Fixing the Offense (Mission Impossible)

Quick review: the Giants went 4 and 3 this week. They actually won a series for the first time this year. And, they are 4 games out of first place (the first place Padres mind you…awesomely bad week for the Dodgers…haha).

There were a variety of positive signs: the Kevin Pillar trade looks pretty darn great so far. Don’t expect him to hit 4 bombs every week, but he can play, and really any kind of offense from him is a bonus to his defense. Speaking of that, the outfield is SO much better than the last couple of years. So much better.

Tyler Austin looks good so far and survived an injury scare, so we’ll continue to see him which is good news. The Giants are going to be creative in their usage with him. We’ve seen Belt in LF a bit and they will sub Austin out early and get Parra in there for the late innings. All of that seems smart to me.

Derek Rodriguez had a very nice bounce back start this week. Let’s chalk up his bad first inning against the Rays to opening day nerves. Jeff Samardzija has looked like an asset so far this season (no home runs given up yet!). And Madison Bumgarner is fine, everyone cool it.

But, there is context. There is always context. The Giants took 3 of 4 from the Colorado Rockies who are off to a historically, comically bad start. They also were missing two key lineup ingredients for this 4-game series. So, on the one hand, good on the Giants for taking the series from a struggling club. On the other hand, it sure wasn’t easy.

And now the Giants head out on the road, off to the east coast for over a week. In some ways this could be good for the bats. New hitting environments, better hitting environments, and the first time they’ll be away from the west coast.

However, they will be facing some teams with strong pitching (Nationals, Pirates), and then up to Toronto where they haven’t been in a while. It’s a weird trip, and this just doesn’t feel like a team that does well with weirdness.

At this early stage in the season, it’s hard to know what to make of the Giants. They can clearly pitch and their defense is improved. It feels like they should be better than 7-10.

But the the offense is offensive, and the question continues to be: is there any hope for improvement? It sure doesn’t feel like it. It feels like they should be worse than 7-10.

The only hope, for now, is to tweak with the lineup, so here we go, a couple of fixes:

  • The big suggestion is to drop Steven Duggar back. At times, he’s looked like the Giants best player. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that he has struck out 23 times and only walked twice. That’s bad, and that’s especially bad at the top of the order. There’s clearly a ton of potential there, but he, and the team, would be better served stashing him lower in the order so that he can learn major league pitching.
  • The other big problem, as I’ve mentioned before, is that there is no sun around which the other planets orbit. It’s so difficult to create a cohesive and dynamic lineup without an anchor.

Having said that, here’s my humble suggestion.

  1. Panik/Solarte
  2. Posey
  3. Belt
  4. Austin
  5. Longoria
  6. Crawford
  7. Pillar
  8. Duggar

There’s nothing particularly radical or amazing about this lineup, but it does two things, in my mind. It takes the pressure off Duggar, and it moves Posey out of the middle of the lineup.

[I know there’s debate around the two hitter these days. Some argue that this is the prime place to put your best power bat. Others like some speed there (not so much for stealing bases, but to not clog the base-paths, a potential problem with Posey). I like the relative balance, the OBP (such as it is) at the top of the lineup, rather than spread around, and then you have 4 guys who can run into a pitch in the 3-7 spots.]

There is no perfect solution as of right now. The fascinating thing, if you can call it that, will be watching how this team tries to squeeze 5 runs out of this lineup night in and night out.

Happy day off Giants, good luck on the east coast!

Here We Go (More of the Same)

So, the Giants are 3-7, have scored a run in the first third of a game exactly one times, and have cracked the old five-run barrier once. They also ditched one of their opening day outfielders less than a week into the season and made a trade for Kevin Pillar (not against the trade, fyi).**

None of that is meant to be panicky or definitive proof that this team is going to suck just as much as the last two years, but all of that is meant to be some kind of proof that this team is going to suck just as much as the last two years.

The Giants are one bullpen meltdown away from being 4-6, and taking a series from the league-pummeling LA Dodgers (how annoyingly good is that team right now). But even, then, 4-6 doesn’t ring with confidence and good vibes.

