Thursday, May 6, 2010

Matt Downs Another Wrench in Freddy Sanchez's Impending Return

It will only be a matter of time before Freddy Sanchez returns to the Giants active roster. AZ has been covering his rehab games, and for the most part, it seems Sanchez is slowly getting closer to being game ready.

Going into today's game against the Marlins, the Giants are 16-10 and tied with the San Diego Padres for first place in the National League West. However, there is one question lingering on the minds of Giants fans amidst this recent surge of early season success:

What will the Giants do in order to make space for Sanchez?

It's a question Giants fans dread more than Elisabeth Hasselbeck meeting Erin Andrews in person for an interview.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that looked at the second base situation between Sanchez and Juan Uribe. Basically, I liked Uribe more at the position, and felt that Uribe's power potential is something the Giants need.

However, the second base position is not just between Uribe and Sanchez anymore. You can add another guy to the mix that will make Sanchez's return all the much tougher:

That guy is Matt Downs.

Now, Downs isn't necessarily an unknown name. While he struggled in an early-season callup last year, Downs came on strong this Spring Training, hitting .356 in 45 at-bats. Due to a crowded infield situation, he started the year in Fresno, though he really had nothing to prove in the Pacific Coast League (.300 average, .834 OPS and 14 home runs in 2009).

In Fresno this season, Downs played strong, despite competing for playing time at second base with Brock Bond (who is hitting .310 with a .405 OBP this season with the Grizzlies). In 35 at-bats, Downs hit .286 with a .876 OPS.

After Aaron Rowand went on the 15-Day disabled list, Downs got the callup in what was expected to be a short cup of coffee stint. However, he has made a strong case that he may deserve some more playing time in the Giants infield.

In 29 plate appearances with the Giants, Downs is hitting .417 with four doubles and one home run. He sports an OPS of 1.226 and a wOBA of .523.

Hence, it is easy to see why the Giants were able to part ways with Kevin Frandsen after Spring Training.

That being said, what is Downs' future with the Giants this season? Do the Giants keep him and send down John Bowker (though he has nothing to prove in Fresno) or designate Eugenio Velez for assignment? Do they send down Downs and bring him up later in the year should Edgar Renteria get injured again? (Which is a strong possibility by the way.) Do the Giants finally cut ties with Travis Ishikawa? (Who has been a tremendous disappointment offensively this year, much to my dismay.)

Whatever the Giants do, they certainly have an interesting talent in Downs.

In the minors, Downs pretty much has been a Kevin Frandsen but with power. At four levels in the minors, Downs has posted a BB/K ratio as high as 1.89 (in Rookie League) and as low as 0.40 (his first season in Triple-A). That's pretty solid, and it looks even better when you see that he hasn't had a history of striking out a lot in the minors too (his highest strikeout percentage was 13.7 percent in Fresno last year).

Now, that hasn't been the case for Downs in the Majors. Last year, in 60 plate appearances, Downs had a strikeout percentage of 24.5 percent. The same has rung true this season too, illustrated by his 20.8 percent strikeout rate.

However, while the strikeouts have risen in the Majors, the walks have as well. In 2009, Downs sported a walk percentage of 10 percent (the highest percentage he had was 8.7 percent in rookie ball). This year, Downs has a walk rate of 13.8 percent.

This has produced solid BB/K ratios for Downs (0.46 and 0.80 respectively) in the Majors, which makes him a valuable commodity for this Giants team.

If you compare him to Sanchez and Uribe on plate discipline alone, Downs looks enticing. Sanchez's career BB/K ratio is 0.43 (0.29 last year in a combined stint with Pittsburgh and San Francisco) and Uribe's is 0.30. Down's BB/K ratio at the Major League level so far is 0.56.

Now, in terms of defense, Sanchez has the reputation of being a great defensive second baseman. However, if you look at the numbers from last season, he might not be much better than Uribe or Downs.

While Sanchez posted a UZR of 3.3, his UZR/150 was only 5.0. Uribe posted a 3.3 UZR as well at second base, but his UZR/150 was 16.1.

As for Downs, he had the lowest UZR of the three at 1.1 last year. His UZR/150 though? 10.0.

Sanchez's return to the Giants lineup is a touchy issue. It makes some sense financially why he will be the Giants' starting second baseman when he returns off the DL. General Manager Brian Sabean traded Tim Alderson for him last season, and he signed Sanchez to a two-year $12 million deal this off-season. The Giants have a lot invested in him, and unfortunately, you can't bench guys like that.

That being said, does Sanchez offer much more at the position than what the Giants currently have? He doesn't have the offensive potential of Uribe, and he doesn't have the youth or plate patience of Downs. Sure he has a Gold Glove and a couple of All-Star games on his resume, but when you look at his defensive metrics, Sanchez isn't THAT impressive.

Overall, it's a tough decision for the Giants management. When Sanchez returns, somebody is going to lose badly on this Giants roster, be it Uribe, Downs, Bowker, Velez, Ishikawa, or even Sanchez himself.

Whatever happens, all you can hope as a Giants fan is that the Giants' chemistry isn't messed up when Sanchez returns to the starting lineup. Considering how promising this team looks and the opportunity they have (With the Rockies struggling with injuries and the Dodgers being down), you would hate to see it all screwed up because the Giants needed to play a guy because of his contract.


  1. It would be nice to see him playing more often. I have a feeling that Sanchez will be Renteria 2.0 with injuries and disapointments.

    A well run team would have much less trouble benching a strugling veteran but the Giants are not that kind of a team. If the other guys aren't dead or one of their arms has fallen off Downs will be burried on the depth chart.

  2. I totally agree with you. Sanchez has been a bit of a disappointment ever since he arrived. I mean, could he bounce back this year? It's possible, but guys coming off surgery or injury typically don't tear it up, at least not right away.

    Now, for those critics, I know Downs' numbers are a small sample (he is bound to regress over the full course of a year), but I like his plate approach and his pop. He certainly has more upside in my mind than either Uribe or Sanchez.

    Funny what you said about the young guys getting buried. That's typical SF Giants management.