Now is the time for MLB teams with a shot to make the post season to make critical decisions about their starting rotations and batting line-ups. Setting up for the playoffs involves not only putting your best players in a position where they can excel, it's also about first round match-ups with likely opponents.
Few playoff bound teams aren't grappling with at least several serious key player performance or injury issues. Maybe the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals come the closest to having their ducks lined up, although the Nationals' decision to shut down ace starter Stephen Strasberg is by far the most controversial story of the 2012 post season.
As the San Francisco Giants continue to lengthen their lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in pursuit of the NL West title, it is the Reds or the Nationals they will probably face to start the playoffs. And San Francisco approaches the 2012 post season with maybe the most serious issues of any potential playoff team. Here are three problems that must be tackled to give the Giants their best chance to go deep into the upcoming postseason:
1. The Starting Rotation
This starts and ends with Tim Lincecum.
Lincecum has turned his season around, but it hasn't been a dramatic improvement. On July 8th Lincecum was 3-10 with a 6.42 ERA and 1.58 WHIP; as of his September 12th win against Colorado he is 9-14 with a 5.08 ERA and 1.48 WHIP.
Lincecum has shed an impressive 1.34 in ERA over that span but his 6-4 record and 3.65 ERA over that period only hits a 7.0 on the cautious optimism scale. San Francisco needs to go into the post season with a primary rotation of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong-- in that order. Lincecum was brilliant in the 2010 post season and World Series. But that was then.
And here's the shocker: this time around the Giants better take Barry Zito along for the post season ride because when the need comes up (as it will during the playoffs) for a fourth starter, Lincecum just might be watching Zito walk out to the mound.
2. The Left Field Problem
When the Giants brought veteran outfielder Xavier Nady up from Triple A Fresno to play left field in the September 1st game against the Cubs, it looked like the gaping hole in the batting line-up left by Melky Cabrera had been patched. Nady went 4 for 12 in 5 games with 3 RBI before he went down with a left hamstring strain.
Deposed left fielder Gregor Blanco has filled in admirably for Nady, going 7 for 21 since September 4th, but that effort only raised Blanco's average from .234 to .242. Although Blanco has proven he is not an everyday outfielder, he does bring much needed speed and defense from the bench as the fourth outfielder.
Xavier Nady and his extra-base hit bat should be back in the line-up this weekend for the three game series against Arizona and the hope is he's fully healed and able to play every day. With a 1 through 7 line-up of Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt the Giants offense is in great shape.
But add Xavier Nady batting in either the 6th or 7th slot, and that line-up has run producing potential from top to bottom.
3. Chilling Out the Panda
Pablo Sandoval has struggled through two stints on the disabled list this season that cost him and the team 53 missed games. Coming back from those injuries has at times been a struggle for Sandoval who is a gamer of the first order. His August stats were terrible-- a .211 BA, 2 extra base hits and no home runs. He has gone from hitting +.300 to .276, all likely the result of trying too hard to make up lost ground.
Manager Bruce Bochy wisely sat Sandoval on the bench one game this week just before an off-day. He obviously needed that time off and he may need more. What San Francisco needs is a healthy and rested Pablo Sandoval fully contributing from the third hole in this line-up throughout the playoffs. And, yes, the weight issue and conditioning is still a problem.
While it's somewhat preemptive to assume anything until this team actually clinches a playoff spot, think about this: if the Giants went 9-10 in their last nineteen games their record would be 90-72. For the Dodgers (74-70) just to tie the Giants they would have to go 16-2 the rest of the way.
It's time for the Giants to realign their starting pitching and reboot their offensive attack to have the best chance for post season success.