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Giants expect an epic battle with Dodgers for NL West title
After winning World Series titles in 2010 and 2012, the Giants weren’t quick to embrace the notion that they had become an even-year franchise. But now they’re happily clinging to it. Anything to move beyond their tremendous disappointment last season, when they needed a strong finish in September just to avoid joining the 1998 Marlins as the only defending champs to finish in last place. The Giants decided to view it as a “flat tire” season, in the words of GM Brian Sabean, eschewing an overhaul and instead spending most of their budgeted funds to retain Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum and Javier Lopez. Their two additions — pitcher Tim Hudson and left fielder Michael Morse — were discounted on the free-agent market because they are coming off injuries. The Giants need more than Hudson and Morse to have bounce-back seasons if they hope to keep up with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.
The Giants didn’t come close to winning it all last season, but they took some inspiration from the team that did. The Boston Red Sox made their run because of a resurgent pitching staff, and the Giants see the potential to emulate them. They’ll certainly have to do better after their starters ranked 13th out of 15 NL clubs in ERA. Four of five starters return, with Madison Bumgarner (among the league leaders in ERA, WHIP and BAA) the only one coming off an excellent season. Matt Cain, still viewed as the rotation’s leader, pitched like his old self in the second half and should return to frontline status. Lincecum, who threw a no-hitter July 14, still strikes out a batter an inning even if he’s no longer elite at run prevention. The Giants bet $35 million that he’ll improve. They’re hoping Ryan Vogelsong’s awful season was a result of the World Baseball Classic, too. Hudson, who fractured his ankle in a season-ending collision last July, should add some smarts and fire to what already is a competitive group.
No area of last year’s club stayed healthy, and that included the late-inning relievers. Santiago Casilla (bone cyst surgery) and Jeremy Affeldt (groin surgery) both missed time after signing three-year extensions. They’ll need to get back in line behind closer Sergio Romo, who had some durability issues in the past but held up remarkably well while knocking down 38 of 43 save chances. Romo’s rate stats went up across the board, though. Regardless, the ninth inning belongs to him if he’s healthy. Heath Hembree is seen by many as the Giants’ closer of the future, even if his fastball is a few ticks slower than the 98 mph he threw in the low minors. If he doesn’t win a job in the spring, he’ll be a force soon enough. Lopez, one of the best left-handed specialists in the game, signed a three-year extension. A healthy Affeldt will allow manager Bruce Bochy to deploy Lopez more efficiently. Yusmeiro Petit, who finished an out away from a perfect game last season, is out of options and expected to make the club as a long man.
Brandon Crawford was on his way to a breakout offensive season when he jammed his hand while sliding into second base. There are many in the organization who still believe the gifted defensive shortstop will be able to hit higher than eighth in the lineup. But for now, the Giants’ pitchers are happy enough to have his glove back there. With the Braves’ Andrelton Simmons in the league, though, it’ll be tough for Crawford to win a Gold Glove anytime soon. Marco Scutaro will turn 40 in 2015, when he’ll play the final year of his contract. But his body already is beginning to betray him. Hip and back issues limited his range and defensive ability all season, and then he sustained a torn tendon in his pinky finger on a hit-by-pitch. He had surgery after the season, and the Giants are banking that his contact skills will be an asset again in the No. 2 spot in the order.
Pablo Sandoval went from World Series MVP to mega-bust while letting his weight become an issue again. The third baseman missed two weeks while on the DL, this time because of a foot injury, and he had just three home runs over a span of 303 at-bats from late May to Sept. 4. That’s when he broke out for a three-homer game in San Diego that nobody saw coming. (Well, nobody except Justin Verlander, maybe.) Sandoval is entering his walk year, and he lost significant weight over the winter. The Giants certainly need more heft from him in the lineup. First baseman Brandon Belt quietly was the Giants’ best offensive player, leading the team with an .841 OPS that ranked 14th in the NL. The hope is that Buster Posey can catch a few more games and limit his starts at first base so that Belt’s bat can stay in the lineup.
The Giants entered their final homestand with just one starting outfielder under contract, and Angel Pagan was coming off major surgery to reattach two hamstring tendons. They got a jump on the market and signed Pence to a five-year, $90 million extension that looked like a bargain given what the free-agent stars received in open bidding. It was easy to commit to Pence. He brings energy every day — he became the first Giant since Alvin Dark in 1954 to start every regular-season game — and although nothing he does is pretty, his hot streaks can carry a club. Pagan’s incredible walk-off, inside-the-park home run May 25, the first in the big leagues in nine years, marked the high point of the Giants’ season. The team’s glaring lack of depth was exposed when Pagan missed significant time after surgery on his hamstring. They’ll need him to be healthy, as well as Morse, who offers big-time power that should translate even to AT&T Park if he can stay in the lineup.
