2011 San Francisco Giants: Rag-tag lineup and world-class pitching staff carried the Giants to their first World Title since moving west; can they do it again?

2010 Record: 92-70, 1st NL West
2010 Prediction: 91-71, 2nd NL West
Diff: 1
2011 Prediction: 2nd NL West

Impact Player: C Buster Posey
Impact Pitcher: RHP Tim Lincecum
Best Reliever: RHP Brian Wilson
Top Prospect: 1B/OF Brandon Belt

General Manager: Brian Sabean
Manager: Bruce Bochy (323-325, .498)

Significant Acquisitions:
SS Miguel Tejada

Significant Departures:
INF Juan Uribe, SS Edgar Renteria, OF Jose Guillen, RHP Todd Wellemeyer, RHP Denny Bautista, RHP Chris Ray

Again, don’t want to blow my own horn here, but the crowning achievement of my 2010 previews on my old MLBlogs site was predicting the Giants to win the World Series.  I had them narrowly beating out the Braves to win the Wildcard and then storming to a title on their stupidly good pitching staff.  They ended up winning the division and doing just that.

This season, the World Champion Giants (still sounds weird) return much of the same team as they fielded in 2010, which would suggest that they have a chance to repeat, but given how rare it is to repeat (unless you’re the Yankees) it seems unlikely.  But how about the Giants repeating as NL West champs?

Starting Rotation
The Giants starting rotation is one of the top two or three in all of baseball and when combined with their shutdown bullpen, which I’ll get to shortly, they probably have the best pitching staff in the game.

Tim Lincecum seems to have shed the concerns that his small body and odd delivery will one day lead to an injury.  He has become an elite starter.  In what many considered to be a bad season for Timmy, he still posted a 3.04 K/Bb ratio and a very good 3.15 FIP that put him still among the game’s elite pitchers.  His strikeout rate was the lowest it had been since 2007, but was still at 9.79 ranking him tops in all of baseball among qualified starters.

Matt Cain is a solid number two pitcher who does benefit slightly from AT&T Park’s pitcher friendly outfields, but the flyball pitcher is still very good on the road.  His park adjusted FIP has never been below 4.19 so that does suggest that he may be slightly overrates, but his ERA and FIP numbers are consistently well below that mark.  He also posted a career-best 2.46 BB/9 rate which could migrate closer to the 3.00 mark this season.

Jonathan Sanchez will probably start on the second day of the season in order to split up the lefties at the bottom of the rotation.  Sanchez had a breakout year in 2010 posting a 3.07 ERA in a career-best 193.1 innings of work.  A lot of people think he’ll regress due to his 4.00 FIP and .252 BABIP, but Sanchez has been remarkably consistent over the last three years posting WAR ratings of 2.8 in 2008, 2.1 in 2009, and 2.6 last year.  As good as he was last year, his 2008 season when he went 9-12 with a 5.01 ERA was technically a better season.  Either way as the third best starter on this team, you can’t complain.

Young left-hander Madison Bumgarner burst into the limelight during the postseason in 2010 when he posted a 2.18 ERA in 20.2 postseason innings, but Giants’ fans and informed fans around baseball have known about him for a couple years now.  Bumgarner blazed through the Giants’ minor-league system and ended up making 18 starts at the major-league level last season where he was impressive with a 3.00 ERA and a 3.66 FIP.  At only 21-years-old, the Giants pushed him hard last season as he threw 214.1 innings all told through AAA, the majors and the postseason.  Hopefully that doesn’t affect him negatively going forward.  Either way, the Giants should be careful with a pitcher who projects to be their future ace and one of the best fourth starters in baseball.

The fifth starter will be Barry Zito who makes way too much money, but still has to be considered one helluva number five pitcher.  Zito must have been crushed when he was left off the postseason roster last season in favour of Bumgarner, but if he was he hasn’t shown it.  Zito is a durable innings-eater and managed a 4.25 FIP last year, which isn’t the worst number in the world.

One thing the Giants really had in their favour last year was the health of their pitching staff.  If that luck doesn’t favour them again in 2011, there aren’t a lot of depth options for them.  Henry Sosa is probably the only pitcher currently on the 40-man who could step in and that probably doesn’t sit too well with Giants’ fans.

