Friday, October 2, 2009

5 Reasons To Be Excited About The 2010 San Francisco Giants (That No One Is Really Talking About)

What a year 2009 has been for Giants fans.

A team that was written off before the season even started gave the faithful a season full of exciting moments, virtuoso performances and reasons to be optimistic about the future.

Everyone's favorite freak Tim Lincecum delivered a second straight Cy Young worthy campaign and established himself as the best pitcher in all of baseball.

Pablo Sandoval stepped forward as the Giants next big star and provided the best nickname in baseball, Kung Fu Panda.

Not to be outdone by his Cy Young winning partner, Matt Cain became an All-Star for the first time and showed why the Giants were willing to start him in the big leagues at the tender age of 20.

Jonathan Sanchez tossed the team's first no-hitter since 1976 and gave the fans and the organization a glimpse of his immense potential.

All of this and more were accomplished in the midst of the Giants first real run at the playoffs since 2004, and while that bid came up just short in the season's final month, the promise of things to come has never been more exciting.

Everyone knows about Lincecum and Cain, Sandoval and stud prospects Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey. But here are five things I'm excited to see in 2010.

5. Andres Torres - Call me crazy, but I love this guy. At 31 he's no spring chicken, but with less than 400 career at-bats in the big leagues he's hardly been run into the ground. Think Shane Victorino but with more pop in his bat.

In just 140 ABs this season Torres managed 20 extra base hits and led the team in triples with 8. He drove in 21 runs, scored 30 and managed to swipe 5 bags while only being caught once. His .270 batting average is nothing special, but his OPS of .876 was second only to Sandoval.

Spread that kind of production over a full season (500+ ABs) and you're looking at something on the order of a .270 batting average with 20 HRs, 80 RBIs, 110 runs and 20 SBs.

Compare that to $60 million dollar man Aaron Rowand, who in 490 at bats only managed to score 61 runs while hitting .261 with an OPS nearly 150 points lower than Torres.

Now obviously the Giants aren't going to push Rowand to the bench given how much money they have invested in him, but maybe they should. At the very least Torres should be the teams opening day left fielder. Of course, should the Giants retain second baseman Freddy Sanchez, the team will be hard pressed to not have emerging leadoff man Eugenio Velez in the starting lineup, most likely in LF.

All that aside, with Randy Winn's contract up and the disappointing Fred Lewis clearly not a viable option, I would be just fine with an outfield of Torres, Rowand and Nate Shierholtz come April 5, 2010.

Which brings me to number four...

4. Nate Shierholtz - 2009 was supposed to be the year that Shierholtz finally got a chance to play as the full time right fielder, but thanks to manager Bruce Bochy's loyalty to the veteran Winn, that extended playing time never really came to pass.

To be fair, Shierholtz didn't really do himself any favors with his overall performance throughout the year, and his .371 average as a pinch hitter didn't help his cause either as clearly Bochy liked having him as a late inning replacement.

However, during one stretch in late June, Shierholtz started and played all nine innings in 8 straight games, his longest such stretch of the season. In that 8 game run Shierholtz went 14-for-32 with 2 HRs and 7 runs scored, lifting his batting average from .258 to .311 in that span.

Obviously that's a very short stint as an everyday player, but you can see the potential for bigger and better things every time he takes the field.

A left-handed hitter, Shierholtz killed left-handed pitching to the tune of a .385 average with 3 HRs and 12 RBIs in only 52 ABs. That bodes well for him moving forward as his production against right handers is bound to improve.

Blessed with one of the strongest throwing arms in the National League, he's a very capable defender in what is perhaps the most difficult right field in all of baseball at AT&T Park.

Like Torres, with Winn and Lewis most likely out of the picture, Shierholtz should actually get a chance to play 150+ games in 2010 and I for one am excited to see what he will do with the opportunity.

3. Bullpen Strength - The Giants bullpen in 2009 was nothing short of spectacular, thanks in large part to two men, lefty set-up man (and best free agent signing since Benji Molina) Jeremy Affeldt and closer Brian Wilson.

Those of you out there that are Giants fans may be cringing that I named Wilson here, but be honest, heart attacks and random blowup innings aside, the Giants haven't had a closer as reliable as the flame-throwing Wilson since Robb Nen.

Wilson backed up his All-Star campaign of a season ago, in which he saved 41 games, with 38 saves in 2009 while shaving more than a point-and-a-half off his ERA. His walks were down despite pitching nine more innings than in 2008 and he struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings pitched.

Of course many Giants fans will point to the seven blown saves in 2009, most notable of which was a ninth inning, two out, two strike, two run HR served up to Cubs 3B Jeff Baker which essentially eliminated the Giants from Wild Card contention. For my money though, Wilson is as reliable an option as the Giants have had in a long time and the improvement in his overall numbers is a positive sign that he should only get better.

