One of the overused buzzwords in baseball today is "window." What is a team's window to compete? Is the window now or in the future? The Phillies' window to compete is now. The Padres are making every move with one eye towards a future window. The Astros have one of those windows where a two-year-old stuck a couple dozen stickers on it, and a parent tried to take couple of them off, leaving remnants of the adhesive backing before they finally said "screw it." Windows, windows, windows.
The Giants have an odd window. Just about every single thing that's right with their 25-man roster has to do with players under 30. Their rotation is one of the better groups in baseball, and the principals at the top are all under 30. They only have two players who could be considered bright offensive lights, but both of those players will turn 25 in 2012. There are rosters where you can see the players age in front of you as if they drank from the wrong grail, and you can understand the sense of organizational urgency. The Giants aren't necessarily one of those teams.
But there is a window. And while it might not close for years, it's being propped open with a stick. Maybe it's tied open with a tendon. It could have a labrum wedged in there to keep it open. For this window has to do with young pitching, which isn't something that any team should feel especially comfortable with. Even worse than the vagaries of young pitching: This is young pitching that isn't under contract for very long.
Madison Bumgarner is just a pup, and he'll be around for a few years yet. But Matt Cain will be a free agent after the 2012 season unless he signs a contract extension before then, and Tim Lincecum is likely to test the free-agent market after the 2013 season. Baseball isn't a game filled with certainties, but the Giants should feel comfortable with their rotation now. In two or three years? Maybe that young pitching is still with the team, and maybe it isn't. Maybe it's still there, but it's broken. In 2012, though, it should be good again.
Which all makes the Giants' offseason strategy that much riskier. They abstained from pricey upgrades to their lineup, which scored four runs (three earned) in 2011. Where another team in a similar situation might have thrown money at an offensive upgrade, the Giants put those dollars under a mattress. They saved money this offseason to help keep their young pitching around for the long term, hoping to wring another contending season out of the all-pitch, no-hit balance they've featured for the last three seasons.
It's a having-cake-and-eating-it-too strategy, except they're not willing to spring for any flour. They've tried this in each of the last three seasons -- once it resulted in a championship, and twice it was a frustrating, semi-successful season filed with what-ifs.
The Giants think that the offensive cavalry coming to their rescue has three parts: Buster Posey, coming back from an awful leg injury you might have heard about; Freddy Sanchez, whose shoulder exploded on a routine diving play; and Melky Cabrera, who finally leveraged the offensive potential he showed with the Yankees as a 21-year-old and put up the first above-average season of his career. All three of them come with significant risks.
Posey was a preternatural talent as a rookie, a disciplined hitter wise beyond his years and more powerful than he looked. But expecting him to be a middle-of-the-order force is expecting a lot from a catcher who still hasn't been cleared to run the bases yet. Sanchez, at his best, was okay offensively for a second baseman. Now he'll be 34 with a body made of sun-baked toothpicks. Expecting him to be anything more than good for his position again is something of a folly. And Melky … well, no one knows what to expect from him. Age-27 breakouts can be very real things, but there certainly wasn't a whole lot in his career before last season that made him attractive to teams looking to add offense.
The best news from the Giants' failed attempt to repeat last season was the rebound of Pablo Sandoval. The Giants' postseason run in 2010 had very little to do with Sandoval, who hit and fumbled his way off the roster by the end of October. Last season, he was the same Sandoval who finished seventh in the 2009 MVP voting, and he even added Gold Glove consideration to his resume as well. Without his contributions, the Giants would have set records for offensive futility. As is, his contributions helped them to a league-average offense (as long as the league you're interested in is from 1968.)
The pitching remains strong as usual, though. There aren't any significant concerns with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner, other than the fact that they're all young pitchers. Of the three, Lincecum is the most heralded and Cain is the most consistent, but Bumgarner might turn out better than both. He was already the team leader in WAR according to FanGraphs, and his combination of strikeout stuff and elite control isn't something that a lot of 21-year-olds have displayed in baseball history. With Ryan Vogelsong unlikely to post a sub-3.00 ERA again, the Giants are counting on Bumgarner to make up some of the gap.
There's a chance that the Giants can get some offensive improvements from Angel Pagan (who is younger than the departed Andres Torres), and there's even a chance that they'll luck into some middle-of-the-order help with Brandon Belt, who is likely to start the season in Fresno. If there's an injury or slump at the major-league level, Belt could play. He'll have to beat out Aubrey Huff, who had a death grip on the job last year despite showing up to camp in poor shape, and he'll have to fend off Brett Pill, who the organization still considers a prospect, even though he's the same age as Melky Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz.
But if the offense doesn't improve substantially, there's no reason to think that the team's fortunes will either. Getting Posey back (and ditching Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, among others) isn't a small upgrade. They'll have to hope it's enough.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Hole they didn't fill)
The Giants decided for the first time in the Brian Sabean era that they weren't going to mess around with a young player who didn't hit well the season before. Progress! Baby steps! The problem is that the player in question is Brandon Crawford, owner of a .266/.331/.403 minor-league line in 988 career at-bats, over 107 of which came in AAA. While Crawford's defense is stellar, the Giants could have filled their shortstop position with just about anyone -- Jamey Carroll, Clint Barmes -- and it would have been a likely upgrade offensively. Considering the strikeout-first pitching staff, they could have afforded to trade some outs for runs.
Ryan Vogelsong's renaissance last year was stunning -- think Chad Hermansen showing up out of nowhere to hit 30 home runs -- but it wasn't a sustainable performance. That doesn't mean that he's doomed to regress to where he was, though, as his peripheral stats last season indicate that he has a good chance to at least be a league-average pitcher.
Over .500. Contending into September. Proud owners of a shiny trade-deadline acquisition that they paid too much for. Still screwing around with Brandon Belt next year at this time.