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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Hot Stove: What Will the Giants Do?

Remember last offseason? The season where the Giants were coming off a rousing World Series championship in the best fashion - 7 games? Their clutch third baseman was going to be a free agent. So, too, were 2/5's of their starting pitchers. And there was our former set-up turned closer turned set-up reliever that was also a goner. And alas, that goofy OF/1B who hit a huge PH home run in the NLCS to set up that other 1B/OF who hit a walkoff to propel the team to the World Series? He was going to be a free agent as well. In other words, a lot of money was about to come off the books for those World Champion Giants. Fans and media alike thought...

"Watch out for San Francisco. They just won the World Series. They have a lot of money and players coming off the books. And they've sold out, like, a trillion games at AT&T Park."

So what happened?

The Giants miraculously were outbid for Sandoval's services by Boston. Jon Lester picked Chicago over SF in a Bachelor episode or something and wound up pitching for the Cubs as well. Mike Morse wanted more than a one year contract that the Giants weren't willing to give him. And the Giants surveyed the market and thought...

"Well gee. There's not too much out here we like. But next year there's a lot we may like. So we'll just sign a couple guys we know and like and then we'll figure this thing out later. Maybe we'll win some games too."

And so that is what they did. They re-signed Jake Peavy, they re-signed Ryan Vogelsong, they re-signed Sergio Romo. And since they needed SOMEBODY to play third base, they traded for Casey McGehee. They also realized late in the game they might need someone to replace Morse's spot in left field and they didn't envision that person to be Gregor Blanco or Travis Ishikawa so they signed Nori Aoki.  And that was it. No splashy signings. No big free agents. Just a bunch of guys that helped them win the big enchilada just months previous and a couple newbies that combined to make 8M dollars.

It can be debated on whether or not it was a good strategy. The Giants got ravaged with injuries but they did manage to hang around the divisional and wild card races into September. Had they stayed healthy maybe the 2014-2015 offseason plan would have worked. Unfortunately, the Giants WERE ravaged by injuries and that exposed a lack of depth that they were unable to overcome given the strengths of the teams they were chasing.

Now it's the 2015-2016 offseason. And because of their lack of long term spend during last year's offseason, they now have nearly doubled their nest egg for a free agent class that has depth in the areas the Giants need it most: starting pitching and the outfield.

So what will the Giants do with their approximate 50M cheddar? It's hard to say. It's almost impossible to think they'd pull another 2014-2015 type of offseason. First of all, Jeremy Affeldt and Tim Hudson retired, so they can't even re-sign those guys if they wanted to (thanks for retiring guys and thanks for the memories).  Tim Lincecum is too broken to actually be given a large, ridiculous contract, hence saving the Giants from themselves. He may come back on an incentive laden deal but at least he won't be coming back for 2yrs/35M. I mean, in theory, the Giants COULD re-sign Mike Leake and Ryan Vogelsong and that would precisely mirror the re-signing of Peavy and Vogelsong last offseason but it's much more likely the Giants finally will wave goodbye to Vogey for good this offseason. It is expected however the Giants will try hard to retain Leake. I'm not really sure that's the best way to spend 80-90M (I think Leake will wind up with at minimum a 5yr/85M deal). Many experts are pointing to Leake's youth and decent stats pitching in a hitter's park for his career as signs he would be a good long term investment but to me, he is the definition of a #3 or #4 starter. He eats innings, he pitches to contact, he doesn't strikeout guys, and when he doesn't have his location, he gets rocked. Is that what I want my team to spend 15-18M per year? Nope, not really.

So what do the Giants do? They HAVE to sign at least one starter and in an ideal world two. Peavy will be a free agent after 2016 and Matt Cain looked mostly awful upon his return from an injury riddled 2014 and 2015. The Giants do have intriguing starting pitching prospects coming up the pike but no one that looks to stand out as that co-ace they want to pair with Madison Bumgarner. This free agent market has plenty of starting pitching talent to it. Could the Giants realistically go for the very top tier? The David Price's or the Zack Greinke's? Sure, they could. But would they? Price is going to get over 200M and the Giants just do not do that for pitchers (or for anyone, really). If they wanted to go to that level, they would have been in the Max Scherzer auction last offseason but they weren't. Greinke likely won't get 200M but he'll get somewhere between 150-175M most likely. Would the Giants do THAT? Possibly, only because they seem to love everything Greinke brings to the table as well as what it'd mean to steal from LA. But my brain says that there's no way the Dodgers let him go to San Francisco. Beyond Greinke and Price, there's plenty of good pitchers left on the market. Jordan Zimmermann has been on my radar a long time but his 2015 was a step down from what he usually produces. Would that scare the Giants off? I have no idea what the Giants are planning. Would they get two mid-level starters and feel okay with that? Or one high priced starter and one flier guy that would only require a 1-3 year commitment?

