- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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There is something to be said for the concept "addition by subtraction." Certainly, with hordes of reporters no longer hanging around the clubhouse waiting for Barry Bonds ' latest "No comment," the team can focus on actually playing baseball and attempting to improve on last season's disastrous 71-91 record and last-place finish.
But exactly where does management expect improvement to come from? The offense has lost 41 percent of its home runs from last season with the departure of Bonds, Pedro Feliz and Ryan Klesko, and the only significant offseason addition comes in the form of Aaron Rowand, whose own 2007 power numbers were greatly assisted by playing his home games at Citizens Bank Park. Plus, returning mostly intact is a bullpen that lost an NL-leading 33 games and was a primary reason for San Francisco's poor 39-55 record in one- and two-run games.
There are some bright spots on the Giants, though, primarily in the pitching rotation, where Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum have made definite strides toward becoming a dominant duo at the top of the rotation for years to come. But even with the opportunity afforded these two young arms, GM Brian Sabean's declaration that the team needs to do more with younger players is a little hard to take seriously when he re-signs a 40-year-old shortstop (Omar Vizquel) to return to a starting lineup that could conceivably have as many as seven players age 33 or older.
Maybe management thinks the best way to celebrate the Giants' 50th anniversary of their arrival in San Francisco is to have as many active players as possible who were actually alive the last time Willie Mays was on a major league roster, but we'd love to see this team clean house sooner rather than later and give players like Kevin Frandsen, Dan Ortmeier, Rajai Davis, Fred Lewis and Nate Schierholtz a chance to suit up on a regular basis. After all, to borrow and tweak a Branch Rickey line, they finished last with all those veterans -- they certainly can finish last without them.
Then again, why should we expect the Giants to take advice from Rickey, no matter how much sense it makes?
Ballpark: Although part of the reason AT&T Park has not exactly turned out to be a hitters' paradise could be attributed to the far-from-stellar Giants' offense -- it ranked dead last in OPS in 2007 -- the ballpark factor numbers indicate that the park all but takes left-handed power hitters out of the mix. Yes, Barry Bonds had unbelievable success, but he's the exception, not the rule, and if you don't believe me, look no further than last year's Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game held in San Francisco. Three of the eight sluggers, and some of biggest swatters, were lefties (Ryan Howard, Justin Morneau and Prince Fielder), and not a single one of them managed to advance to the second round.
Top sleeper: It's easy to forget about solid but unflashy players on bad teams, but it's exactly this type of player that helps you win. And if you remember that your goal is to win, you won't easily forget Randy Winn. It's true that Randy is on the wrong side of 30, but I wouldn't exactly call 33 old, and his second-half numbers from 2007 jump off the page. Wouldn't you be happy with double-digit home runs and steals after the All-Star break from your fifth outfielder? Winn came pretty close to doing exactly that from July on, and his .314 average over that same time period was pretty nice, too.
Intriguing spring battle: Kevin Frandsen hit .370 last September, and the Giants are almost definitely going to find a place for him in the lineup. The question is, where? The most likely answer is at second base, where he has spent the majority of his major league time. That would mean veteran Ray Durham, in the final year of his contract, would be left out in the cold. But Frandsen has the ability to play third base as well, and with Pedro Feliz now in Philly, that position is certainly up for grabs. So the question seems to be, is Frandsen truly ready to play every day? If so, then the real spring training battle will be between Durham and Rich Aurilia, who would be the default third baseman if Frandsen takes over second. We're going to side with Ray doing just enough in spring training to earn a chance to go out with a little more dignity than his .178 average in the second half of 2007.
Trainer's room: Head athletic trainer Dave Groeschner might as well set up a satellite office in the Giants' bullpen. Tyler Walker seems to have recovered nicely from his 2006 Tommy John surgery, but the progress of both Merkin Valdez and Bartolome Fortunato from the same procedure has been considerably slower. Vinnie Chulk was the team's go-to man, appearing in 57 games before a circulatory problem, called Buerger's Disease, ended his 2007 season early. And then there's hot-headed Randy Messenger, who was so frustrated with his performance after being traded to the Giants last season, he broke two bones in his hand by punching a cart in the clubhouse. The final spots in the San Francisco bullpen might just go to whichever pitchers heal fastest, which isn't exactly the greatest criteria for compiling a successful staff.
