Can Lincecum regain his Cy Young form after struggling for the past two seasons? Image: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco Giants Sinking Fast in NL West

Like two ships passing in the night, the Los Angeles Dodgers are streaking their way up through the standings in the National League West while the San Francisco Giants are headed in the opposite direction.

Losers of nine of their last 10 games, the Giants have fallen into the basement in their division. Fortunately for them, that doesn’t mean a whole lot in terms of a deficit. The Giants trail the front-running Arizona Diamondbacks by a mere four-and-a-half games entering play on Friday. What is also means is that the reigning World Series Champions have a lot of work to do if they have designs on defending their title.

A superstar during the post-season last year, center fielder and lead-off man Angel Pagan went down with a hamstring injury in late May and will likely miss the rest of the season after needing surgery to repair the damage. Pagan was having a sub-par season at the dish, posting just a .314 on base percentage, but his recent track record suggests the Giants could have expected more production as the season progressed. Instead, they’ve turned to veteran Andres Torres to fill that void. Torres, who was once traded for Pagan, is putting up numbers almost identical to those Pagan was producing before the injury. That’s not good enough to provide the spark this offense needs.

The middle of the order has the potential to be as fearsome as any in baseball with Buster Posey leading the charge. Hunter Pence has turned in an all-star worthy first half, leading the club in homers, extra-base hits, and stolen bases. Unfortunately, the offense has been a lot of Posey and Pence and very little Panda as of late. Pablo Sandoval was off to a fine start to the season until a foot injury cost him two weeks on the DL in mid-June. He’s been unable to regain his form at the dish since his return, however, going a collective 3-for-33 in nine games since getting healthy.

This is a club that relies heavily on pitching and defense and scoring just enough runs to win. While Marco Scutaro and Brandon Belt help provide more depth to this lineup than they’ve seen in years past, they still rely heavily on the big boys in the middle to produce. If the Giants hope to make a push for October, they need a strong second half from Sandoval. Even if they get it, this team still needs one more outfield bat, preferably one that can get on base at the top of the order.

Like any contending club, however, it all begins and ends with starting pitching. Madison Bumgarner has developed into one of the best young hurlers in the game and ace right hander Matt Cain has overcome early-season troubles with the longball to regain his all-star form. Beyond those two, however, the Giants have seen a lack of consistent quality outings from the rest of the staff and the culprits include a pair of former Cy Young winners and post-season heroes in Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum.

At his age (35) and with his unimpressive arsenal of pitches, Zito isn’t likely to suddenly start putting up a string of stellar starts. He’s a fine fifth starter in a pitcher-friendly park in the National League. If he’s their third-best starter, though, San Francisco is probably in deep trouble.

Just as he has been for the past handful of years, Lincecum (4-9, 4.66 ERA) is the key to the rotation. A cursory look at the numbers shows some reason to be optimistic even in spite of his uneven results. Lincecum is still striking out more than a batter per inning and he has lowered his walk rate from a year ago. According to the advanced metric Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), Lincecum’s peripherals indicate a guy who should have an ERA of 3.68; nearly a full run lower than the results he’s gotten.

So, he’s pitched in some bad luck, right? Well, yes and no. While Lincecum has allowed a Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of .323, which is 25 points higher than his career number in that category, he’s also allowed significantly better contact to hitters, giving up far more line drives and inducing far fewer pop ups than ever before. This indicates that his command within the strike zone isn’t great, as hitter are squaring up him well when they make contact. Needless to say, Lincecum will have to improve if the Giants are to walk down the competition in the West.

There are some hefty contracts coming to an end after the season. Pence is a free agent to be, as is Lincecum. Zito’s seven-year, $126 million deal finally comes to an unofficial end as well, though there is a club option for 2014 that the Giants will most certainly decline. Those three players make up nearly $55 million of the club’s $136 million payroll this year and while escalating contracts such as Posey’s will eat into some of that money, San Francisco should be well-positioned to add pieces during the off-season.  Also, knowing that this kind of financial relief is mere months away, GM Brian Sabean may be empowered to add a bit more in payroll this season in attempts to make a run for another crown.

The Giants haven’t won two World Series by accident. There is plenty enough talent in that dugout and on that roster to turn things around and challenge for another trip to October. But with the Dodgers coming on strong and suddenly looking like the juggernaut they were supposed to be, a lot of things have to go right for San Francisco in the second half.

Tags: Pablo Sandoval Popular San Francisco Giants Tim Lincecum