Sunday, April 5, 2009

One Last Look at the SF Giants Before the Majesty of Opening Day

It's official—Opening Day for the 2009 Major League Baseball season has finally arrived.

The first pitch of the game tonight between the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves will herald the opening of another 162-game sprint. The rest of baseball opens tomorrow or on Tuesday.

Our beloved San Francisco Giants are among that latter group of teams whose fans must endure not one, but two barrages of opening days before seeing their favorite set of nine take the diamond.

Hopefully, the '09 season will be worth the wait.

And, if you like the optimistic interpretation of the Orange and Black's spring session, there is very good reason for hope.

By now, the secret (if you could ever really call it that) is out regarding San Francisco's pitching staff. Even the cooler heads around MLB expect the Giants to sniff around the edges of the National League West race based on the arms alone.

Having done so a number of times, there's no reason to further extol the virtues of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, Brian Wilson, and the rest of the bullpen.

Nothing has changed except for the usual minor bumps and bruises of the preseason.

Who knows whether those are genuine or just possum sightings in an extended Spring Training and who cares? The Big Unit's sore, Sanchez burned his finger, and Wilson has some sort of infection in one of his digits—none of that sounds terribly serious even if legit.

Nah, the developing story as SF romps into the regular season is the offense:

1. Pablo Sandoval hit .442 with three home runs in 77 spring at-bats.

2. Freddie Lewis hit .366 in 71 ABs.

3. Emanuel Burriss hit .341 in 85 ABs.

4. Eugenio Velez hit .324 in 68 ABs.

5. Travis Ishikawa hit .316 in 79 ABs.

It's true veterans like Edgar Renteria, Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand, and Bengie Molina all struggled. But this was a brutally long and alien preseason because of the World Baseball Classic.

If veterans tend to coast through a normal Spring Training, it would stand to reason 2009's was even less enthusiastically received. This is why it's important to pump the breaks as the boys break camp (I'll get to that later).

Barring substantial injury, Winn is gonna hit around .300 with 10-15 HRs, 30-40 doubles, and he'll steal you around 20 bags. Forget about his spring and write it down—not only are those essentially his career averages over 162 games, they're basically the numbers Randy's tallied every year since 2002.

Rowand and Molina should put up a very similar year compared to the production the two players combined for in 2008.

By that, I mean Molina will probably regress a little because his '08 body of work was a masterpiece of clutch hitting and carrying an offense using sheer power of will. His year doesn't look too unusual compared to the rest on his resume, but he was playing the role of Barry Bonds last year and not doing a poor job considering the amount of pressure such entails.

It's unfair to expect Big Money to do that again—the man is mortal like all others (except for the chemically enhanced Super Bonds).

On the other hand, Rowand had the year most people expected after leaving the potent lineup and small yard in Philly. He lost almost half his '07 runs, over half of his bombs, almost 20 runs batted in, and he dropped 30 points off his average.

While Bengie will probably come down to Earth a tad, Rowand should be able compensate by having a better year, the one he's capable of having—it won't look like his breakout season in 2007, but somewhere in between should do nicely.

Who knows what the Giants will get from Renteria? I doubt it will be as profound an upgrade as the brass is trying to spin it, but the dude HAS to be an upgrade.

Even if the new shortstop returns to his most glorious of glory days, this was never a splinter that was going to power the offense. At his pinnacle, Edgar was a very nice piece to move runners around and score runs himself.

But his OPS maxed out at .874 in 2003 and has broken the .800 barrier precisely three times in a 13-year career. In other words, all versions of Renteria will need help from the rest of the bats—a rejuvenated one included.

Which is why the springs put together by some of the younger guys are so encouraging.

Unfortunately, it is my duty to remind you, fair reader, Spring Training must be taken with a grain of salt.

It is not usually representative of the regular season for many, many reasons. Perhaps the most significant is the different approaches different players take.

Unproven commodities trying to make the team or win a starting spot tend to attack the preseason with a midseason ferocity. Established players tend to coast or focus on weaknesses.

Pitchers usually work on their arsenals in a piecemeal fashion—that greatly skews the hitting sample because a power pitcher may be working on his dookie or a crafty vet may be working one approach with predictable and hittable repetition.

Mix it all together and you'll see some highly misleading results.

This is the other way to interpret the spring session—the pessimist's perspective. And there's more to it.

If SF's glass is half-empty, you must also include the rising expectations and the solidifying NL West picture.

A young ballclub like the Giants needs to sneak up on people to maximized its potential. Our guys can no longer do that—MLB has circled Sandoval as a guy to watch and treat gently.

The impressive production from the other youngsters will certainly raise a few eyebrows, skeptical brows though they may be.

I implied the cover had recently been blown off the pitching staff, but—in truth—the Freak's Cy Young probably did that a while ago and the Big Unit's arrival only drew more attention. It's a safe bet even casual observers knew this would be the strength of the team and one of the better collections in all of baseball.

The San Francisco Giants are no longer flying under anyone's radar—they're a big, loud blip on the screen. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't play loose and free to potential, I'm just saying it's gotten more difficult since February.

Furthermore, both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks are looking stronger and stronger.

LA obviously gets a boost from Manny Ramirez, but Matt Kemp sounds like he's maturing mentally as well as physically and that could mean trouble for the rest of MLB. The rotation still looks borderline dreadful to these eyes, but James McDonald could turn that ship right around if he can tread Big League water.

In Arizona, you're starting to see stirrings from Eric Byrnes and Felipe Lopez is beginning to worry me. If Byrnes can return to a shadow of his top gear and Lopez becomes the player experts once thought he was destined to become, the Snakes' O gets a dramatic boost.

Throw in a resurgent Chad Tracy, a core of young-but-experienced uber-talents (Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds, Chris Young, Connor Jackson, Justin Upton, etc.), that ridiculous staff with Max Scherzer progressing at the back end, and the Diamondbacks look more like the team to beat with each sweep of the clock.

If you've got your rose-colored specs on, the young maple and ash has you feeling pretty good about the boys. The pitching should be able to compete with any team's stable so it won't take too much offense to hang with the other contenders.

The seeds of that offense seem to be blooming so indulge those dreams of an NL West flag.

If you've draped yourself in a wet blanket, Spring Training is meaningless and popping up on the radar screen turns the San Francisco Giants from dark horse to overrated in the wink of an ESPN column.

The beautiful thing about Opening Day is that we get to start stripping away the ifs and see who's right.

It's time for some real baseball.

Today, life is very good.

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