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Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Giants have room for improvement

By Jon Weisman

Even the best teams usually need a lot of things to go their way to win the World Series, a run of good luck that can come to an abrupt end the following season, especially if you stand pat.

Tim Lincecum
The Giants are hoping for a return to Cy Young form from pitcher Tim Lincecum.
The San Francisco Giants mostly bring back the same team that won the title last fall. Although they no doubt peaked at the right time, there’s actually room for improvement from some key personnel. Whether they can take advantage is another matter.

For starters, look no further than Tim Lincecum, whose 2010 ERA of 3.43 was nearly a full run higher than his 2009 mark of 2.48. Still only 26, Lincecum allowed a career-high .310 batting average on balls in play last year, creating the possibility of a bounce-back 2011 that would return him to the Cy Young Award short list.

At the plate, Pablo Sandoval went from the heart of the order to the butt of the bench last year. Fangraphs has Sandoval’s wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) falling 20 percent year-to-year, from .396 to .314. Conventional wisdom points to Sandoval’s poor conditioning as the culprit, though perhaps there was also the matter of adjustments he needed to make as pitchers figured out ways to retire him. Either way, at age 24, Sandoval is anything but at the point of no return.

Then there are the young-‘uns who didn’t even have a chance to spend a whole season with San Francisco. Rookie catcher Buster Posey made his 2010 debut May 29 and sat out exactly a third of the Giants’ 162 regular-season games, squeezing in an .862 OPS (.993 on the road, mind you) when he did play. While Sandoval provides a reminder of what can go wrong following a blistering start to a career, Posey has the breathing room to make himself a sophomore sensation in 2011.

Madison Bumgarner played even less in the majors than Posey. With his first start coming June 26 (about two months shy of his 21st birthday) the 6-foot-4 lefty made 18 starts in the regular season with a 3.00 ERA, followed by a 2.18 ERA in 20 2/3 postseason innings, including his eight innings of shutout ball against the Rangers in the Fall Classic. More so than Posey, the opportunity is there for Bumgarner to increase his value just by being around in April.

San Francisco can tout a rotation that is young and talented: four reliable starting pitchers 28-or-under (their oldest, Barry Zito, is but 32). The Giants also have another card to play in minor-league first baseman Brandon Belt, who had a .455 on-base percentage and .620 slugging percentage as he soared from Single-A to Triple-A last summer.

Elsewhere in its lineup, San Francisco shows its vulnerability to age with returnees Aubrey Huff (34), Aaron Rowand (34), Freddy Sanchez (33) and Andres Torres (33), midseason acquisitions Pat Burrell (34) and Cody Ross (30), the offseason free-agent pickup of Miguel Tejada (36), and a player trying to come back from health issues, Mark DeRosa (36 this month). But some of those players are going to be competing for playing time.

Four that San Francisco might like to rely upon in 2011 are Huff, Sanchez, Burrell and Ross, and those four performed noticeably better for the Giants in 2010 than they had with their various teams the year before -- hinting at the lightning in a bottle that San Francisco might fear escaping this year. But when you can counter the probability that those four players will decline with the strong possibility that Lincecum, Sandoval, Posey and Bumgarner will be among those who shine even more brightly, fans of the Giants have good reason to feel that their luck hasn’t yet run out.

Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers at Dodger Thoughts for ESPNLosAngeles.com.