The offense has been the ultimate perpetrator of the suckiness. A couple of thoughts about that…

  1. On the positive side, Brandon Belt looks great, Steven Duggar has been all we could hope so far, and it’s a miracle that Buster Posey is even playing right now given his offseason surgery. If he finds any kind of groove, that’s 3 pretty good hitters to build around.
  2. One the negative side, the outfield, overall, has been just as bad as everyone feared, Joe Panik looked so good in the spring, but is still struggling to get anything going, and the ultimate issue with this team is that everyone is horribly miscast. Posey is no longer a clean up hitter. Brandon Belt should never be the best hitter in any lineup. Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria can still contribute to winning teams, but as the 7th and 8th best hitters in those lineups.

There’s been a lot of frustration among some fans with Farhan Zaidi. The perception is that he has “done nothing” to make the team better. This is a profound misunderstanding of what he has been doing, which is making this team much deeper and more flexible. That will pay off over the course of the season.

Yes, Michael Reed and Conor Joe are not inspiring acquisitions (especially coming off the Bryce Harper letdown), but they are actually good moves within the larger context of the previous paragraph.

The Giants 40 man roster today is as good as it has been in a while.

The problem is that this team lacks elite talent in the lineup. The problem with the 2019 Giants isn’t Joe Panik, per se, it is Joe Panik in a lineup where the best hitter (by far) is Brandon Belt.


Which leads us to a brief thought exercise involving outfielders from contending teams. The Houston Astros were widely favored to win the World Series coming into the year. Imagine the Giants with George Springer and Michael Brantley in the lineup:

  • Steven Duggar RF
  • George Springer CF
  • Buster Posey C
  • Brandon Belt 1B
  • Michael Brantley LF
  • Brandon Crawford SS
  • Evan Longoria 3B
  • Joe Panik 2B

That lineup is not going to be better than the 2019 Astros lineup, but all of a sudden it gets a lot easier to see a way towards competitive baseball.

The Red Sox are the defending champions, so imagine this:

  • Mookie Betts RF
  • Steven Duggar CF
  • Buster Posey C
  • JD Martinez LF
  • Brandon Belt 1B
  • Evan Longoria 3B
  • Brandon Crawford SS
  • Joe Panik 2B

This lineup is the one that gets me the most excited. That team would score some runs and be a lot of fun to watch.

Finally, I know Giants’ fans are not going to like this, but we have to do it since the Dodgers have been in the World Series the last two years against the other teams we’ve highlighted here:

  • Steve Duggar CF
  • AJ Pollock LF
  • Buster Posey C
  • Cody Bellinger RF
  • Brandon Belt 1B
  • Evan Longoria 3B
  • Brandon Crawford SS
  • Joe Panik 2B

Now, the point of this is not to say the Giants should acquire any of these players. We’re not playing fantasy baseball here. Nor is the point to criticize the Reed/Joe/Pillar acquisitions.

I’m trying to illustrate two things:

  1. The Giants severely lack elite hitting talent, especially in the outfield. (Some of the better hitters on the three teams mentioned above are in the infield!).
  2. If this current squad had two elite talents in the outfield, the infield makes a whole lot more sense.

So what does any of this mean going forward? For one it illustrates just how big of a job Farhan Zaidi has. The Giants may have these kinds of talents coming in Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos, but they are 1-3 years away, and none of these core infield guys will probably be here when they arrive.

Second, it means that if the Giants are going to compete in 2019/2020 they need some miracles, namely Buster Posey’s return to an elite, middle of the order hitter. This would truly be a miracle. I love Buster so, so much, but to expect an over-30 catcher, coming off hip surgery, to turn back into his 2012 MVP self is asking way, way too much.

Third, Brandon Belt must continue to hit and stay healthy. Again, this feels like a pipe dream but it’s our only hope (help us obi wan).

That’s all I got for this week. The tribute to Bruce Bochy on Friday was great and it’s going to be all the feels this year saying goodbye. More on this in a future post!

