Time for Giants to lower expectations

SAN FRANCISCO — After four consecutive winning seasons and two World Series titles in the last three years, the Giants have fallen from their perch alongside the Major Leagues’ elite ballclubs.

Only a dramatic reversal will enable them to finish .500 this year. As for returning to the postseason, that’s pure fantasy.

The Giants are playing without any apparent sense of urgency, perhaps because they have virtually no hope of contending in the National League West. New additions Jeff Francoeur, who reported to Triple-A Fresno, and Kensuke Tanaka might marginally improve the club’s depth. But they probably won’t accomplish more than that. Giants general manager Brian Sabean indicated to San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami that trying to upgrade the roster with major trades is pointless, since the organization lacks the surplus of prospects necessary to engineer deals. Moreover, the team’s performance doesn’t warrant acquiring a couple of handy veterans to accelerate a push for the division title.

Nor should the Giants adopt a scorched-earth policy and gut the roster. There’s always next year, and with it a fresh opportunity to compete in the always-balanced NL West. But implementing the quick fix of free-agent signings might be complicated, because the Giants’ payroll flexibility is limited. The likely departures of impending free agent Tim Lincecum (2013 salary: $22 million) and Barry Zito ($11 million net savings, if the club declines its $18 million option on his 2014 contract and pays him a $7 million buyout) will have limited economic impact, given the raises that Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo will receive.

Moreover, the potential free-agent class isn’t oozing with talent. There probably will be few helpful performers available besides Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann and the Giants’ own Hunter Pence. The Giants might be wise to forge a deal with Pence, the intense right fielder who seems sincere about wanting to stay here.

Or they can trade him in the next few weeks, which would mark the third year in a row for Pence to switch teams before the July 31 Trade Deadline. A critical factor here, obviously, is determining Pence’s signability.

That leads to the biggest name the Giants could jettison: Lincecum. The notion of trading the charismatic right-hander sounds almost blasphemous, given his popularity and everything he has done for the franchise. But this is a business. The Giants might be able to receive a useful prospect or two in exchange for Lincecum, who has value despite his 4.61 ERA and 1.407 WHIP. At least one American League contender has expressed interest in Lincecum as a reliever, the role he filled spectacularly in last year’s postseason. It’s not known whether that team has proposed a trade to the Giants involving Lincecum. But if one club has hatched this idea, it’s likely that at least a couple of others share that thought.

The schedule offers a shred of hope. The Giants play their first nine games at AT&T Park after the All-Star break. A strong homestand could advance San Francisco to the fringes of the division race.

But the mathematics of returning to respectability — widely defined as a .500 record — are daunting. To climb to .500 by the end of the season, the Giants must finish 41-31. That’s a winning percentage of .569, a pace the Giants haven’t come close to approaching recently. Remember, San Francisco owns the Major Leagues’ worst record (17-35) since May 14.

Reaching .500 sooner would require vast improvement. The Giants would have to win 13 of their next 16 games to climb to .500 by the end of the month. Push back the deadline to Sept. 1, Game No. 136. The Giants must go 28-18 from Thursday until then to hit the .500 level.

Next, forget the arithmetic and employ common sense. The Giants have done nothing — nothing — to indicate that they’re capable of executing such a turnaround.

Their pitching staff is no longer elite. The starting rotation has become unreliable. Matt Cain, once indomitable, is decidedly vulnerable. Nobody wants to admit that Cain is injured to some degree. If he isn’t hurt, he has forgotten how to pitch. Anybody who have followed his career know that’s not the case.

Lincecum and Zito can’t win on the road. Rookie left-hander Mike Kickham has good-looking stuff but an incomplete understanding of how to use it. Only Madison Bumgarner has maintained his excellence, and he can’t do more than pitch every fifth day.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have dulled the bullpen. The Giants miss Santiago Casilla, who hasn’t quite recovered from knee surgery. Ryan Vogelsong’s fractured right hand robbed the relief corps of Chad Gaudin, who’s in the rotation. Manager Bruce Bochy thus must rely on a group that includes rookies Jake Dunning and Sandy Rosario. Both have shown flashes of competence and could turn out to be keepers. But such inexperience does nothing for a World Series title defense.

