Twins Series

Minnesota+Twins+v+San+Francisco+Giants+MIvW4-bvu8_lJason O. Watson/Getty Images

After 50 games, the Giants stand at the top of the MLB with a record of 32-18. 50 games isn’t enough to have sorted out how good a team truly is, but it is enough to put together a solid list of meaningless statistics. The Giants are 24-4 when scoring first! Their bullpen is the best third best in the league! They are on pace to hit 180 home runs! My favorite, however, is that the Giants are currently 6-0 against the American League. Dumb stats aside, the Giants are playing surprisingly well. I still have trouble looking at them as a truly great team, but maybe that is just some leftover trauma from 2013 eroding my faith. As I’ve said before, I’m just stoked the Giants are fun to watch. Not even Tim Lincecum getting blown up early in the game discourages me at this point.

What is truly remarkable about these Giants is how well they have weathered their recent spate of injuries. Despite losing Marco Scutaro, Brandon Belt, Santiago Casilla, Matt Cain, Tim Hudson and Angel Pagan to injuries with varying degrees of seriousness, Bruce Bochy has managed to squeeze production out of a growing list of castoffs and callups. Brandon Hicks has been mildly ridiculous, as has Tyler Colvin. The latest addition to this list is George Kontos, who opened his 2014 campaign with an inning of scoreless relief, complete with three strikeouts. It was probably a meaningless inning, but, considering how well the team’s corp of replacement players has done, it could mean the return of 2012 Kontos. When the Giants started the season, they won games without any major contributions from their biggest power hitters. They have continued to win despite losing multiple starters. Most of their success has come with some kind of caveat, which speaks to how well this team is playing despite some major flaws.

Is Ryan Vogelsong back? It sure seems like it. I wouldn’t have even tried to answer that question until his start against the Twins. He looked absolutely untouchable. The movement on his fastball was probably the greatest visual cue, but it was only one element of his lethality. His game made me giddy for one specific reason: Minnesota walks a lot. They are the third walkingest team in the league, behind Oakland and Ceveland, who Vogelsong mowed down scant weeks ago. Vogelsong’s ineffectiveness in 2013 was the result of a sudden inability to strikeout hitters, coupled with a slight uptick in walks. After posting a 2.28 SO/W ratio in 2011 and a 2.55 SO/W in 2012, his ratio dropped to 1.76. This year, it is back up to 2.42. In Vogelsong’s first four games, he averaged 3 strikeouts per game, and went 2-2 with a 7.71 ERA. Over his last six games, he has averaged 6 strikeouts per game, and has gone 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA. I will be the first to admit that I didn’t see this coming. Whether it was a mechanical tweak or some kind of renewed confidence, Vogelsong has regained his command, and is demolishing lineups once again. You can tell he’s fired up by the big grin he had on his face after finishing his outing:

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 1.23.47 AM

I’m just happy he’s happy.

One of the best moments of my week came when I realized that I hadn’t read or heard any stories or opinions about Pablo Sandoval’s weight in a long time (In case you were wondering, this hasn’t been all that great of a week for me). Pablo Sandoval is getting hot, and it isn’t because he lost weight. When he was heavier, he was a streaky hitter with a surprising amount of defensive agility. Now that he’s svelte, he’s… a streaky hitter with a surprising amount of defensive agility.

Sandoval has done a nice job of giving the Giants the entire range of the Sandoval Experience™. In these last 50 games, we’ve seen just how horrible and how well Sandoval can hit. His line for the first 25 games:

.172 BA/.252 OBP/ .301 SLG/ .554 OPS, 16 H, 22 SO, 2 HR

And for the last 25:

.289 BA/.310 OBP/ .494 SLG/ .804 OPS, 24 H, 12 SO, 4 HR

He is basically two different athletes. Just like the late movement on Vogelsong’s fastball, the sign that Sandoval is heating up is obvious:

That hit had no business being a home run, but that’s how Sandoval works. Hopefully that is enough to get the front office to keep him around for a few more years.

