Aaron Rowand

2009 San Francisco Giants second half preview

The work Jonathan Sanchez did in the bullpen before throwing a no-hitter. The adjustments Pablo Sandoval made in April and May to go from talented hacker to the guy who really should be called Tony Gwynn, Jr., instead of that lame outfielder in San Diego who broke up Tim Lincecum’s no-no. Somehow trading bullpens with the Philadelphia Phillies in the span of just one year. Matt Cain losing weight and gaining runs.

That the Giants started the second half of the season 49-39 wasn’t an accident, it was a series of crazy, freakish occurrences, nearly all of them positive. Now San Francisco (yeah, yeah, I know…and San Jose. Sorry, Mr. Neukom…) is excited about the last three months of a baseball season for the first time since A.J. Pierzynski was tearing apart the NL with his exciting brand of GIDP’s and groin punches.

The Giants stand 2 games ahead of the second place team in the wildcard standings, the Jim Tracy-led Colorado Rockies. So not only do the Giants have their best team in five years, they also hold the advantage of battling a dreadfully incompetent non-Dodgers/Phillies National League for the fourth playoff spot. Let’s see what their chances are of playing meaningful games in October, shall we?

The Schedule

Los Gigantes, who have the most home wins in the National League (31), will play 35 home games and 39 on the road the rest of the way. A lot of people have been wringing their hands, worried that the remaining schedule looks amazingly difficult, but it really isn’t that bad.

Currently seven teams in the NL are over .500, seven are under .500 and the Reds and Cubs sit right at .500. The Giants will play 16 home games and 16 road games against winning teams, 20 on the road and 15 at home against teams under .500, a 3-game series in Cincy and a 4-gamer at home against Chicago. Especially comforting is the last six games of the year against Arizona and San Diego, two teams who will surely be fielding Triple-A expanded roster lineups against the Giants as they’ll be out of playoff contention.

Here’s why people are worried — almost as punishment for being total freakin’ slackers in April (4 games off in 24 days, and I think the players each only showered, like, three times the whole  month) the Giants have a couple absurdly long stretches without any rest. Starting tomorrow, the Giants play 20 games in 20 days, beginning with a 10-game road trip through Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Colorado. Yuck. After getting a couple Thursdays off in a row, the Giants then face an exhausting 26 games in a row without a day off, with 17 of those coming on the road.

Bottom Line: Maybe the schedule makers could have spread the Giants’ days off a little better, but at least they’re done with interleague. Those two marathon stretches are where the Giants’ great first half starting pitching should be an advantage, as the Giants may have the most well-rested bullpen in baseball — even with the combined 6 innings Matt Cain and Barry Zito threw last weekend.

Pitching (AKA: Saviors)

We start here instead of on the offense because these guys are the entire reason why the Giants aren’t the third place team in the NL West. Tim Lincecum didn’t get hit real hard in the All-Star Game, so don’t worry about the “Atlee Hammaker Syndrome” (furiously knocking on wood right now). If I could pick any pitcher on the team to handle getting hit in the elbow with a line drive, I’d choose Matt Cain in a heartbeat. Cain and Lincecum could have a nice Cy Young battle to end the season, which the Bay Area hasn’t seen since Bob Welch and Dave Stewart were on the A’s.

The bullpen may suffer a few hiccups during the Giants’ long stretches without rest. However, with Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Bob Howry and yes, even Brian “Life of” Wilson, the Giants are better prepared for a pennant race than they have been since they traded for Roberto Hernandez in 1997.

Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter bought him at least five starts to see if he can stick in the starting rotation for good, and we have no idea if Randy Johnson’s injury is serious — so no use obsessing over it here. That leaves (drumroll) Barry Zito. Even though on Sunday Zito’s pitches were so meaty he should have been pitching behind one of those batting practice screens, take a look at his career splits:

Pre All-Star: 1,035 IP, 58-66, 4.23 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 118 HR allowed, .251 BAA, 3 CG, 1 SO

Post All-Star: 878 IP, 70-36, 3.47 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 83 HR allowed, .224 BAA, 7 CG, 3 SO

Besides the fact that Zito is pulling the checks he is even though he’s only pitched 10 career complete games and 4 career shutouts(!), these splits can’t engender anything but confidence. It may not be a rational brand of confidence, since Zito obviously doesn’t have the same arsenal of pitches he did in Oakland and has to rely more on pinpoint control. Still, until he stops doing it, Zito has to be thought of as a guy who consistently makes up for garbage first halves in July, August, September and even October. And while his April and May weren’t as bad as they had been over his first two years P.C. (Post Contract), an ERA over 5.00 for a starting pitcher who pitches at AT&T Park is about as trashy as the tweeker chicks on HBO’s Cathouse. Um, not that I’d know.

Bottom Line: The pitching is as good as anybody could have imagined for this pre-Madison Bumgarner season. Even if Johnson’s injury is serious, they still have Ryan Sadowski and Kevin Pucetas as reinforcements. Repeat: if you look at the Giants and worry about their pitching, you’re also the type of person who looks at the Warriors and says, “What this team needs is a scorer who can come off the bench. A volume shooter. Is J.R. Smith available?”

