Tim Lincecum

Springtime Storylines: Can the Giants repeat?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  First up: it’s only appropriate that we start with the reigning World Champs, the San Francisco Giants.

The Big Question: Can the Giants repeat?

Yeah, that’s a hacky question to ask — reeks of search engine optimization bait — but it probably is the question everyone wants answered anyway. At least Giants fans do. Indeed, when I was walking the mean streets of Scottsdale a couple of weeks ago (note: there are no streets less mean than those in Scottsdale in the entire United States), it was what most Giants fans wanted to talk about.

The answer: no.  And that’s not to hate on the Giants. Indeed, that’s the stock answer I give every single year when someone asks me “can they repeat.”  The odds always favor “the field” over a repeat. It’s been over a decade since the last repeat winner. Only two clubs — the threepeating Torre Yankees and the Cito Gaston Blue Jays — have repeated in over thirty years.  It just doesn’t happen much, so even before looking at anyone’s roster, the smart money always favors saying, no, there will not be a repeat this year.

But what of these Giants on their own terms?  Personally, I like them. Teams with strong starting pitching have a leg up in my mind because the season is long damn haul and whoever can match up best day-in, day-out do better than teams that can beat you into submission.  People have fretted about Tim Lincecum’s durability for a while now, but until I see him break down I’m not going to be similarly concerned. Matt Cain is a horse. Madison Bumgarner seems to have improved his velocity this spring and should be better prepared to go full-bore this year. And for as bad as Zito’s contract is, he’s durable and reliable and is better than what a lot of teams throw out there on Day 5. Jonathan Sanchez is the only guy who gives me the willies, and I’m probably basing that on a couple of bad postseason starts rather than his true value.

But the rotation doesn’t make them a slam dunk.  I think they’re a playoff caliber team and, if they make the playoffs, Katie bar the door, because they showed last year that they are not to be trifled with in a short series. But it must be remembered that they didn’t even clinch the playoffs until the last day of the season, so anyone presuming them to be the favorite to win it all is drinking some orange Kool-Aid.  There are flaws here.

So what else is going on?

  • I really don’t see both Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell each posting an OPS of .850+ this year. There will be some dropoff in those corner positions, and I’m not sure that there is enough room for improvement elsewhere in the linuep. And to be honest, given the presence of stud 1B prospect Brandon Belt at AAA, it may be better for the Giants if, rather than a middling falloff, either Huff or Burrell completely craters, opening up a slot for the youngin’.
  • One area where I do see improvement, however, is with Pablo Sandoval. The reports of his weight loss are not exaggerated. And it’s not just cosmetic: he has seemed downright frisky so far this spring, both on defense and at the plate.  If he returns to 2009 form or even comes close, that will help the Giants weather inevitable Burrell/Huff backslide much better.
  • The defense scares me. While Sandoval is friskier, it doesn’t mean he’s better. He may get to more balls, but a lot of them will clang off his glove. Likewise, if I were a Giants pitcher I’d be very wary of Miguel Tejada’s glove at short. No, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria were not gold glovers last year, but Tejada is downright calcified at this point. A lot of balls will get through the left side.
  • Brian Wilson anchors the bullpen and Sergio Romo is pretty studly himself. Santiago Casila was fantastic last year too, but it was also a year unlike anything else he had shown before. Is he a late bloomer or was last year fluky?  A good bullpen, but one, it must be remembered, which had an awful lot to do with that whole “torture” meme last year.  They bent but didn’t break. If they bend any further this year, it could be trouble.

So how are they gonna do?

The World Series win made a lot of people forget just how much this team struggled until mid-season. They were seven games behind in July and required a pretty spectacular swoon on the part of the Padres to catapult them back into the race.  I don’t think they’re as bad a team as we saw early in 2010, but I don’t think they’re as good as they seemed when hoisting that trophy. I mean, who is?  And while the Padres won’t be a factor this year, I think both Colorado and L.A. will be improved.

But not quite enough.  In some radio interviews and podcasts I have been flippantly saying that the Rockies are my favorites this year. But it was just this past weekend that I really sat down and studied the matter.  It’s a close call for me, and I think the race will be close all year long as well, but I think the Giants have to be picked to win the NL West.

Even if they don’t always look pretty doing it.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.