Then there's the outfield. The Giants, somewhat surprisingly, shook up their outfield by declining Aoki's option. I mean, I get it. He wasn't the best fielder and all he brings to the table is base hits and some speed. Maybe they thought he was redundant with Blanco. Or maybe they're aiming higher. The Giants have ZERO outfield depth in their system. Their best outfield prospects are Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson. Those guys are knocking on the door but they hardly seem to be stars in waiting. And Pagan's on his last legs (pun intended). Could the Giants shake up their outfield outlook this offseason? Could you imagine Jason Heyward patrolling left field with Pence in right? What a defensive corner outfield. Of course, Heyward won't happen because he too is rumored to get 200M this offseason and I'm not sure his tools are worth that and I doubt the Giants would spend to find out. But there are many other intriguing options out there both in free agency and the trade market. With little in the way of outfield prospects coming up, the Giants could use some of their ducats to try to get younger and more athletic in left and center.

At the end of the day, I have absolutely no idea what the Giants are going to do this offseason. All I know is they have about 50M to spend and that after the lackluster 2014-2015 offseason and the pressure of missing the playoffs after a successful World Series run the year previous, the Giants will likely spend that chestnut this offseason. In what way is going to be the most fun storyline for Giants fans this winter.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What do the Giants do next?

It's been a roller coaster ride so far in 2015 for the Giants.  They haven't been fully healthy but have hung around the division and the wild card races all season.  Through the All Star break, they were an underwhelming but still competitive 46-43 and given they were missing Hunter Pence for nearly all of the first half and that Peavy and Cain hadn't really made appearances in the rotation until recently, playing over .500 baseball was an achievement.  The fact they weren't buried in the division race shows how much other guys stepped up to fill the void.

The Giants are now healthy (or getting pretty close to being there).  They just lost Andrew Susac to a DL stint but it shouldn't be an injury that keeps him out any longer than the 15 days.  Aoki and Susac could theoretically return around the same time.  And those are guys the Giants can't wait to have back.  It doesn't even take into account the nearing returns of Jeremy Affeldt and Tim Lincecum.

So what now?  The Giants proved they were a winning club without some of their horses.  But they weren't able to overtake the Dodgers who had their own problems within their rotation and they trail the Pirates and Cubs in the wildcard race with the Mets biting at their heels.  The trade deadline is less than 2 weeks away and the Cubs and Dodgers are both looking to make major impacts that will help them maintain their leads for the race to October.

So what can the Giants do and what WILL they do?  The Giants have been incredibly streaky this season, like Brandon Belt streaky.  They have had multiple long losing streaks offset by multiple long winning streaks.  They lost 7 in a row leading up to the All Star break before they swept the Phillies and then started off the 2nd half by sweeping the Diamondbacks (add it all up and it's a 6 game winning streak that, again, helps offset that previous 7 game losing streak).

So the Giants need to be more consistent.  How do they get more consistent?

The offense should be fine as long as everyone stays healthy from here on out.  Pence and Posey being in the line-up together is essential to making the line-up go.  Belt has been somewhat of a disappointment (or as much as a disappointment as a guy can be with an OPS over .800) but the other Brandon (Crawford) has been amazing.  A lot of guys have stepped up.  But even fully healthy this team probably needs something.

So what do they need?  The rotation is a patchwork.  There is Bumgarner that fronts the rotation. Then there is Chris "The Savior" Heston who has been nearly as good as Bumgarner (seriously, look it up).  And then there's a collection of guys that have not been consistent in the slightest.  Cain has been hot and cold since his return.  Peavy has been mostly good but Giants fans don't seem to have faith in him.  Then there's Hudson who just turned 40 and looks it.  He's having by far his worst season in the majors and the Giants will find out soon enough if he has anything left in the tank after a DL stint.  If not, Vogelsong lurks in the bullpen (while probably being pissed he's there) as will, eventually, the other enigma Tim Lincecum.  So the Giants will trade for a #2 starter right?

Probably not.  The Giants already have 7 rotation guys for 5 spots.  Bochy already has to soothe those egos.  You add in another element and that means 3 of your starters go to the phantom DL, get cut, or go to the bullpen.  Does any Giant fan see San Francisco actually cutting a Hudson, Vogelsong, or Lincecum?  No.  Of course not.  Besides, starting pitching is always in demand at the deadline and it's usually expensive to acquire.  I can't see the Giants making a move to bolster the rotation.  Not when Bumgarner and this collection of arms got them a World Series title last season.  And that was without Cain.  Verdict?  Giants pass on a starter.

The offense has been largely inconsistent.  Pagan is clearly playing hurt and/or with quickly declining abilities.  His defense has been very poor of late and he's become a singles hitter that doesn't walk. That's not a good combination for a leadoff guy or a 3 hitter, the two places Pagan has batted most this season.  So the Giants will probably acquire a CF to supplant Pagan and improve their inconsistent offense, right?