Offense/Lineup

The Giants still aren’t a dynamic, imposing offensive team, but at least they’re a little more certain who their postseason starting lineup might consist of. While a month ago nobody could have told you who’d be the first baseman, second baseman, third baseman or third outfielder (Sandoval would either be the 1B or 3B, we just didn’t know which after his elbow injury), now those spots are in fairly sure hands with Travis Ishikawa, Juan Uribe, Fat Ichiro and Jate Bowkholtz.

One of the first plans of action will be to figure out who’s the odd man outfielder. The Giants haven’t invested nearly as much in Andres Torres as Fred Lewis, but Torres is a much more attractive bench option both defensively and as a pinch runner. In terms of who starts, Nate Schierholtz is the more complete player with his speed and throwing arm, but John Bowker has more power and actually takes a walk from time to time. Their battle for playing time in the next two weeks is the second-most important storyline for the Giants, behind the health of Johnson’s shoulder.

What can we expect from the vets? Aaron Rowand and Randy Winn will probably trade hot streaks, with neither of them flourishing at the same time (otherwise known as the “Goateed Streak-hitter Corollary”). Sandoval (not really a vet, but he isn’t going anywhere) will continue to amaze the planet and boost panda-related Giants’ souvenier sales by at least 316%. Bengie Molina will probably shrink at least an inch, just from his knees compressing.

Bottom Line: This road trip isn’t just important to keep the Giants’ postive momentum going; it’ll probably also influence what Brian Sabean does (or is allowed to do by the investors) at the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31.

Possible Transactions

There’s no way the Giants trade for Roy Halladay. The Blue Jays have a full year to get rid of him, and they are surely demanding Bumgarner and/or Buster Posey (if Sabean has even called J.P. Ricciardi). Halladay has been throwing more pitches this year than ever before, he just came off the DL from a groin strain and the Giants control both prospects until at least 2015.

The Giants have been rumored to be after the following players: Jermaine Dye, Victor Martinez, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke, along with Carl Crawford and/or Carlos Pena if you believe yesterday’s commenter named Kevin, who says he has ties to Tampa Bay’s front office.

Knowing Sabez, this means none of these players are actually targets; Mr. Tire Kicker may not always make perfect trades, but he can keep a secret from beat writers and anonymous sources as well as anyone in the business.

This is complete speculation, but don’t be surprised if we see Posey starting for the Giants in September. I know, throwing a catcher in his first year of professional ball into the middle of a pennant race sounds far-fetched, but did anybody expect the Giants to call up Sandoval last year?

Molina’s presence is generally thought of as positive in the clubhouse, but the guy smacks of an undercover whiner with a game that’s deteriorating. He hasn’t said anything to make him seem really disgruntled, but one gets the feeling through his public comments that he was at least perturbed to some degree about the Giants not offering him a contract extension, Posey getting drafted and even being absent during Sanchez’s no-hitter. I can understand his feelings on all three subjects, but there’s something about Bengie that makes me wonder if he isn’t kind of a thorn in the side of management from time to time.

Add to that Molina’s deteriorating defense (he’s only thrown out 18% of basestealers, he can’t catch pitches over his head and his results with Zito have always been disastrous) and impatience at the plate that seems to be getting worse by the week, and bringing up Posey would surely look pretty tempting if he mashes in his first couple weeks in the Pacific Coast League. I would imagine Bruce Bochy would even be fine with calling pitches from the dugout the rest of the season if Posey can give the Giants an athletic catcher who’ll take a walk and won’t clog up the basepaths.

Bottom Line: For the first time, Sabean’s top order of business in July isn’t finding bullpen help. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Molina get shipped off for salary relief or a mediocre prospect or two, but with Giant fans pretty happy with the current results and hesitant to let go of the top prospects, it seems unlikely the Giants will make a huge trade. Sort of like in 1997, when Sabean shocked us all by grabbing Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin and Hernandez at the deadline. So in other words, I have no idea what’s going to happen. Remember all of what you just read when Sabez trades for Sanchez, LaRoche and Duke on July 31.

Prediction

We’ve all seen plenty of losing teams in every sport besides hockey over the past five years, and the Giants just don’t look or feel like a losing team. The deflating suckiness we’ve all gotten used to hasn’t left its greasy residue on the 2009 San Francisco Giants, and with pitching this good (and deep), it doesn’t look to anytime soon. The second half is going to be chocked full of exciting baseball, especially the nine games against the Dodgers and seven against the Phillies, who with the Charlie Manuel/Pablo Sandoval fiasco have become instant rivals.

I’m not going to say the Giants are a lock for the playoffs, but I’ll go this far: the Giants have 13 games remaining against the Rockies. If they win 7 of those, Tim Lincecum will be starting in Game 1 against somebody in his first playoffs. Hopefully he’ll do a little better than he did in his first All-Star Game.

What do you think will happen? Vote in the poll on the top right of your screen!

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