It’s hard to follow up a batting crown and an NL MVP Award. But for Posey, it might have been a bigger challenge to play out the string for the first time in his career. It went unnoticed because the Giants were out of contention, but Posey had a miserable second half. He hit .325 with 13 home runs before the break and .244 with just two homers after it, and it was evident he was swinging on tired legs. Posey acknowledged he wanted to do more lower body strengthening work over the offseason. While other offensively gifted catchers like Joe Mauer are moving out of harm’s way, Posey wants to catch as long as possible. At least there’s some peace of mind now that there’s a new rule that will protect catchers from being targeted in home-plate collisions.
Gregor Blanco’s premium defense and on-base ability make him a valuable asset, but he was overexposed in an everyday role following Pagan’s injury last season. He’s back to being a fourth outfielder and should be a regular late-inning replacement for Morse in left field. If Blanco’s playmaking ability is solid, Juan Perez’s is breathtaking. He played just 218 of the team’s 4,342 defensive innings in the outfield but led the club with eight assists. Backup catcher Hector Sanchez is a young switch-hitter who can compete against quality fastballs. Joaquin Arias returns in a reserve infield role.
With the retirement of Jim Leyland and firing of Dusty Baker, Bochy suddenly found himself the active leader in managerial victories. He’s exactly 1,530–1,530 in his career, with many years in payroll-poor San Diego holding down his winning percentage. He already has Hall of Fame credentials with his two World Series rings. Sabean might lack the trade creativity of Billy Beane, his counterpart across the bay, but he’s the longest-tenured GM in the game, and his staff continuity is extraordinary.
Surprisingly, the Giants won the season series against each of their NL West rivals last year, and their 44–32 division record was the best of the group. So they see no reason why they can’t challenge for the NL West title again, especially after spending $173 million to keep their roster together. After a couple tweaks, the parts appear to fit — if all goes to plan. But the number of what-ifs and the lack of organizational depth loom as twin concerns. The pitching talent in the minor leagues is a bit closer, but the Giants hope they won’t have to rely on it too soon. If the rotation can’t pull a Bostonian about-face, it’s hard to imagine the Giants being an even-year team again in 2014.
CF Angel Pagan (S)
Talented switch-hitter has topped 125 games just twice in his career, and is coming off hamstring surgery.
2B Marco Scutaro (R)
Despite a down year, 38-year-old was the second-hardest to fan in MLB (16.09 plate appearances per K).
1B Brandon Belt (L)
His .841 OPS was better than Carlos Beltran, Jay Bruce, Justin Upton … and yes, Buster Posey.
C Buster Posey (R)
Pledged to improve his leg strength after he struggled for just two home runs after the All-Star break.
RF Hunter Pence (R)
Bruce Bochy plans to give him a day off in 2014? Expect Pence to fight that decision with all he’s got.
3B Pablo Sandoval (S)
If the Giants don’t extend him this spring, he’ll be a sought-after 27-year-old on the free-agent market.
LF Michael Morse (R)
Lacks range, and a bum wrist led to a downturn last season, but Bochy envisions a modern-day Pat Burrell.
SS Brandon Crawford (L)
Hit just .199 against LHP, so expect Joaquin Arias to soak up a few starts against lefties.
OF Gregor Blanco (L)
If he starts 113 games in the outfield again, you know it didn’t go according to plan for the Giants.
OF Juan Perez (R)
Speed? Range? Arm strength? Accuracy? Daring when the wall is near? Check. Now if he can develop the bat…
C Hector Sanchez (S)
Inflamed shoulder held back the young switch-hitter for most of the season, but Giants like his potential.
INF Joaquin Arias (R)
Made career-high 47 starts and hit .368 on the road, but just .167 at home.
INF Tony Abreu (S)
He’s out of options and so is Ehire Adrianza, so the Giants will have a decision to make this spring.
RH Matt Cain
Became the first Giant since Carl Hubbell in 1929-37 to make 30 starts in eight consecutive seasons.
LH Madison Bumgarner
Finished with 199 Ks and became Giants’ first left-handed starter to make All-Star team since 1997.
RH Tim Lincecum
Averaged 16.3 wins during first three full seasons; 11 wins (and 14.3 losses) since.
RH Tim Hudson
Leads all active pitchers with 205 victories; he’ll take old Oakland pal Barry Zito’s place in the rotation.
RH Ryan Vogelsong
Had a 7.19 ERA in first nine starts, then it got more painful when a pitch crushed his right hand in May.
RH Sergio Romo (Closer)
His workload was well managed; he exceeded 20 pitches only 11 times and never threw more than 28.