On to the offense, or lack of it. Collectively, the Giants have misplaced the situational-hitting skills that sustained them in last year’s second half. They went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position Tuesday, ending a 16-game stretch in which they hadn’t collected more than two hits in those instances. Overall, their .250 batting average with runners in scoring position actually places them in the top half of the NL team rankings. But it’s a sharp decrease from the .296 RISP average they compiled after last year’s All-Star break.

Individually, numerous players are is struggling to some degree. Sandoval is batting .140 (8-for-57) since returning from the disabled list. Pence is in an .098 skid (5-for-51) over his last 13 games. Gregor Blanco is in a .136 tailspin (6-for-44) spanning 12 games. Fellow outfielder Andres Torres’ past nine appearances have yielded a .154 average (4-for-26).

Monday, the Giants’ pitching excelled but the offense floundered. Tuesday, the offense improved while the pitching regressed. Wednesday, nothing went right. The Giants insist that they get along great, and that’s the way it seems when reporters are allowed in the clubhouse. But they can’t coordinate their efforts on the field.

That’s a glaring sign of a poor team. At the current rate, we’ll see more in the next couple of months.

Chris Haft

1 Comment

I totally disagree. The Giants are only 6.5 games out. They were similarly out in August in 2010, if I remember right, and we still got the rest of July and parts of August to reach that point.

The Giants have been decimated by injuries to their offense, and then the pressure of trying to make up for the losses. For the past two months, we had been either missing or getting poor performances from three of our top five hitters, Pagan, Scutaro, Sandoval. Blanco has been OK batting leadoff, but Sandoval has still been rehabbing from his DL, like he did in 2011 and 2012, it takes him 2-4 weeks to get his first homer after returning, then he turns up the power. He just hit a homer last night, so that could be the sign of a hot streak for him. That would help the offense greatly, Pence was carrying the offense for a while, before the pressure got to him too.

The pitching might not be as good as season’s past but still good. Cain hasn’t been the same since his Perfect Game and I’m not sure if he’ll ever reach his prior standards, but he’s still been good, just not in his last two games. Rest should help him. Lincecum has been pitching better in his last four starts, just giving up a few too many key hits. He cleared his mind last season during ASB, leading the rotation in ERA for most of the second half before his stamina left him in his last starts. I expect him to be better too with rest. Gaudin has been very good so far, been a find like Vogelsong was. And Zito is Zito, he was up to start the season, been down recently, I expect him to be up again soon as well.

The relievers haven’t been the same since Casilla went on the DL. And no wonder, most teams losing their key right-handed set-up man will suffer, as there is not always that backup who could take his place. I was hoping Kontos could rise to the occasion, but so far nobody has, even Affeldt has been off. But Casilla is getting close to returning as well, and that should return the bullpen to its normal configuration in the second half.

You note how bad they have been since mid-May but neglected to note that at that point, they were 8 games over .500 after only 6 weeks of play. Once we get some key pieces back into the roster and performing as expected, we can return to some semblance of that team.

It is easy to rip into a team when things are not going well, but it was injuries that tipped this team into this morass, then overtrying to make up for the losses. Key people are returning and that should help a lot, as well as getting all those home games to start the second half.

I still hope the Giants keep Lincecum, he’s actually been pretty good overall, just giving up the wrong pitch at the wrong time. He fixed it last year, and I think he can fix it during the ASB this year. And I think he can be a super-reliever for us at some point in the future, capable of pitching a long game one night then returning the next night to shut down a rally as a set-up man, with little warmup, plus close when the closer had too many games or if the closer is not doing well, and reliever the closer.

And given how up and down Sandoval has been, I hope the Giants resign Pence as well, given that he sounds like he wants to stay here, that would give our offense more stability, I think.

Now is not the time to give up yet on the Giants. It may be close, maybe by end of July, but not yet.

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