 

Advertisements

Sizing Up the NFC West Part 1: Arizona Cardinals

Carson+Palmer+Arizona+Cardinals+v+San+Francisco+AbUKUcEtEXelEzra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers’ division has become something of a meat grinder, boasting four truly impressive defenses and two of the most talked-about quarterbacks in the game. The 49ers- Seahawks rivalry is well known, and many look at Seattle as the number one obstacle to the 49ers’ success, but the Arizona Cardinals have crept into the picture as well. Their defense was nothing short of incredible last year, making up for some of their big weaknesses on offense. Although it would shock me, I have a nasty feeling that Arizona could supplant Seattle or San Francisco as an NFC powerhouse.

All that said, the Cardinals have some glaring issues. The biggest knock against the team was the offensive line, which struggled to keep up with the NFC West’s elite pass rushers in the first half of 2013. Their line improved as the season wore on, but it remains to be seen whether youngsters Paul Fanaika and Lyle Sendlein can produce in 2014. The front office added some depth in Jared Veldheer and Ted Larsen, but did not address the offensive line in the draft.

It should be noted however, that the offensive line isn’t their only weakness. The Cardinals signed veteran quarterback Carson Palmer in 2013, hoping to use his arm to open up their aggressive aerial offense. He performed reasonably well, and showed some great chemistry with Arizona’s potent receiver group. He also threw 22 interceptions, putting Arizona’s defense in plenty of tough spots. Some blame this on the offensive line, but the numbers show otherwise. Football Outsiders ranks the Cardinals’ line 13th in pass protection, the highest in the NFC West, hardly an alarming weakness.

I wanted to take a look at Palmer’s career and see whether his interceptions had anything to do with his offensive line. Palmer has actually enjoyed decent pass protection for most of his career. His only offensive line ranked above 20 in pass protection was with the 2008 Bengals. However, he only started 4 games of the 2008 season thanks to an elbow injury.

Palmer boasts a lousy 3.2 interception percentage in his career, meaning he throws a pick in 3.2% of his passes. Of the 29 qualifying active quarterbacks on Pro Football Reference, he ranks 21st in interception percentage. His peers include some notable quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Matt Hasselbeck and Jay Cutler, all quarterbacks fitting the ‘gunslinger’ mold.

I charted the ranks of all of Palmer’s pass protectors since he started, hoping to find some correlation between his interceptions and the quality of the offensive line.

Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 5.24.17 PM

As it turns out, there isn’t much of a correlation. In terms of interceptions, Palmer had his best year in 2005, when he threw a reasonable 12 interceptions behind the 3rd ranked offensive line in the NFL. Two years later, he would once again play behind the 3rd ranked line, only to throw 20 interceptions and boost his interception percentage to 3.5%.

Although that percentage seems small, the numbers make a huge difference. Of all the quarterbacks in the 2013 playoffs, only one (Andy Dalton) had an interception percentage higher than 3 during the regular season.

Palmer has started 137 games in his career, and is far removed from the developmental stage of quarterbacking. It is clear that the Cardinals, and whoever he plays for next, will have to account for an inordinate amount of interceptions being thrown. The Cardinals defense was actually able to weather them rather well, most notably beating Seattle on the road despite three Palmer interceptions. It is possible to construct a defense good enough to carry the team to the postseason despite a pick-happy quarterback (the 2007 Giants and the 2012 Ravens come to mind) but succeeding in the postseason is predicated on a lack of turnovers. Some quarterbacks, like Manning and Joe Flacco, can go on streaks of interception-free football, but this is a rare and volatile trait. Only twice in his career has Palmer gone more than three games without throwing an interception: 2 four-week streaks in 2005 and 2006.

No matter how good the offensive line gets, the Cardinals are going to be hard pressed to succeed if they have to constantly make up for Palmer’s poor decision-making.

The 49ers will play the Cardinals in weeks 3 and 17.

Check out previews of the Rams and Seahawks.

