Giants at the break, 5 up 5 down

This is my Monday column on the Giants. WARNING: This is a baseball column. 49ers fans — feel free to skip this.

It’s the All-Star break, meaning it’s time to make sense of the Giants, the best team in baseball during April and May and one of the worst teams in baseball since June.

Are the Giants good or bad? Are the Giants going anywhere this season?

TOP-FIVE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM:

1. Hunter Pence. He’s the best player on the Giants. Also their most valuable player this season. He’s carrying the team. He’s their best hitter and their most consistent power hitter. He should be batting third or fourth, but he has to hit lead off while Angel Pagan is injured. Pence has stolen eight bases and has the best on-base percentage on the Giants. Pence is the only Giant, other than Pagan, who isn’t a dead-loss at the top of the lineup.

2. Tim Lincecum. He started the season as the No. 4 starter in the rotation, which seemed appropriate. How could you count on Lincecum? He was one of the worst starters in baseball the past two seasons and the first two months of this season. But during his past seven starts, he has been the best pitcher on the Giants and one of the best pitchers in baseball – it’s true. His ERA is 1.86 in that period. He’s throwing his fastball for strikes, something he couldn’t consistently do the past few seasons – the catcher would set up his target low and inside and Lincecum would miss high and away. Now he’s hitting the target, commanding his fastball and getting ahead of hitters. Making it much harder for hitters to lay off Lincecum’s junk in the dirt.

3. Matt Cain. Cain has been dominant like Lincecum recently, but not for as long. Cain gave up just four earned runs his past three starts. That’s a 1.86 ERA. That’s promising. The Giants started the season with Madison Bumgarner as the ace, but he still is just 24. Cain and Lincecum should be the aces. They are the only two Giants starters who are in their prime, the two starters who earn the most money – $37 million combined this season. When Cain and Lincecum dominate, the Giants contend.

4. Ryan Vogelsong. Allowed just eight earned runs his past four starts; a 2.92 ERA. He is 36 and the least talented starting pitcher on the Giants’ staff, but of the five starters, Vogelsong is the toughest competitor.

5. The NL West. It’s not good. The Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks are three of the worst teams in baseball. And the Dodgers haven’t taken off yet like they did last season. They have overtaken the Giants by a game but this division is wide open.

TOP-FIVE CONCERNS:

1. Center field. Bruce Bochy always says Angel Pagan is the engine that makes the offense go. So, without Pagan, the Giants’ offense lacks an engine and it isn’t going very far. Before Pagan hurt his back, the Giants scored 4.32 runs per game and their winning percentage was .623. Pagan hasn’t played since June 14. And the Giants have scored just 2.88 runs per game and their winning percentage has been a putrid .346. Pagan is irreplaceable to the Giants, but no one knows when or if he will return. That’s up to his back which isn’t getting better. Currently, he’s working out in a pool – the water is supposed to take pressure off his lower back. He still is not allowed to throw or swing or do anything related to baseball. He is a rarity – baseball player as swimmer.

2. Second base. Marco Scutaro played one game on July 12, got no hits, grimaced and grabbed his lower back after a couple of swings and didn’t play the next day. If the Giants think they can rely on Scutaro like they did two seasons ago they’re kidding themselves. Scutaro is 38 years old. He’s falling apart. And the other second basemen on the roster are minor leaguers. Brian Sabean should trade for a second baseman before the trade deadline if he’s serious about this season.

3. Power hitting. The Giants don’t have any of it. The past 10 games, Buster Posey has hit one home run, Pablo Sandoval has hit one home run, Mike Morse has hit one home run and Hunter Pence has hit one home run. Those are supposed to be the Giants’ power hitters. Recently, they’ve been a bunch of singles hitters.

4. Relief pitching. The Giants demoted their closer, Sergio Romo for his inability to close. Aside from new closer Santiago Casilla, the Giants’ pen is just plain weak. Whom do the Giants have? Jean Machi? He’s been getting raked recently, has a 6.48 ERA during his past 10 appearances. The Giants can’t count on him. What about Javier Lopez? He has allowed a 6.35 ERA his past 10 appearances. Can’t count on him.

Who can they count on? Jeremy Affeldt may be reliable. But the Giants don’t have one right-handed middle reliever they can trust.

5. Starting pitching. Lincecum, Cain and Vogelsong have pitched well recently. Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson have not. Bumgarner’s ERA was 7.03 during his past four starts and Hudson’s was 6.07 during his past five. You never know what you’re going to get from the Giants’ five starters. Every week the Giants seem to have a different ace. Who will be the ace next week?

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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  1. Uuuuuuuuup…dooooooooown…uuuuuuuuup…dooooooooown…
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    Best roller coaster South of Market!
    .
    .
    .
    *ALOHA*

  2. hmm…gotta agree with most of this.

    only a couple quibble points:

    The power is still there. It was there earlier in the season. I think the league has made some adjustments to the Giant’s approach at the plate as well as fatigue has set in. Hopefully some rest and some time to correct some approaches at the plate, mechanics etc… can turn the power back on. but the power isn’t completely absent.

    IMO, the Giant’s pitchers are all really good pitchers. But none of them are elite dominant pitchers. meaning, I think they can dominate a bad hitting team or a good team in a slump. But they’re going to get rough up at times and these days it’s no surprise. I just can’t see Lincecum or even Cain going in Washington or Oakland and dominating like they did in Philly and Texas in 2010. Those guys were dominating pitchers.

  3. Grant,
    Agreed with all points. Inconsistency is the bane of the team this season.
    But being only one game out in the standings is encouraging when you factor in the power hitting outage over the last month.

    The potential for another good month is still there if they can get out of their hitting funk.
    Pagan is a big missing piece but the team needs to be creative on how they play without him because a back injury can be very unpredictable.

    The division gives the Giants an opportunity to contend for at least a playoff spot only if the dodgers have a downslide and they can win the division outright.
    The next two weeks after the all-star game could determine what direction the team is going.

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