The sun's out, the sky is clearing up, and allergies are making me reach for the Claritin—that means spring training is here! With players set to report, let's take a look at the backbone of the 2009 San Francisco Giants, the pitching staff.
Tim Lincecum: Can he do it again?
Our 2008 NL Cy Young Award winner comes into the 2009 season with higher expectations than before. It's hard to imagine he'll top last season's numbers—227 innings pitched, with 265 strikeouts, a 1.17 WHIP, and a .221 batting average against.
This year, opposing teams now have some experience whiffing against him, so the question is: Can he make the improvements, both mentally and physically, to continue his success?
I think he can.
Lincecum has faced adversity at every point in his career, and he's never backed down from the challenge. On the field, he's got a stronger bullpen behind him and a defense that's pretty close to last year's. With a little bit of luck, and health, Timmy should be in the Cy Young conversation for a second-straight year.
Randy Johnson: What's he got left?
Will his back hold up long enough to get him past 300 wins? His numbers after the break last season were a promising indicator—86 innings pitched, 78 strikeouts, a 2.41 ERA, and a stunning 1.05 WHIP.
Randy's another one of those guys who always plays with something to prove, and I like the toughness and grit he'll bring to this starting staff. Even though he's 45, the biggest boost he'll provide the Giants is pushing the next two guys down a spot in the rotation.
Matt Cain: Can he get over his mental hurdles?
As an observer of many a Matt Cain start last season, he always seemed to have his games undone by one bad inning. A walk would turn into a couple of walks, which would turn into a couple of runs. In tight games, you could almost hear the gears spinning in his head as he put more pressure on himself.
To be successful this season, Cain has got to improve on his most problematic asset: his brain.
I'm optimistic that Randy Johnson will help him. First off, Cain gets to face the back of the opposing team's rotation. Secondly, maybe the old veteran will pass on the mental fortitude it takes to close game seven of a World Series.
Barry Zito: Will he forget about that contract already?
On paper, there's really nothing more the Giants can do to take pressure off of Barry Zito.
He's coming into the season as the number four starter.
He's got a better bullpen, and decent defense behind him.
He's put in the work this off season, with Brian Wilson, to strengthen his body.
On a side note, I ran into Barry Zito at a restaurant last week. He's much bigger in person than he seems on television. Big enough for me to keep any smart-ass remarks to myself, smile politely, and leave him be.
If nothing else, Zito just needs to pound the strike zone. Last year, he issued 102 walks in 180 innings, which is awful, considering he gave up almost a hit an inning. He really just needs to dare the batter to put the ball in play, preferably on the ground.
My memo to Barry Zito: Stop thinking about being the man worth $126 million. Just pound the strike zone. If you can do that, I'll buy you a drink the next time I run into you.
Jonathan Sanchez and Noah Lowry: Who's number five?
Some teams have a problem filling the number four slot in their rotation.
For the Giants to have two young, promising lefties vying for the number five job, that's an embarrassment of riches.
However, both guys have some real question marks that need to be resolved.
Jonathan Sanchez started off 2008 well enough, fluctuating in the first two months of the season before posting a stellar month of June: five wins, 39 strikeouts in 40 innings, a 3.10 ERA, and an impressive 1.18 WHIP.
But he was wildly inconsistent after that, with an ERA of 8.57 in July, 3.75 in August, 7.83 in September.
Noah Lowry missed all of 2008 with a series of arm injuries. Giants fans will remember the 14 game winner from 2007 whose fastball barely beat out Barry Zito's, but could drop a nasty change-up on hitters at any time.
So, who wins the starting gig? It's hard to say, but more importantly, who cares? How about if both guys start? If Sanchez has issues with wildness, let Lowry take over for a little while. If Lowry gets fatigued from being away from the game for so long, let Sanchez step in.
The best case scenario is that both guys work out well, and the Giants have more than one trade chip. Or insurance in case another starter misses time with injury.
The worst case is that neither guy steps it up, and we get to watch Pat Misch or Kevin Pucetas duke it out.
Overall, the Giants are in a good place when it comes to starting pitching. The starters might have to carry the team for a good portion of the season, but at least there's six capable guys to shoulder the load until the bats start to catch up.
And if all else fails, Timmy takes the mound every fifth game.