Not so much.  While the Giants have been linked to Cameron Maybin and Geraldo Parra, the Giants still are paying Angel 9M this season and are on the hook for 10M for his services next season. The good news is Pence is back and Aoki will be back soon so the Giants will likely platoon Pagan and Blanco when everyone is healthy.  Blanco is having a career year offensively and Pagan has really struggled against RHP.  Blanco is the superior defensive CF'er and it would make sense to platoon them as it'd give Pagan consistent rest.  But will they?  Pagan, by all accounts, has a sensitive ego. Would he accept a platoon role?  It will be interesting to see if that question is answered when Aoki is activated.  While there is a chance the Giants do try to improve their depth by acquiring another outfielder, it likely won't be someone that will steal AB's from the 4 outfielders on the roster not named Justin Maxwell.  Verdict? The Giants don't acquire a new starting outfielder.

The bullpen, usually a strength and a big reason for their 3 World Series rings, has not been as stout in 2015.  Casilla has generally gotten the job done as the closer but he has looked more shaky in the last few weeks.  Lefties have been crushing him all season.  It doesn't help that his primary set up man, Sergio Romo, is also getting shelled by lefties.  Javier Lopez is being all Javier Lopez-y but his counterpart Jeremy Affeldt looks like he's Aubrey Huff'ing this season.  With all the questions in the bullpen, does it make sense to acquire another relief arm?  Perhaps an elite one to close out the 9th inning?  There are a few out there, none more tantalizing than Reds Cuban closer Aroldis Chapman. However, the Giants strength in their farm system right now is relief pitching.  Would they put together a prospect package to acquire a reliever when they have cheap young talent on the rise?

Perhaps.  Brian Sabean has always been a believer in a solid bullpen.  He hasn't always had great bullpens in his tenure, but he's always tried to have great bullpens with elite closers.  From 1997-2014 Sabean has had Rod Beck, Robb Nen, and Brian Wilson as his 9th inning studs.  And bless his heart, he had great intentions with that Armando Benitez signing.  But he has also used non-traditional guys in the closer role, from Tim Worrell, Sergio Romo, Matt Herges, Tyler Walker, and currently Santiago Casilla.  He has some young guys that could be potential closers coming up in the form of Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, or even Josh Osich.  But it doesn't seem to be Sabean's M.O. to allow a rookie or young guy to be his closer until they've had time to acclimate as a middle or setup reliever.  In short, don't expect to see Strickland to be closing games for SF this season.  So what does it mean?  It means I think the Giants will take a page out of the Royals playbook from last season and try to shorten the game by strengthening the bullpen.  The Royals were oh so close to winning a World Series with a rotation filled with names like Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, and Jeremy Guthrie.  They also had Big Game James but Shields had always been considered more as a strong #2 than a true #1.  But it was the Royals lockdown bullpen that helped them get by with a starting rotation that was hardly eye-popping.  The Giants may try to mimic that success.  Verdict? The Giants will make a move to acquire a top flight closer that will allow Casilla to move back to a set-up role and push Romo to the 7th.

There are 12 shopping days left and the Giants are within striking distance of the Dodgers and right in the heart of the wildcard races.  It's up to Bobby Evans and Brian Sabean to get the Giants the piece or pieces they think the team needs to help them overcome the curse of the odds.




Sunday, May 31, 2015

Looking ahead to 2016...

The 2015 Giants are playing really well you guys.  Like, really good.  They're a half game back of the Dodgers and they're 7-2 against those Bums head to head.  They are defending their title magnificently to date.  They had one of their best May's ever.  They probably do well in May due to Willie.  Just sayin'...

So let's not talk about those 2015 Giants right now.  Let's talk about the 2016 Giants!

Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans have done a phenomenal job at locking down the core of this team. Looking ahead to 2016, the Giants could have zero vacancies on the diamond positionally. The outfield is all under contract (assuming they pick up Aoki's inexpensive option).  Blanco is under contract as the 4th outfielder.  And unless he starts really sucking, I'm thinking Justin Maxwell might just stick around as well.  Now the fun part.  The infield.  The infield as it currently stands is all homegrown.  You've got Belt at 1B, Panik at 2B, B-Craw at SS, and the DuffMan at 3B.  Oh, and some Posey dude doing the catching.  That's pretty effing awesome that our entire infield once upon a time played at Double A Richmond.  Unless the Giants want to trade for a more established third baseman (Beltre, anyone?) or Casey McGehee returns with a vengeance, third base could be handed to the 24 year old Duffy who's making less than 600K. Duffy has done nothing to show the Giants they need to go get a third sacker.  Which is great because that means the Giants have another MLB starting player that is cheap (like Panik) and can allow them to spend money where they need to: on pitching.  Yes, the Giants will need to re-stock their rotation soon.  Here's my 2016 preview of the Giants rotation options:


Locks:

Madison Bumgarner
Matt Cain
Jake Peavy

Minor League Potentials:

