Giants post-script, 2009

As the San Francisco Giants began their 2009 campaign, I wrote:

If the Giants hit the way they did in 2008… well, it’ll be a long summer in San Francisco.

As it happened, the Giants did, in fact, hit this season pretty much the way they did last season. The team batting average (.262 in ’08, .257 in ’09) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.703 last year, .699 this year) actually declined. Still, the Giants managed their first winning campaign in five years, thanks largely to one of the best pitching staffs — if not indeed the best staff — in the major leagues.

San Francisco came within two games of completely reversing its dismal 2008 record — the club improved from 72-90 to 88-74, a 16-game uptick — and remained in the National League wild-card race until only five games were left to play. By any measure, that’s a monumental achievement.

Instead of being a long summer, it proved to be just a few weeks too short.

So, while the glow of exploded expectations remains fresh, let’s talk about who did what for the G-Men in ’09.

Starting pitching: Tim “The Freak” Lincecum made good on his 2008 Cy Young Award with another stellar season (15-7, 2.45 ERA, four complete games — two of which were shutouts — and a league-leading 261 strikeouts). Fortunately for Timmy, he didn’t have to carry all of the weight this year. Matt Cain rebounded from a disappointing ’08 to log the best season of his young career (14-8, 2.89. four complete games, 171 K’s). Barry Zito’s year mirrored the preceding one — he stank up the joint for the first two months of the season (1-6 at the end of May), then pitched solidly for the next four months (9-7 after June 1). Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter against San Diego on July 10 — the first by a Giants pitcher since John “The Count” Montefusco accomplished the feat in 1976 — in the middle of another hot-and-cold campaign. In what likely will be the coda of a Hall of Fame career, 45-year-old Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson pitched fairly well (8-6 in 17 starts) before an injury sidelined him until the closing days of the season. Johnson’s farewell appearance — in relief, in the season’s final game — earned him a blown save (the Giants won in extra innings, on a Pablo Sandoval home run). Waiver-wire pickup Brad Penny, who joined the team on September 1 after a dismal year in Boston, pitched with fire and bravado in the final month, posting a 4-1 record and a 2.59 ERA in six starts for the Giants. Grade: A-.

Relief pitching: The Giants’ bullpen, an unqualified disaster in ’08, developed into one of the National League’s best in ’09. Closer Brian Wilson, an All-Star last season, posted another solid year (38 saves, third in the NL) despite adding drama to almost every game he entered. The ‘pen benefited most from the arrival of lefty Jeremy Affeldt, who proved himself one of the top set-up specialists in baseball (a 1.73 ERA in 74 appearances). Rookie Brandon Medders and veteran Justin Miller led the rest of the relief corps, pitching consistently as the middle-inning workhorses before Miller went down with a season-ending injury in late summer. Sergio Romo struggled after an early injury. Merkin Valdez failed to live up to his considerable promise, Aging Bob Howry — the oldest member of the staff at 35, outside of the Big Unit — set a career record for walk-off home runs surrendered to rookies. Late-season promotion Dan Runzler, on the other hand, looks like a gamer. Grade: B.

Catching: Veteran Bengie Molina again demonstrated his value behind the plate. Offensively, Molina stumbled beneath the burden of being the club’s miscast cleanup hitter. “Big Money” smacked 20 home runs for the first time in his career, but his overall production sagged. He drove in 80 runs — down from 95 in ’08 — dropped his batting average nearly 30 points, and struck out 30 more times than the previous year despite playing in 13 fewer games. Molina’s backup, career minor leaguer Eli Whiteside, showed exceptional defensive and game-calling skills, but an anemic bat (.228 with two home runs). One of the key offseason problems for Giants management will be whether to resign the deteriorating Molina for another year, or hand the catching job to top prospect Buster Posey. Grade: B-.

Infield: The Giants discovered their first post-Barry Bonds everyday star in Pablo Sandoval. The 22-year-old Kung Fu Panda broke out big-time in his first full season, leading the team in every offensive category — .330 BA (second in the NL), 25 home runs, 44 doubles, 90 RBI, and a whopping .943 OPS — while splitting time between third base and first. Sandoval’s infectious joie de vivre added spark to an otherwise lackluster lineup. Free agent pickup Juan Uribe, intended as a utility player, blossomed in an ever-changing role as second baseman Emmanuel Burriss’s season was aborted by injury, and shortstop Edgar Renteria gimped through the year with bone chips in his elbow. Uribe’s .824 OPS made him second on the club in offense thump behind Sandoval. The Giants traded at the deadline for second baseman Freddy Sanchez, but a host of ailments impeded his ability to take the field, much less contribute effectively. Another trade acquisition, first baseman Ryan Garko, was another nonfactor. Another first base candidate, Travis Ishikawa, settled into mediocrity at the plate after a red-hot spring training. Second baseman-outfielder Eugenio Velez returned late in the season from a minor league demotion with rejuvenated offensive aggressiveness — the Giants just have to find a position for his below-average defense. Grade: B.

Outfield: The best way I can think of to describe the Giants’ outfield this year? A whole lotta nothin’. The vast expanses of AT&T Park were patrolled in ’09 mostly by guys who couldn’t hit water if they jumped off the McCovey Cove promenade. Of the five players who saw the most outfield innings — Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand, Fred Lewis, Nate Schierholtz, and the aforementioned Velez — not one hit for a .270 average or drove in 65 runs, and only Rowand clouted double-digit home runs (16 — Schierholtz and Velez were tied for second among the outfielders with five HR each). That’s a monumental black hole among the traditional power positions. If you seek a reason for San Francisco’s offensive ineptitude, look no further. Grade: D.

Dugout: Results count, so credit manager Bruce Bochy and his staff — especially pitching coach Dave Righetti and bullpen coach Mark Gardner — for making the most of this lopsided mix. If I had to guess, I would bet that Bochy and most of his team will be retained for next season (no formal announcement has been made, but the rumor is already circulating), but that hitting coach Carney Lansford will be kicked to the curb. (Lansford’s replacement may be minor league instructor Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, who’s said to be responsible for Velez’s late-season turnaround.) Grade: B.

Overall: For a team that many — yours truly included — thought might be one of the worst clubs in baseball going into the season, 2009 was a phenomenal year. With even one more capable bat to complement Sandoval, the Giants would be playing postseason baseball right now. Management will have to exhaust every option to bring more offense to the club between now and next spring. With a magnificent rotation — the Giants will need to decide whether to pursue Brad Penny for an ongoing deal — and an improving bullpen, San Francisco simply must find ways to push more runs across the plate. This ’09 team was 75-25 in games in which the offense scored three or more runs. Just imagine what Lincecum, Cain, Zito, Wilson, Affeldt and company might do behind a lineup that could tally four runs per game. That smells like a World Series to me. Grade: B.

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Explore posts in the same categories: I Love the Giants, My Home Town, Sports Bar

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