Marcus Lattimore, Carlos Hyde and Tempering Our Post-Draft Hopes

Carlos Hyde, John Lowdermilk, Anthony HitchensAP Photo/Jay LaPrete

The weeks after a good draft might be the most hopeful time of the year for NFL fans. Eventually, reality sets in, and you remember that no amount of Mike Mayock praise can un-bust a poor draft pick. That isn’t to say that the 49ers drafted poorly in the last few years. Indeed, quite the opposite. However, for this year’s haul to be called a ‘good’ one, only half of the 49ers’ 12 picks need contribute.

Carlos Hyde might never adjust to Greg Roman’s system. Jimmie Ward could struggle to cover anyone, let alone Tavon Austin and Percy Harvin. Aaron Lynch’s ‘character concerns’ might linger, Brandon Thomas’ ACL could never heal right. I am not trying to bring anyone down. I feel plenty hopeful too, but I think it is important to recognize that even Trent Baalke cannot force a college player to play well in the NFL, or a tendon to heal perfectly.

The extraordinary amount of talent on the 49ers frees Baalke up to make some interesting decisions, like drafting injured players in the later rounds, or signing British olympians with no gridiron football experience. Baalke can run parts of the team like Google X, experimenting with low-cost players and hopefully harnessing talent that can be used on Sundays. However, it is important to keep in mind that the success rate for this is, at best, pretty low.

When Marcus Lattimore was drafted in the 4th round of the 2013 NFL draft, the pick was widely praised. Not only were the 49ers getting tremendous value from a 4th round pick, but they were addressing a future need by finding a replacement for the aging Frank Gore. The story was almost too perfect; just like Gore, Lattimore was recovering from a devastating knee injury. Like Gore, Lattimore had been a huge part of the offense at his school, and for the limited time he played, he was arguably the best half back in the SEC. It was really hard not to be hopeful.

Things got a little more realistic in the 2nd round of of the 2014 Draft, when the 49ers took Ohio State’s resident battering ram, Carlos Hyde. This baffled more than a few fans. Was Lattimore not the second coming of Gore? Wasn’t the running back corp deep enough? However, if you really thought about it, the pick made a lot of sense.

We must recognize that even athletes like Lattimore sometimes never turn the corner. Doctors are getting better and better at helping athletes recover from injuries, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily can contribute in the NFL. We are all rooting for Lattimore, Thomas, Tank Carradine, Lawrence Okoye, Keith Reaser to get healthy, but the chances of that happening are slim.

 

The San Francisco Giants at the Quarter Mark

 

on opening day at Dodger Stadium on April 4, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.Getty Images

The Giants are 41 games into the 2014 season, with a record of 26-15. They just completed one of the biggest tests of the early season: a ten game road trip through Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. All the teams they faced made the playoffs in 2013, but they emerged at the other end with a 7-3 record. It wasn’t a world-beating performance, but the Giants played like a fundamentally sound team that is capable of winning more often than it loses. I guess the most striking thing about these Giants is the balance. The offense, starting rotation and bullpen have all gotten the job done, for the most part, and the Giants have yet to fall to pieces.

If you have read this blog from the beginning, you will have noticed that I am messing with the format for baseball. I’m still working out how I want to write about the Giants this season, but I thought I’d highlight some of the things that stuck out to me over the last few weeks:

The starting rotation has, for the last ten games, performed quite well. I had expected Madison Bumgarner and Tim Hudson to produce, and they have, but the real surprise has been the effectiveness of Ryan Vogelsong. Tim Lincecum starts are typically unpleasant adventures, but even he has improved a bit over the last few weeks. In the first 15 games of the season, the Giants starting rotation put up a collective 4.45 ERA, a total not helped by Lincecum’s 7.2 ERA. Over the last stretch, the rotation’s total has dropped to 3.26 ERA, which is partially the product of Vogelsong’s effectiveness. He managed to shake off a poor start and drop his ugly 5.4 ERA to 2.91 in four starts. Cain remains a mystery. He is the only starter who hasn’t shown tremendous numerical improvement. However, his finger injury may have more to do with this lack of change than anything else.

This is about where I see the Giants’ rotation staying. I don’t anticipate Vogelsong and Lincecum remaining totally effective, but I also don’t see Cain struggling for much longer.

