San Francisco Giants: Rotation Questions

When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010 they did so with a rotation comprised of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner. 

Barry Zito, their free agent acquisition from a few years earlier, didn’t even make the postseason roster. 

By 2012, Sanchez had been traded and Lincecum spent most of the postseason pitching out of the bullpen. They were replaced by Zito and Ryan Vogelsong and the Giants managed to beat the powerhouse offense of the Detroit Tigers with a rotation that, while not at it’s 2010 level, was more than up to the task.

Lincecum, the Giants’ ace for their first World Series run was relegated to the bullpen, although he was lights out in that role, for their 2012 Championship, and is a free agent at the end of this season. 

Zito, absent in 2010 but present for 2012, is in the final year of his 7-year $126 million dollar deal and is unlikely to return to San Francisco next year. 

Vogelsong, who has been on the disabled list since May 20 but should return this Friday, struggled mightily before succumbing to injury. The Giants have a team option on the 36-year old at a reasonable $6.5 million, if he can pitch better in the second half.

Cain and Bumgarner are both signed to long-term deals, not reaching free agency until 2018. 

But the Giants face a question: who are their next two starters after Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong in 2014?

The Giants had a prospect waiting in the wings to follow in the footsteps of their recent home-grown starting staff. In the 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, pitcher Zack Wheeler was San Francisco’s number two prospect. 

Later that season, the right-hander was moved to the New York Mets in exchange for Carlos Beltran. While his major league debut has been rocky at times, he now figures to join Matt Harvey atop the Mets rotation for years to come.

In Keith Law’s mid-season top 50 prospects released in July, the Giants had just one prospect, right handed pitcher Kyle Crick. Law say that Crick has “huge stuff” with “less than perfect command.” For the immediate future, he’s still a ways away, with the Giants High Class A affiliate in San Jose.

On the free agent market, Ervin Santana, currently enjoying a career revival with the Kansas City Royals may be the the top of the class, although Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees will be available as well. 

Another Yankees pitcher, Phil Hughes will hit free agency this fall as well and perhaps a move to the NL: and pitcher-friendly AT&T Park can get his career back on track as a low-risk option. 

Current Oakland A’s pitcher Bartolo Colon is set to reach free agency as well and would only have to cross the Bay to join the Giants. He does come with a PED question mark, serving a suspension last year and being revealed to have purchased the offending drugs at the Biogenesis clinic.

While the prices would certainly be high, the Giants could turn to a team like the Red Sox, with number of pitching prospects like Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman. The Sox also have a stable of veteran arms: Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster and Clay Buchholz. 

At some point the Sox are likely to hit a staff crunch where someone has to be traded, whether from the young kids coming up or the established starters approaching free agency or simply taking up enough salary that moving them for a smaller return to clear room for a prospect makes sense.

The Giants under General Manager Brian Sabean have built the success around pitching and Buster Posey. 

With Posey signed through 2022, acting as both primer bat and the starting catcher handling the pitching staff, the next goal for the team to to find a new wave of arms, and let them pitch the team back to the playoffs.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum: Cy Young Fifth Starters

When the Atlanta Braves were racking up first-place finishes in the National League East they relied on a trio of starting pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. When the Moneyball A’s were in their prime, they followed a similar strategy building a team around a core of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The San Francisco Giants the past few years? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. And of at the back of the rotation, Barry Zito. After the 2011 season Lincecum was one year removed from back-to-back Cy Young awards and Zito had pitched 821.2 innings of 4.55 ERA baseball since joining the Giants five years earlier. It was clear who was the ace and who belonged at the back of the rotation. But is it still?

The Vet

Barry Zito signed a seven-year $126 million deal with the Giants after a 2006 season that was arguably the worst of his career. The lefty, known for his sweeping curveball, put up his third highest ERA, highest WHIP, second highest home run rate, second highest walk rate, and the second lowest strikeout rate of his career. What he did do was stay on the mound, starting an  AL-leading 34 games and tossing 221 innings. Barry Zito, one of the A’s big three, had become an innings eater.