Chris Heston      (5-3. 3.82 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) *MLB
Kyle Crick        (1-1, 2.10 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) *AA
Ty Blach          (4-5, 3.82 ERA, 1.35 WHIP) *AAA
Clayton Blackburn (1-3, 4.32 ERA, 1.40 WHIP) *AAA
Chris Stratton    (1-5, 4.14 ERA, 1.24 WHIP) *AA

Free agents:

Tim Lincecum
Wei-Yin Chen
Johnny Cueto
Doug Fister
Yovani Gallardo
Jaime Garcia
Zack Greinke
JA Happ
Aaron Harang
Dan Haren
Hisashi Iwakuma
Scott Kazmir
Ian Kennedy
Mike Leake
David Price
Jordan Zimmermann

My takes:

I STILL think the best option for this Giants team is to trade for Hamels. The Giants need another ace to pair with Bumgarner. Cain just simply can't be counted on to be that guy anymore. On the free agent list, you have some innings eaters and some decent arms. I could see the Giants, if they go the free agent route, staying away from the top tier (Price, Cueto, Greinke) but could see them make a play for Zimmermann, Kazmir, or Fister. An underrated guy on the list is Wei-Yin Chen. He screams Sabean (Evans) signing to me. That being said, I can't see the Giants throwing 150M-200M contracts around to pitchers on the free agent market. Cole Hamels is left handed, a proven commodity, and his value is locked in for 3-4 more seasons. Our pitching prospects that could be ready by 2016 are not showing all that much currently. Crick has been the best but he's still walking a bajillion guys in AA. You get Hamels, and you have Cain, Bum, and Cole all under lock and key for the next few seasons, allowing your backend of the rotation be filled in by cheap dudes (Heston and perhaps Beede in 2017 once Peavy is off the books). I think a package of Susac and Crick would get the conversation started in Philly.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

2015 MLB Predictions

Well it is that time of year again where experts, bloggers, writers, and fantasy baseball players everywhere make predictions about a season that will ultimately unfold in a completely different way everyone envisions.  For instance, I am a diehard Giants fan.  I had them in the playoffs in my predictions last season but I had them losing in the NLCS to the Nationals (my 2014 predictions can be found HERE).  I didn't even have my team in the World Series, let alone winning it.  Yet they did. I've never been happier to be wrong.

I actually did okay last season, getting 50% of the division winners right, 4 out of 5 of the NL Playoff teams right, and 3 out of 5 AL Playoff teams.  My most egregious error was having the Rangers win the AL West when they actually wound up dead last (behind even the Astros).  I had the Rays as the AL East winners but they got hit with some devastating injuries early and crumbled.  I also nailed the AL MVP (Mike Trout) but most people got that one right.  I whiffed on all the other awards.

So without further ado, here are my 2015 picks for the MLB Season coming up.  Enjoy! (Bold = Division Winners, Italics = Wildcards):

AL East:  Orioles, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, Rays
AL Central:  White Sox, Royals, Tigers, Indians, Twins
AL West:  Mariners, Angels, Athletics, Rangers, Astros

NL East:  Nationals, Marlins, Mets, Braves, Phillies
NL Central:  Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds, Cubs
NL West:  Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Rockies, Dbacks

ALWC:  Angels over Royals
NLWC:  Marlins over Pirates

ALDS:  Mariners over Angels, White Sox over Orioles
NLDS:  Nationals over Marlins, Dodgers over Cardinals

ALCS:  White Sox over Mariners
NLCS:  Nationals over Dodgers

World Series:  Nationals over White Sox

AL MVP:  Mike Trout, Angels
NL MVP:  Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
AL Cy Young:  Chris Sale, White Sox
NL Cy Young:  Max Scherzer, Nationals
AL ROY:  Steven Souza, Rays
NL ROY: Kris Bryant, Cubs

A look at the AL East:  Last year, I called the East a beast as any of the 5 teams could have won the division on paper.  Three of the teams wound up with winning records.  This year, it looks to be the AL Least.  It again appears anyone could win this division but not because all 5 teams look good, but because all 5 teams look mediocre.  In 2014, the Orioles won the division while missing their star catcher Matt Wieters, their young third baseman Manny Machado, and for all intents and purposes Chris Davis who was not himself.  And while I am still not enamored by their pitching and they lost Nelson Cruz (who finished 7th in MVP voting) and Oriole lifer Nick Markakis, I can't see a team that is better all around in the division than the Birds.  The Blue Jays offense could be amazing this season but again, their pitching has its questions marks.  They still don't have that legitimate #1 starter.  The same can be said about the Red Sox.  While the Red Sox were one of the winners of the offseason, their rotation is filled with mid-rotation guys, no aces, and will have to rely on scoring a ton of runs to win ballgames.  They have a crowded outfield which could lead to disgruntled players. The Red Sox could sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card or they could wind up with Cole Hamels and become more legit but as of the time of this prediction, they look borderline wildcardish. Yankees are more of the same.  Their rotation is similar to the Red Sox situation except the Yanks actually have potential aces in Sabathia and Tanaka.  If both those pitchers can stay healthy, the Yankees could easily win this division.  But that's a big if.  The Yankees offense is never a problem but again, they're relying on a bunch of old guys and the Alex Rodriguez controversy will stew all summer.  The Rays could finish anywhere in this division but with Alex Cobb ailing and Matt Moore out for much of the first half, it'll be hard to see the Rays contending.  Without Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, it'll be interesting how the "new" Rays evolve.  But I never overlook Tampa Bay and it would be none surprising to me if they were in the wildcard hunt come September.

