April 16, 2010

Pitching and defense win championships. You've all heard that old saw many times; probably most often during the playoffs and World Series games. But the San Francisco Giants of 2009 turned the old saw on its head and proved it wrong. They had one of the best pitching staffs and most efficient defenses in the National League last year and were never really close to contending for the postseason.

The problem, of course, was offense. The Giants were in the bottom third of the NL in virtually every major offensive category. They had little power and couldn't run at all, but their worst problem was a complete lack of patience at the plate. Giants' batters drew just 392 walks in 2009, a major contributor to their MLB-worst .309 on-base percentage (OBP). The offense has been revamped, mostly on the cheap. Is there anyone of use for fantasy purposes beyond Pablo Sandoval and Bengie Molina? Let's take apart the Giants' roster to see.

Can Aubrey Huff bring down the house?

The Giants signed Huff as an upgrade at first base over Travis Ishakawa, who gave them 120 games there in 2009. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old Huff doesn't appear to be much of an improvement. Sure, he has a couple of 30-plus home run seasons on his resume, but they are the outliers of Huff's skill profile. A more accurate picture emerges when you look at his batted ball numbers. During Huff's most recent productive season, 08 with Baltimore, he had a spike in his fly ball rate to nearly 42 percent, well above his 36 percent career average. He also hit far fewer ground balls and had a higher than average line drive rate, all of which contributed to his first season batting over .300 since 2003.

But take '08 out of the equation and what emerges is a player whose ground ball rate has been steadily rising each season, peaking at over 48 percent in '09. At the same time, his line drive rate has eroded away, impacting his power numbers. His isolated power (ISO), which has averaged .190 due to spikes in '03 (.244) and '08 (.247), decayed to .144 in 2009, his lowest level since '01. The bottom line is that Huff's production is only likely to decline further, which renders him useless in most mixed leagues, and a barely serviceable substitute in NL-only formats.

DeRosa may bloom or wilt

The addition of Mark DeRosa was odd, because he is miscast as an everyday left fielder. His positional versatility is his greatest asset, in both real baseball and fantasy, so the Giants may make another move by the end of July if the team is in contention. Then they can utilize DeRosa's versatility off the bench, although his playing time will suffer. That said, DeRosa has been a very consistent producer over the last few years, with '09 being the exception due to a persistent wrist injury. If healthy, it's not unreasonable to expect double-digit homers along with a decent batting average in the range of .270. Because he is eligible at first and third base along with the outfield, he'll be very useful in NL-only leagues. In mixed formats he's limited to replacement level use outside of the deepest leagues, as he doesn't have the power potential normally associated with corner infielders and outfielders.

Will Freddy ever be ready?

Freddy Sanchez is a perfect symbol for everything that's been wrong with the Giants in recent years. He's above-average defensively, but a lightweight hitter with no real power who doesn't know how to take a walk. On top of that, he's recovering from two offseason surgeries (knee and shoulder), and won't be ready to play until sometime in May. While a healthy Sanchez will surely be a doubles hitting machine in the vast expanse of AT&T Park's outfield, he won't help the team's on-base woes at all. He also won't be of much use to fantasy managers since he doesn't steal bases, either. So don't bother waiting on Sanchez.

WHIP your pitching into shape

Everyone knows about Tim Lincecum and his remarkable statistics as a young starting pitcher. But if you're in need of help in strikeouts, walks and hits per inning pitched (WHIP), and earned run average, one Giants' pitcher that could be of help to you in any fantasy format is Jeremy Affeldt. I use the word "could" because Affeldt's success in '09 comes with a warning that it could all go away in the blink of, er, a fastball.

You see, last season Affeldt posted a 1.73 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP, well below his previous best of 3.33 and 1.30 respectively. The main difference was a sudden spike in the percentage of ground balls that Affeldt was able to generate. All through his career he averaged from 45-50 percent groundball rates, until last year's spectacular 65 percent mark. The cause of this dramatic improvement appears to be the development of new movement on his fastball, which became suddenly much more effective last season.

So, the warning to take away here is that Affeldt must maintain that high groundball rate to duplicate last season's success. So far he's doing that, but it's too early to tell if last year was just an aberration. He's already notched two vulture wins and nabbed a save, and will be in line for more saves if Brian Wilson goes down. That alone makes him worth having stashed away on your bench, but another season with those low ratios could make Affeldt into fantasy gold.

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