The story at the beginning of the year was the offense. The Giants were hitting for power, and, shockingly, every single player in the lineup was hitting home runs. This production overrode some very poor starts from the Giants’ most powerful hitters. Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval all started off very slow, but the Giants still won thanks to Brandon Belt, Michael Morse and a scorching hot Angel Pagan. The Giants have hit 49 home runs in 41 games, meaning they have hit nearly half of their 2013 total (107) in just a quarter of a season.

Lost in this flurry of home runs was Brandon Crawford, who was quietly putting together a great string of games. He had a similar start last season, going .279/.352/.488 with an .840 OPS. The striking thing about Crawford’s start is the total reversal of his effectiveness against left handed pitching. Last season he went .269/.333/.394 against righties, and .199/.258/.288 against lefties. This season he is hitting just .184/.278/.263 against righties, and raking lefties with .410/.500/.821. I would love to see Crawford get on base a little more against righties, but his ability to annihilate left-handed pitching has proven invaluable. I’m not sure how to account for this. During training camp, Crawford was given some instruction by Barry Bonds, but to have some minor adjustments to your batting stance result in a .201 point increase in batting average against lefties seems extreme. I full expect his splits to even out somewhat, but hopefully he can find a way to step up against righties.

At this point last season, the Giants had scored 191 runs, and allowed 180. They have actually scored less this season, totaling 173 runs while allowing 144. The 8 extra runs over last season have made a difference, if a semi-imperceptible one. At the quarter mark in 2013, the Giants had lost 17 games by an average score of 3.35 runs. This season, they have lost 15 games by an average of 2.3 runs. They had 5 one-run losses in 2013, compared to 8 this season. Apart from the deluge of home runs, the Giants have been a bit more efficient offensively. The most dramatic difference in scoring and run prevention was a 8-2 loss in Colorado. Compare this with last season, when the Giants’ third loss of the season was a 3-14 shellacking by the St. Louis Cardinals at home. Although these differences seem slight, if they continue the Giants could be looking at one of their better seasons to date.

I had thought the Giants’ success might come from their solid defensive effort, but a more thorough examination reveals that the Giants are just average defensively. The Giants are ranked 14th in the MLB with 23 errors, while FanGraphs ranks the Giants at 19th in total defense, with a below-average -4.1 UZR. That isn’t surprising, as they don’t field too many defensive studs, but it doesn’t jive with what I’ve seen on the field. Crawford, Pagan and Belt have all been superb, while Morse, arguably the team’s biggest defensive liability, hasn’t been all that bad.

The Giants’ bullpen is arguably the best in the majors, with a league-leading .210 ERA through 36 games. The ‘pen was decent last season, but had long stretches of futility. My initial thought was that the lack of good outings from the starting rotation in 2013 taxed the bullpen, but there have been more than a few short starts this season. The average length of starts for Giants pitchers has increased by only .184 innings, from 5.726 to 5.91 innings per start. The bullpen is also largely the same, with Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla forming the core of what has been a solid group of relievers for the last four years. The Giants’ numbers are gaining a little more credence a quarter of the way through the season, but I still don’t fully trust the bullpen’s numbers.

All in all, things look pretty good. I had some small amount of faith that they would come back from the disaster that was 2013. Last season left my faith in this team so battered that I can’t feel wholly confident. We can only be thankful that the Giants games are largely entertaining, without too many errors or ugliness.

 

2014 NFL Draft: All the Rest

 

carloshydeJamie Sabau/Getty Images

The later rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft were decidedly more exciting than the first, which saw the 49ers calmly wait as the high-profile picks were made, and eventually select a Safety from a small school. Trent Baalke was a little more spry after the first round, making multiple trades to move up and down the draft board. On top of that, the 49ers announced before day two began that they had traded a conditional 4th round pick in 2015 for Buffalo Bills wideout Stevie Johnson. In typical Harbaalke fashion, the 49ers added depth and talent, picking up players that had inexplicably fallen and filling roster holes for now and in the future:

Carlos Hyde, running back, Ohio State University

This was a bit of a head-scratcher, but after it sunk in it made a lot of sense. Hyde was a monster for the Buckeyes, picking up 1521 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013. He fell out of the first round because of character concerns stemming from assault allegations leveled against him last year. I did not have running back as a position of need for the 49ers, but it isn’t hard to see the logic of this pick. Marcus Lattimore is the heir apparent, but there is no guarantee that he can perform after two brutal knee injuries. Should he struggle to produce, Hyde can step in and spell Gore while he learns the 49ers’ system. Hyde has the power and versatility to help drive the 49ers’ offense.