It wasn’t always that way. A first-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in 1999 (ninth overall) Zito began his Major League career with in 2000 finishing tied for sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Kazuhiro Sasaki, Terrence Long, Mark Quinn, Bengie Molina, and Kelly Wunsch while tying Steve Cox, Adam Kennedy, and Mark Redman, each of whom received just one vote. As a fun aside, Lance Berkman also received a single vote for the NL Rookie of the Year that same season, though voters at least picked Rafael Furcal to win. His career has been a bit more noteworthy than Sasaki’s. Zito went on to throw 214.1 innings in his sophomore season, the first of six straight years he would accomplish that feat. A modern horse, Zito started 35 games, again, a feat he would match three more times, including his 2003 campaign.

2003 was the year made for Barry Zito’s memorabilia collection. A shiny 2.75 ERA over just shy of 230 innings, the best WHIP and walk rates of his career, second highest K/9 (although still just 7.1) and a Cy Young award made it a year for his Wikipedia page. Zito would win Game 2 of the 2003 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox but lose the series-deciding Game 5. After 2003, Zito would begin a trend of rising ERAs, hits allowed, and walks, while also striking out fewer batters and giving up more long balls.

While a move to the National League, where pitchers hit (or, more often, simply stand at the plate with a bat in hand) has been known to rejuvenate aging American League starters who make the transition, the bleeding didn’t stop when he crossed the Bay. In his first five years in the Senior Circuit, Zito saw his ERA settle in the mid-fours, his walks average 4.1 per nine innings, and his strikeout rate fall to just 6.4 per nine. Barry Zito had become a hundred-million-dollar bust. No longer an ace, no longer a solid top-of-the-rotation pitcher. In five years he had failed to see a boost in the NL and was treading water while slowly sinking.

The Freak

With the tenth pick of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft the San Francisco Giants selected a slight right-handed pitcher with a funky delivery named Tim Lincecum. Lincecum had been drafted twice before, first in 2003 by the Cubs in the 48th round and then in 2005 with the Indians in the 42nd round, but stuck with the University of Washington and watched his stock and his ability to command a large signing bonus rise.

Lincecum started eight games after signing across A- and A+ levels in 2006 tossing 31.2 innings of 1.71 ERA with a mere 58 strikeouts or 16.5 Ks per nine innings. The next spring he would be rated #11 overall by Baseball America and would start five games for AAA Fresno, striking out 46 in 31 innings, before getting the call to the Majors. Lincecum would start 24 games for the Giants that year striking out 150 batters in his 146.1 innings. While his walk rate (4.0 BB/9) was a little high, the high strikeout rate offset the damage. And that was just the beginning.

Over the next two years Lincecum would put up seasons many players would like to have just once in their career: 452.1 innings, 526 strikeouts (10.5 K/9) against 152 walks (3.0 BB/9). He would toss six complete games, three of them shutouts, and have a combined ERA of just 2.55. He would win back-to-back Cy Young awards. The sky was the limit. The Freak was unstoppable.

In 2010 and 2011 Lincecum would take a small step back, edging a little closer to the level of the ordinary “ace” rather than the extraordinary. His ERA crossed the barrier of three to 3.08, he averaged 9.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 with 451 strikeouts and 162 walks in 429.1 innings across sixty-six starts. Lincecum also chipped in during the 2010 World Series run with 37 excellent innings including a complete game shutout of the Atlanta Braves and an eight inning, one-run outing against the Texas Rangers.

However, some warning signs were there: over his first four full seasons Lincecum’s strikeout rate fell each year and his walk rate rose in each of the last two years after falling from 2008 to 2009.

