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Madison Bumgarner carried a team on his back to a World Series parade in 2014, its third in five years. But no man can shoulder the full load of a 162-game season. And once again, the odds weren’t with the Giants in 2015. They simply sustained too many injuries, beginning with the club’s second spring exhibition game when a pitch fractured iron man Hunter Pence’s forearm.
Outside of Bumgarner, who was durable as ever, the Giants’ aging rotation sputtered, and all the short and ineffective starts caught up with a talented bullpen. Because the Giants’ minor league pitching factory has slowed down since graduating Bumgarner to the big leagues, the front office tried hard for Zack Greinke before ponying up $220 million to sign Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto — a rotation rebuild that they hope will better supplement a homegrown, contact-hitting lineup that led the NL in average last season. It’ll be an even year, after all.
The bargain free agent pitcher might be the rarest of birds in baseball, and it’s hard to argue that the Giants bought low when they guaranteed $90 million over five years to Samardzija before agreeing to a six-year, $130 million contract with Cueto. But both pitchers likely would’ve commanded even bigger contracts if they hadn’t struggled at times last season. The Giants looked past the fact that Samardzija gave up the most hits and earned runs of any American League pitcher last season, instead betting that his stuff (he ranked 12th in average fastball velocity, at 94.1 mph) will translate to the NL West.
Cueto might have commanded a $200 million contract if he hadn’t struggled following a midseason trade from Cincinnati to Kansas City. Still, his last act was throwing a two-hit shutout against the Mets in Game 2 of the World Series. Since 2011, only Clayton Kershaw has posted a lower ERA among pitchers to throw 600 innings. Neither of the new additions will have the pressure to be an Opening Day ace. That’s still Bumgarner’s domain. Jake Peavy was an effective starter last year once he found a way to compete with his arthritic hip and back. Matt Cain is an uncertain commodity, but he’s another year removed from elbow surgery. And the Giants are asking him to be a No. 5, not a No. 2. If he falters again, Chris Heston looms as an option.
The Giants were third in the NL in bullpen ERA and only figure to be better. Santiago Casilla recorded a career-best 38 saves, and although he usually hits a rough patch around midseason, he is one of the more underappreciated relievers in the league. Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez remain one of the most effective specialist tandems in the NL, and with more innings from the rotation, manager Bruce Bochy should be able to utilize them better to get the matchups he wants. Lopez thrived in 77 games; his .145 opponents’ average was second-lowest among all relievers, behind only the Royals’ Wade Davis.
Lefty Josh Osich has the power stuff that plays against righthanders and lefties alike, and he should step into the role previously occupied by retired bullpen stalwart Jeremy Affeldt. Hunter Strickland got wiser about deploying his fastball, too. After setting a record by allowing six homers in the 2014 postseason, he didn’t allow a long ball in Triple-A or the majors until August of last season. George Kontos was among the best in baseball at stranding inherited runners. Cory Gearrin looms as an interesting option with his ground ball-inducing sinker, and Heston is slotted for the long man role.
Shortstop Brandon Crawford and second baseman Joe Panik became the Giants’ first middle infield combo to go to the All-Star Game together since Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent in 2001, and the accolades didn’t end there. Crawford won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at his position, becoming the first Giant to claim both honors in a season since Barry Bonds in 1997.
A week or two after those awards were announced in November, Crawford had even more reason to be thankful: He signed a six-year, $75 million extension. Panik was on his way to a 200-hit season before back inflammation sent him to the disabled list at the beginning of August, and a brief attempt at a return did not go well. He was cleared to swing a bat before Christmas and is expected to be 100 percent by the start of spring training, allowing him to bring his contact skills back to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Although rookie Kelby Tomlinson did an admirable job filling in for Panik, the defensive dropoff was evident.
The Giants had their share of issues last season, but replacing Pablo Sandoval wasn’t among them. They found their answer in the form of skinny rookie Matt Duffy, who kept on achieving beyond anyone’s expectations. Duffy didn’t hit a single aluminum-pinging home run in 501 at-bats at Long Beach State, and batted .244 as a junior. But the Giants liked his defense and pegged him as a potential utility guy as a 16th-round pick in 2012. They could not have fathomed what he did as a rookie: .295, 77 runs, 28 doubles, 12 homers, 77 RBIs and 12 stolen bases while mostly hitting third in front of Buster Posey to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. First baseman Brandon Belt hit 18 homers and played Gold Glove-caliber defense but finished short of a breakout year because of a concussion.
Pence’s fractured forearm developed a bone callus and necessitated a second trip to the DL after he returned in May. Then came the oblique strain in mid-August that ended his season. The Giants expect Pence to return to his iron-man form in right field, and they hope Angel Pagan, who was a defensive liability in center field, will be spry (after knee surgery) and motivated (he’s entering his walk year) in a likely shift to left field. The Giants prioritized pitching over the winter, but still found the money to sign Denard Span to a three-year deal to play center field.
Posey had another solid season, finishing fourth in the NL in average (.318), sixth in on-base percentage (.379) and ninth in RBIs (95) while also hitting .351 with runners in scoring position. Playing a bit more first base likely helped to keep his legs fresher and avoid another second-half downturn. Andrew Susac could be an everyday player in many lineups, but he could be trade bait. Trevor Brown drew rave reviews after debuting in September.
Because the rotation struggled to pitch effectively past the fifth inning, the Giants spent much of the year carrying eight relievers and just four backup position players. As a result, the bench contributed almost no offense. Gregor Blanco will serve as the fourth outfielder after hitting .291 in 327 at bats in 2015. Kyle Blanks will try to make the club on a minor league contract. Kelby Tomlinson has speed and a flat swing that should work as a reserve; he’ll attempt to play a little outfield this spring to enhance his utility.
Bochy enters his 10th year on the Giants’ bench with a chance to add to a Hall of Fame dossier. His 1,702 victories are the most among active managers, and he is one of just four managers in history to win 700 regular-season games with two different teams. The Giants prize continuity in their front office, which underwent a reorganization with Bobby Evans now running day-to-day duties as GM. Brian Sabean, who had served as GM since 1996, still heads up baseball operations as executive vice president.
The Giants’ beefed-up rotation, combined with their hitting and defensive acumen, will make them a favorite to emerge from a competitive NL West and find a way back into the postseason. And if they get that far … well, Bochy’s squads have faced 10 postseason opponents since 2010 and beaten them all.
Prediction: 1st in NL West (NL champion)
CF Denard Span (L)
2B Joe Panik (L)
3B Matt Duffy (R)
C Buster Posey (R)
RF Hunter Pence (R)
1B Brandon Belt (L)
LF Angel Pagan (S)
SS Brandon Crawford (L)
C Andrew Susac (R)
OF Gregor Blanco (L)
INF Ehire Adrianza (S)
INF Kelby Tomlinson (R)
OF Jarrett Parker (L)
LHP Madison Bumgarner
RHP Johnny Cueto
RHP Jeff Samardzija
RHP Jake Peavy
RHP Matt Cain
RHP Santiago Casilla (Closer)
RHP Sergio Romo
LHP Javier Lopez
LHP Josh Osich
RHP Hunter Strickland
RHP George Kontos
RHP Chris Heston