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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Your San Francisco Giants Starting 1st Baseman: Brandon Belt

Brandon Belt did it. He convinced the Giants they were better with him than without him. It came at the expense of last year's best pinch hitter Travis Ishikawa, who was designated for assignment. Part of me hopes Ishi makes it through waivers and goes down to Fresno and is there for us. But another part of me hopes some defensively challenged AL club picks him up and gives him at bats. He was a good Giant. He was overhyped during the awful years as the next big bopping first baseman which he was never going to be but he WAS a JT Snow slick fielding first sacker who could take a walk and occasionally pop the ball in the gap or over the fence. He will be missed.

But Ishi's pain is Brandon Belt's gain. Brandon Belt will get to do what Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey weren't allowed to do as hot young prospects: start the season with the big club. Lincecum was called up (for good) on May 6th, 2007 after spending about 5 weeks in the minors and forcing the Giants hands by absolutely shredding AAA hitters. Buster Posey got a cup of coffee in 2009 as a September call up but spent the beginning of 2010 in the minors. He was called up (for good) on May 29th after absolutely dominating AAA pitching.

Brandon Belt?

Brandon Belt is getting his first MLB action on Opening Day. No AAA seasoning. No squeezing him out for a veteran. He is the Giants 2011 starting first baseman. He will take the field at the Latrine tomorrow evening and face Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw and from all accounts will find himself batting 7th and playing first every day after (save for some rest days). Here's something that has somewhat gone unnoticed. It will be Buster Posey's first Opening Day as well. And Pat Burrell's first Opening Day as a Giant, as well as Miguel Tejada's. So Belt won't be the only first timer in a Giants uni. But he will be the only rookie.

The move is ballsy for lots of reason. The Giants are showing they don't care about the long term financial picture as they start Brandon Belt's arbitration clock early, meaning his free agent years approach faster as well. They're sacrificing some defense in the outfield to get Belt's bat in the line-up. Burrell in left and Aubrey in right field? Something tells me we're going to see a lot of Rowand and Schierholtz the first month of the season doing some defensive replacement work. Yes, Rowand made the roster. Yes, he'll likely be the one sent packing when Cody Ross comes back. It makes the most sense as the Giants bench has lost some left-handed pinch hitting with Ishikawa being shipped out.

Right now, the Giants bench has 3 righties (DeRosa, Whiteside, Rowand) and 2 lefties (Fontenot, Schierholtz). When Cody Ross comes back, it could force Burrell to the bench, another right handed bat. It then can be assumed that the Giants would not part with Schierholtz and leave Fontenot as the only left handed pinch hitter. So Rowand looks to be the odd man out. But that's an issue that can be discussed later. For now, we're less than 24 hours to first pitch. Brandon Belt will be wearing #9 (Matt Williams, anyone?) and playing first. Lincecum and Posey will be playing catch. And the San Francisco Giants will, for the first time in history, open the season as the World Series defending champions. Nothing could be finer. Oh, except it's against the Dodgers. And there's a rumor that there may be a plane flying overhead with an SF championship banner. PLAY BALL!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Roster Decisions and Injuries: What will the Opening Day roster look like?

There's 10 days before games start to count. And the Giants are going to need to start making some tough decisions. Luckily, these decisions are not typical of most teams. They're decisions of World Series champions.

Right now the Giants have about 3-4 guys on the bubble of making the Opening Day roster. If they don't make it, it likely will end their Giants careers. So let's take a look at the guys competing for the last few precious spots:

Travis Ishikawa

Ishikawa has been a good Giant. He's one of our own. And he had some nice contributions to the teams of '09 and '10. However, his role on the team is in jeopardy because he's redundant and expendable. In 2009, Ishikawa had a chance to seize the first base job and claim it his own. He didn't, mostly for not displaying a whole bunch of power and for hitting like a pitcher on the road (his home average was Ruthian). In 2010, he was pushed aside for Aubrey Huff, but was still a valuable piece due to questions about Huff's defense at first. Unfortunately for Ishi, Huff proved adept at first and as the season wore on, Ishikawa's need as a defensive replacement dwindled. However, even though he didn't give Bochy a whole lot of flexibility as he could only play first, he became the Giants best pinch hitter. But this year, the Giants have more depth due to Brandon Belt's explosion in the minors last season. Belt is being touted as a Gold Glove first baseman and also hits lefthanded. He has a much higher ceiling than Ishikawa ever had and he could push Travis off the roster and onto another team. Or Bochy could prefer to keep him as a lefty pinch hitter. The Giants have tried to make Ishikawa into an outfielder as well to give him more value but given the dearth of outfielders and guys that can play first base, Ishikawa has to be the guy feeling the most heat about making the team. Unless...

