The San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010 with a team that came together at just the right time and essentially breezed through the playoffs. There were no elimination games in any series, and the World Series was in-hand from the fifth inning of the first game.
That’s the beauty of the playoffs: If everything goes right, a team can go from backing into the playoffs to being World Champions in as few as 11 games.
The beauty of the regular season, though, is that it takes 162 games to see whether or not your team can back into (or storm into) the playoffs. Last season, it appeared that everything that could possibly go wrong for the Giants did so, and the end result was disappointment as the Arizona Diamondbacks handily overtook the Giants for the NL West crown.
Here are 10 things that must go "right" in order for the Giants to win the NL West. And one other thing.
The San Francisco Giants did the "right thing" in rewarding Ryan Vogelsong’s stellar 2011 season with a two-year, $8.3 million contract. It is important for the Giants to make a decision on what they will do with starting pitcher Matt Cain (and, if possible, Tim Lincecum) prior to Opening Day.
Cain will be a free agent at the end of the 2012 season, and the loud buzz speculating on his contract status and future with the Giants will grow deafening by midseason, especially if the Giants are inexplicably in the cellar of the NL West. Contract disputes are almost always a distraction to a team, and are never good to bring into a new season. Especially if they are as avoidable as this one is.
The 2010 San Francisco Giants without Buster Posey: middling.
The 2010 San Francisco Giants with Buster Posey: World Champions.
The 2011 San Francisco Giants with Buster Posey: first-place team.
The 2011 San Francisco Giants without Buster Posey: middling.
Apply Occam’s Razor:
Buster Posey is the difference between a championship-level squad and a second-place-in-the-division squad. He absolutely must return healthy and contribute meaningfully to both the offense and the pitching staff.
The San Francisco Giants were without a consistent leadoff hitter last year. Andres Torres, Cody Ross, Aaron Rowand, etc. had no consistency from arguably the most important spot in the batting order.
The Giants had a virtual automatic out in the seventh hole of the lineup when Brandon Crawford was playing last season. I hate to nay-say, but it will take a significantly better performance in 2012 to change my opinion of his offensive capabilities. They also had an "automatic out" in the eighth spot, what with that position frequently occupied by Eli can’t-hit-the-White-side-of-Utah and Chris I-don’t-have-a-clever-line-for-how-bad-he-was-as-a-hitter-Stewart. They then had the pitcher hitting ninth, which most teams accept as an "automatic out."
When your leadoff hitter is also an "automatic out," or close to it, you virtually give the other team four consecutive outs. It's no wonder why the Giants were shutout more than any other team with numbers like that. A leadoff hitter must emerge in 2012.
Brandon Belt was treated like a yo-yo in 2011 by the San Francisco Giants and never got a full season to show what he could (or could not) really do as a major-league baseball player. Brett Pill progressed steadily for years through the minor-league ranks and, during limited play with the Giants, displayed professional poise and considerable numbers (.300 batting average, for starters).
2012 is a make-or-break year for both players. If neither player performs well this season, they will likely be sent to another organization. Slow developers are occasionally allowed to mature, but almost always by teams in a perpetual "rebuilding" phase. Because of the inherent risk, competitive teams in a championship hunt (which the Giants are) will have a much shorter leash.
If both players perform, however, then the Giants will have a glut of offensive possibilities.
Personally, I think Pill steps up and Belt goes packing.
Perhaps the two most important ingredients in keeping the Giants as competitive as they were in the absence of Buster Posey last season were the "Beard Bros." Sergio Romo and Brian Wilson, despite a pair of high-profile meltdowns by the latter, both performed very well last season and actually extended games that otherwise might have been losses into...losses that just took longer to lose. With an upgraded offense, however, those losses may well become victories.
The injuries suffered by both pitchers last summer thrust Santiago Casilla into the role of closer. While debilitating injuries happen to even the best players (not named Ripken or Gehrig), a team so heavily built around their pitching staff, as the San Francisco Giants are, can ill afford to lose any key components in 2012.