A look at the AL Central:  The Central should be an interesting division this season.  What has long been the Tigers habitat seems a bit more cluttered now.  With the departure of Max Scherzer and the inconsistency of Justin Verlander, the Tigers once elite rotation now looks a bit more shaky.  Yes, they have David Price but the end of their rotation looks paper thin with newcomers Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene.  Anibal Sanchez has been solid for Detroit but he's not an ace.  Given Verlander's struggles in 2014, the whole rotation behind Price looks questionable.  The Tigers did do some things in the offseason to get more athletic by adding Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes and they'll get elite defender Jose Inglesias back at shortstop but the division as a whole is better and Miguel Cabrera HAS to slow down at some point, right?  The Royals were in the World Series last season as a wildcard and despite losing James Shields and Billy Butler, they appear to have the same team that was a Madison Bumgarner away from winning a title.  They should be in the thick of the division hunt with their elite relief pitching, their speed and defense, and just enough power and starting pitching.  However, the White Sox appear to be the most improved team in the division and one of the better AL teams overall.  Chris Sale finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting in 2014 and this year he has a co-ace alongside him with the addition of Jeff Samardzija.  Not only do the White Sox have 2014 ROY Jose Dariel Abreu in the middle of their line-up, but they've added consistent performer Adam LaRoche and the enigmatic Melky Cabrera to it as well.  The White Sox could put it all together and make a World Series run this season behind their starting pitching and an offense that should score plenty.  The Indians followed up a wildcard berth in 2013 with a winning season in 2014 but failed to make the playoffs.  The Tribe have the reigning Cy Young winner Corey Kluber fronting their rotation but behind him there's still a lot of question marks.  No pitcher beside Kluber pitched more than 153 innings last season and that could be troublesome.  Cleveland did nothing in the offseason to improve and by standing pat, the other teams in their division may have passed them by. The Twins should again be a footnote in the division.  While they added Ervin Santana to a mediocre rotation and brought back Torii Hunter for a farewell tour, it's clear Minnesota is waiting for their youngsters to be ready, probably no sooner than 2016.

A look at the AL West:  The Mariners were oh-so-close to breaking their 13-season playoff drought last season, finishing one game back of the wildcard winning A's.  This year, they will break that drought.  The Mariners are deep in pitching and have a line-up that can score runs.  Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz, and Robinson Cano should provide thump in the middle of a pretty decent line-up to go alongside the M's solid starting pitching.  Felix Hernandez probably should have won the Cy Young last season and he's backed by strong performers Hasashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, and talented youngster Taijuan Walker.  The rotation has depth even if Paxton and/or Walker struggle and the bullpen looks to be a strength as well.  Overall, the Mariners have what looks to be one of the best overall teams in the American League.  The other teams that will challenge them for the division look to be the Angels and A's.  The Angels had the best record in the AL last season and they essentially are bringing the whole gang back for a repeat.  The question mark is Josh Hamilton.  He fell off the wagon during the offseason and it appears uncertain when he'll return to the field.  Despite Hamilton's absence, the Angels shouldn't have problems offensively.  They still have Albert Pujols and Mike Trout and the rest of the Angels line-up is capable, if unspectacular.  The rotation is filled with upside and Jered Weaver is typically considered an ace but the rotation isn't elite.  The bullpen should be solid for Anaheim however and all things considered, they should be right there with the Mariners for the division.  The A's are interesting.  At the beginning of the offseason, they looked like they were doing a complete rebuild.  By the end of the offseason, they look to at least be wildcard contenders and if things go right, they can compete for the division title as well.  The offense had a makeover and it's hard to tell if the A's will be good or poor offensively without Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss.  Their starting pitching always performs better than expectations and the bullpen should be solid.  The A's always surprise and this season should be no different.  The Rangers and Astros probably will be battling for last place.  While the Astros slowly keep improving, they are nowhere close to contending.  The Rangers can't stay healthy.  They've already lost ace Yu Darvish and uber prospect Jurickson Profar for the year and even with Prince Fielder coming back from his own season ending injury from a year ago, this team doesn't seem to have the pitching depth to survive the division.  If the Rangers make a trade for Cole Hamels, they likely can contend for a wildcard spot, otherwise it'll be another wasted year for the Lone Star state.