2012: Turnabout Is Fair Play

Even given the decline in performance in 2011, Tim Lincecum was still a valuable pitcher heading into the 2012 season. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were there at the top of the rotation as well and Zito was still around for the back end. Ryan Vogelsong had been contributing admirably since his return to American baseball. And then the season began.

Lincecum had a very un-Lincecum debut allowing five runs in 5.1 innings while Zito tossed a complete-game shutout in hitter-friendly Coors Field. By the end of May Zito’s ERA stood at 3.41 while Lincecum’s was 5.82. The Freak had four starts where he allowed at least five runs in just two months after having just five such starts in each of the previous two years. After back-to-back 3.1 inning starts to begin July, things began to turn around after the All-Star Break. The former Cy Young winner allowed more than four runs just twice and put up a 3.83 ERA over his final fifteen regular season starts. The strikeouts weren’t quite there, just 86 over his final 89.1 innings,  and twelve home runs in just under 90 innings isn’t great, but there was hope that he was figuring out his issues and fixing his problems. For most of the postseason Lincecum came out of the bullpen and allowed just one run in eleven innings of relief. His lone start was a 4.2 inning, four-run outing against the Cardinals in the NLCS and Lincecum returned to the bullpen for the World Series putting up an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 4.2 innings as the Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers.

Zito’s final fifteen starts would see him return largely to the Barry Zito that had been in San Francisco for several years: 85.2 innings of 4.31 ERA. But Zito limited the damage. By allowing more than four runs just once, and getting some help from his offence and bullpen, Zito would win eight of his second-half starts and the Giants would win twelve as they marched towards their second World Series in three years. Under the bright lights of the NLDS stage Zito wilted, lasting just 2.2 innings but he rebounded for the next two rounds tossing 13.1 innings of one-run ball across two starts. In un-Zito-like fashion he struck out 9 while walking just two. After not even making the roster for the Giants previous World Series run, Zito was redeemed in San Francisco.

2013 and Beyond

Whatever magic Zito uses to start the season seems to have continued into 2013 as the crafty left-hander began the new year with two scoreless seven-inning outings before the Milwaukee Brewers roughed him up for nine runs in just 2.2. Of course, he followed that up with another seven scoreless against the San Diego Padres.

Zito is in his last year of his deal with the Giants but the club retains an $18 million option for his services in 2014. Should they decline, Zito is due a $7 million buyout, so the Giants are really looking at a one-year, $11 million deal for a fourth or fifth starter who essential is what he is: dependably average.

2012 raised more questions about Lincecum than it answered. It showed a pitcher who was no longer at the top of his game as a starter but who could still dominate in relief. It showed a guy who had a bad first half and a decent second half. 2013 begins along the same lines: four starts into the season Lincecum has two good outings and two bad. He has two games with at least seven strikeouts and one with seven walks. Lincecum signed a 2 year $40.5 million contract after the 2011 season when the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. The Giants are probably breathing a sigh of relief on that one.

Which pitcher will perform better in 2013: the low-risk low(er) reward Zito or the high-risk, high reward Lincecum? Who will have a spot on the 2014 team? The answer to both questions may be Barry Zito, who, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his Cy Young season has become a pitcher who can never live up to his contract but can be counted upon to reach a baseline of performance.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Kevin Youkilis: On the Block?

The 2012 Boston Red Sox look a lot like the 2011 version of the team. Two players entered this year as potential free agents: David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Ortiz, enjoying a tremendous resurgence, may have already guaranteed himself another arbitration deal with the Red Sox, but Kevin Youkilis, over whom the Sox have a $13 million option for next season, may not even finish 2012 in a Boston uniform. The question is: if he’s not playing in Fenway, where is he?

2012 did not start the way Youkilis would have wanted. Right off the bat his new manager was calling him out to the media questioning not his health or his playing ability but his intangibles: Bobby Valentine criticized his passion for the game. The new Sox skipper said Youk just wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” While both sides tried to dismiss the comments and focus on the team – struggling mightily at the time – Ken Rosenthal is reporting that, according to a baseball executive,“Valentine wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training, viewing him as a liability.”