The Giants are home all week, Bumgarner goes twice, and this is as good a chance as any to assert themselves!


**Right after composing this post the news came out that the Giants have acquired Tyler Austin. Tyler Austin is a very powerful, right handed hitter from the Twins organization who will probably strike out a ton and frustrate many fans, but who will also hit a few tape measure shots towards the Coke bottle. He is not a help to the defense, but this is partly why Duggar/Pillar makes sense. To the point of this article: Austin provides the Giants with some desperately needed power potential, but he is far from “an elite talent.” If you want to get crazy, here’s to hoping that Tyler Austin has a Khris Davis like transformation by switching leagues and playing more consistently.

 

Game On! #sfgiants #weekinreview

Holy smokes a lot happened this week with our beloved baseball club. Let’s recap:

  • After a heart warming sweep of the first place Diamondbacks, the Giants road-woes came right up and slapped them across the face. They dropped 3 games in Colorado, managing to score a grand total of 3 runs in those 3 games. That’s basically getting shut out for 3 straight games in any other park. Then, they had a somewhat frustrating split against the Cardinals, frustrating because the series marked the return of two pitchers who were supposed to help (more on this later).
  • Joe Panik got hurt and is on the DL, probably for a while. This makes us all sad, but it also forces us to face the harsh reality that Joe Panik is not having a good season, and it may be in the Giants best interest to let Alen Hanson play everyday. Hanson has been far superior with the bat, and I think he makes them a better, more dangerous team for now. Nonetheless, get well Joe!
  • The Giants welcomed back Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. My pre-season naming of Cueto as the MOST IMPORTANT player this season, still stands in many ways. If he can be good from here on out, the Giants have a puncher’s chance. He was not very good in his start on Thursday, however, and there will be a dance the rest of the season around when to pull the plug. If he continues to stink (and the Giants fall out of contention), he’ll go back on the DL and the Giants will hope he can heal up for 2019. If they stay in the race and Cueto can give them anything positive, he’ll hang in the rotation as long as they need him. Meanwhile, Samardzija showed signs of life in his return, but he still hasn’t looked better than some of the other options available to the team.
  • Speaking of that, the Giants went ahead and kept both Andrew Suarez and Derek Rodriguez in the rotation and that sure looks like a good idea. Chris Stratton was sent back to Sacramento to keep pitching every 5th day and try to get some consistency back in his curveball and location. I hate to say it, but he has not been the same since becoming a dad.
  • The Giants sent Derek Holland to the bullpen, even though he had been one of the most consistent starters recently, and they continue to carry 13 pitchers on the roster. Some of this is due to having a high number of pitchers who require baby gloves at this point. The Giants don’t want Cueto or Samardzija throwing 100+ pitches right now, so that means it is wise to have Holland and Blach in the bullpen. But also, Will Smith and Mark Melancon (and now Ray Black) need to be managed in how often they are used, since they are still building up strength coming off injuries. I can’t remember a staff that had so many issues like this.
  • Speaking of Will Smith he is finally the closer and he’s been nasty so far and DANG IT BOCHY WHY WASN’T HE THE CLOSER IN 2016.
  • And then (I told you it was quite the week) the Giants made a trade yesterday. They FINALLY got rid of Cody Gearrin (hallelujah), and shipped out the suddenly redundant and underused OF Austin Jackson. In order to do this, the Giants sweetened the pot by including pitcher Jason Bahr. Bahr is a guy who created some buzz this season, and seems like a nice prospect, but the Giants have traded away a lot of buzzy prospects who were never heard from again. This move is a win, in my mind, because it creates “cap” space, gets rid of two guys who were no longer useful and created space for the Giants to see what they have with Gorkys Hernandez, Austin Slater, Steven Duggar, Ray Black, and maybe another bullpen arm or two before this is all said and done.
  • You read that right: Steven Duggar is here! Sounds like the Giants will use him and Hernandez interchangeably in CF, but then Gorkys just pulled a muscle, so we may get a good stretch from Duggar, which is excellent news.
  • That was a lot! Somehow, in the midst of all this roster churn and losing (2-5 on the week), the Giants are still only 3.5 games out of first in the NL West.

