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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Brandon Belt, Your Opening Day 1B

Breaking: Brandon Belt is the new starting first baseman for the San Francisco Giants.

Wow, who could have predicted that? Oh, I did, back in January: read it here. No big deal, whatever.

More to come on this story later.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

2011 Predictions: I Have No Way To Make This Title Clever


Prediction posts are fun. They’re invariably proven wrong, and always serve to tick off fans who think you’ve disrespected their team by picking them to finish third. Plus, there’s usually rampant homer-ism involved.  So of course I’m doing a predictions post.

My 2011 MLB predictions:

NL West

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Colorado Rockies
4. San Diego Padres
5. Arizona Diamondbacks

Do you know how nice it is to pick the Giants and not feel like a huge homer for doing so? I mean, there’s no way I could’ve justified picking them in ’07 or something, but now? Division champs. I know everyone seems to be in love with the Rockies this year, but I think the Dodgers have the better pitching staff and will push the Giants the most. The Padres will have trouble overcoming the loss of Adrian Gonzalez, especially now that Mat Latos is starting the season on the DL. The Diamondbacks should be better than most last place teams.

NL Central

1. Milwaukee Brewers
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Chicago Cubs
5. Houston Astros
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Brewers may have the best middle of the order in the league, and finally have the pitching to back it up (even with Zack Greinke missing some time). The Reds have Fred Lewis, which automatically disqualifies them from playoff consideration. The Cardinals would’ve been my pick had they not lost Adam Wainwright for the season. The Cubs and Astros are interchangeable to me- they could be the same team. The Pirates will probably avoid a 100-loss season, which will be an accomplishment of sorts.

NL East

1. Atlanta Braves
2. Philadelphia Phillies (Wild Card)
3. Florida Marlins
4. Washington Nationals
5. New York Mets

There’s no way the Phillies will miss the playoffs with their pitching staff- barring injury- but their lineup is going to suffer if Chase Utley misses a significant amount of time. Adding Dan Uggla makes the Braves the favorite for me, considering the depth of their pitching. The Marlins have the potential to stay in contention for most of the season, especially if Mike Stanton explodes. The Nationals and the Mets will probably be all kinds of awful. I picked the Nats ahead of the Mets because I haven’t gotten over the 2000 NLDS.

AL West

1. Texas Rangers
2. Oakland A’s
3. Los Angeles Angels
4. Seattle Mariners

The Rangers did just fine without Cliff Lee the first half of last year, and can always look to add pitching at the trade deadline again. They have a better lineup than the A’s, but Oakland’s pitching staff is good enough that they could easily win this division. It’ll be a tough battle. The Angels didn’t do enough this offseason to compete with Texas and Oakland, and the Mariners still don’t have enough hitters.

AL Central

1. Chicago White Sox
2. Minnesota Twins (Wild Card)
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Cleveland Indians
5. Kansas City Royals

I really like the White Sox this year; they can beat teams in a lot of different ways. The Twins were plagued by injuries last year and still won the division; if they stay healthy this year, they’ll be right there with Chicago. Detroit isn’t too far behind either of them, but I don’t think their pitching is as deep. The days of the Royals being the Central’s perpetual last place team should be over soon enough, as they have the best farm system in baseball. The Indians are likely to take their place.

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox
2. Tampa Bay Rays
3. New York Yankees
4. Toronto Blue Jays
5. Baltimore Orioles

The Red Sox spent a ton, and spent wisely- they’re clearly the best team in the division. The Rays may have lost a substantial number of players to free agency, but they’re still better than people think. Their pitching staff is better than New York’s, who’ll employ Freddy Garcia, Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon this year. That would’ve been a fantastic pitching staff in 2005; in 2011, not so much. The Blue Jays should petition MLB to move to another division. The Orioles will likely flirt with a .500 season.

Playoffs

Giants over Phillies
Braves over Brewers
Red Sox over Twins
White Sox over Rangers

Giants over Braves
White Sox over Red Sox

Again, it feels good to pick the Giants to go to the World Series without feeling like a homer. I have the Giants going through the same two teams they faced last year to get there this year, only in different order. In the AL, I think Chicago has the depth to win the battle of the Sox.

World Series

Giants over White Sox

The Giants go back-to-back by beating AJ Pierzynski. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So there you have it. Make sure to save this post and point out how wrong I was when October rolls around.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ready or Not, Here He Comes: Brandon Belt Has Arrived

Is Brandon Belt ready for the Big Show?


No, no...not him. The Major Leagues.

There have been a number of articles written lately on that very subject (like here, and here) and a majority of them seem to say the same thing: he’s probably ready, but it’s smarter to keep him in the minor leagues for now.

