MLB Coverage: Bay Area Baseball Comes Back For More

It was a great year to be a baseball fan in the Bay Area last season. The Oakland A’s were one of the Cinderella stories in all of sports as they won the AL West, and the San Francisco Giants were even better, winning the World Series and keying their home city’s run as the most successful sports market of 2012. Now let’s see what both teams have in store for 2013.

San Francisco Giants: Don’t be drawn into the media stereotype of this team as all pitching, no offense. The lineup has potential, the rotation has been some possible problems and the two were relatively equal components to the team’s success a year ago (Frisco was 4th in the National League in ERA, 6th in runs scored).

Buster Posey returns off his MVP season. Ever better, the catcher’s .408/.549 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage wasn’t drastically above his 2010 showing, meaning the Giants can count on continued high production. The team’s good offensive showing last year came in spite of some missed time from third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who provides both power and consistency in getting on base. If San Francisco can get rightfielder Hunter Pence to return to his pre-2012 form, they’ll have three legitimate All-Star caliber hitters.

San Francisco’s supporting offensive parts all function well together. Brandon Belt posted a .360 on-base percentage at first base last year, and has the talent to get better. Then you have veterans in Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan and postseason hero Marco Scutaro who are all tough contact hitters that scrap out respectable OBPs.

Depth could be an issue in the starting rotation, especially if Tim Lincecum can’t find the form that won him two Cy Young Awards. Lincecum had a 5.18 ERA in 33 starts. It’s true that the worst of it came in the season’s first half, but he was hardly lights out after the All-Star break. It’s also true he was effective in the postseason, but that was because he came out of the bullpen more frequently. The Giants won’t have long-term success again if Lincecum can’t be a reliable member of the rotation.

San Francisco also to rely on Barry Zito, who had huge wins in the NLCS and World Series, but has yet to post a sub-4.00 ERA since crossing the bay from Oakland prior to the 2007 season. Ryan Vogelson had his second straight good year, but he’s also 35 years old. There’s a lot of pressure on Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner in the 1-2 spots in the rotation. At least there’s no doubt that both, especially perennial Cy Young contender Cain, are up to it.

And if the depth in the starting pitching does become a problem, manager Bruce Bochy can cover a lot with his bullpen. There are five arms with sub-3.00 ERAs, and San Francisco will continue to be very tough to beat in any game they lead after five innings.

TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage continues its focus on each team’s Over/Under number on wins posted in Las Vegas. For the Giants, that number is 87.5. That looks slightly high to me. I’m concerned enough about the starting pitching that I don’t see this team going higher than 90, and that’s not enough room for error. If the bottom three spots in the rotation don’t pan out, this can become a .500 team very quickly. In all likelihood, San Francisco will operate in a very tight window, in the 84-90 win range, but I think there’s a bit more room on the Under.

Oakland A’s: Oakland also has the reputation of relying on their pitching and this one is no media myth. The bullpen is similar to San Francisco’s—an array of arms, all of very high quality. The closer, Grant Balfour, is 35-years-old and dealing with some knee problems. He’s expected to be ready by Opening Day, but even if there are problems, Oakland can just move Ryan Cook into the ninth-inning role. Cook was one of the best setup men in baseball last year, with a 2.09 ERA and the depth here is so good that there are plenty of candidates to move up and succeed Cook.

Billy Beane has also assembled a good group of young pitchers. Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin are all kids who pitched extremely well in 2012. Dan Straily also looked good, although that was in just seven starts, so we’ll see how his performance translates into a full season. The other question mark is Brett Anderson. He’s listed on the depth chart as the #1 starter and there’s no doubting his ability. There are a lot of reasons to doubt his durability though, and he’s coming off a year where he made just six starts. Regardless of what Anderson can give though, the A’s can pitch and come at you in waves.

What the A’s can’t do is score runs. Yoenis Cespedes was worth the money Beane spent to bring him in from Cuba last year, and he put up a .356/.505 season in a tough park to hit. But almost everywhere else, there’s at least a small problem. Josh Reddick hit 32 home runs, but his on-base percentages are absolutely awful. Brandon Moss produced, but the first baseman only had 300 plate appearances. Seth Smith is okay, but the DH isn’t going to keep an opposing manager up at night.

Oakland is going to need new catcher John Jaso to take his career-best numbers in Seattle last year (.394/.456) and not only replicate them, but do so in a year where he plays every day, rather than a 300-plate appearance season. The A’s need another foreign import, this one from Japan, in shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to come through. They need help at second base and third base. Jed Lowrie is competing for the shortstop job, but he has the ability to play second. Perhaps that could be an option to get a respectable bat into the lineup.

The A’s have an Over/Under win number of 84.5, which isn’t unreasonable. It suggests that the smart money is planning for a little regression from Oakland. Like San Francisco, this is another number that’s very tight, right in the middle of where I see the A’s likely outcomes. With pitching this good, you have to pencil Oakland in for at least a winning season and if they get a few hitters to come through, 88 wins would be within reach. I’m more confident in Oakland’s starting pitching than I am in San Francisco’s—and Oakland’s number is three wins lower—so I’m going Over on the A’s.