Marcus Martin, center, University of Southern California

This was my favorite pick by far. Martin was seen by most as the best center in the draft, and the 49ers managed to snag him in the 3rd round. He is a big, strong interior lineman, standing at 6′ 3” 310 lbs. He has long arms and, despite his youth, could be the 49ers’ starting center in 2014. He will compete with interior lineman Daniel Kilgore to play center, but is most likely the 49ers’ center of the future.

Chris Borland, inside linebacker, University of Wisconsin

This was a depth pick, as the 49ers need someone to replace an injured Navorro Bowman for the first half of the season. Borland was a prolific linebacker at Wisconsin, picking up 111 tackles as a senior. He fell a few rounds because of his size, which is not typical for a linebacker, and his short arms. Despite these shortcomings, Borland was highly functional at Wisconsin and showed plenty of ability as a run stopper. He will compete with Michael Wilhoite to play next to Patrick Willis at inside linebacker.

Brandon Thomas, offensive lineman, Clemson

Thomas was heralded as a 1st round pick until he tore his ACL at a workout in New Orleans. Much like Lattimore in 2013, Thomas will sit out this season and rehab in the hopes that he can bring his first round talent to bear in the future. He played all along the line at Clemson, and, as is typical for a Harbaalke pick, he has exceptionally long arms.

Bruce Ellington, wide receiver, University of South Carolina

I really liked this pick. Ellington was another steal for the 49ers, who finally added some speed to their receiver group. He was a huge weapon for the Gamecocks, lining up as a receiver and even returning kickoffs. His speed and versatility has many speculating that the 49ers are done with LaMichael James, who had a similar skill set but was largely unproductive in San Francisco. I am still not sure that Greg Roman is good at utilizing speedy players, but at the very least Ellington could see some use returning kickoffs and punts.

Dontae Johnson, cornerback, North Carolina State

Much like Jimmie Ward in the first round, Dontae Johnson is versatile, with experience as both a safety and corner. He is unusually fast for his size (6’2”, 200 lbs.), but is still raw in terms of play recognition skills. Fortunately, most of the knocks against him (reading offenses, footwork) are things that can be ironed out with the right coaching. He has the physical tools to be an excellent corner, provided the 49ers can coach him up to that level.

Aaron Lynch, defensive end, University of South Florida

Lynch is a tremendously talented pass-rusher, a physically prototypical defensive end. After a dominant year as a freshman at Notre Dame, Lynch transferred to USF and saw a precipitous fall in production. The biggest knock against him, and it is a big one, is that he lacks motivation and seems disinterested in playing up to his potential. This pick speaks to the faith Baalke has in Vic Fangio and the defensive staff to motivate and mold players. If the 49ers manage get him fired up, he could be an incredible outside linebacker.

Keith Reaser, cornerback, Florida Atlantic

Another injured player that the 49ers will stash and develop, Reaser brings decent coverage and strength to the position. He isn’t a tremendous player, and will have to come back from a torn ACL, but if he works out he will provide depth.

Kenneth Acker, cornerback, Southern Methodist University

Acker was a great corner at SMU, but will need some coaching up to learn the finer points of press coverage. Much like Reaser, he has good physical traits, but will most likely provide depth until he is proven.

Kaleb Ramsey, defensive end, Boston College

Ramsey is a high upside player with a lot of durability issues. He led all defensive lineman in bench-presses at the combine, and has a lot of burst and strength. However, he missed a lot of games in college thanks so a series of injuries. He has the ability to play the position well, or even start, but only if he can stay upright and healthy.