I don’t agree. For months I’ve said that Belt should be the Giants’ opening day first baseman, and my opinion hasn’t changed. While those who don’t agree with me may have genuine concerns, I don’t think those concerns hold up.

Just about all the “reasons” given why Belt shouldn’t start in the big leagues aren’t reasons at all, but rather flimsy justifications. It’s akin to saying “We can’t have a picnic today, what if it rains?” while the sky is blue, or “I can’t buy those shoes, what if my toes get cut off and they don’t fit?” (Shocking that I’d use a shoe reference, I know).

There seem to be four main concerns when it comes to Belt: service time, team needs, roster questions, and general readiness. Let’s go through them all:

Limit his service time, save money down the line: This is the one I hear/see most of all. Limiting Belt’s Major League service time will push back the date when he’s eligible for salary arbitration; therefore, the Giants would save money and control him for a longer period of time.

That argument would make a lot of sense if we were talking about the Royals, the Pirates, the Indians, or any other small market team. Those are the kinds of teams that need to worry about saving money down the line and controlling their players for as long as they possibly can, since their best players are likely to bolt for greener (as in $$) pastures as soon as they hit free agency.

The Giants aren’t in this position. They’re coming off of a World Series win, will likely sell out the majority of their home games this year, and (as Buster Olney said) are flush with cash. While they may want to keep their payroll at a reasonable level, they’re not afraid to spend money. Plus by the time the Giants will have to pay big money to Belt, they’ll be free from the albatrosses collectively known as the Zito/Rowand deals. The Giants learned from those contracts and have spent their money more wisely over the past few years, so it’s probably safe to assume they won’t be handing out any more killer deals in the near future.

Lastly, the service time argument begs the question: who cares? It doesn’t make much sense to me to worry about the team’s salary structure 3 or 4 years down the line when they’re defending a championship this year. If Belt makes the team better by being on it right now, what does it matter that he’ll make more money at an earlier time? The point is to win again in 2011, not plan ahead for 2015 (plus, what an awful slogan that’d be: “Your 2011 San Francisco Giants, Planning for a Prudent Financial Future.”)


The Giants don’t need him right now: I’m sorry, what? Did I slip into a coma and miss the part where the Giants became an offensive juggernaut? No? Good, I was worried. I thought I had some crazy, coma-inducing medical condition there for a minute.

The Giants’ lineup is better than most outsiders give them credit for, but there is still some cause for concern. They have to hope for the following to happen:

- Pablo Sandoval gets back to his ’09 form

- Aubrey Huff has a repeat of last year

- Miguel Tejada has something left in the tank

- Pat Burrell rebounds from an atrocious World Series performance

- Mark DeRosa and Freddy Sanchez stay healthy

That’s a whole lot of hoping. Obviously, nothing is a given. But having a bat like Belt’s in there every day would help alleviate some of the worry that comes with a lineup so full of questions. He’d give the team another left-handed bat, which they also need, as well as provide more pop from the bottom-half (where he’d be penciled in, at least to start). It wouldn’t weaken the team defensively, either: Belt is the best defensive first baseman in the organization, and Huff (who’d take over in left) proved last year he’s more than adequate as an outfielder.

Belt would likely take playing time away from Burrell and DeRosa if he starts the season with San Francisco, and no offense to either of them but I’d rather see Belt in the lineup. Burrell may be better served as a clubhouse mentor/part time player at this point, and DeRosa is a better utility man than everyday guy. Belt is the best option of the three, both offensively and defensively.

It’s not worth the roster headache: Please. To make room for Belt, the Giants would likely part with two of the following players: Aaron Rowand, Travis Ishikawa, and Nate Schierholtz. Rowand is a lost cause, Ishikawa is a pinch-hit specialist, and Schierholtz is a defensive replacement. It’d be a toss-up between Ishikawa and Schierholtz as to who should stay, but it’s not like the Giants would be losing potential all-stars in any scenario.

He’s not ready: I’m going to sound like Bruce Jenkins here for a minute. Bear with me.

Any doubts I might have had about Belt’s readiness were erased when I saw his at bat against Mark Buehrle last week. Quickly down 0-2 in the count, Belt laid off tough pitches to work the count full before ripping a single to right. It was an impressive at bat for any left-handed batter, let alone a rookie going against a veteran like Buehrle.

Belt’s ready. He has nothing left to prove in the minors, and he’s more than held his own this spring. Just like Posey last year, Belt is ready for the big leagues right now and the club would be better with him than without him.

I hope the Giants feel the same way.

