The Chicago Cubs had to come back from a 3-to-1 deficit against the Cleveland Indians to prevail as World Series champions, but the Giants understood this painful truth: They had the Cubs right where they wanted them, too. The Giants were three outs away from forcing a decisive Game 5 in their NL Division Series, with Johnny Cueto lined up to start at Wrigley Field and Madison Bumgarner available to reprise his role as a shutdown reliever.
But before the Giants could record those three outs in the ninth inning, manager Bruce Bochy desperately used five relievers without success as the Cubs stormed back from a three-run deficit to clinch the series. It marked a fitting end for a Giants team that boasted one of the league’s best rotations and played nearly flawless defense yet also set a franchise record for blown saves. No great surprise, then: The Giants went all-in on a closer in the offseason, shelling out $60 million to sign All-Star Mark Melancon. They hope the rest of a young and talented relief crew will fall more neatly into line now that there’s no uncertainty about who will get the ball in the ninth.
Only the Cubs received more innings from their rotation than the Giants, whose 10 complete games led the major leagues. Bumgarner and Cueto combined to go the distance nine times, and despite an uneven middle of the season, Jeff Samardzija threw 203.1 innings as the Giants had three pitchers among the NL’s top five in outs recorded. Bumgarner was a paragon of durability yet again, setting regular-season career highs in innings and strikeouts while also leading all major leaguers in pitches thrown. Midseason acquisition Matt Moore came up huge to help the Giants limp into the NL Wild Card Game, and like Bumgarner, he is on a team-friendly contract with options through 2019. Cueto can opt out of his deal after 2017, though. There’s little reason to expect a serviceable season from Matt Cain in the final year of his contract, but he’ll get a chance to reestablish himself in the spring while left-handed rookie Ty Blach pushes him. Prospect Tyler Beede should be ready to make an impact at some point this season.
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Although Giants relievers combined to blow a franchise-record 30 saves in the regular season, the bullpen’s 3.54 ERA was fifth best in the NL. For the most part, the damage was limited to the ninth inning, when Santiago Casilla faltered as the closer and the other two core members of the three-time World Series champion bullpen — Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo — showed their age. Melancon is a Giant “straight out of central casting,” according to one front-office executive. Lefthander Will Smith, whom the Giants obtained at a steep prospect cost from Milwaukee at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, took awhile to settle in but has all the equipment to be one of the league’s best lefty setup men. Cory Gearrin is a good matchup righthander — when he’s not overused — and will replace Romo. Talented arms Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, Josh Osich and Steven Okert should be able to spend less time warming up and wondering, and let their talent shine.
The Giants are golden up the middle. Second baseman Joe Panik and shortstop Brandon Crawford became the first pair of NL teammates since 2002 (the Cardinals’ Fernando Viña and Edgar Renteria) to win Gold Gloves. Crawford didn’t repeat as a Silver Slugger winner, but he led the Giants with 84 RBIs and led the NL with 11 triples. Panik was the hardest player to strike out in the majors (one per 11.19 plate appearances) but also had some of the worst luck, hitting .245 on balls in play — second lowest in the majors. Panik also struggled against lefties for the first time, leading to a move from the No. 2 spot to lower in the order.
The Giants committed to first baseman Brandon Belt when they signed him to a multiyear contract in April. Then Belt, a longtime lightning rod among fans, finally fulfilled his potential while becoming the final ballot selection for the All-Star Game. Although Belt’s 17 homers were a disappointment, no player gets cheated more by AT&T Park’s spacious right-center death valley. The Giants won’t receive much power at third base, either. Eduardo Núñez brings much-needed speed to the order, though. Like the player he replaced in August, Matt Duffy, Núñez was viewed as a utility player who overachieved into something more. He was a first-time All-Star with Minnesota last year and was leading the AL in steals when the Giants acquired him.
For all their homegrown success, the Giants' farm system hasn’t yielded much in the way of outfielders. And last year’s trio of Denard Span, Hunter Pence and Angel Pagan were no spring chickens. Pagan is gone, Span has lost a step and Pence had major hamstring surgery that forced him to miss chunks of time for the second consecutive season. NL third base coaches turned into windmills on base hits, knowing the Giants had little in the way of outfield arms. The Giants are hoping for health from Pence, whose power still plays in their ballpark, and they’ll plan for a left field platoon between Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson.
Buster Posey checked off a rare unchecked box in his career when he ended Yadier Molina’s eight-year run and won the Gold Glove Award. Posey’s caught stealing percentage set a career high, and advanced metrics gave him tons of love for his ability to frame pitches. No wonder both he and the Giants refuse to entertain talk of moving him to a less stressful position.
October hero Conor Gillaspie’s three-run homer off Jeurys Familia sent the Giants past the Mets in the NL Wild Card Game, and he also tripled on a 101-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman in the NLDS. Gillaspie should be the club’s top pinch hitter. Switch-hitter Jimmy Rollins will try to win a backup infield job over Kelby Tomlinson and Ehire Adrianza. With longtime backup outfielder Gregor Blanco gone, Gorkys Hernandez could play a valuable role. The Giants love what catcher Trevor Brown did as a rookie but signed Tim Federowicz to a minor-league contract to push for the backup job this spring.
Bochy lost no respect in the industry, and he’s still headed to the Hall of Fame someday. But for once, a master of bullpen usage found himself totally “buffaloed,” as he’d describe it, by the club’s failures in the ninth inning. More troubling was the heart scare that caused him to miss a game in Miami. But Bochy, who had an unscheduled procedure in February 2015 to treat two arterial blockages, insisted he was fine and retains every bit of vigor to manage at least through the end of his contract in 2019.
The Giants remain one of the league’s most stable and successful franchises. They should receive plenty of quality innings from their rotation along with clean defensive games from a dynamic infield — a great recipe for getting leads, winning series and marching back to October.