 713 836 .428 46-65 19-32

One question intriguing to the Giants faithful is how Aubrey Huff responds to being an everyday outfielder. Huff hit .290 last year and led the team in home runs (26), RBI (86), runs (100), walks (83), on-base percentage (.383) and OPS (.891) while playing on a bargain 1-year, $3 million deal. The 34-year old returns after signing a two-year, $22M deal in the offseason. He played 100 games at first base in 2010, but also saw considerable time in both right and left field. He became the starting right fielder when Cody Ross began the year on the DL and top prospect, first baseman Brandon Belt made the final roster cut.

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Miguel Tejada SS
Jeff Suppan P
Ryan Vogelsong P
Marc Kroon P
Departed Pos.
Juan Uribe INF
Edgar Renteria SS
Jose Guillen OF
Eugenio Velez INF
Chris Ray P

In his first professional season, Belt led the minors in OPS (1.075) while tearing it up across three different levels. He was just one of three minor leaguers to go 20/20 and followed up his impressive debut campaign by recording a .372/.427/.616 slash line in the Arizona Fall League. Nevertheless, he came to camp needing to win a starting job in order to make the club, with GM Brian Sabean initially inclined to have Belt begin the season at Triple-A Fresno. But he forced the organizations hand by putting up a .282/.338/.479 Cactus League line and winning the Harry S. Jordan award as the top first-year player in camp.

Belt making the club will likely push veterans Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand to the bench once Ross returns healthy. Rowand, who is owed $12 million both this year and next, found his roster spot in jeopardy despite his high price tag due in part to his fading offensive performance (.230 batting average and .659 OPS in ’10) and in part to his inability/reluctance to play the corner outfield positions in spite of his having lost his starting centerfield job last year to Andres Torres. Eating $24 million would have been a hard pill for the Giants brass to swallow, so he won a bench spot despite a .222/.254/.259 spring training line.

Torres grabbed the starting centerfield job away from Rowand in 2010 after a strong showing in ‘09, and complimented his solid defensive play with 67 extra-base hits and 26 stolen bases out of the leadoff spot. He was slowed a bit by an appendectomy in September, but played a big role in Orange October by batting .333 in the NLCS and World Series and slugging .636 in the Series.

Ross was famously picked up from Florida on a waiver claim last August in order to prevent him from landing in San Diego and ended up a hero after hitting five home runs in the postseason and being named the MVP of the NLCS. An injured calf, however, will keep him out of the opening day lineup. Ross, who was batting .295 with a .958 OPS before he got hurt on March 23, is expected to miss about three weeks.

Cy Young Candidate(s)
Based on his resume Tim Lincecum is an automatic candidate but teammate Matt Cain, entering his sixth full season in the bigs, is still just 26-years old and looking to earn some recognition of his own.
MVP Candidate
Buster Posey
Can he become the first Giant to win the MVP since Barry Bonds finished off a run of four straight in 2004?
In addition to having Ross and reigning National League Rookie of the Year Buster Posey around all year, the Giants are hoping for a full season of Freddy Sanchez, who hit .292 for San Francisco in 111 games after recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. If he does go down, though, the club should be better prepared to cope. Veteran utility man Mark DeRosa is fully recovered from wrist surgery and has been hitting the ball well this spring. DeRosa, who called his previous surgery a “complete failure,” went deep on opening day last year, but played in just 25 more games before ending his season with more surgery. He gives manager Bruce Bochy a viable option at first, second and third base as well as in both left and right field.

Looking to rebound from a very disappointing season is third baseman Pablo Sandoval. The 24-year-old switch-hitter saw his batting average (second in the league to Hanley Ramirez in ’09) drop .062 points to .268 and his slugging percentage drop over .200 points to a paltry .732. His weight-induced struggles even caused him to lose his starting job in the postseason, where he was limited to just 19 plate appearances while batting just .176.

Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval finished the year with a whopping 278 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame and received stern lectures/warnings from Sabean and Bochy that unless he lost weight, he could likely expect to begin the year at Fresno. Sandoval got the message loud and clear and came to camp 38 pounds lighter, though in actuality he lost 45 pounds of fat while gaining back 7 pounds of muscle. His weight, he said, caused pain in his hips and affected his power numbers (his doubles total dropped from 44 to 34 and his home runs from 25 to 13) and the effect on his agility was obvious in the field. He even received off-season tips from none other than Barry Bonds, who stressed the obvious need for the notoriously free-swinging Kung Fu Panda to become more patient at the plate. His spring results were mixed, with just three walks drawn in his first 23 games for a .311 OBP, but he did hit .290 and slug .507 while looking far more agile at third base.

About the only question involving the pitching staff this spring, aside from how long a strained oblique will sideline Wilson, has been who will fill the final bullpen spot. With Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez and Santiago Casilla all set to return, the competition for the final spot has come down to left-hander Dan Runzler and non-roster invitees Guillermo Mota and Jeff Suppan. Runzler appears to have the upper hand as the contest winds down. Giants’ relievers posted a 2.99 ERA in 2010, including a 0.90 mark in the final month of the season, and they should help carry the team once again this year. On the horizon, you can expect to see rookie Steve Edlefsen and his strong power sinker make his big league debut before the season is over.

The foundation of this ballclub, of course, remains its tremendous pitching and a starting rotation. It’s a rotation consisting of homegrown stars Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez that was the first entirely homegrown group to win the World Series since the ’66 Baltimore Orioles. Giants’ starters posted a collective 3.55 ERA last season, good for third in the majors and second only to the Cardinals’ 3.50 mark in the Senior Circuit. Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young award winner, along with Cain and Bumgarner are all former first round draftees while Sanchez, at just 28-years old, is the oldest of the four. Cain battled some early spring inflammation but is on track to make his first start in the Giants' third game of the season.

Rounding out the rotation is the highly overpaid Barry Zito, who is set to pull down a cool $18.5 million this year, with another $37 million to follow combined in 2012 and 2013. Zito, who was left off the postseason roster due to an ineffective August and September, will actually hold down the fourth spot in the rotation with Bumgarner slotted fifth in order to take advantage of occasional opportunities to rest the talented 21-year old.

Giants Team Capsule

3/31/11 - Rotation Singing a New Song? - Giants starting pitcher Barry Zito was injured in a two-car accident on the eve of the defending champ’s season opener against Los Angeles and his status for Sunday’s series finale is yet to be determined. Zito was not at fault when the car he was in was hit broadside near his home in West Hollywood, nor was he seriously injured in the wreck, but he is suffering back and neck soreness and could yet be a candidate for the disabled list. Ryan Vogelsong, traded by the Giants to Pittsburgh in the 2001 deal that brought Jason Schmidt to San Francisco, and signed this off-season to a minor league contract, is the likely candidate to get the call should Zito not be able to go. Vogelsong had a 3.22 ERA in 22 innings this spring.

Final Word

Winning a World Series title is one of the toughest accomplishment in pro sports. Winning two-in-a-row is a feat unseen since the New York Yankees won three straight between 1998 and 2000. No National League club has repeated as champions since the Big Red Machine of 1975-76. The odds are stacked against them; no longer can the Giants cruise along under the radar, overlooked by the rest of the league. They have a well-deserved mark on their backs. Nevertheless, expectations are high. For the most part, the players that took San Francisco to the pinnacle of the baseball world are back and ready to make another run at history. The pitching is still young and dominant and the offense, with Buster Posey batting cleanup from day 1, is far better equipped to pull its weight than it was a year ago at this time. They play defense and they have depth. They have all the earmarks of a championship caliber team. Oh, and they have recent history on their side as well. After all, they are the defending World Champions.

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