Aaron Rowand

Aaron Rowand as of right now provides little value to the Giants. He still plays a decent centerfield but he hasn't been warm to moving to a corner outfield spot to add flexibility. The Giants like having flexibility. Rowand is a subpar hitter at this point. He had his worst season last year but he was a good sport about being benched for Andres Torres. However, with a roster crunch, the Giants seriously have to consider cutting ties with Rowand. The only problem is the 24 million he is still owed for 2011 and 2012. Even if the Giants eat most of his salary, he's hard to trade because other teams know he could potentially be had for the minimum if the Giants simply release him. And like I said, he doesn't have much value. AT&T Park sapped a lot of Rowand's hitting ability, but if you put him in a hitter friendly park, he could be useful. He was when he played for the White Sox and Phillies, two teams that play in very hitter friendly stadiums. Andres Torres is the starting centerfielder now. And Cody Ross can play center on days Torres needs a rest. Rowand as a pinch hitter isn't that great either. In essence, if he makes the team, it'll be at the expense of someone who is likely more valuable overall and solely for the reason that he makes 12 million a year. However, the Giants keep saying their decisions will be baseball ones and not business ones and if they stick to that word, Rowand will be one of the odd men out.

Nate Schierholtz

Nate is a fan favorite despite never really living up to his hitting potential. He is an excellent defensive outfielder and he's not atrocious with the bat, but he's not very good either. He doesn't have much plate discipline and his power is limited. His assets are his cannon arm and his base running smarts. He also provides a lefty bat off the bench and as the season wore on, he became a better pinch hitter. But because Nate has a couple of tools, he also could be the most tradable asset. The Giants desperately need a backup shortstop and Nate could be the piece Sabean uses to acquire one. It would weaken the Giants defensively on the bench and unless Schierholtz gets traded, I think he still makes the team, especially if Burrell is the starting leftfielder.

Brandon Belt

Belt is pretty much the key to the whole roster crunch. He really has a chance to mess everything up in a good way. The Giants had no intention of having Belt start the season on the 25 man roster. After a ferocious first year in the minors (he did the full tour: A, AA, AAA, and the AFL and hit at every stop) Belt has asserted himself in Spring Training. He has been as advertised and has seriously made Bochy and Sabean reconsider him for a spot on the roster. Belt was going to be a part of the 2011 team at some point, but no one expected it to be this soon. If Belt makes the team, he undoubtedly pushes Ishikawa off and makes Burrell a bench player. That's a lot of clout for a prospect. Experts believe the Giants could have another Rookie of the Year candidate ready to go with Belt. And the debate is whether he'll get the Posey treatment or if he'll simply force himself onto the roster. Unlike Posey, he has no defensive work needed to be done at the minor league level. He could start at first base immediately. If I were a betting man, I'd say Belt still opens at AAA. But, he might just force the Giants hand. It was evidenced in today's Spring Training game where Bochy, for the first time this spring, had Huff in LF and Belt at 1B. It shows they're seriously considering the possibility.

There has been a small wrench in all of this. Mark DeRosa's wrist has been acting up and he may not be ready to go Opening Day. Couple that with Brian Wilson's disconcerting oblique injury and the Giants might have two spots open on the roster due to the disabled list. Giants fans don't want to see either DeRosa or Wilson open up on the DL, especially Wilson, but wrist tendinitis and oblique injuries are not easy to deal with. This also affects the bullpen picture. Where there was a 4 man push for 1 spot in the pen, it now looks like there could be two spots open. Jeff Suppan and Ryan Vogelsong have faltered and Dan Runzler had an excellent outing to get a leg up for that last bullpen spot. But Guillermo Mota was a key cog last year and Bochy seems to like his veteran presence and if Wilson has to open the season on the DL, it's a good bet the Giants would elect to have Mota on the squad over Suppan and Vogelsong.

A lot can happen in 10 days and it'll be interesting to see what the Giants do to get their roster down to 25. It's a real possibility that Scottsdale will be the last chance Giants fans have to see Ishikawa and Rowand in Giants uniforms and possibly Nate Schierholtz as well. With the Giants likely opening with 12 pitchers, the position battles for two bench spots (or in Belt's case, starting spot) are going to be the only real thing to watch in what has been a relatively drama free Spring Training.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

MLB Predictions 2011

With the MLB season 3 weeks away, it's time for my predictions. I am a seasoned Fantasy Baseball buff, so I have expert level authority on these type of things. Let me know if you agree or disagree with my predictions and feel free to throw in your own.

AL West Champ: Rangers
AL Central Champ: Twins
AL East Champ: Red Sox
AL Wildcard: A's

NL West Champ: Giants
NL Central Champ: Reds
NL East Champ: Phillies
NL Wildcard: Brewers

AL MVP: Adrian Gonzalez, BOS
NL MVP: Ryan Braun, MIL
AL Cy Young: Jon Lester, BOS
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, SF
AL ROY: Chris Sale, CHW
NL ROY: Aroldis Chapman, CIN

ALCS: Red Sox v Rangers
NLCS: Giants v Phillies
WS: Giants v Red Sox

A look at the AL West: The Rangers lost Cliff Lee which closes the gap, but everyone in that line-up can hit. When Michael Young is essentially an extra guy, that's what you call depth. And if Feliz successfully converts as a starter, the loss of Lee doesn't hurt as much. The Rangers should still capture the title. The A's had a sneaky great pitching staff last year. Now they have added enough professional hitters to augment it (Matsui, Willingham, DeJesus). The A's are going to surprise the AL this year. The Angels are well ahead of the Mariners but Vernon Wells wasn't the splash they needed. They'll play well but not enough to surpass the other two teams in the division. The Mariners are in rebuild mode.