Trey Millard, fullback, Oklahoma

Millard is a versatile pick but will also be sitting out the 2014 season with, you guessed it, a torn ACL. He has decent pass-catching ability, and also plays well on special teams. He is a typical Harbaalke pick: tough, versatile and intelligent.

Undrafted free agents:

Kory Faulkner, quarterback, Southern Illinois University

Faulkner was a near unknown who the 49ers saw at the Northwestern Pro Day. Harbaugh took a liking to Faulkner’s tools and mindset and moved forward. He will compete with McLeod Bethel-Thompson for the 3rd string quarterback spot.

Morgan Breslin, outside linebacker, University of Southern California

Breslin is a Bay Area local with a modicum of pass rushing talent. The 49ers will most likely use him much like they used Corey Lemonier, a situational pass rusher who will spell Aldon Smith, Tank Carradine and others.

L.J. Mccray, safety, Catawba College

Another safety with experience as a corner, Mccray played Division 2 football but could be used any number of ways. He has experience as a kick returner, and, given how much competition the 49ers have in the secondary, this would seem like the primary reason the 49ers have invested in him.

Asante Cleveland, tight end, University of Miami

Cleveland is a long shot to make the 49ers roster, as he has seen very little use as a receiver. He has the physical skills to be a decent blocker, but on a team that values versatility and multi-skilled athletes, this pickup strikes me as a strange one.

Shayne Skov, inside linebacker, Stanford University

Skov was by far the most interesting undrafted player the 49ers picked up. There are legitimate questions about his durability and speed, but he was a big part of an excellent defensive unit at Stanford. He will be coached by one of the best coaching staffs in the league and could end up being a steal for the 49ers. He has the strength and smarts to prove himself at the NFL level.

Bonus free agency pickup:

Stevie Johnson, wide receiver, Buffalo Bills

Augmenting a really strong draft by the 49ers was the addition of Stevie Johnson. He has been a consistent producer since 2010, when he brought his excellent hands and route running to bear. He put together three 1000 yard seasons for the Bills, which is especially impressive considering how unstable Buffalo’s offense has been over the last few years. He carries with him a sizable contract, but will probably rework it to in order to free up money for the 49ers.

This acquisition is huge for a number of reasons. The 49ers now have three great receivers in Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Johnson. Last season, the lack of depth in the receiving corp stung the 49ers when Crabtree when down with a torn achilles tendon. Kaepernick will now have plenty of targets, which will open things up for the running game. In other words, the 49ers offense is now well-rounded in way it hasn’t been for a long time.

All in all, I’m pleased. The 49ers addressed every need, and picked up a lot of players that could contribute down the road. A part of me wishes that Baalke had traded down a bit more and grabbed picks for the next draft, but that could still happen. Last year, the 49ers traded Cam Johnson and Parys Haralson away for picks following some great performance by both players in the preseason. After picking up 12 rookies and signing a veteran wideout, the 49ers are loaded and in a prime position to get future picks by trading away players they do not need.

UPDATE: This is a cool article detailing the last time Hyde and Borland faced off.

 

The 49ers Draft Jimmie Ward

Jimmie-Ward-448x328

Andrew Weber/US PressWire

With a resounding ‘huh?’, 49ers fans welcomed the newest addition to the team, Northern Illinois strong safety Jimmie Ward. After 29 rounds of grindingly slow draft coverage, injected with noxious speculation about Johnny Manziel’s destination, the 49ers made a classic Harbaalke pick. At that point in the first round, much of the talent most associated with the 49ers was gone, with Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, Justin Gilbert and Odell Beckham Jr. all drafted within the first 15 rounds.

Many expected the 49ers to be more aggressive, but they forestalled any trades up in favor of what I can only call a cautious pick. Although I hadn’t expected them to trade up near the first 10 rounds, I was surprised they did not try to move into the 16-20 range. Jason Verrett, Darqueze Dennard, Dee Ford and Kelvin Benjamin were all available in the middle of the round. I will defer to Harbaalke’s methods, but I can’t help but feel that they missed out on some great players.