How many times did it happen last season? Tim Lincecum/Matt Cain/Madison Bumgarner/Ryan Vogelsong is a ground ball away from getting out of a jam. He makes the perfect pitch. The hitter slices a sharply hit, tailor-made, double-play ball. And Miguel Tejada/Orlando Cabrera/Mike Fontenot (although less so) misplays the ball, two runs score and the inning turns into a nightmare.
*Note: This never happened to Barry Zito. His "perfect pitch" ends up 687 feet behind him.
Brandon Crawford is clearly an excellent defensive shortstop. Freddy Sanchez's glove is as big a part as any as to why the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series in five games. Don’t believe me? Watch Game 4 again. Both players should be back and in action in 2012. An improvement of middle-infield defense should mitigate the tragedy of the "shoulda been" double-play ball next season.
This comment could obviously be directed at Barry Zito, but...
Most San Francisco Giants fans have already made peace with the fact that Barry Zito will never improve. He will limp along, play guitar, occasionally throw a 1-2-3 inning before giving up back-to-back grand slams in the bottom of the ninth inning, and endure phantom "ankle sprains" until his contract is up. Any positive contribution he can make at this point is an unexpected bonus.
Tim Lincecum will be making approximately $20 million this season. Matt Cain will make at least $15 million. That is $35 million for two pitchers, for those of you who are mathematically challenged, and is an exorbitant amount of money. That is "elite" and "cream of the crop money." That is Phillies money. That is Yankees/Red Sox money.
Whether Lincecum and Cain are around in 2013 is nowhere near as important as whether or not they actually earn their massive salaries in 2012. If they earn their money, the Giants will win the National League West as a byproduct.
It is difficult to see how Melky Cabrera will do anything but help this offense. Angel Pagan is an upgrade over Andres Torres. These are significant acquisitions that could pay huge dividends for the San Francisco Giants.
Are they Prince Fielder? No. Are they Albert Pujols? Of course not. But is it possible that Melky Cabrera could put up better numbers in 2012 for the Giants than Carlos Beltran puts up for the St. Louis Cardinals? Absolutely. With the players coming back from injury and a retooled and refreshed roster, these new acquisitions will help drive the Giants to the NL West title.
2011 was Arizona’s year. Or so they thought. Fortunately for San Francisco Giants fans, the Milwaukee Brewers had other plans for the Diamondbacks, sending them home in dramatic fashion in the NLDS. The loss stung the Diamondbacks.
The question is whether or not the venom will continue into 2012. San Francisco’s current roster is, by most metrics, superior to Arizona’s. The Diamondbacks over-performed last season, and the Giants buckled under the weight of injuries and complacency. That cannot happen in 2012. Or at least it had better not.
How many times do we hear at the beginning of the season that the Los Angeles Dodgers, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres are "teams to beat?" How often do these teams make it to the playoffs, let alone make it past the divisional round? Exactly.
The San Francisco Giants should be considered the "class" of the National League West. It is important that these three teams remain "also-rans" while the Giants and Diamondbacks do battle for first place in 2012.
This has nothing to do with the San Francisco Giants (or does it?), but how about that game last Saturday?
If you missed the San Francisco 49ers' 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints, and the four minutes of four touchdowns, or you just don’t understand football, what happened in that game is roughly the equivalent of the following:
The San Francisco Giants are up on the...uh...Atlanta (close enough) Braves in the top of the ninth inning, 5-3. Chipper Jones hits a three-run home run in the top of the ninth. The Braves lead 6-5. Chris Stewart belts a solo home run in the bottom of the ninth. Tie game. Extra innings. Jason Heyward hits a three-run home run in the top of the 10th inning. The Braves lead 9-6. Matt Cain hits a grand slam in the bottom of the 10th inning. Giants win, 10-9!
It really was that epic. Forget Barry Zito and Eric Surkamp. Let’s give quarterback Alex Smith the role of fifth starter.