Monday, March 14, 2011

99 Problems and a Roster Spot is One


You know how people say some problems are good ones to have? Like, if you have two attractive girls interested in you, they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a good problem to have.” Or if you’re trying to decide between two kinds of cupcakes for dessert. Or trying to decide between spending your money on Jordan 11 Concords or Space Jams. “Oh, man, those are good problems to have!”

No, man, those are not good problems to have. There’s no such thing as a good problem. There are varying levels of problems, yes, but never any good ones. What if you choose the wrong girl? What if the cupcake isn’t as good as it looks? What if the Space Jams’ icy bottoms are yellowing? Problems.

The Giants are facing a similar situation as Spring Training nears its end. But instead of awesome shoes and delicious desserts, they’re deciding between a handful of players competing for the limited roster spots that are left. From the looks of things, it’s going to be an awfully tough choice. Good players are going to be left off the roster, and the Giants have to hope they’re making the right decisions when doing so.

Yeah…fantastic problem.

The way I see it, the guaranteed roster spots shake out like this:

Starters: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, Barry Zito (5)

Relievers: Brian Wilson, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Ramon Ramirez, Santiago Casilla (6)

Catchers: Buster Posey, Eli Whiteside (2)

Infielders: Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez, Miguel Tejada, Pablo Sandoval, Mike Fontenot, Mark DeRosa (6)

Outfielders: Cody Ross, Andres Torres, Pat Burrell, Nate Schierholtz (4)

Total: 23

That leaves two roster spots open, presumably one pitcher and one position player. Let’s take a look at who’s contending for each spot:

Position Player

Aaron Rowand: Most articles would probably have Schierholtz in this spot and Rowand on the roster, but I think it’s the opposite. Schierholtz plays too important of a role as both a defensive replacement and a left-handed bat off the bench to not make the club. If Rowand makes the team, it’s a financial decision and nothing more. He accepted his role as a bench player gracefully last year, but has already started to sound not quite as thrilled with that same role this season. Rowand can still play, but he’s not going to reclaim a starting spot on this team. His salary makes moving him a tough pill to swallow, but the Giants might bite the bullet and try to find a team that needs him while eating most of his contract in the process. He's struggled during the spring, too, so it's not as if he's setting the world on fire at the plate and making it hard for the Giants to justify getting rid of him.

Travis Ishikawa: Ishikawa found his niche last year as a pinch-hitter, batting .319 with a home run and 6 RBI’s over 47 AB’s. He plays above-average defense at 1B, and has logged some innings in the outfield this spring to try and give himself better flexibility as a player. Having a pinch hit specialist on the roster is a luxury only championship-caliber teams can usually afford, so expect the Giants to make every effort to find a spot for Ishikawa. But if they don’t have the guts to part ways with Rowand, Ishikawa may find himself battling with Schierholtz for the role of left-handed bat off the bench.

Emmanuel Burriss: Burriss has had a nondescript spring, but he makes this list simply because the Giants lack a true backup SS to play behind Tejada. There’s talk of Fontenot or DeRosa filling that role, but there are questions as to whether either of them can play the position effectively. Burriss has always played Major League caliber defense, but his suspect bat could keep him in Fresno unless the Giants decide a defensive replacement is more important than a hitter.

Brandon Belt: It’s a matter of when, not if, when discussing Belt’s Major League debut in 2011. It doesn’t look like my prediction of Belt starting the year in San Francisco will come true, but his natural tools will help force him onto the roster at some point during the season. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when he does, as the Giants will have an even bigger roster crunch than they do now.

Pitcher

Ryan Vogelsong: I wrote about Vogelsong’s rebirth in an earlier post, and since then he’s added another impressive outing to his already impressive spring. He could easily fill the role of long reliever/spot starter for this club.

Jeff Suppan: Suppan is in a head-to-head battle with Vogelsong for the last spot on the staff, and has pitched well enough this spring (as of today) to warrant serious consideration. As I mentioned in the Vogelsong post, the Giants may give Suppan an edge because of track record and experience; still, Suppan hasn’t had a good year since ’06 and is 36 years old. Plus as good as his spring has been up until today, Vogelsong’s has been better.

Guillermo Mota: Mota’s had a decent enough spring, but I’m having a hard time seeing him make this roster as it stands currently. He pitched well in spurts last year, but showed himself to be a guy who pitched better when he was used sporadically. The Giants need a guy who can eat innings in their bullpen, and Mota isn’t that guy. They might try to stash him in Fresno, but Mota had offers from other clubs over the winter and may seek a job elsewhere if he doesn’t make the team.

There are other names to think about- Darren Ford, Dan Runzler, Marc Kroon- but the Giants are likely thinking about the players mentioned above the most. So who’s going to make the roster, and who’s going to be left out?