RH Jean Machi
Splitter specialist is a slight favorite over George Kontos and Jake Dunning for final spot in the bullpen.
RH Heath Hembree
Saved a franchise-record 31 games for Triple-A Fresno; development of power slider earned him a call-up.
LH Javier Lopez
Lefties hit .156, and he allowed just 10.5 percent of inherited runners to score — lowest rate in the league.
RH Santiago Casilla
Despite missing 47 games after bone cyst surgery, his seven wins matched his career high.
LH Jeremy Affeldt
39 appearances his fewest since 2004, and his alarming 1.24 K/BB ratio was cut in half from a year earlier.
RH Yusmeiro Petit
Giants went 6–1 in his seven starts after Aug. 26 — including one memorable one-hit shutout.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Christian Arroyo, SS
The Giants went off the draft board of most prognosticators when they selected Arroyo with the 25th overall pick. Although his pure hitting ability was well known to anyone who saw him win MVP honors for the Team USA under-18 squad that won the World Championships in South Korea, it was thought that Arroyo didn’t have the physical tools or quick feet to stay in the middle of the diamond. But Arroyo made the Giants look smart after a dazzling pro debut in which he hit .326 while leading the short-season Arizona League in doubles, RBIs, slugging and OPS to add another MVP trophy to his collection. He’s smart, too; Arroyo was salutatorian of his high school class in Brooksville, Fla., where he graduated with a 4.4 GPA.
RHP Chris Stratton (23)
The Cardinals snagged NLCS MVP Michael Wacha one pick ahead of Stratton, who was set back by a vicious concussion after getting hit in the head by a line drive in 2012.
2B/SS Joe Panik (23)
Scrappy competitor saw his average dip to .257 in Double-A after hitting .247 in Single-A in 2012.
LHP Edwin Escobar (20)
Big, durable starter thrived after promotion to Double-A, and should be ready to provide big-league rotation depth.
LHP Adalberto Mejia (19)
Youngest pitcher in the Single-A California League more than held his own with two-seamer, slider, cutter and changeup mix.
OF Mac Williamson (23)
Former Wake Forest standout has legitimate right-handed power reminiscent of a younger Paul Goldschmidt.
RHP Derek Law (23)
His hard, sinking curveball is a weapon that he used to post a perfect ERA in 11 appearances against Arizona Fall League prospects.
LHP Ty Blach (23)
Command lefty was the ace of a prospect-heavy staff at Single-A San Jose, winning Cal League ERA title and also pacing the circuit with just 1.2 walks per nine innings.
RH Kyle Crick (21)
His mid-90s fastball and swing-and-miss slider should have him in the Giants’ rotation by 2016.
Beyond the Box Score
No-Nos The Giants were involved in two of three no-hitters thrown in the majors in 2013. The Reds’ Homer Bailey mowed them down July 2 at Cincinnati, the 16th time in Giants franchise history that they were no-hit. Just 11 days later, Tim Lincecum threw 148 pitches while completing a most unexpected no-hitter in San Diego. Lincecum hadn’t thrown a complete game in over two years.
Almost perfect Yusmeiro Petit nearly topped Lincecum’s feat and probably surpassed him in terms of sheer drama. The career journeyman came within one strike of throwing the 24th perfect game in major-league history Sept. 6 vs. Arizona. Eric Chavez somehow laid off a two-strike curveball before rapping a pinch single with two outs in the ninth that landed maybe 12 inches in front of Hunter Pence’s diving attempt. Petit kept his poise and retired the next hitter, then pointed to the sky with no hint of disappointment after throwing his first MLB shutout.
Error free The Giants were a subpar defensive team in 2013, committing 107 errors — tied for the third-most in the NL. Yet somehow they set a modern franchise record by playing 13 consecutive errorless games from Aug. 30-Sept. 11. “I didn’t see that one coming,” Bruce Bochy said.
Division champs It’s fascinating when you chop up the Giants’ 2013 campaign. Not only did they post a winning season series against every NL West opponent, but they haven’t dropped one to a division foe since they went 6–12 against the Padres in 2010. What killed the Giants was the NL Central (11–23) and interleague play (6–14), including a 2–8 record in AL parks in which they averaged 2.4 runs per game. They’re hoping a true DH like Michael Morse will help them do better this season.
Iron Man Not only did Hunter Pence become the first Giant since Alvin Dark in 1954 to start every regular-season game, but he also sat for a grand total of only 16 innings. Pence accounted for 98.89 percent of the Giants’ defensive innings in right field. He enters 2014 with a streak of 171 consecutive starts, the longest in the NL and second-longest in the majors behind Prince Fielder (505, 17 of them at DH). Bochy does intend to give Pence an occasional day off, though.