A look at the NL East:  Both East divisions don't seem elite in 2015.  However, the National League version might house the best team in either league.  The Nationals have been, on paper, one of the top 3 teams in baseball for the past three seasons.  However, they haven't been able to translate that talent into an extended playoff run.  They choked away the Division Series in 2012, they stumbled out of the gate and, despite a torrid run, couldn't crack the postseason in 2013, and they ran into an experienced Giants team that put them away in the NLDS in 2014.  The soul crushing moment may have been when ex-Giant and Nats rookie manager Matt Williams lifted Jordan Zimmermann in Game 2 after 8.2 masterful innings with the Nats leading 1-0.  The Giants immediately tied the game off reliever Drew Storen and won 9 innings later on a Brandon Belt homer.  The Series was essentially over after that.  The Nats responded by signing Max Scherzer and adding him to an already elite rotation.  The Nationals have no visible weaknesses.  They lost Adam LaRoche but Ryan Zimmerman will take his place at 1B.  They lost Asdrubal Cabrera but Yunel Escobar will take his place at second.  Anthony Rendon was in the MVP discussion and the league still has yet to see the best of Bryce Harper.  In short, the Nationals are primed for a World Series run.  They've experienced their heartbreaks in October.  Their manager has a year under his belt.  The whole team has more playoff experience and they took a guy with a ton of playoff pressure games on his resume (and a Cy Young award) and slid him into their rotation.  Unless everything goes wrong, the Nationals should run away with the NL East and have the horses in October they need to finally advance past the NLDS.  Aside from the Nationals, the Marlins look to be the only team that has the talent to contend.  The Fish will get back ace Jose Fernandez sometime during the season and when they do, he'll be added to an already talented rotation.  Miami upgraded its line-up by adding solid veterans Mike Morse and Martin Prado to it, alongside speedster Dee Gordon and they should be right there in the wildcard race.  The Mets hoped to contend this season but with the loss of Zach Wheeler they essentially swap in one talented youngster (Matt Harvey) for another.  It's conceivable the Mets could have a winning record if things go (W)right but the Mets probably won't truly be a legit contender for another season.  At the moment they look like a borderline .500 club.  The Braves and Phillies are in rebuild mode and while Cole Hamels is presently on the Phillies, he probably won't be after July 31st.  Cliff Lee's MLB career is hanging by a thread and he may soon throw in the towel.  The people of Philly have seen better baseball.  The Braves traded two of their starting outfielders and are building a new stadium that should open in 2017.  It looks like their goal will be to have a good team to open up that ballpark.  While Atlanta isn't terrible, they probably don't have the MLB talent at the moment to pose a serious threat to the rest of the National League.

A look at the NL Central:  The Cardinals have been consistently good for so long that every year you can pretty much pencil them in for a playoff spot.  This year is no different.  The Cardinals upgraded their outfield by adding Jason Heyward and otherwise left a team that won 90 games last season pretty much alone.  The one concern for the Cardinals has to be Adam Wainwright's health.  He is a true ace when healthy but health has been an issue for Wainwright since the end of last season.  The Cardinals have plenty of pitching depth to survive even if Wainwright falters but to be the class of the NL Central as they most often are, the Cardinals will need to stay relatively healthy.  The competition has improved.  In fact, the NL Central should be the most competitive division in the National League this year, if not the Majors.  Every team has a chance to finish above .500.  The Cardinals biggest threat has to be considered the Pirates.  The Pirates finished 2 games back of them last season and have made the playoffs (albeit as a Wildcard) twice in a row.  Their starting pitching is solid and Gerrit Cole should take another step towards becoming a true ace.  It looks like the Pirates will give their super prospect Gregory Polanco a shot at the right field job starting from Day 1 which will make the Pittsburgh line-up even stronger.  The rest of the NL Central is equally as tough.  The Brewers were in contention for the whole 2014 season before fading down the stretch.  They essentially are bringing back the same cast of characters hoping they can repeat the success they had for the better part of last season minus Yovani Gallardo, their innings eater ace.  However, they are hoping young stud Jimmy Nelson will be able to take his place.  The Brewers don't wow you in any particular facet of the game but they are solid enough all around to have hopes for the wildcard and, if the pitching can elevate, the division.  Meanwhile, the Cubs are ready to emerge as perennial contenders.  I am not ready to crown them contenders yet however.  They had Jeff Samardzija last season and couldn't escape the basement and they essentially swapped out Samardzija for Jon Lester.  Their young players will finally start to emerge but in a very competitive division, every young player would essentially have to pan out for the Cubs to really have a shot.  Young players typically aren't that reliable even if Kris Bryant looks to be the next Babe Ruth thus far in Spring Training.  The Cubs should be decent and they may flirt with the Wildcard for awhile, but I think they are one more season away from truly being a legitimate postseason team.  The Reds are an enigma.  They dismantled their starting pitching but on paper they have an offense that can still score a bunch of runs and a pitching staff that can probably win a good amount of games if given decent run support. Every year I feel good about the Reds but I feel their window is starting to close.  Do they have one last run in them?  I'm not so sure.  If Joey Votto can start playing like an MVP again, the Reds could be right there in both the division and wildcard races.  Like I mentioned, this division is going to be a dogfight.