If that wasn’t enough, the third baseman soon hit the disabled list and prospect Will Middlebrooks go off to a roaring start and, with a few slumps, is hitting .259/.295/.552 with 4 home runs. Middlebrooks has proven himself in the minors and has held his own in the majors, is generally expected to become the starter in 2013. If the Red Sox think he is ready to stay, maybe when Youkilis returns from the DL, he’ll be featured for a trade.

Who’s Looking?

There are a few teams who could use help at the infield corners who might be interested in the veteran “Greek God of Walks.”

The Dodgers, lead by superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, are off to a surprising start in a weak NL West. Their current starter at third base? Juan Uribe. Uribe is hitting just .250/.302/.338 with a home run and a healthy Youk would be an improvement on his .640 OPS. The story doesn’t get much better across the diamond: James Loney, who never developed into the player the Dodgers always thought he would, is hitting .233/.310/.336. If a move back to first base could keep Youkilis healthy, an option the Red Sox don’t have, the Dodgers’ current roster construction wouldn’t make that very difficult.

North of LA, the San Francisco Giants, also looking at the weakness of their division, and currently without Pablo Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, could be interested as well. Sandoval is currently sidelined with a hand injury, and while he should return in another month or so, Youkilis might be ready before then. Like the Dodgers, the Giants also have a question mark at first base. Prospect Brandon Belt hasn’t forced the team to pencil him into the lineup every day, giving an opening for Youkilis to take over. Belt also has experience playing the outfield, which could allow the Giants to upgrade offensively at two positions if Belt can really get into gear – he has the ability, just not the track record in the Majors.

What Red Sox trade talk would be complete without including his former boss, Theo Epstein? The breakout of Bryan LaHair at first base has been well publicized: the formerly-labeled quad-A player has slugged 10 home runs already this season while hitting (an unsustainable) .330/.422/.670. While the power is real his other stats will likely regress a bit as the season goes on. Behind LaHair is former Sox and Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo will eventually inherit the first base job when LaHair is traded or shifted to the outfield. But the hot corner is occupied by Darwin Barney.

Barney is a fine stopgap while the Cubs rebuild, but the Cubs may decide to play up their Red Sox knowledge again. Adding Youkilis to man third base this year, and possibly next year, would give the club a veteran leader with a solid batting eye. Youkilis is injury prone at this point in his career and can’t be expected for 162 games, but Epstein and Hoyer know this. The money isn’t a huge obstacle for the large-market Cubs and even the option is just a one year commitment. Like evert rebuilding team, the Cubs need to balance putting a decent product on the field with their efforts to become competitive again. Alfonso Soriano is a high-priced player well past his prime, but Youkilis probably still has something left in the tank, and it might be enough to warrant an upgrade from Barney to keep the team looking respectable, if not competitive. Even an understanding fan base likes to go to the ballpark with a chance to see their team have a good game.

Full Circle

In a way, the situation facing Kevin Youkilis today is not all that different than the one he was in during 2004. Bill Mueller, the 2003 batting champion and Red Sox third baseman at the time, went on the disabled list. The Sox called up the already Moneyball-famous Youk to take over at third base. Youk impressed, but not enough to win the job away from Mueller that season. In 2005, Youk got in work at third and first as Kevin Millar, John Olerud, and the immortal Roberto Petagine spent time in a first base platoon. In 2006, the starting job at first was his because of the arrival of Mike Lowell (with Josh Beckett) to handle the hot corner.

Maybe Middlebrooks will stay cool until Youkilis returns. Maybe he’ll heat up and force the Red Sox hand on a trade before Youk gets going himself. Maybe Carl Crawford has another setback but Middlebrooks ends up returning to the big leagues as a left fielder this season. As they say, these things have a way of working themselves out.