Bullpen
Along with their division rivals in San Diego, the Giants have one of the best bullpens around.  Closer Brian Wilson has a future in comedy once his playing days are over as exhibited by his many offseason TV appearances, but there’s no doubting his ability on the mound.  Last season Wilson posted 48 saves and a 1.81 ERA to go along with a stupid 2.19 FIP.  He rarely gives up long flyballs and posted a 11.21 K/9 rate last year which makes for a potent combination.

One of the best setup men in baseball last season was Sergio Romo who some say (although probably without really looking at the numbers) that he was better than Wilson last season.  Romo also posted a FIP below 3.00 and struck-out a ton of batters.  He also exhibited better control than Wilson with a very good 2.03 BB/9 rate which led to a surreal 5.00 K/BB ratio.

Veteran left-hander Jeremy Affeldt wasn’t terrific in 2010, but he was good enough to be brought back in a setup role.  Affeldt was outstanding in the three seasons leading up to last year so there’s no reason to think he can’t get back there in 2011.

Santiago Casilla is back after his 1.95 ERA and 9.11 K/9 rate last season and he’s joined in middle-relief by submarine left-hander Javier Lopez.  Lopez had a 1.42 ERA and 2.36 FIP in 27 games with the Giants after being brought over from the Pirates.

Ramon Ramirez is back after he too saw a resurgence in his numbers after being traded to San Fran.  After posting a 4.66 ERA and 4.59 FIP in 42.1 innings with the Red Sox, Boston shipped Ramirez off to the Giants where he proceeded to dominate with a 0.67 ERA in 27 innings of work.  His sudden inability to strike people out is a little worrying, but he’s throwing as hard as he ever was.

The final spot in the bullpen will likely go to lefty Dan Runzler who had a 3.14 FIP in 32.2 innings last season, but Steve Edlefsen, Alex Hinshaw, and non-roster invites Guillermo Mota and Casey Daigle are also being given shots to crack the team.  The 37-year-old Mota posted a 3.86 FIP in 54 innings with the Giants last season.

Catchers
Despite only being called up in June, catcher Buster Posey quickly became the best position player on the team.  He absolutely mashed in July with a .417/.466/.699 slash line on his way to being named the NL Player of the Month, but we merely average in every other month.  He put up solid numbers in the postseason and he should increase his walk-rate in 2011 which will help him overall.  Whether or not he can repeat his .305/.357/.505 slash line remains to be seen, but either way he’ll be a very good catcher for a long time.

Backing up the young phenom is veteran minor-leaguer Eli Whiteside who did a decent enough job in short stints last season to warrant a chance.  If he falters, the next best option may be non-roster player Chris Stewart.  Like in starting pitching, the Giants have a shocking lack of depth organizationally at catcher.  Given the high injury rate at the position, this could be a problem.

Infielders
Aubrey Huff is expected to start the year as the first baseman after a terrific rebound 2010 that resulted in a .290/.385/.506 slash line and 26 homeruns.  He even played solid defence accumulating a 6.7 UZR rating all leading to a 5.7 WAR.  The defensive play was a bit fluky considering he’s never put up good defensive numbers anywhere in his career, but there’s reason to be hopeful that the plate performance was for real.

Huff’s BABIP wasn’t much higher than his career mark and neither was his batting average or his slugging percentage.  The one stat that could come back down is his walk-rate which was over 12% last year despite a career mark just over 8%.  At 34-years-old, Huff could just as easily embark back on the decline he seemed to be on in 2009 when he split the year between the Orioles and Tigers, but they might be able to get another solid year from him.  The problem with Huff is that he’s signed to a two-year deal with a third-year option for 2013 and there’s little chance that he’s going to continue to produce solid numbers beyond this season.

Factor in the fact that uber-prospect first baseman Brandon Belt will see major-league time this season and might even break camp with the team and the Huff deal looks questionable at best.  Putting Belt or Huff in the outfield is not something the Giants should want to do, but that’s what appears will happen.

At second base is Freddy Sanchez who is a solid everyday player who can hit with solid contact and plays his position well.  The 33-year-old will make $6-million this season before hitting the open market next fall.

At shortstop is Miguel Tejada who was signed to a $6.5-million deal for this season.  He still has some value offensively, but he’s probably not good enough with the glove to play anywhere in the infield let alone shortstop.  He should have been moved off the position years ago and in fact was moved to third by Baltimore last year before the Padres traded for him and moved him back to short.  It’s only for one year, but playing Tejada there will probably hurt more than help and considering he’s 37, his bat will continue to decline.

Third baseman Pablo Sandoval has been left for dead by most pundits and casual observers.  After showing unprecedented hitting skills in his first couple years at the big-league level, Sandoval fell off last year posting a .314 wOBA a year after being in the conversation for the batting title and posting a .396 wOBA.  Sandoval showed up to camp this year having shed 35 pounds and looking to be in terrific shape.  Not only that, but he had one good year and some are saying he’s washed up…at 24-years-old.  Give your head a shake if you think that way, Sandoval has all of the makings of a player who could win multiple batting titles.

First baseman Travis Ishikawa never quite lived up to his lofty expectations, but last season he was a quality bench player and valuable defensive replacement.  He’ll serve that role again with Huff expected to be the first baseman.  If Belt gets called up at some point, Ishi could be the odd man out.  He does still have one option left, but he hasn’t played in the minors since 2008.

Mike Fontenot was acquired last year from the Cubs and is back as the utility infielder.  He’s not a good defensive player and combined with his punchless bat, he’s below-replacement value.

Emmanuel Burriss is still around and can play second and the outfield if he gets called up at some point; he’ll have to clear waivers to remain in the organization if he’s sent down as he is out of options.

Outfielders
Mark DeRosa missed almost all of last year with an injury and if he’s healthy, he should get the majority of playing time in leftfield.  His versatility is his best asset as he can play in the corner outfield, third, second, and first.  He could shift to third if Sandoval loses the job (he won’t).

In centerfield is Andres Torres who came out of nowhere as a career minor-leaguer to post a 6.0 WAR season.  He was solid with the bat posting a .268/.343/.479 slash line with 16 homeruns and 26 stolen bases, but his real value was in the field where he posted a 21.2 UZR while playing all three outfield positions.  Torres’ breakout year came at the age of 32 which doesn’t bode well for in his quest to live up to his 2010.  Expect him to regress back to a solid fourth outfielder in 2011.

The rightfielder will be Cody Ross who was practically released by Florida last year when the Giants plucked him from the scrap heap and rode him to their improbable title.  Ross isn’t a bad player, but he’s not the guy who hit five homeruns in 15 postseason games last year and won an NLCS MVP.  Like Torres, Ross is a player who’s likely best suited for a fourth outfielder role on a good team.

The gaps in the outfield make Belt’s call up more likely as he is athletic enough to handle a corner spot, at least in the short term and all three of the current outfielders are utility players pushed into starting roles.

Veteran Pat Burrell was another scrap-heap pickup last year from Tampa Bay and will probably split time with DeRosa in leftfield.  His terrible defence should keep him out of the lineup as it’s likely he’ll fade back into deep decline like he had shown for a year-and-a-half in Tampa Bay.

Aaron Rowand is still on this team and will be paid $24-million over the next two years to sit on the bench.  He’ll still get quite a lot of playing time considering who’s ahead of him on the depth chart.

Nate Schierholtz meanwhile, is out of options and could find himself on the waiver-wire if he doesn’t make the team.

For a chart breaking down the roster of the World Champion Giants, click here.

Overview
The chances of the Giants repeating are pretty slim mostly because any team repeating is rare, but the Giants have the additional wrinkle of an outfield who’s best player is a 33-year-old utility man.  The pitching staff, as it did last year, will carry them into contention with the Dodgers and Rockies in the NL West, but unless all of the unlikely heroes such as Huff, Ross, Burrell, and Torres repeat their surprising years, the Giants will have a hard time getting back to the World Series in 2011.  Stranger things have happened and with pitching that good, anything is possible.
Final Prediction: 88-74, 2nd NL West

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