Platoons: The Giants were thinking about letting Rajai Davis take over in center field. Then they reached out to Aaron Rowand and that idea was scuttled. Dave Roberts turns 35 this season and he's not in the lineup because of his power. He's there to provide speed, which appears to be declining right along with his pitiful .156 average against lefties. That seems like the perfect opportunity to get Davis into the lineup, and it shouldn't take much playing time for Rajai to pay fantasy dividends. He managed to swipe 22 bases last season in only 190 at-bats. Even if he gets only 350 plate appearances, you could be getting close to 40 steals from him. Paging Howie Mandel we'd like to make a deal.
Schedule preview: We hope the Giants have a good "frequent flier" rewards program because they are likely to spend more time this year in an airplane than out of the NL West cellar. The schedule-makers gave the team lovely itineraries such as Colorado-Florida-Arizona and San Francisco-Washington-Colorado in two different successive series, and from May 19 through the All-Star break, the longest homestand the team has is six games. It just doesn't bode well for a team expected to have as many as six offensive starters in the 30-plus crowd. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for whoever survives until September: With only one road series against each divisional foe and the rest of the games at home, the team might actually have time to unpack their suitcases for a few days before they empty out their lockers for the winter.
Future closer: Even though Brad Hennessey led the Giants with 19 saves last year, the Giants weren't convinced he was the man for the job, so they gave Brian Wilson -- the pitcher, not the "Beach Boys" musician -- a chance to stop lying in bed and have some fun, fun, fun in the closer's role. Wilson responded, converting six of seven save chances and registered a 2.28 ERA to boot. That makes Wilson the incumbent closer for now, but as for the future, the Giants might end up looking to the past. Tyler Walker saved 23 games for the Giants in 2005, then was traded to Tampa Bay the following season. He rejoins the Giants after sitting out last season, and he could be the go-to guy should Wilson find the job "so tough" and end up needing "a mess of help."
Fantasy stud: While nobody on this roster truly can be considered a fantasy stud, we'd be remiss if we didn't say something about Matt Cain. What's the difference between Cain and a top-10 pitcher like Justin Verlander? The innings pitched, ERA and WHIP are all pretty close, and Verlander had only a slight edge in K/9 (8.17-7.34) in 2007. So why isn't Cain able to anchor your fantasy staff? It's the wins, which have come few and far between for the Giants. Cain can't pitch much better in 2008, but the Giants have done little to improve upon an offense that gave him only 3.51 runs per start last season and a woeful 2.82 runs per game at home. While an extra clutch hit here or there might get Cain's record up to .500, he won't get anywhere close to the 20-win plateau. Thus, Cain remains on the outside of the velvet ropes, hoping maybe he'll be able to gain admittance into "Club Ace" in 2009.
Prospects to watch for 2008: We've already talked about Rajai Davis, but he's not the only contender for playing time in the aging Giants outfield. Fred Lewis has some speed, as well as a flair for the dramatic, belting two grand slams last season and also hitting for the cycle against the Rockies in May. Like Davis, Fred is out of options, which could lead to him making the team over Nate Schierholtz. Even though Schierholtz had 16 home runs at Triple-A last season, he failed to connect in 112 at-bats with San Francisco. However, his Arizona Fall League showing (.348 with four homers) could propel him into a legitimate battle with Randy Winn for playing time in right field. Odds are Schierholtz ends up being the odd man out to begin the season unless Dave Roberts performs poorly enough in spring training to warrant the Giants keeping all three youngsters and letting the veteran go.
Prospect to watch for the future: With a talented trio of outfielders already lined up, there's no room for John Bowker just yet. The lefty hit .307 to go along with his 22 home runs in Double-A but is still a year away from the majors. It's a little unclear why Eugenio Velez's progress is being held back. The 25-year-old infielder/outfielder could easily be given an opportunity this season to showcase his speed on the major league level, but with Omar Vizquel's career slowly fading into the sunset, the Giants most likely will give Velez an opportunity to start at shortstop every day at Triple-A Fresno this season in anticipation of him taking over the position in 2009.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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