Which brings us to the question: what does this all mean? The Giants are still very much in this thing in 2018. They are finally at “full strength” in their starting rotation, the bullpen is pretty good, and they should (in theory) be able to score enough to be competitive.

One could look at the trade as a step towards more moves to strengthen the squad for the stretch run.

Or, are the Giants coming to grips with the reality that they are a bit lucky to be 47-45 (with that ugly -27 =/-), and it’s time to get ready for next year?

It feels more like the latter. Here’s my take:

  1. The Giants brass realize this is a down year in the NL West and so are willing to give the Cueto’s of the world an opportunity to make a run. Who knows maybe they get hot and sneak into the playoffs this season. So, they are not going to blow the whole thing up, but they are going to want to see and invest time in the guys who might be around next year.
  2. They’ve made one trade to make sure they stay beneath the tax threshold (the “cap”) so that they can be sure to reset and go into the offseason with a clean slate. This will allow them to extend Bumgarner, pursue Bryce Harper, or do whatever it is they want to do with their “extra” money to get younger and better.
  3. Now, to the big rumor: there are more moves probably coming. Word is the only Giants’ who are off-limits this July are Posey and Crawford. That means Bumgarner, Belt, your favorite prospect, whoever, is on the table!
  4. I don’t think the Giants are going to trade Belt/Bum/etc, unless someone fills AT&T park with gold and prospects. What this means, though, is that Giants will listen. They want to get a good sense of what a different future could look like, and shopping will allow them to do this.

So, hang on tight Giants fans, the next 3+ weeks are going to be very interesting.

Early Returns

We are a couple of weeks into the spring and so we have stats. Taken with a grain of salt of course…this is spring training and it’s still very early…but, SWEET, SWEET stats!

So, while we will attempt to not read too much into any of this there are a couple of interesting develops thus far:

  1. Steven Duggar is hot. It sure sounded like the Giants brass wanted Duggar to crack the lineup at some point in 2018, and it also sounded like the door was open to the opening day roster heading into Spring Training, and so in a great carpe diem moment Duggar has responded. The defense has been there. The bat has been there. He looks like the real deal so far. Slash line: .412/.474/1.000, plus 3 home runs. Pencil him in!
  2. Somewhat out of nowhere, Mac Williamson has reasserted himself into the conversation. I really thought after the 2016 season that he was well set up to join the Belt/Crawford/Panik/Duffy parade of homegrown lineup additions, but he never got a fair shake (in my opinion) and was always hampered by injuries. Now, he has tried to revamp his swing and reinvent himself, and if his early success continues there just might be a spot for him on the 25 man roster. Meanwhile, Jarrett Parker, who I thought had the inside track on the 5th outfield spot, has already struck out 14 times in 21 at bats, while walking 3 times and homering once. Compare that to Williamson’s .429/.429/.952 with 3 home runs (no walks and 6 ks is not great either, but not as alarming as Parker). Williamson will have to continue to rake: his addition to the 25 man roster would require some maneuvers to bring L/R balance to the force, and he may need some time in AAA to keep working on the swing change. But, I still love his ceiling far more than other options (i.e Parker/Hernandez/etc).
  3. Finally, it is too early to get excited about relief pitchers, but the contenders for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation have not disappointed with their early efforts. Ty Blach, in particular, has been outstanding, striking out 7 in 5 innings. If he could somehow take a step forward in his development, he may actually be the Giants 4th best starter. I’ve really been thinking of him as a bit of after thought (more of a long relief, spot starter role), but if this keeps up he could help steady the rotation significantly. Derek Holland has looked good, second only to Bumgarner in strikeouts with 8. Chris Stratton and Tyler Beede have not been as dominant, but very solid, and Stratton in particular seems to be approaching this camp with confidence.

This next week we will start to see more regulars ramp up, and it will be interesting to see if any of these early developments turn into substantial story lines.