A look at the AL Central: The Central should have 3 teams contending in the Tigers, White Sox, and Twins. I just don't think the Tigers have enough starting pithing to win the division. The White Sox look solid but their rotation depth isn't and I think in the end they just miss October. The Twins somehow always find a way to win (except in the playoffs) and with Morneau and Joe Nathan back, the Twins should repeat as AL Central champs. The Royals keep infusing young talent but are at least a year or two away while the Indians are the Mariners of the Central.

A look at the AL East: No Yankees in the playoffs? The Yankees are in trouble. There's no great starting pitching candidates on the trade market and the Yankees need starting pitching. Their offense is another year older. The bullpen is a strength but in a very tough AL East, where every team is improved and no team should be a pushover, the Yankees will not accrue enough victories to win the wildcard. Boston is stacked and should take the division relatively easily. The Rays lost a lot of players including their heart and soul in Carl Crawford. They'll be scrappy and entertaining (if only for the Manny Ramirez factor) and they'll contend through September but will fall short. The Jays and Orioles can't keep up with Boston yet but they are slowly building very good teams. In any other division, the Jays would have a shot. The Orioles are close to not being an embarrassment anymore but they're still a sub .500 club.

A look at the NL West: The Giants are having a great spring training and they're filled with confidence coming off their World Series title. The pitching is still intact and the offense is automatically better with full years of Posey and Ross. Pablo Sandoval looks rejuvenated and could be a monster this year and they have enough depth with DeRosa coming off the bench and the secret weapon Brandon Belt stashed in AAA. They should repeat as NL West champs. The team giving them a run should be, of all teams, the Dodgers. The Dodgers still have a decent line-up and they have balanced pitching throughout. The Rockies are always a threat but I don't see their starting pitching being able to keep up with the staffs in LA and SF. And while Tulo and Car-Go are awesome centerpieces, the rest of that offense in Denver isn't a sure thing. The Padres will still be scrappy but the chances of them repeating last year's performance minus Adrian Gonzalez are slim. And the Dbacks, while improved, are still climbing a long way back toward respectability.

A look at the NL Central: This division could be a dog fight. The Reds, Brewers, Cubs, and Cardinals should all have realistic shots at the postseason. The loss of Wainwright really is a severe blow to Saint Louis however and if the old guys in Chicago's line-up can hit, then watch out. Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, and Carlos Pena are all guys that could hit 30+ homers if they return to form. And their pitching is pretty good with Dempster, Zambrano, and Garza. But the Reds have to be the favorite with a lot of rotation depth and a solid line-up. But I am definitely on the Brewers bandwagon this year. I think Fielder, in a walk year, is primed to go off and the benefactor will be Ryan Braun, who had a down year last year and still put up pretty solid numbers. Greinke and Gallardo are now the divisions best 1-2 and the revamped pitching staff should lead Milwaukee to the wildcard. The Cardinals still have Pujols and Holliday but in the end, they won't be able to keep up with the teams ahead of them. Pittsburgh and Houston aren't contenders at this point.

A look at the NL East: I HAD to pick the Phillies for the NL East title just due to "that historic pitching staff" but in reality I could see the Braves or the Marlins winning this division. The Phillies aren't as great as everyone wants to make them out to be, especially if Utley is out for an extended period. They lost Werth to the Nationals and both Dominic Brown and Utley are dealing with injuries that are not minor. Teams have figured out how to pitch to Victorino, Rollins, and Howard so the offense isn't as prolithic as East Coast writers would have you think. Yes, the rotation is outstanding. But the bullpen isn't. Lidge is anything but consistent and his setup guys outside of Madson don't strike fear in batters either. The Phillies are primed for a letdown which could open the door for the Braves, who are a phenomenally balanced team from top to bottom, or the Marlins, who I think are going to be right there at the end of the season. The Marlins are moving into a new ballpark in 2012 and they still have one of the best players in the game in Hanley Ramirez and one of the best pitchers (Josh Johnson). Their rotation is solid and their line-up is filled with young guys who could put up monster numbers (Mike Stanton is a star in the making). The Fish could be this year's sleeper team. The Nationals would be more entertaining this year if they had Strasburg but they don't and their pitching isn't strong enough to contend yet. The Mets are a mess and I fully expect them to come in last place and have a fire sale at the All-Star break.

And there you go, my predictions for 2011. May we revisit them in November and grade 'em out!