Tuesday, March 3, 2009

San Francisco Giants Spring Training—Have We Underestimated the Pitching?

The early spring reports from San Francisco Giants' camp have been conservatively encouraging. The news has, for the most part, been good and that's better than the alternative. However, these are only Spring Training games and very early ones at that. Nor have the surfacings been entirely cheerful.

Noah Lowry's recovery from his arm injury hasn't been progressing as smoothly as all involved hoped and Matt Cain's luck doesn't seem to have changed thus far in 2009.

But, like I said, it's early in the preseason.

What's more, the Giants don't necessarily need Lowry if Jonathan Sanchez can continue to mature and discover that elusive consistency that every young hurler lusts after.

To that end, Sanchez has apparently added another pitch and one of the offspeed variety.

A changeup makes the development twice as intriguing since the kid features mostly hard offerings to date. Those pitches have received pretty rave reviews so pairing the hard stuff up with a good change would make the lefty's arsenal all the more devastating.

The head of the rotation is a no-brainer.

San Francisco fans can't expect Tim Lincecum to reproduce his magical 2008 Cy Young campaign, but we can hope for such an encore performance. And something approximating his 2008 dominance shouldn't be too surprising considering the Franchise is only 25 in June. He's got a lot of baseball still left to learn and there's still some physical maturation in that body so there's a decent chance the Freak will get even more freakish.

But the developments that have really got me dreaming are those concerning Barry Zito and Randy Johnson.

Zito's slated for the fourth slot in the rotation by my figuring and that means he doesn't have to be outstanding to make a strong contribution to the Orange and Black in 2009. Most number four starters in Major League Baseball are not gonna win 15 games while pitching to a mid-3.00 earned run average.

So the whisperings out of Giants' camp that Zito looks more relaxed and comfortable than he ever has in a San Francisco uniform is good to hear. As are the tidings of his offseason spent working out with Brian Wilson.

Then there's the Big Unit. The real reason why I'm now thinking SF's pitching might be even more tremendous that it first looked.

When I started drooling over the potential of a strong starting rotation—one through five—handing off to a reinforced bullpen, I was thinking Randy would be decent. Not even a shade of his former self, but still as good or better than most number threes.

Well, in his first appearance of the Spring against his former ballclub (the Arizona Diamondbacks), Johnson struck out seven in three innings. As in seven of nine outs. And the D-Backs had most of their regulars in to face the Departed.

OK, I know I said it's early in the preseason and these games don't mean much anyway.

Still, striking out seven regular MLB hitters in three innings is impressive. Regardless of when you do it. Regardless of whether it's done against hitters who have yet to find their stroke.

By that fifth batter, you know those guys were screwing in with a new-found intensity. And they still couldn't fight the Big Unit off. The icing on the cake is that Randy still feels good after the outing and is feeling stronger than he has over the last several years.

That's REALLY good news.

Let's not forget that Randy Johnson was still a pretty formidable pitcher in very recent years when he could take his starts. If he can make that good feeling last for the majority of the year, he could turn a strong staff into a truly special one.

With Lincecum and Cain continuing to reward San Francisco for patience and vision, the Giants have a legit ace and a blossoming number two. With Sanchez hopefully making a bid to join the other two young studs, he should better than virtually every fifth starter in the game and might even bump Zito down to the five spot by the end of the year.

With Zito and Johnson experiencing a pseudo-renaissance to their youthful glory days, the San Francisco pitching cup would runneth over.

Of course, the Giants' offensive radar hasn't been showing too many promising blips yet—although Travis Ishikawa is heating up—so that cup better be overflowing if 2009 is gonna see a return to competitive relevance.

So far, so good.

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