Ward is not a high profile pick, but many have praised the 49ers’ choice. Ward has a unique set of skills, with the speed and hitting ability to play multiple positions in the secondary. Jim Harbaugh spoke to this after the draft, saying that Ward will compete to replace Carlos Rogers as a nickel corner, and could eventually replace Antoine Bethea at strong safety. I must admit, Ward wasn’t on my radar, but after watching some film I can see what the 49ers liked. Harbaalke tends to favor athleticism and versatility, both of which Ward possesses, and they are not afraid to go after small school players.

All in all, I am content with the pick. Admittedly, I would be happier if they had picked up Dennard, Evans or Benjamin, but I can’t complain about Ward or the message it sends. It is clear that Harbaalke is happy with the shape of the team, and will draft accordingly. Ward may not be a major pick now, but he possesses the skills to be an excellent piece of the secondary in the future.

 

49ers Draft Needs

 

trentmurphyCarlos Avila Gonzalez

The NFL’s most overhyped program, at least until the upcoming 49ers-Seahawks game on Thanksgiving, is nearly upon us. This year’s draft has been praised as one of the deepest, one of the strongest and most complex, but don’t be fooled. Draft day will be just as entertaining as the last few years, which is to say, not very. Of course, I am speaking from the perspective of a 49ers fan. Despite not being able to win a sixth championship in the last few years, the 49ers are still in pretty good shape, and will be for a while. They once again have a boatload of picks (11, all told). Here are the 49ers’ draft needs, in no particular order:

Center

With Jonathan Goodwin a free agent, the 49ers will be looking for a center in the middle to late rounds. Daniel Kilgore is the heir apparent, but Baalke likes to stock the roster with multiple options and figure out the depth chart in training camp. USC’s Marcus Martin is the most prominent candidate, but there are lots of options for interior linemen in the 3rd and 4th rounds.

Pass Rusher

The 49ers benefited from having a lot of depth along the defensive line last season. Having players like Corey Lemonier, Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerod-Eddie allowed them to rest starters and ensure that injuries or absences didn’t leave the 49ers’ front seven in the lurch. Tank Carradine will debut in 2014, but it couldn’t hurt the 49ers to pick up even more depth. I am pretty high on Stanford defensive end Trent Murphy, who tore up the Pac-12 last year and could be developed into a lethal pass rusher. The 49ers have also been connected with Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt and Auburn defensive end Dee Ford.

Quarterback

The 49ers traded for Jacksonville signal caller Blaine Gabbert, but will no doubt be looking for another one in the draft. There are some intriguing mid-round options, including LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, San Jose State’s David Fales and Virgina Tech’s Logan Thomas. David Fales would be a great backup option, and could learn a lot from Colin Kaepernick, Gabbert and Harbaugh. All that said, I wish the 49ers would just bring back B.J. Daniels

Cornerback

The 49ers resigned Eric Wright and picked up Vikings corner Chris Cook, but lost some major players in Carlos Rogers and Terrell Brown. I had initially thought the 49ers would look wide receiver in the first round, but Chris Culliver decided to play Grand Theft Auto V in real life and will most likely miss some time next season. This leaves the team in a tough spot, depth-wise. Fortunately, this draft has some excellent options at corner. If the 49ers do decide to trade up in the first round, it will most likely be to grab one of the premier cornerbacks like Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert or Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard. I could also see them going to the second round and picking up TCU’s Jason Verrett or VT’s Kyle Fuller.

Wide Receiver

If the 49ers do decide to be aggressive in the first round, I hope they trade up to get a wide receiver. Provided everyone stays healthy, they will be in a position to add to a receiver group that has been lacking the last couple of years. Kaepernick needs weapons, and he seemed impressed with FSU’s Kelvin Benjamin. I like Benjamin a lot, as he could be the red zone threat the 49ers have been lacking and could learn a lot under Anquan Boldin. The 49ers could also look for more sure-handed receivers, like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. or Indiana’s Cody Latimer.

I fully expect Baalke to trade away some picks in order to add to later drafts as well. The 49ers used all of their 13 picks last year, and do not need to ‘stock up’ on training camp bodies as much as other teams. Although it doesn’t make the actual draft process more interesting, there is a lot of talent this year and some great possibilities for the 49ers to improve, particularly on offense. We can only hope that Harbaalke stays smart and works some more draft day magic.

