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June 23, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

Like Cats Approaching a Stream

by Geoff Young

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The Giants dwell precariously atop (or near the top; they were in first when I started writing this piece but have fallen behind Arizona again as I file) of the NL West despite a negative run differential. The popular narrative will be that the defending world champions know how to win, although getting swept this past weekend by the punchless Oakland A's—who are battling the Twins for the title of worst-hitting team in baseball—pokes a hole in said narrative.

It doesn't happen often, but teams can succeed despite being outscored. The Giants themselves won the NL West in 1997 despite allowing more runs (793) than they scored (784). They then got swept in the NLDS to a Florida Marlins club that would go on to win the World Series.

The Twins won it all in 1987 despite being outscored by 20 runs during the regular season. Not that this year's Giants bear much resemblance to the '87 Twins: There is no Kent Hrbek or Kirby Puckett to propel the offense. The Giants have better pitching, but that is damning with faint praise. (Actually, they have much better pitching, so it isn't.)

The central problem for San Francisco continues to be an inability to score runs. The Giants are averaging 3.44 runs per game through Tuesday. Among all big-league teams, that exceeds only the Padres' mark of 3.34. Last I checked, “We score more runs than the Padres” isn't a valid rallying cry for anyone with playoff aspirations.

The good news is that, after an extended absence, Pablo Sandoval has returned. The bad news is that he's a tad rusty. Sandoval was hitting .313/.374/.530 when he landed on the disabled list at the end of April but is 6-for-29 with no extra-base hits in seven games since rejoining the club.

Seven games is hardly cause for panic, but this team needs to get offense from someone, and it won't be Aaron Rowand, which makes the decision to stick him at designated hitter during interleague games—as the Giants did for two of their three against Oakland—all the more curious. Rowand started the season strong but is hitting .207/.266/.297 in 158 plate appearances since April 18. I'd wanted to say that is worse than Miguel Tejada's year-to-date numbers, but remarkably, it isn't.

Then again, Rowand did drive home San Francisco's lone run in Sunday's 2-1 loss. And who else would you stick at DH? Bill Hall? Chris Stewart?

Hall was released by the Houston Astros, a team that is as close to Triple-A as you can come without actually being there. Stewart is a journeyman catcher with a career minor-league line of .256/.328/.360 in more than 2,500 plate appearances. These are not the answers to questions worth asking.

Stewart and Eli Whiteside highlight another problem: catching in the post-Posey-injury era. Manager Bruce Bochy was a marginal big-league backstop in his day and has started similar types in the past—the list of catchers he employed while in San Diego is telling. Here are the top 10 in games played:

  1. Ben Davis, 248 games
  2. Wiki Gonzalez, 228
  3. Carlos Hernandez, 220
  4. Ramon Hernandez, 205
  5. John Flaherty, 196
  6. Brad Ausmus, 146
  7. Miguel Ojeda, 123
  8. Brian Johnson, 121
  9. Mike Piazza, 99
  10. Tom Lampkin, 94

Beyond Ramon Hernandez and an aging Piazza, these men were not known for their hitting prowess. Like it or not, Whiteside might end up being Bochy's guy for the foreseeable future.

The only internal option is Johnny Monell, and he isn't much of an option. Who is available on the open market—John Buck and his insane contract? How much should a team with a negative run differential pay to increase—maybe—its chances of holding off a Diamondbacks team that was expected to finish last?

Outside of upgrades behind the plate (unlikely) and at shortstop (already happened, although replacing Tejada with rookie Brandon Crawford figures to aid the defense more than the offense), the best hope is that Sandoval returns to pre-injury form. Or perhaps one of the middling veterans—Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross—magically catches fire in the second half.

Huff had a three-homer game earlier this month but hasn't gone deep in 16 games since. Ross, who is hitting .299/.382/.522 in June, owns a career line of .266/.325/.464. While that is useful enough in a Kevin Mench kind of way, pennants are rarely won on the backs of such hitters.

I don't mean to paint an overly bleak picture—that pitching staff can mask many deficiencies. But at some point, the Giants will need more than the hope that Sandoval remembers how to drive baseballs with authority or that a useful cog transforms into a foundation for no apparent reason.

And though the Giants aren't the only team in the NL West flailing, the others that are struggling to find offense—primarily the Padres, but also the Dodgers—don't appear to be contenders in any sense of the word. It is a credit to San Francisco's pitching staff—paced by unlikely hero Ryan Vogelsong—that the team is winning with some degree of regularity.

At the same time, the Giants' success in the face of such offensive incompetence is an indictment of the division as a whole, whose occupants appear to be approaching the alleged pennant race in the manner of so many cats approaching a fast-running stream. They may acknowledge its presence and even glance in that general direction, but nobody is eager to step within drowning distance.

 Still, someone has to win the division. And as the '87 Twins and '97 Giants remind us, that team doesn't even have to be particularly good. It just has to be less bad than the rest. “We're less bad than the rest” isn't an inspiring battle cry, either, but it's probably better than, “We score more runs than the Padres.” 

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