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01/08/10 6:57 PM EST

Inbox: Breaking out the crystal ball

Giants fans ask about Cain, No. 5 hitter, free agents, more

What's your best guesstimate of how the Giants will do? Some said the team overachieved in 2009, and such efforts usually fall back the following year.
-- Joe A., San Rafael, Calif.

I fielded a similar question at this time of year in 2008 and declared that the Giants had virtually no chance of contending for the postseason. They finished 72-90, their fourth consecutive losing record. In last year's pre-Spring Training prognostication, I surmised that the Giants just might improve and assert themselves in the National League, and look what happened.

I don't think I'm smart or lucky enough to go 3-for-3.

Here's my best guess: The Giants should be competitive in the NL West, and with a little luck they could win the division. But they're fortunate to be playing in the West, where the other four teams have done little to improve themselves. I doubt that the division will produce the league's Wild Card winner again.

Obviously, the Giants' pitching will keep them in most games. It's reasonable to expect sustained excellence from Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, more consistency from Barry Zito and improvement from Jonathan Sanchez. But if any of them -- particularly Lincecum or Cain -- is sidelined by injury for an appreciable period, the Giants will be in trouble. Look at how Arizona unraveled in Brandon Webb's absence last year.

Expecting Pablo Sandoval to hit .330 and Jeremy Affeldt to approach perfection again might be a trifle unrealistic. But having Freddy Sanchez for a full season should help, and Mark DeRosa ought to be a positive influence.

But do the Giants have legitimate candidates to bat leadoff, third (assuming Sandoval hits cleanup) and fifth? No, no and no, at least right now. They again look like they'll be forced to cobble together just enough offense to survive. It'll help tremendously if Aaron Rowand upgrades his production, Edgar Renteria really can reclaim a semblance of his hitting stroke and Nate Schierholtz establishes himself.

Otherwise, the Giants will be hard-pressed to beat out the Rockies, who still look dangerous, and the Dodgers, whose suspect pitching is offset by that talented Andre Ethier-Matt Kemp-James Loney core.

I'm impressed with many things about Matt Cain: his newfound work ethic, the fact that he's a battler, and the intelligence with which he pitches, especially for someone so young. Still, I can't get past the fact that it seems to me that his stuff is only a bit above Major League average. His fastball, for one, just doesn't move very much. If he catches too much of the plate, he really doesn't have swing-through ability. I'm afraid that maybe he has peaked and is destined to be only a slightly above-average starter. What do you think?
-- Jack W., Wooster, Ohio

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I disagree. I've had the privilege of watching Cain since he reached the Majors and I genuinely believe that he can maintain the All-Star status he reached last season. Cain's strikeout total diminished slightly last year -- to a still-respectable 171, down 15 from 2008. He happened to pitch 217 2/3 innings each season. But the strikeout decrease was partly a product of his "pitching to contact" more efficiently. Opponents hit .232 off Cain last season, compared to .251 the year before. So his fastball must be deceptive enough. I've been told that Cain's 6-foot-3 stature enables him to throw on a "downhill" plane which makes his fastball difficult to decipher. I say "I've been told" because I'm not a coach and I won't pretend to be an expert on pitching mechanics.

What were the production numbers out of the five-hole for the Giants last year? I can't even remember who hit there.
-- Dave M., Lake Tahoe

The numbers weren't very good, explaining why the Giants entered the offseason hoping to reinforce that spot. Their No. 5 hitters tied for 13th among NL teams with 14 home runs. By comparison, the Major League team average was 24 and the NL average was 21. San Francisco received 67 runs from its fifth hitters -- 15th in the league, 23 below the Major League average and 20 fewer than the NL's. The Giants also tied for last in the league with a .697 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in the fifth spot, significantly below the Major League and NL averages of .780 and .753, respectively.

Nine different Giants hit fifth at least 10 times, led by Randy Winn's 24. Overall, 12 different Giants occupied the fifth spot. But if you think that seems like a lot, consider that manager Bruce Bochy used 18 men in the seventh position and 16 apiece in the sixth and eighth holes.

Any chance we see general manager Brian Sabean go after Rick Ankiel? It could move Aaron Rowand to left field with strong arms in center and right field, assuming Schierholtz wins the right-field job. What are your thoughts on this? Good or bad move?
-- Miguel C., Foster City, Calif.

My gut reaction to Ankiel was, "Go get him." But after getting scolded by fans/readers for not checking facts thoroughly enough on other players, I must conclude that even at this late juncture, the Giants can do better than Ankiel. His advanced defensive metrics aren't overwhelming and his OPS was a shockingly low .672 last year. A more attractive option would be Ryan Church, to name another under-the-radar, left-handed-batting outfielder.

Have you heard any rumblings about the Giants having any interest in Carlos Delgado? It seems that he'll need to sign some sort of incentive-laden deal. A bat like Delgado's would do this lineup wonders, assuming he's healthy.
-- Alex G., Cooper City, Fla.

I know of no connection between the Giants and Delgado, who insiders believe will return to the Mets. Any team interested in him had better watch him carefully in the Puerto Rican Winter League -- where he's playing for the Gigantes de Carolina, coincidentally -- to make sure that he's sufficiently recovered from his shoulder and hip injuries. Alex is correct in saying that any team signing the 37-year-old Delgado must protect itself by giving him a low base salary coupled with performance bonuses.

Have the Giants set a date yet for Fan Fest 2010?
-- Kenneth P., Redding, Calif.

Yes. It's Feb. 6. See you there!

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.