If I had to guess with my heart, I’d say Ishikawa and Vogelsong make the final club. Ishikawa’s bat is too valuable off of the bench to lose, plus his defense at 1B would be needed in the late innings with Tejada and Sandoval on the left side of the infield. Rowand and Burriss don't do enough things well to warrant a spot, and Belt is likely going to play every day in Fresno for at least a month or two. Vogelsong making the roster would be a great human interest story, but he’s pitched well enough to earn the spot, period. His stuff has looked sharper than Suppan’s, and he’s the better option as a long man. The Giants already have guys on the roster that can do the same things as Mota, only better. Vogelsong makes the most sense.

If I had to guess with my head, though, I’d say the Giants are going to go with Rowand and Suppan. I don’t think they want to take the financial hit that comes with cutting or trading Rowand, and would rather keep him as a reserve than pay him to go away. That’d mean that Ishikawa and Schierholtz would battle each other to make the roster, and it’d be a shame to lose either of them. As for Suppan, I think the Giants still value experience more than most clubs and Suppan has that in spades.

So to review: my heart says Ishikawa, Schierholtz and Vogelsong, and my head says Rowand, Ishikawa/Schierholtz, and Suppan. I’m hoping my heart is proven right.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have the urge to go look at some shoes.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kicking Pittsburgh When It's Down: Vogelsong Is Lights-Out


The Pittsburgh Pirates must be developing some sort of complex when it comes to the Giants.

First, there’s that whole “haven’t had a winning season since Bonds left” thing. Then, they had to watch Freddy Sanchez win a World Series ring while wondering if Tim Alderson would ever make it past Double-A ball. Javier Lopez came from Pittsburgh, too, and all the Pirates have to show for him is John Bowker swinging and missing at breaking balls. And before that, they watched Jason Schmidt finally realize his potential and turn into one of the best pitchers in baseball.

And now, another added indignity for the Pirates to endure: Ryan Vogelsong, the centerpiece of the Schmidt trade for Pittsburgh who flamed out and never made the impact the Pirates hoped he would, is back with the Giants. And he’s pitching better than he ever has in his career.

Ah, Pittsburgh fans. At least you still have the Penguins.

Vogelsong has been lights out for the Giants this spring, pitching to a 1.04 ERA in 8.2 innings of work while striking out 9 and giving up 4 hits. For whatever reason, the Giants have been giving him an extra-long look this spring, as he came into today tied with Jonathan Sanchez for the most innings pitched on the team. He hasn’t disappointed, either.

In spite of his strong spring, Vogelsong is facing a tough road to make the Giants’ roster and get back to the Majors. There’s one spot available on the pitching staff, and if I had to guess I’d say the Giants would prefer it if Jeff Suppan won the job. Why? The Giants are still partial to veteran ballplayers, and Suppan has more of a track record in the big leagues than Vogelsong does. It’s pretty lousy track record, but still a track record nonetheless. Plus, Suppan has been doing his best Todd Wellemeyer impression thus far (remember, Wellemeyer was great before the games actually counted last year) and hasn’t given the Giants a glimpse of his gas can self just yet. The deck is stacked against Vogelsong.

Still, you get the impression that the Giants are taking note of Vogelsong’s stats: he hasn’t pitched as much as he has by accident. Even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, he’s at least earning a spot at the top of Fresno’s rotation if he keeps pitching the way he’s pitching. With very little starting pitching depth in the system, there’s a good chance the Giants will have a need for Vogelsong at some point during the season. There could be an injury, a starter might get fatigued, or the Giants might realize they somehow let Jeff Suppan onto their roster. Anything could happen.

It’s nice to see Vogelsong making a strong case for himself early on. I remember watching him pitch late in the 2000 season and being impressed with his stuff. I followed his career in Pittsburgh and always hoped he’d make it, but he was derailed by injuries and was out of the Majors by 2007. He made a few stops in Japan and various minor league teams before finding his way back to the Giants this past winter, and I’d honestly forgotten all about him until I saw his name in the newspaper.

Personally, I’m rooting for Vogelsong. The Giants’ history over the past decade is littered with names of guys who were supposed to be the future of the team’s pitching staff: Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams, Noah Lowry, Jesse Foppert, Erick Threets, etc. Up until this past January I would’ve included Vogelsong’s name on that list, but I’d be more than happy to erase it permanently. It’d be a great story if he could return to the team that drafted him, overcome his histories of injury and inconsistency, and contribute to the Giants’ World Series title defense.

