UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Spring Postcard: With another bat, Giants could steal division title

1. Barry Zito: Comeback Player of the Year?When a starting pitcher loses his first eight decisions, as Zito did last season, there is not much he can do to alter the perception that he is a hopeless failure. But after July 1, when no one was paying attention, Zito went a respectable 7-4. He made 15 starts, and in 10 of them, allowed three runs or fewer. Clearly, Zito has been a monumental bust since the Giants gave him $126 million two years ago. But they no longer need him to be an ace, or a No. 2, or even a No. 3. Rather, Zito is the most well-compensated No. 4 starter in baseball, a position that has its advantages. Zito will get some very favorable matchups against other No. 4 starters and he won't be under much if any pressure to succeed. The Giants are banking on defending Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, promising 24-year-old Matt Cain and five-time Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson. Anything they get from Zito, the forgotten Cy Young winner, is a bonus.

2. Fred Lewis has some pop.The successor to Barry Bonds showed last season that he could be a reliable major-league left fielder, batting .282 and stealing 21 bases. But in the first week of spring training, Lewis showed a little extra muscle, hitting balls out of Scottsdale Stadium like Bonds used to do (they just didn't go quite as far).

"The power is there," manager Bruce Bochy said.

The Giants are penciling Lewis into the meat of their batting order -- along with Pablo Sandoval and Bengie Molina -- which means they need him to hit more than nine homers and drive in more than 40 runs (his totals last season). The Giants, who have not had a homegrown position player make an All-Star team since Matt Williams in 1996, are giving Sandoval and Lewis every opportunity to be next.

3. Still, they need another bat.Even in the National League West, where 5-4 games count as offensive explosions, the Giants lineup needs help. The Sandoval-Molina-Lewis trio has potential, but it's not going to scare Brandon Webb or Jake Peavy just yet. The Giants can sneak up and win this division, but only if general manager Brian Sabean adds a slugger to the mix. Although Sabean has traditionally been handicapped by a weak minor league system, the Giants now have legitimate prospects and should be active at the deadline, when cash-strapped teams will inevitably be looking to dump salary. Sabean was on the periphery of the Manny Ramirez negotiations, in case Ramirez spurned the Dodgers and was willing to sign for a cut rate. By July, the Giants should know if they have a chance and if they should deal a couple of those prospects.

Shortstop Edgar Renteria has been in the major leagues since 1996 and only once has he finished with a batting average below .270. His defense has eroded somewhat -- he doesn't make the play between shortstop and third base as well as he used to -- but the Giants can count on him for at least 150 hits. This team is not going to score a ton of runs, but with Randy Winn and Renteria at the top of the order, they are going to have plenty of opportunities.

Sandoval driving a pitch back up the middle and nearly removing the kneecap of starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez. A year ago, Sandoval was in spring training with the Giants, but he was not a highly regarded prospect. The Giants shipped him to Class A San Jose so he could learn how to play catcher. Now, he is their starting third baseman, batting in the middle of their order, billed as their breakout star. He is also entertaining to watch. He never stops smiling, swings at everything, and is built like a rounder Molina brother.

"I like the pressure on me," Sandoval said. "I'm just doing everything exactly the same as I did in the minor leagues. That's what got me here."

The last team with three Cy Young winners in its starting rotation was the 2002 Atlanta Braves, with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. The Giants have Lincecum, Johnson and Zito, but the key to the staff is Cain. A hard-throwing righty, Cain has Cy Young-caliber stuff, but his record has not reflected it. Over the past two years, he has gone 15-30, let down by meager run support and a questionable bullpen. Cain is due some better fortune.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.