As for Affeldt, what can you say? Operating as the Giants lone lefty out of the pen for most of the year, he has appeared in a team high 74 games and posted a sterling 1.73 ERA in the process. Quite simply, the Giants would not have won nearly as many games had it not been for the efforts of Affeldt, and at $4 million a year he is an absolute steal.

What I'm excited to see in 2010 is the further development of Sergio Romo as a battle tested late inning guy, as well as the addition of emerging 24-year-old rookie Dan Runzler as Affeldt's left handed wing man.

Toss in capable middle relief guys like Brandon Medders, Bob Howry and Justin Miller with possible contributions from hard throwing youngsters like Waldis Joaquin and Osiris Matos, and a bullpen that allowed a league low 3.8 runs per game may be even better.

2. Minor Achievements - If there's one thing that I am truly happy to see from the Giants these days, it's the commitment they've shown to developing players from within the organization. A major shift from just a few years ago when they were more than happy to forfeit draft picks in order to sign aging veteran free agents.

Everyone knows about the organizations top two prospects, Bumgarner and Posey, but several other Giants farmhands took major steps forward in 2009 and watching them progress towards the big leagues should continue to be fun to watch.

Topping that list is OF/1B Thomas Neal who was a serious contender for Minor League Player of the Year. Neal, a 36th round draft pick in 2005, took a major step forward this season playing all year at High-A San Jose as a 21-year-old, hitting .337 with 41 doubles, 22 HRs and 90 RBIs.

Neal's outfield mate in San Jose, Roger Kieschnick, also turned in a stellar season as the 2008 3rd round pick hit .296 with 23 HRs and 110 RBIs. Together, Neal and Kieschnick are the organizations two brightest power prospects and could see time in San Francisco as early as next September.

Another player to watch is shortstop Brandon Crawford who spent time with both San Jose as well as Double-A affiliate Connecticut as a 22-year-old. A 4th round pick in 2008, Crawford has shot through the system, reaching Double-A in his first full season as a pro.

Between his two stops, Crawford hit .282 with 10 HRs, 48 RBIs and 13 SBs, but struggled a bit with the more advanced pitching in Double-A. Still, his ascension marks the first time in quite a while that the Giants have such an exciting prospect at the SS position. Another season or two of growth and you could see Crawford in the big leagues as early as 2011.

One of the more pleasant surprises in the system in 2009 was first baseman Brett Pill who was named the Eastern League's top first baseman. Pill, a 2006 7th round pick, hit .298 with 19 HRs and 109 RBIs and was a defensive standout as well with a .997 fielding percentage. Given the Giants inability to find a quality, full-time first baseman, you can be sure Pill will get a look sooner rather than later.

Known mostly for their ability to churn out quality arms, the Giants actually traded away two of their more promising pitchers in 2009 when they dealt righty Tim Alderson and lefty Scott Barnes in separate deals for 2B Freddy Sanchez and 1B Ryan Garko respectively.

Even with the loss of Alderson and Barnes, the Giants are still stocked with quality pitching throughout the system. The headliner is of course Bumgarner, but behind him are solid prospects such as Henry Sosa, Craig Clark, Clayton Tanner and Eric Surkamp. Not to mention 2009 1st round draft pick, Georgia high school righty Zach Wheeler.

Sosa unfortunately was lost for the season in June when he tore a shoulder muscle, but prior to that he had gone 6-0 for Double-A Connecticut, posting a 2.36 ERA in the process. If he can get healthy, he's certainly someone to watch.

Clark, a 14th round pick in 2007, has been somewhat of a surprise for the Giants. The lefty pitched all season at High-A San Jose going 16-2 with a 2.86 ERA and 135 Ks to only 36 BBs.

Tanner meanwhile started to show he was worth his selection in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft as he pitched a second full season in San Jose at 21-years-old, going 12-6 with a 3.17 ERA. Tanner has the added advantage of still being very young and if he can cut down on the home runs allowed (he gave up 18 in 2009), he could provide solid starting pitching depth down the line.

Last on the list is Surkamp, yet another lefty, who the Giants drafted in the 6th round of the 2008 draft. In his first full season as a pro, the 22-year-old Surkamp was outstanding at Class-A Augusta, going 11-5 with a 3.30 ERA and 169 Ks in 131 innings pitched.

All in all, things look bright in terms of quality young players progressing through the system. The Giants have a strong history of drafting well and it's great to see them finally commit to keeping and grooming their own prospects.

1. Hope - Say what you want, but if you're a real fan of whatever team, all you can really ask for is that your team provides you with real hope for things to come.

Sure, if you're a Yankees fan, maybe hope isn't good enough. But for the rest of us the excitement is in what could be, and right now I personally can't wait for the Giants to take the field in 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Adam,

    Great read and great blog, especially interesting for someone like me who know squat about American Football.

    Love to read more,

    Anita Doctolero