Baseball Prospectus’ Pre-season Projection: 76-86, third place
Current record: 86-73, third place
It was fun while it lasted.
Buster Olney of ESPN.com’s Take
What went wrong: The whole baseball world knew two incontrovertible truths about the Giants as spring training began. First, they figured to have great pitching, and second, they had a chance to have the worst offense in the majors. San Francisco proved all the pundits right on both counts. Their lack of pop really took them down: the Giants ranked 27th in runs scored, next to last in homers (they can thank the baseball gods for the Mets), and next to last in slugging percentage. General manager Brian Sabean had hoped that the addition of Freddy Sanchez before the trade deadline would augment the lineup, but instead, Sanchez got hurt and really wasn’t a factor.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: So, how do they get a frontline hitter, something they’ve needed since ol’ No. 25 walked away from San Francisco? Well, in time young Buster Posey is expected to be an excellent offensive catcher, someone who combines power with an ability to draw walks and get on base. But the Giants need a big-time thumper right away, which is why GMs with other teams are wondering if they’ll be aggressive in throwing money at the two best free-agent outfielders, Matt Holliday and Jason Bay, or if they’ll seriously entertain the possibility of dealing pitchers Matt Cain (whose trade value is off the charts and might be good enough to fetch a slugger in return) or Jonathan Sanchez (who has much less trade value than Cain). It’s hard to imagine the Giants will settle for another year of a toothless attack.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
The Giants hung in longer than we expected, primarily because of excellent defense and pitching. The Giants went from 13th in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency last season to leading the majors this season, due in large part to an excellent outfield defense that recorded a ton of outs and held scoring down by preventing extra-base hits. The Giants’ defense was particularly beneficial to Cain, who owns a 2.88 ERA despite a 4.37 QERA. Tim Lincecum managed to exceed even his lofty projection, and could be on his way to his second straight Cy Young at just 25 years of age.
Combine those two with a solid staff and the Giants managed to allow only 3.8 runs per game, far less than the 4.4 figure we projected. On the other hand, the hitting remained anemic: their 92.0 total VORP from their hitters is even more disappointing when you realize that Pablo Sandoval provided 59.0 of that. We projected the Giants to score 4.2 runs per game, but they have only scored 4.0.
Overall, the Giants’ third-order Pythagenport record is 5.1 games behind their actual record, meaning that with normal luck and average opponents, they would have merely been an average baseball team. They simply happened to allocate their hits and runs in such a way that they stayed competitive for a little longer than we predicted. Even though their pitching and defense were extraordinary, they simply did not have the offense to be a true playoff contender.-Matt Swartz, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: 50
That’s the Giants’ tally in Fielding Runs Above Average this year, and it’s the second-best mark in the league. The Giants have allowed only a .286 batting average on balls in play, despite playing in a park where recording outs is a challenge. They also have allowed only a .366 slugging average on balls in play, which is also particularly difficult in their park and among the best in the league. To change gears, their team-wide Ultimate Zone Rating is 41.9, but they have a UZR among their outfielders of 47.5. This explains their particular gift as a team for preventing runs despite having a mediocre defensive infield. Randy Winn was very good according to any source you check: he saved 15 runs above average according to the Fielding Bible, 17.9 runs according to UZR and was worth 5 FRAA. Although Aaron Rowand has only been average, nearly all of the rotating cast of outfielders that the Giants have played beside him have been superb. Andres Torres, Nate Schierholtz, Fred Lewis and Eugenio Velez all played in at least 58 games in the outfield, and each of them put up above-average defensive statistics. As a result, the Giants have allowed only 1.76 extra-base hits per game, down 14 percent from last year’s 2.06. This large change in defensive performance is the biggest surprise about the Giants this year, and a big factor in their reemergence as a competitive team.-Matt Swartz, Baseball Prospectus
ESPN.com Rumor Central
Depth Chart: When Posey was called up in early September, it was assumed that a little seasoning for the heir to the catching crown was at hand. Instead, he’ll likely finish this first tour with fewer than 15 at-bats. So, is he the favorite to start the spring? Most think so. Their are few who really believe Bengie Molina will be back; the Giants wouldn’t give him more than a one-year pact with Posey around. What’s more, Posey could actually be an upgrade on offense, as Keith Law tells Rumor Central: “Posey is ready to step in as the Opening Day starter for San Francisco next year. He could easily turn out to be the third or fourth-best hitter in their lineup, and would allow the team to save close to $6 million relative to what they paid Molina while gaining on offense and defense.”
Money: Yeah, we know the Giants will pursue bats, but what about locking up the cause of their return to prominence? The good news is that Lincecum says he’d like to consider whatever long-term deal the Giants will offer, and the team controls Cain through next year, the final year of a massively cheap four-year, $9 million deal they inked with him in 2007, but they also have an option on him for 2011. They should consider getting Lincecum signed now, and save a few shekels to keep Cain around after 2011. Expect the Lincecum talks to take place.
Who 2 Watch 4: Buster Posey, C
Posey’s lack of appearances is puzzling, because he would certainly have been more valuable to the Giants down the stretch than Bengie Molina and his sub-.300 on-base percentage. Still, this is a forward-looking section, and Posey will get his chance in 2010. Splitting the season between High- and Triple-A, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft hit .325/.416/.531, showing the ability to hit for average, draw walks and drive balls with authority while gunning down more than 45 percent of opposing basestealers. He’s the rare impact player at catcher who can win games both at the plate, and behind it.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
Signed: 35 of 50
Spent: Just under $6 million.
Hit: Zack Wheeler, RHP (Sixth overall): Not only did the Giants take Wheeler instead of going the safer, cheaper route, they got him for $600,000 less than what the Rockies gave southpaw Tyler Matzek, and they did not have to hand him a big-league contract.
Miss: Chris Dominguez, 3B (86th overall): Dominguez was ranked somewhere outside of Keith Law’s Top 100, and more than one scout opined during the spring that he was more of an early second-day talent.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com
The Bottom Line
A mistake that people make when deciding what they think teams should do in the offseason is to consider the previous season’s win total as a baseline and go from there. The Giants’ overall batting line indicates that they probably should have not scored as many runs as they did, and players like Cain and Sandoval are unlikely to repeat their performances. If the Giants hold pat, they’re likely to fall below .500 in 2010. Someone like Holliday is not going to come cheap, but a bat of his caliber might be the kind that turns the Giants into a true contender in the NL West, rather than a middling one wasting the prime of one of the best pitchers in a generation.-Matt Swartz, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .