Tuesday May 29th marks game number 50 for the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 campaign. It is also a critical jumping off point for the rest of the season.
San Francisco's current 26-23 (.531) record is a long, hot and dusty bus ride to an 86-76 final stop at the end of September. In the close work world of MLB win/loss numbers, a mere three game swing in those numbers (to 29-20, .592) puts los Gigantes on a 96 win arch and a likely lock on an October playoff spot.
At this point in any season I always recall Giants' President and CEO Larry Baer's smart season-long perspective on team evaluation and management: the first 50 games are to assess the team you've got; the second 50 games are to make the necessary adjustments; and the final 62 games are all about wins.
So where are we as we reach the first 50 games of the 2012 season? Actually, not so bad. No massive overhauls required, but several critical personnel moves and a couple of other adjustments are needed to move forward. To do what needs to be done, the front office will need to be proactive and willing to make several tough decisions.
After years of anemic run scoring and weak line-ups that presented few problems to National League pitching, the 2012 Giants' everyday offense is proving to be the best run-producing unit San Francisco has seen in ten years. To date the team is hitting .260, 8th out of 30 MLB teams and 4th in the National League.
San Francisco has scored 200 runs, ranking 19th in MLB and 10th in the National League in that category; and they are scoring an average of 4.08 runs per game. So the hitting is finally beginning to provide real support to their outstanding pitching. And that's big news.
The Giants' hitting attack will start moving up in all offensive categories by mid-June when Pablo Sandoval comes off the DL and is back in the everyday line-up. Sandoval's return can't be overestimated in the impact he will have on run scoring and strengthening an already good offensive attack.
The astounding performance of current 3rd place hitter Melky Caberea prompted SF Chronicle sports writer Henry Schulman to discuss the Giants batting order once Sandoval returns. There is no question that Cabrera should continue to hit 3rd in the order, with Sandoval moving from 3rd to 4th, and Buster Posey dropping back to 5th.
Add Gregor Blanco leading off and Angel Pagan batting second, and the Giants will have a potentially serious offensive machine capable of producing enough runs to drive the runs-per-game average to 4.5+ during the last four and a half months of the season:
1. Gregor Blanco RF (.403 OBP, 21 BB, 22 RS)
2. Angel Pagan CF (.309 BA/.353 OBP/.821 OPS)
3. Melky Cabrera LF (.368 BA/.414 OBP/.966 OPS)
4. Pablo Sandoval 3B (.316 BA/.375 OBP/.912 OPS)
5. Buster Posey C (.295 BA/.358 OBP/.826 OPS)
Joaquin Arias should move seamlessly from third to second base when Sandoval returns. That leaves Brandon Belt (1B), Brandon Crawford (SS), and Arias (2B) to provide defense and whatever additional offense they can add to the mix.
The trials and tribulations of Tim Lincecum have overshadowed what has otherwise been a very good year for Giants starters and the bullpen. San Francisco is 5th overall in MLB with a 3.44 team ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. They are 4th in NL team ERA and tied for first in the National League with 4 shutouts. The bullpen comes in at 4th in the NL with a 3.08 ERA.
Sure, Lincecum getting back on track would certainly help, but his 2-5 record is not what's holding this team up. Besides, Barry Zito's excellent start (4-2 with a 3.41 ERA) has offset Lincecum's issues; and when Lincecum reboots, the starting rotation could be unstoppable.
Defense: D- (I hate giving "F"s)
With 51 errors so far the Giants lead the world in errors. But it's not the errors that are killing them, it's the unearned runs that result from those errors. That is what has really dragged this team down in 2012.
The Giants lead the Majors with 29 unearned runs allowed in their their first 49 games-- an average of .59 unearned runs per game. That brings additional pressure and tensions that undercut the pitching and the offense at every turn.
Here are the top 10 teams in unearned runs to date:
San Francisco - 29
Baltimore - 27
Tampa Bay - 26
Colorado - 26
Houston - 26
San Diego - 24
Milwaukee - 22
Detroit - 21
Texas - 21
Cincinnati - 20
The problem is the infield where 43 of the 51 errors have been made. Second base has been a defensive/offensive hole all year but that should be addressed when Sandoval comes back and Arias moves to second.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford (10 errors) is a rookie player with immense talent; his first full year is a learning curve that is well worth going through. With Crawford's incredible range and strong arm, soon enough he will be a defensive star at short-- something San Francisco hasn't had in like twenty years.
If there is an expectation for the rest of the season regarding errors it is that they will stop piling up at the current rate. But so far the errors have absolutely ground this team down and those 29 unearned runs more than accounted for the three game swing mentioned above.
There are two player issues the 2012 San Francisco Giants need to address.
First, what to do with Hector Sanchez. Pegged as the back-up catcher to Buster Posey, Sanchez has proven to be an RBI producer. He has a nice .284 BA, a poor .286 OBP, but in 74 at-bats Sanchez has plated 17 RBI. He brings power to an offense that doesn't hit many home runs (the Giants are 29th of 30 MLB teams with 31 home runs).
When Posey plays first base, Sanchez catches-- maybe once or twice a week. The idea has been floated to either, a) move Posey to first base and have Sanchez catch full time; or, b) play Hector Sanchez at first and bring up Eli Whiteside from Triple A Fresno to back up Posey behind the plate.
Giant fans around the galaxy need to understand one important point: Buster Posey is the catcher, he has no desire to move to any other position, and he is having a tremendous offensive start to the season. So a) is out.
Sanchez has worked out a little at first base and the Giants could try him out there. But the team is committed to Brandon Belt, and the idea has been to get more playing time at first for Belt. As it stands right now, Belt has more power and RBI potential than Sanchez, and Belt has an outstanding glove at first base (which goes back to the critical defense/errors issue).
So the Giants should relax when it comes to Hector Sanchez; let him catch Barry Zito, come off the bench late in games, and spot start as needed. It's not terrible to have a bat like his in the dugout-- winning teams have that.
The second personnel issue is about clearing the roster of players who have simply not produced and bring little to the party. Emmanuel Burriss (.212 BA/.499 OPS), Nate Schierholtz (.250 BA/.297 OBP), Brett Pill (.209 BA/.652 OPS), and Aubrey Huff (.167 BA/.588 OPS) are taking up roster spots and not consistently producing.
There are legitimate rationales to keep Pill and Schierholtz (righty and lefty bats off the bench, occasional power, Schierholtz's glove), and Huff (the Giants are paying him $11m this season and that's a lot to kiss off). But with an experienced infielder like Ryan Theriot in place Burriss seems likely to be non-tendered when Sandoval comes back.
Look for possible sidebar trades involving Schierholtz and/or Pill by July. The Giants will certainly not get much in return, likely a young minor league arm or two. But it opens up the roster to a potential bigger trade or possibly bringing up one of their talented minor leaguers with some pop in his bat.
June 2012 will be a critically important month for the Giants: they need to get their defense and infield in order, jumpstart the overall momentum, and make up some ground on the Los Angeles Dodgers. It will be fun to watch.