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.

A study showed “grit” isn’t always a great attribute

Washington Nationals left fielder Bryce Harper slides into third with a three RBI triple during the third inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres, Friday, April 25, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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This popped up in my Twitter feed and I felt it had some applicability to baseball. This past October, Olga Khazan of The Atlantic highlighted a study in which researchers from the University of Southern California and Northeastern University performed three separate but related experiments to determine how “gritty” their subjects were.

One experiment had them solve anagrams. The second, a computer game. Finally, the third test had them solve math problems. Those who were deemed “grittier” attempted to solve fewer anagrams, which means they were sticking too long with difficult words rather than skipping and moving onto easier ones. The “grittier” crowd worked harder when losing at the computer game, but worked only as hard as the less-gritty when winning. With the math problems, the subjects when stuck were given a choice to take $1 and quit or keep going for a potential reward of $2 but $0 if they failed. The study showed that the “grittier” people weren’t any more productive but were more willing to risk the $1 for the doubled prize.

“Grit” is also a common colloquialism in baseball circles, used to refer to players who always run out a routine ground ball or pop-up. Other common characteristics include a willingness to dive for fly balls, slide into players to break up double plays, and to stick up for their teammates when there’s a disagreement between members of two teams. Often, those deemed “gritty” are in many other ways subpar players, but their perceived “grit” gives them value.

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is a rare superstar player who has earned the “grit” descriptor. There are many examples showing why he has earned it, but the most famous incident occurred on May 13, 2013 at Dodger Stadium. Harper turned his back to the field to chase an A.J. Ellis fly ball but went face-first into the wall, suffering abrasions on his face and a jammed left shoulder. This was during a game the Nationals were comfortably winning 6-0 in the sixth inning. At the time, the Nationals were 95 percent favorites to win the game, according to FanGraphs. Is the risk of suffering an injury — which could keep Harper out only a game or two, or cause him to miss the rest of the season — worth potentially turning a double or triple into an out?

Famously, Philadelphia fans and talking heads got on outfielder Bobby Abreu’s case in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s because he appeared gun-shy when approaching the outfield fence on fly balls. He was under a lot of pressure to sacrifice his body for the supposed good of the team, and developed a reputation as “soft”. As a more recent example, former Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins caught flack from fans when he didn’t run out a routine pop-up against the Mets on August 30, 2012. Then-manager Charlie Manuel benched the veteran. At the time, the Phillies were 62-69 and 17.5 games back of first place in the NL East and 8.5 games behind the second Wild Card. Freak injuries can happen, as Rollins’ teammate Ryan Howard showed when making the final out of the 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals. Is that non-zero injury risk worth the tiny chance that the infielder drops the pop-up and Rollins gets a single (or, in rarer cases, a double) in a game that is essentially meaningless?

The aforementioned study shows that maybe Abreu and Rollins had it right after all. Statistically, a freak injury that occurs on a “hustle” play is bound to happen. Maybe that’s what it will take to stop expecting athletes to put their bodies on the line for no realistic gain.

Zach Britton settles with the Orioles for $6.75 million

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton delivers a pitch against the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, in Boston. The Orioles won 6-4. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
AP Photo/Steven Senne
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The Orioles and closer Zach Britton avoided an arbitration hearing, agreeing to a $6.75 million salary for the 2016 season, Jon Heyman reports. The club has now handled all of its remaining arbitration cases and won’t have to go to a hearing with any players.

Britton, in his second of four years of arbitration eligibility, filed for $7.9 million while the Orioles countered at $5.6 million. $6.75 million is exactly the midpoint between the two submitted figures.

The 28-year-old lefty saved 36 games in 40 chances last season for the O’s while putting up a 1.92 ERA with a 79/14 K/BB ratio over 65 2/3 innings.

The Blue Jays will also try to sign Josh Donaldson to a multi-year deal

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson gets up after being unable to handle an infield single by Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts during the fourth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston Monday, Sept. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
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Tacking onto Friday’s report that the Blue Jays will attempt to sign Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion to multi-year deals, Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith reports that the club will try to do the same with third baseman and defending American League Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports notes that Donaldson’s arbitration hearing is scheduled for February 15, so the two sides will have 10 days to hammer out a contract.

Donaldson, 30, is entering his second of four years of arbitration eligibility. After earning $4.3 million last season, Donaldson filed for $11.8 million and the Blue Jays countered at $11.35 million. The $450,000 difference isn’t much compared to some of the other disparities among arbitration-eligible players and their respective clubs. Jake Arrieta and the Cubs, for example, had a gap of $6.5 million.

This past season, Donaldson let the league in runs scored and RBI with 122 and 123, respectively, while batting .297.371/.568 with 41 home runs and 41 doubles. He earned 23 of 30 first place votes in AL MVP balloting, with runner-up Mike Trout of the Angels grabbing the other seven votes.

Reds prospect Juan Duran suspended 80 games

Banned
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Juan Duran, a minor-league outfielder in the Reds’ farm system, has been suspended 80 games following positive tests for the performance-enhancing drugs Drostanolone, Stanozolol, and Nandrolone.

Duran is 6-foot-7 with big-time power, averaging 23 homers per 150 games since 2011, but he also strikes out a ton and struggles to control the strike zone. He spent last season at Double-A, missing a lot of time with injuries and hitting .256 with six homers and a .728 OPS in 59 games as a 23-year-old.

Duran is on the 40-man roster and is considered a quasi-prospect, but he’ll be ineligible to play until July and figures to head back to Double-A once reinstated.