Anyone who writes a season preview of the San Francisco Giants is contractually obligated to mention it’s an even year, so here it is: it’s an even year. Now that that’s out of the way, the Giants went into the offseason with major holes to fill in the starting rotation and the outfield. One huge spending spree later, those holes look to be filled and the Giants boast one of the most dangerous, balanced teams in all of baseball. Questions linger about health and performance, but it’s clear the Giants are built to win now. And if they do, it’ll be because of the impressive collection of talent they’ve accumulated rather than the fact that the year is divisible by two.
Depth Chart (as of 2/26)
C: Buster Posey, Andrew Susac
1B: Brandon Belt, Buster Posey
2B: Joe Panik, Kelby Tomlinson
3B: Matt Duffy, Kelby Tomlinson
SS: Brandon Crawford, Kelby Tomlinson
LF: Angel Pagan, Gregor Blanco
CF: Denard Span, Gregor Blanco
RF: Hunter Pence, Jarrett Parker
SP: Madison Bumgarner
SP: Johnny Cueto
SP: Jeff Samardzija
SP: Jake Peavy
SP: Matt Cain
CP: Santiago Casilla
New Faces: Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Denard Span, Kyle Blanks, Conor Gillaspie
Departures: Jeremy Affeldt, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Mike Leake, Tim Hudson, Yusmeiro Petit, Marlon Byrd, Nori Aoki, Alejandro De Aza, Hector Sanchez, Juan Perez, Nick Noonan
Position Battles: The Giants regulars are set, so the only position battles worth noting are for backup spots. Andrew Susac and Trevor Brown will compete to backup Buster Posey, and while Susac is the more dangerous hitter, the Giants may want him getting regular at bats in the minors rather than sitting on the bench. Kelby Tomlinson was impressive in his debut season last year and likely will be the team’s main utility infielder, while Conor Gillaspie probably has the inside track for the other infield bench spot. Gregor Blanco is entrenched as the fourth outfielder, so rookies Jarrett Parker (who channeled Barry Bonds for a few weeks in September) and Mac Williamson will compete for the last bench spot.
On the pitching side of things, the rotation appeared set before Matt Cain needed a cyst removed from his pitching arm. He may not be ready for the start of the season, but luckily the Giants have a number of in-house options to choose from: Chris Heston, who threw a no hitter as a rookie last year, Clayton Blackburn, Ty Blach, or Tyler Beede could all fill in while Cain gets up to speed. There aren’t any position battles of note in the bullpen either, as all of those spots appear to be set.
Injury Concerns: The Giants’ season was wrecked by injuries last year, so you could say they have some concerns. Luckily, most of those injuries were of the freak variety and there isn’t much worry that they’ll linger. But there are definite concerns about Cain and his arm, as well as Johnny Cueto and his elbow. But the Giants did their due diligence on Cueto’s arm before they spent big on him, so they have to be confident he’ll hold up. Brandon Belt has been beset by injuries over the past few years, but most of them were due to bad luck (hit by pitches, hit by thrown balls during infield practice).
Key Players: The Giants broke the bank to bring in Cueto and Jeff Samardzija this past December and will be counting on them to fix what was a broken rotation. Both of them came at a relatively reduced price, and there’s a reason for that: Samardzija was statistically one of the worst starters in baseball last year, while Cueto looked mostly awful after being traded to Kansas City. The Giants obviously think they can turn both pitchers around, and if they do they’ll boast a rotation with three pitchers (including Madison Bumgarner) who could be number one starters anywhere. But Cueto and Samardzija could also fall flat on their faces, which would likely spell disaster for the Giants’ season. Everything hinges on the rotation and whether or not the two huge offseason signings can fix their problems.
On the offensive side of things, it was clear last year that Hunter Pence is the engine that makes the lineup go, and they can’t afford to lose him for any long stretch of time again. The Giants need Pence to be healthy, so if he can avoid breaking any more bones in spring training that would be ideal.
Underrated Asset: Matt Duffy had one of the best seasons ever by a rookie last year, posting a .295/.334/.428 line with a 4.9 WAR. Just one problem: he was a rookie the same year as Kris Bryant, and Duffy’s season was largely overlooked. But he saved the Giants after Pablo Sandoval left for Boston and the Casey McGehee experiment blew up after a month. Duffy played spectacular defense at third base while holding down the third spot in the lineup, and gave the offense the spark it was missing without Pence. If he builds on his success, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think Duffy could be a dark horse MVP candidate on a team with much bigger names.
Burning Question: Will their big signings pay off with a playoff appearance?
Cueto, Samardzija, and Denard Span all have lingering questions about their health and performance. If they had years like they’re capable of having, there’s no way the Giants would’ve been able to afford them all this winter. But they’re coming at a discount, and the payoff could be huge. The rotation last year was a mess, and both Cueto and Samardzija have the potential to be difference-makers. And if he’s healthy, Span gives the Giants a big defensive upgrade in center and their most dangerous leadoff hitter in years. All three are big, big upgrades from what the Giants trotted out last year if they all pan out.
On paper, the Giants have the best lineup in the division, balanced and dangerous from top to bottom. They led the National League in hitting last year but were undone not only by injuries, but by a pitching staff that just didn’t measure up. They made a point to address that deficiency this winter with high-risk, high-reward signings that could result in a return to the postseason. Or, it could blow up in their faces. Hard to say.
Best Case Scenario: The Giants get a run of good health and their lineup hits to its potential, resulting in an offense that can outscore anyone in the league. That offense is backed by a rotation featuring Cy Young contenders Bumgarner and Cueto, a resurgent Samardzija, an effective Jake Peavy, and a healthy Cain. Duffy, Pence, and Posey form the most dangerous middle of the order in baseball, with Posey winning his second MVP award. The Giants hold off the Dodgers in the NL West, win the division, and blow through the rest of the field to win their fourth World Series in the last seven years.
Worst Case Scenario: Cueto’s poor showing in Kansas City proves to be no fluke, Samardzija doesn’t turn anything around, and all of the money the Giants spent over the winter goes for naught. The offense performs up to expectations, but the starting pitching can’t keep up and the bullpen gets old, fast. The Giants still manage to finish above .500 but are well behind the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks in the division and don’t come close to either of the Wild Card spots.
Realistic Prediction: The Giants are a tough team to pin down because of the questions surrounding Cueto and Samardzija, but on paper they have arguably a stronger team than any of their World Series years. Their offense is one of the best in the league, and their rotation has the same potential. The Giants didn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars this offseason to get marginally better; they’re a team built to reach the playoffs again, and anything less would be a disappointment. If everything pans out like they hope it will, that’s a goal that should be well within reach.