Big Unit will be big help to Giants

December, 27, 2008
With the signing of Randy Johnson to a one-year deal, the Giants made another move toward 2009 respectability, if not outright contention in a weak division, without doing any damage to their long-term rebuilding plan.

Despite his age (he turned 45 in September), Johnson showed that he has something left in the tank in 2008, making 30 starts, striking out 22.4 percent of opposing hitters and posting an ERA better than league average.

He's been pitching for a few years with reduced stuff, but his fastball is still solid-average at 89-93, and his slider remains sharp, at 82-86 mph with good tilt and late depth to it. His third pitch, a splitter, is a weaker offering; he gets on top of the pitch, but it has a slow dive rather than the hard bottom more often associated with a splitter. Right-handed hitters can time the pitch because its drop starts early.

He still has good deception, especially against left-handers, but tends to pitch in the upper-middle part of the zone too often with his fastball, which, combined with the gradual drop in his velocity, has turned him into a fly-ball pitcher over the past few years. San Francisco's park is an ideal spot for a pitcher with this tendency, because it is one of the least homer-friendly parks (in terms of converting fly balls into home runs) in baseball.

It gives the Giants one of the strongest rotations in the league, with the reigning Cy Young Award winner at the top in Tim Lincecum, a potential No. 1 starter in Matt Cain and a breakout candidate for 2009 in lefty Jonathan Sanchez. Barry Zito now becomes the fifth starter; consider the contrast between the Giants' philosophy in signing Zito, who was all name but declining performance-wise, to a seven-year contract that cost them a draft pick, and their philosophy in signing Johnson to a short-term deal that does not cost them a pick.

The Giants can now trade a starter for offensive help, and their offense does need it; San Francisco was the first team in a decade to fail to hit 100 home runs in a full season. The Giants also had the fourth-worst OBP in the league and finished just three runs ahead of the NL-worst Padres.

They still need help at two infield spots (third or first base, with Pablo Sandoval at the other spot, and shortstop or second base, with Edgar Renteria at the other spot), or the Giants could try to upgrade in either outfield corner, with center field already committed to Aaron Rowand for the rest of eternity. While it would be difficult for the Giants to trade Sanchez or even Cain, they could increase their chances of contention in 2009 with the right deal, and they have more young, high-end pitching on the way in Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson.

You may have heard that Johnson is just five wins short of the hallowed 300 mark, which remains (despite frequent comments to the contrary by voters) a benchmark for Hall of Fame induction, one that has kept highly qualified players like Bert Blyleven out.

Johnson should be a lock for induction regardless -- the third-highest strikeout total of all time, five Cy Young Awards and three second-place finishes, etc. -- but reaching 300 wins may increase his vote total when he does reach the ballot. Of course, perhaps the major variable in determining whether a pitcher wins a game or not is the run support he receives from his team, and the Giants' offense remains a weak spot, so reaching five wins will likely take Johnson longer than it would had he signed with another team.

Keith Law

ESPN Senior Writer


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