A look at the NL West:  Man, I hate to buy into the whole "odd year" thing with the Giants, but it's not even April and Angel Pagan is already having minor injury issues and Hunter Pence will open the season on the DL.  You look at this scrappy team and wonder if they can scrap their way into the playoffs but with an improved division, it could prove tough.  The Giants haven't made back to back playoff appearances since 2002-2003 and if they are going to do it again, a lot will have to go right. The starting rotation will have to pitch their hearts out and once Pence gets back, the middle of the line-up will have to stay healthy because this is a team with very little power.  The bullpen should again be a strength but the absence of professional hitters like Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse will be felt, even if Casey McGehee does his best Casey-McGehee-in-Milwaukee impersonation. Hell, I'd love to see Nori Aoki do HIS Nori-Aoki-in-Milwaukee impersonation.  But AT&T Park is NOT Miller Park.  I almost always pick the Giants to win the division or come in second but win a wildcard.  This year?  I'm just not sure.  There seem to be too many question marks and unless all of them are answered positively, it's going to be hard for this team to repeat as World Champs, even with 2 Wildcards.  The Dodgers didn't improve per se over the offseason, but they helped themselves by making their clubhouse more cohesive (in theory).  They subbed out diva Hanley Ramirez and malcontent Matt Kemp for good clubhouse type guys in Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick.  They traded away their leadoff hitter Dee Gordon and their 5th starter Dan Haren but also paved the way for their centerfielder of the future Joc Pederson to make the Opening Day roster.  Oh yeah, and they cut Brian Wilson.  Overall, with Kershaw and Greinke lined up 1-2, the Dodgers have to be considered the favorites.  They don't look better than the team that won 94 games last season, but they don't look much worse.  They are gambling with injury-risk pitchers Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy, but they also have depth in their minor league system.  And despite his baseball IQ being Forrest Gump-ish, Yasiel Puig has MVP talent floating around.  The Dodgers should be pushed by the Giants this year but also by the San Diego Padres.  The Padres, for the first time in a long time, are going to be interesting to watch.  They revamped their entire outfield adding Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Wil Myers and got on-base catching machine Derek Norris as well.  They did it all without sacrificing ANY of their starting pitching (minus Jesse Hahn) who was expendable because the team went out and signed James Shields.  The Padres rotation is solid from top to bottom. If Andrew Cashner can stay healthy, they have a true ace to pair with a trio of solid #2 types in Shields, Tyson Ross, and Ian Kennedy.  Even their 5th starters are intriguing if they can stay healthy - Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow both can be above average starters.  The intrigue for the West though ends with the Padres, Giants, and Dodgers.  The Rockies, aside from trading away Michael Cuddyer, stood mostly pat hoping and praying for health.  It doesn't matter.  Even if the Rockies stay healthy, they won't be good enough to contend all season.  And the Rockies big guys never stay healthy.  The Dbacks are sort of in the space the Phillies were last season where they should just tear it all down and rebuild but their bad contracts are untradeable and in the way.  The Dbacks should be pretty bad this season.  They have interesting pieces, most notably Yasmany Tomas, but they don't have the pitching or the talent to keep pace with the better teams in the division, even if they do get Patrick Corbin and Bronson Arroyo back at some point in the year.

That's it for the predictions and divisional previews.  It will be fun to come back in October and see how awesomely right I was on all these calls.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Grading the Giants 2015 Offseason

It's February.  Pitchers and catchers report in 2 weeks.  Rosters are being finalized.  The free agent market is relatively bare.  So now is the time to take a step back, look at what Brian Sabean has done this winter, and evaluate the team.

Going into the offseason, the Giants knew that Pablo Sandoval was going to become a free agent. They also knew they would have to figure out whether or not they wanted to retain their other free agents, namely Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, Sergio Romo, and Michael Morse.

When the playoffs began, I thought that Pablo was going to be a goner (I actually thought he and the Red Sox made sense on a number of levels all season long and thought he'd wind up in Boston).  I thought Peavy, with his performance down the stretch, had become the Giants #1 starting pitching priority.   I figured 2014 was Sergio Romo and Ryan Vogelsong's Giant farewell tour.  I thought Morse had won over the hearts of both Giants fans and the front office and that he'd be re-signed because he brought something hard for the Giants to find: relatively cheap power on the open market.

Then the playoffs happened and the World Series was won and, holy crap, Pablo Sandoval had another phenomenal showing in October.  By the time Madison Bumgarner finished destroying the Royals I figured the Giants whole offseason plans must have changed.

