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February 25, 2009

Giant Issues

Shoring up a Staff by the Bay

by Christina Kahrl

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Giants Pitching Performance in 2008
Unit       Datum        NL Rank
Rotation  .527 SNLVAR     9th
Bullpen    5.06 FRA      16th

In Tim Lincecum, human pitching machine, the Giants enjoy the benefit of employing the most freaky-good pitcher in baseball today, a hurler whose legendary durability in college seems to transcend both the concerns of statheads evaluating his workload and scoutier types wondering how someone can so dominantly defy the expectation that short right-handers can't be overpowering aces. But even with last season's National League Cy Young Award-winner as a starting point, in this era of the five-man rotation you're still left with the little matter of almost 130 games' worth of starts and innings to allot to the rest of a rotation and a bullpen. Given that the Giants are becoming something of a boutique choice for relevance in the standings in some sectors of the commentariat, do they have the rest of a staff needed for the team to really make some noise in the NL West?

The good news is to be found in the rotation, at least to some extent, though even with the benefit of Lincecum up front, last year's unit was rather mediocre within the league as a whole, ranking just ninth in the NL with their per-game rate of support-neutral performance adjusted for opposing lineups (or the inelegant SNLVA_R for short), finishing at .527, where .500 is average. The front end is promising enough. Lincecum finished second in the league behind CC Sabathia's work with the Brewers at .664. Second starter Matt Cain's an excellent complement, living up to his end of any twin-towers billing by finishing 24th in the senior circuit among all starters with 100 or more IP in SNLVA_R with a .560 mark. Beyond that pair, however, the Giants had to live with the occasional promise and second-half fade of Jonathan Sanchez (.507), while big-ticket free-agency boondoggle Barry Zito finished with a sordid .466 anti-contribution. Pulling up the rear was fifth starter Kevin Correia at .444, which ranked 68th among the 71 National League starters with 100 or more IP last season.

To the credit of general manager Brian Sabean, he didn't look at having a Cy Young winner on staff, didn't just accept that he's got a good second starter, and didn't let $101.5 million and five years to go with the underwhelming Zito deter him from trying to shore up his rotation this winter. Dropping Correia and signing Randy Johnson to a one-year, $8 million deal isn't exactly a safe bet given Johnson's breakdown in 2007, but it is an upgrade. If the 45-year-old comes anywhere close to matching last year's 30 starts, he should reach his 300th win and give the club quality starts more than half the time that he takes the mound-i.e. winnable ballgames.

The more fundamental question is whether this group can hold up with the questions that attend almost all of them, including Johnson's age, the heavy workloads both Cain and Lincecum carried last year in their respective age-23 and age-24 seasons, and whether or not Sanchez can last as a rotation regular after organizational indecision had him flipping back and forth between roles until last summer. While Noah Lowry was far from a sure thing before he went down with forearm and elbow problems, he does at least provide depth against the perhaps inevitable injuries and missed starts likely to strike somebody on the staff. It's not perfect, but it's usable depth for an upgraded staff segment.

Sabean also paid attention to the weaker unit on the staff, the league-worst bullpen, but here again he accepted a lot of risks without necessarily locking in all that many answers. Signing power-lefty long-man Jeremy Affeldt might look great if getting him away from a career spent pitching in hitter's havens turns out well, but much of that career was spent working in low-leverage situations-will he wilt when asked to become a primary set-up man? Former Giants farmhand Bobby Howry's been inked after a horrendous season with the Cubs; however hit-unlucky he was, allowing a horrible .352 BABIP, is that the beginning of a trend, or just the sort of thing that regresses to the mean? Adding them as well as a presumably healed-up Merkin Valdez and Six-Gun Sergio Romo's six-pitch arsenal might give hittable closer Brian Wilson enough support to equal something better than last year's disasterpiece in the pen as well as protect more of those leads the better starting slate delivers, but as with any gamble taken on pitchers beyond the game's best relievers, it's a crapshoot.

Even with the improved staff, the Giants owed a lot of last year's surprising 72-win season to their record in one-run games, a NL-best 31-21, of which seven were won at the expense of the woeful Padres. That's an awful lot of luck in terms of run distribution within a season, and while things should also improve in the lineup by replacing last season's initial sad-sack set with the better players who helped produce their 28-27 stretch kick, they're still counting on scoring runs with a disjointed blend of expensive, generally mediocre free agents, and a smattering of youngish, mostly ready, and mostly mediocre prospects. Given that third-base aspirant and former catcher Pablo Sandoval might be the only position player likely to be around to help the next genuinely good Giants team, renting the Big Unit made sense as part of a tepid win-now bid, but barring a major move with a Manny to be named later, this is still a team that will have to scratch and claw to get to .500, let alone contend.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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