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Coulda Been Worse, or, Barry Zito Is Very Very Glad To Be Home

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Switch on your portentous movie-trailer voiceover: Ten days, three cities... one team had one goal...

Now switch to your hilarity-ensues movie-trailer voiceover: ...Not to trip over their own shoelaces!

Then Barry Zito pitched and Andres Torres strapped on a dadgum leather contraption, but the Giants achieved their goal thanks to a mediocre showing in the same period from the teams ahead of them. That's the media narrative today: Your 2013 San Francisco Giants: Coulda Been Worse.

In that vein, I'll scratch through the Richmond District fog to find a few recent silver linings in the proceedings of the past few weeks, in which the lineup has looked particularly scrubbish.

First, Juan Perez is doing a damn fine impression of what pessimists have predicted for Gary Brown: Excellent defense, nice wheels, should leg out some scratch hits and line a few more this way and that, but not with much power. I'm not saying Perez is and always will be the hitter we're seeing now, but the glove and the arm are right now. He's a big league center fielder. And if Gary Brown continues to flounder (don't look now, he's coming on a bit in Fresno), Perez looks like, at minimum, the guy who leapfrogs Brown to be a nice 5th outfielder option in the next couple years. I guess he's already made that jump.

Second, Joaquin Arias is a great guy to have on the bench. He's not a great hitter, but he'll go through enough streaks like he just did on the road trip -- 13 for 36 with a double -- that you can't just write off the lineup spot when he subs for Pablo Sandoval. Even if he's not hitting, his D is excellent. His exploits are various. His arm is nefarious. His laugh is gregarious. His name's Joaquin Arias.

Suddenly the bench looks solid: Despite the glove flubs, Torres is helping. So is Gregor Blanco. Tony Abreu is making hard contact. None of these guys should be starting every day, but as fill-ins, it could be worse. Coulda been worse!

What's more, the Giants are over .500 despite giving up more runs than they've scored. They're scoring 4.43 runs a game, but giving up 4.56. The scoring is right where it should be, in the top five of the National League; the other-team-not-scoring is not. A bit more context:

Worst run prevention by a Giants team since 2008, and it's uglier than that because the National league average in 2008 was 4.63; the Giants were just a tick below that. This year, the league average is 4.16, and the Giants are nearly 10% worse. The Giants are bad at pitching! This is not good for our self-image round these parts.

If this is the way it's going to be, though, for this year and beyond, perhaps the Giants should ask themselves a few questions: Can they build a team to out-slug others? They did in the early part of the previous decade, with two of the league's best hitters hitting back to back, and a host of very complementary parts, from Ellis Burks to David Bell to Rich Aurilia to JT Snow.

Funny, that Jack Thomas fellow. He wasn't a prototypical first baseman. Most home runs in a season was 28; he topped 20 three times, but not in the years the Giants played at Mays Field. He had a discerning eye and enough pop to put up a career .268 / .357 / .427 line, but for the ever-sluggin' era he played in, those were popgun numbers for a first baseman. The Giants didn't care; their power came from other positions in the lineup.

Fast forward to now: A much younger first baseman is playing Snow-like defense and hitting lots of singles, but the power is slow to materialize. It may come yet; Brandon Belt only turned 25 this spring. But longer-term, if the Giants aren't able to bottle up other teams as they did from 2009 to 2012, they'll have to play more extra-base derby to make up the gap. And if those extra bases aren't coming from their first baseman, it'll be that much harder to win playing offense.

Finding another first baseman with more pop isn't necessarily the answer. But if the Giants feel they can't avoid falling back to earth with their pitching and defense for a while, and they think Belt's ceiling is JT Snow-ish, and they're OK with that (because they don't have anyone in the farm system to replace him, and trading for or signing a free agent is too costly), then they have to plan accordingly. Like, a serious upgrade in left field and a lot of deep thought about Hunter Pence in his early 30s. 

When injuries strike veterans, as has happened with the Giants, the silver lining is mini-auditions for bench guys and minor leaguers like Perez, Abreu, Noonan, and let's not forget Chad Gaudin (auditioning for a 2014 rotation spot?) and Jake Dunning, who made his debut last night. Welcome, Jake. But the quietest audition happening now could be Brandon Belt, as the Giants take stock in what kind of long-term hitter he'll be, and how he fits into their long-term plans.

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