They no longer could let Sandoval go, could they?  Not a chance.  Peavy?  Yeah, he helped us get TO the playoffs but he wasn't much help once we actually were IN the playoffs, right?  He could go. Romo?  Love the guy but no doubt he was going to get higher offers elsewhere than from what the Giants would be willing to spend... especially after they re-signed Sandoval.  Vogey?  Looked human in the World Series and no doubt the Giants would look to improve in the rotation.  Morse?  That PH homer in Game 5 of the NLCS?  Are you kidding me?  The Pence/Morse bromance?  No WAY they'd let this guy go.  If there was enough money to sign him after, you know, re-signing Sandoval.

Baseball is a fickle bitch though, ain't it?  Sandoval DID bolt for Boston.  The Giants likely never wanted to pay him 100M but gosh darn it, they'd match the Boston offer of 95M even if they really didn't want to do that either.  But Panda hats and Pandamonium and 3 World Series titles.  The fans would be livid if they didn't make the effort.  So make the effort they did.  And it went for naught. Pablo picked Boston because he wanted a new challenge.  So it goes.  So instead of getting Sandoval, the Giants focused on flirting with Jon Lester.  This probably actually hurt them from a fan perspective because all of a sudden Giants fans saw 95M offers to Pablo and 150M offers to Jon Lester (which he turned down to join the Cubs) only to then see the Giants revert back to their actual way of doing business.  Shrewdly, by avoiding big long term deals, and getting solid if unspectacular talent in return.

The Giants played it safe by re-signing Peavy, Romo, AND Vogelsong to short term deals that were not too crazy in terms of dollars.  They shocked most Giants fans by showing almost zero interest in bringing back Mike Morse who signed with the Miami Marlins for 2 years and basically peanuts. Giants fans (and baseball people) saw a Giant hole at third base and left field and wondered how Sabean would fill it.  He filled it by trading for Marlins 3B Casey McGehee and signing World Series opposing outfielder Nori Aoki.  Neither of those guys will ever be confused with Babe Ruth.  Or Pablo Sandoval or Mike Morse for that matter.   But they both fit the deals the Giants look for when they're in the market: short term and cheap.  McGehee will likely make less than 4M in 2015.  Aoki signed a team friendly one year deal for 4M with a team option for 5.5M that you can pretty much assume the Giants will pick up the second the 2015 season ends.  McGehee and Aoki combined to hit 5 homers last season.  Five.  To put that into perspective, Morse had 6 home runs by the end of April. Sandoval had 6 by the end of May.  Neither Aoki or McGehee are known prolific power hitters. Aoki's highest home run total came in 2012 when he hit 10 for the Brewers.  Coincidentally, McGehee's highest home run total also came while playing with the Brewers when he hit 23 in 2010. It must be noted that the Brewers stadium favors hitters while AT&T Park most certainly does not.

But Sabean isn't an idiot.  He didn't sign Aoki or McGehee to hit home runs.  He didn't sign them to replace the power lost by Sandoval and Morse going elsewhere.  He signed them to, as the Giants love to say, "lengthen the line-up".  You don't need power as much if you got a line-up 1-8 that can get on base and do the little things.  Certainly the 2014 Royals proved this.  Sabean is trying to repeat as World Champs by following the offensive philosophy of the opponent they vanquished to get ring #3.  In AT&T Park, it's not a bad strategy.

So, how does Sabean grade out for this winter?

He went into the offseason needing a 3B, a LF, a SP, and a RP.

He finished his offseason checklist by getting a 3B, a LF, 2 SP's, and a RP.

Now, the needs were met.  But the jury is out.  After dancing with Lester and Sandoval, some Giants fans expected more.  I wanted Chase Headley.  I also sort of wanted Melky back given his price tag. After whiffing on Lester, I was kind of secretly hoping the Giants would be in on Scherzer (I really didn't want them to sign James Shields and we'll see if that was a wise pass now that Shields is in the NL West as a member of the Padres).  However, given all the money the above guys got, I can't fault Sabean for dumpster diving instead.  He has the reigning champs on his hands as it is.  Throw in healthy seasons for Belt and Pagan and Cain and it's almost like Sabean is getting 3 acquisitions for his 2015 squad for free.  Were his moves enough?  Were they satisfactory to the fans?  That's to be determined.  No doubt bringing back 3 guys from the World Series team will be applauded.  This offseason was far from flashy and there is real reason to be concerned with the lack of power.  But the line-up should produce runs and Sabean was able to lure back Vogelsong to provide depth to a rotation with a bunch of question marks.  And while McGehee is not Sandoval, he's probably better than Arias and Duffy.  And he came much cheaper than Headley, Jed Lowrie, and several other 3B options that were out there.

Going into the 2015 season, the team seems to have the pieces to adequately defend its title.  Due to that, you have to consider the offseason a success.

Offseason Grade:  B+