 

Padres Series

tim-hudson-mlb-san-diego-padres-san-francisco-giants1Ed Szczepanski/USA Today

It’s really, really early, but I am beginning to wonder if this is roughly how the Giants will play for the rest of the year. Uneven starting pitching, a volatile offense seems like a reversal of the last few years, and I wonder how long it will last. We’ll probably have an answer to that question by the time June rolls around. The Giants are playing some strong teams this month, and will need to stay hot if they want to keep adding to the win column.

Is anyone worried about Madison Bumgarner? He’s only had a couple of bad starts but none of them have been train wrecks. He’s still doing better than a lot of pitchers, including Tim Lincecum, but something isn’t right. He averages 6.1 innings per game in his career, but he has dropped down to 5 per start. He has given up 45 hits, almost twice what he gave up last April. He has allowed 1 hit per inning in his career, but that number has ticked up to 1.4. Perhaps the pressure of pitching out of the stretch more often is causing some kind of lapse in control, but he is throwing the same percentage of strikes (64%) as he did last year. It resembles Matt Cain’s situation, where everything seems the same except hitters are finding holes and putting pressure on Bumgarner. As I’ve said before, its a little too early to say anything definite. He had a similar stretch in September 2012, where he gave up an inordinate amount of of hits per inning and averaged around 5 innings per start, but he made some adjustments and got right before the World Series. What concerns me is that this is happening so early. I am confident that he and Dave Righetti can figure things out, but the short starts aren’t helping the team.

I can’t remember a start giving me more relief than Yusmeiro Petit’s gem on Wednesday. The back end of the Giants’ rotation is weak, and I don’t see that changing. Petit may not be able to deliver quite as well as he did against the Padres, but having an uber-efficient starter who can step in to replace Lincecum or Ryan Vogelsong is simply fantastic. Petit doesn’t eat innings, he swallows them whole them. I can’t remember the last time I saw a pitcher who was so stingy with pitches. I’m glad he’s around.

I’m struggling to find words to adequately describe Tim Hudson’s first stint as a Giant, so I thought I’d put things in context. Not a few months ago, the Giants were looking to fill a Barry Zito shaped hole in their rotation. The realistic options were Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco and Tim Hudson. The unrealistic was Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka. Here is how those options have performed:

Bronson Arroyo (Diamondbacks, 2 yrs, $23.5 million):

24.1IP, 36 H, 21 ER, 8 BB, 10 SO, 5 HR, 7.77 ERA

Ricky Nolasco (Twins, 4 yrs, $49 million):

29.2 IP, 43 H, 22 ER, 9 BB, 13 SO, 5 HR, 6.67 ERA

Masahiro Tanaka (Yankees, 7 yrs, $155 million):

35.2 IP, 27 H, 9 ER, 6 BB, 46 SO, 5 HR, 2.27 ERA

Tim Hudson (2 yrs, $23 million)

45.2 IP, 32 H, 11 ER, 2 BB, 31 SO, 3 HR, 2.17 ERA

Small sample size but still, the Hudson deal has been really, really good to the Giants. It was an easy deal to praise in the offseason. Hudson is a sure hand, but nobody knew how sure. In his game on Thursday, he looked totally in control. His sinker was working, and he was able to give the bullpen a night off. He did give up a big, fat home run to Yasmani Grandal in the 9th inning, but even that didn’t shake him too much. I took that moment as a lesson from Hudson. He was trying to encapsulate the fickle nature of baseball, and by proxy the fickle nature of the universe. Even after a start as strong as that one, Hudson wanted to show us that one mistake can loom larger than 8.2 innings of stellar pitching. We can live a life of total discipline, doing everything we can to survive, only to have one mistake dominate the meaning of our existence. Hudson was showing us how rapidly fates can change. Even when we are at our most confident and nearing the end of our task, the universe puts our goal just out of reach, and we can only ask why…

Screen Shot 2014-05-04 at 10.59.23 AM

…or he just hung a slider.