Hide the sharp objects, Pirates fans.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zito and the Giants Need To Stay Together For the Kids Ladies


“Close your eyes. Picture a convict. What’s he wearing? Nothing special, baseball cap on backward, baggy pants. He says something ordinary like, ‘Yo, that’s shizzle.’ Okay, now slowly open your eyes again. Who are you picturing? A black man? Wrong. That was a white woman. Surprised? Well shame on you.” –Michael Scott, “The Office”

What does that quote from The Office have to do with Barry Zito? Everything, my friends…everything.

Say I came to your house, sat you down and told you to close your eyes. Sure, you may have questions like “Who are you?” and “What are you doing in my house?” but don’t worry about that right now, just go with it. I want you to picture the Giants’ rotation. The top four guys are all under 30 and each could be an ace of any staff. Great, right? Now picture the 5th starter. He’s a veteran, a guy who’ll come close to winning double-digit games while posting an ERA in the 4’s. He’ll give you close to 200 IP and more often than not will give the team a chance to win. Oh, and he’ll be grossly overpaid, but that’s neither here nor there.

Open your eyes. Who are you picturing? Jeff Suppan? Wrong. That was Barry Zito. Shame on you.

Everyone seems to be talking about a recent article from the Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins in which he suggests the Giants may be contemplating parting ways with Zito, money be damned. The article calls it a “buy out” but that’s a misnomer, since there’s no salary cap in baseball and contracts aren’t bought out. I can only conclude he means the Giants are thinking of releasing Zito, eating what’s left of his contract, and replacing him in the rotation.

There seems to be a groundswell of support for this idea. Some fans are sick of Zito and his contract, and want him off the team no matter the cost. It’s become the new, in vogue thing for casual Giants fans to say: “Zito sucks and is overpaid!” (Replacing “The Giants can’t develop young talent!”)

It’s shortsighted, though, to simply say “Zito needs to go” and leave it at that. What would happen if the Giants cut him? For one thing, they’d be on the hook for nearly $60 million in salary, an astronomical figure to pay someone to simply go away. Who would replace him in the rotation? The veteran options are Suppan, Brian Lawrence, Casey Daigle, and a few other guys the team pulled off the scrap heap this winter. None of them are as good as Zito. As for prospects, the Giants’ best (Zach Wheeler) is still a few years away from being ready for the Majors. The other options (Clayton Tanner, etc.) seem more Pat Misch than Madison Bumgarner. Again, not better than Zito.

So in a nutshell, this is what happens if the Giants release Zito:

- They save no money.

- They pay him to pitch for another team, likely another NL team.

- They replace him with someone worse.

Fantastic idea. Sign me up.

Is Zito overpaid? Yes. We all knew he was overpaid when he signed that deal. The problem is people are expecting Zito to pitch like an ace simply because he’s paid like one. Well, Zito is no ace: he’s a back-of-the-rotation type of starter, and a pretty good one at that. Forget about the money for a minute, and think about this: is there a better 5th starter in all of baseball? I’m hard-pressed to come up with one. Having Zito in the rotation actually makes the team better, considering what the other options are. There isn’t a free agent starter available right now better than him, and there isn’t anyone in the Giants’ camp who’d be a better option as a 5th starter (and don’t say Suppan, he’s awful). So why would the Giants significantly weaken their team by dumping Zito?

It’d make much more sense if the Giants were considering dumping Aaron Rowand, a highly overpaid guy who happens to be completely replaceable. The Giants have plenty of outfielders who could step into Rowand’s role; they don’t have plenty of guys who could step into Zito’s. I mean, Jeff Suppan? I'm sorry to keep harping on him, but I don't want to live in a world where Jeff Suppan is making 30 starts for the defending World Champions. It's impossible to repeat as champs with Jeff Suppan in your starting rotation; don't argue with me, it's scientific fact.

I find it hard to believe that cutting Zito is even a topic of conversation, yet here we are. Could it happen? Of course, anything could happen. It’s important to remember that Zito was brought in under the old Peter Magowan ownership group, and the new owners may not be as gun shy to throw in the towel on Zito’s contract. It’d be admitting a mistake, but it wouldn’t be their mistake:  blame it on the old boss. It wouldn’t be a wise baseball decision, but this probably goes beyond baseball. The front office may just be sick and tired of paying ace money to a guy who didn’t even make the postseason roster. Shortsighted? In my opinion, yes; but, I’m not the one writing the checks. If Bill Neukom and Brian Sabean would rather pay Zito to go away, they have every right to make that decision.

But, it would be the wrong one. For 2011, the Giants are a better team with Barry Zito than without him. Let’s hope they don’t find that out the hard way.

Plus, are the ladies of San Francisco ready to say goodbye to this?
I don't think so. Think about the ladies, Giants... think about the ladies.