Lincecum and Cain and Pray for Rain, but Don't Settle for Sanchez and Garko

The Giants were one of the busiest teams during the days leading up to the trading deadline.  They picked up Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates and Ryan Garko from the Indians to upgrade the right side of their infield, and, in a general sense, their entire offense. Clearly the Giants are a better team now then they were two weeks ago.  But beyond that, these trades offer little clarity.

By picking up two players that are not particularly young and giving up at least one player with the potential to have a bright future, Brian Sabean seems to be indicating that the Giants are playing for this year.  In all fairness, the Giants haven’t exactly mortgaged the future, but neither Garko nor Sanchez is the type of player around whom a multi-year plan can be built.

The first question this raises is: what is meant, in this case, by playing for this year?  Does that mean that Giants are going to try to get the wild card, or that they are going to try to build a team that can play deep into the playoffs and have a chance at winning the World Series?  If the goal is the former, than these trades make some sense.  Sanchez and Garko will be marginal players; not dramatic upgrades over Travis Ishikawa and Juan Uribe. But then again the wild card race could well be decided in the margins.  The Giants’ reason for pursuing this strategy is not clear. Although the team has now missed the post-season for five years in a row, they have also been eliminated in the first round three of the last four times they reached the post-season.  Another first round exit may not slake the thirst for a championship of a franchise that has not won the World Series since Eisenhower was in his first term as President.

The Giants’ hopes of making it out of the first round of the playoffs and bringing home San Francisco’s first ever World Series title rest on the right arms of their two young all-star pitchers, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.  The model upon which the Giants are basing their team is almost certainly the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks,who won the World Series largely because of the extraordinary pitching of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

This model is less applicable than the Giants might like to admit. Johnson and Schilling were great during the regular season, pitched extremely well in that  post-season, and became even better players during the World Series in 2001, but their great pitching overshadowed a very strong Arizona offense.  The Diamondbacks averaged 5.05 runs a game and scored the third-highest number of runs in the National League in 2001. They actually improved on this in the World Series, in which they averaged 5.29 runs during their seven game defeat of the Yankees.  The Giants, albeit while playing in a more difficult park for hitters, are currently averaging 3.95 runs a game, good for 15th in the league.  Sanchez and Garko will help the Giants offensively, but not nearly enough to jump from 15th to 3rd in runs scored during the remainderof the season.  Lincecum and Cain are having better years than Johnson and Schilling did in 2001, but the Giants’ offense simply is not in the same league as Arizona’s in 2001, or, for that matter, any other recent pennant winner.

The Giants did not give up much to get Ryan Garko, but gave up one of their top pitching prospects, Tim Alderson, to get Freddie Sanchez.  Alderson could become a star pitcher or he could be a bust, but those are risks that a team has to take when they make a trade.  The more disturbing thing about the trade, from the Giants angle is not that a good prospect was traded, but that the theory guiding the trade was not good.  The Giants gave up a top prospect so they could improve enough to strengthen their chances of winning the wild card, but did not significantly improve their chances of playing deep into the playoffs.  The Giants are still at least one more big bat away from having a good chance of playing much beyond the first round of the playoffs.  Sabean has already indicated he is somewhat ready to play for this year by trading Alderson for Freddie Sanchez.  He would be wise to go all the way and pick up one more good hitter in a post-deadline move.  Otherwise he has probably traded one of the team’s best prospects for the privilege of getting eliminated in October rather than in September.