San Francisco Giants: 6 Reasons They'll Make the Playoffs Without Melky Cabrera
The Melky Cabrera suspension has generated a lot of buzz off the field, especially with the revelation that he attempted to dupe Major League Baseball with an erroneous website, as reported by USA Today.
On the field, the suspension leaves the San Francisco Giants fighting for a playoff berth without the services of the National League’s batting average leader.
That would seem to be a big blow to a team that has struggled to produce runs ever since Barry Bonds’ departure last decade. But a confluence of factors suggests the Giants can maintain their winning pace all the way to the postseason.
With a quarter of the season left, the Giants remain in control of their playoff destiny—with or without the Melk Man.
Trade Deadline Acquisitions
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The Giants were already playoff contenders before trading for Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro.
But these two additions helped fortify San Francisco’s lineup and provided insurance against any unexpected setbacks—such as losing the team’s leading hitter to a drug suspension.
Scutaro is the quintessential “professional hitter”; while not feared at the plate, he doesn’t hurt a team with his bat, and he does all the little things well. Since coming over from the Colorado Rockies, he has been everything the Giants could have hoped for and more, batting .330 and giving San Francisco infield versatility.
Pence, who’s batting .200 with one home run since coming to the Bay Area, hasn’t hit like the player the Giants thought they were trading for. But he does have 15 RBI in his 20 games with San Francisco—a 162-game pace of 128.
If Pence starts hitting as expected, that will go a long way to make up for Cabrera’s absence.
Reliever Jose Mijares is not quite the difference-maker as the other two, but he helps bolster a team strength, while giving the team another lefty out of the bullpen.
Pitching Depth—in the Rotation and the Bullpen
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There’s nothing new about the Giants having great pitching—except that the biggest star has been the team’s biggest liability this year. At least, he was.
For much of the season, Tim Lincecum didn’t look anything like a two-time Cy Young award winner. At one point he had the worst ERA in baseball among regular starters.
But the rotation as a whole continued to be a team strength, with Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong all continuing to improve. Each maintains a sub-3.00 ERA.
So with Lincecum struggling, the other starters picked up the slack.
And with Lincecum coming around as of late—he’s sporting a 3.10 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break—the rotation is as deep as any in the league.
The bullpen is just about as formidable. Even without a true closer to fill the Brian Wilson void.
Seven of San Francisco’s eight relievers have ERAs of 3.20 or lower, with the lone exception being Eric Hacker, who’s pitched all of 2-2/3 innings of relief with the big club this year.
As long as the pitching holds up, the offense doesn’t have to be great—just adequate—for the team to keep winning. Even without Cabrera, that shouldn’t be a problem.
An Actual Offense by the Bay
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Yes, these days the Giants really do field eight hitters who somewhat resemble a formidable offense.
In fact, before Cabrera’s suspension, the lineup almost felt crowded.
That's quite a departure from when the Giants won the World Series largely by relying on timely hitting from a rather unimpressive collection of bats.
While Cabrera carried San Francisco's offense for much of this season, the void created by his absence is being filled by a combination of others heating up, the recent additions and Panda's return from the disabled list.
Angel Pagan appears more comfortable at the plate since moving back to the leadoff spot, Scutaro gives the team a true second hitter and Pablo Sandoval sliding into the three hole solidifies the top of the order.
With Posey’s emergence as one of the best hitters in the game, all the Giants need at this point is for Pence to snap out of the slump that has gripped him since the All-Star break.
Assuming Pence comes around before long, any production from the bottom of the order would be a bonus.
Such a bonus is coming from the much-maligned Brandon Belt. The second-year first baseman still lacks consistency at the plate, but his .961 OPS in August, along with a .963 OPS in June, indicates he just might be figuring out major league pitching.
If he continues to hit as he has in August, and perhaps adds a few home runs to his stat sheet, then Belt will combine with Gregor Blanco and a Ryan Theriot/Joaquin Arias platoon for a passable bottom of the order.
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Having capable bats and arms is great, but just as valuable is the know-how to win tough games down the stretch. Just two years removed from a World Series title, the Giants have that.
While some of the key figures from the title team aren’t leading the way this year—there’s no beard to fear and no thong to rally around—most of the key figures remain.
And due to the growth of several young stars, the 2012 squad actually looks more like a true contender than the one that won it all in 2010.
Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner all pitched during the 2010 playoff run, much of the bullpen is still in tact, and the offense is once again led by Buster Posey—who is even better than when he galvanized the Giants as a rookie.
Plus, when GM Brian Sabean made moves to bolster this year’s roster, he was equally effective at adding playoff experience as he was at adding productive players.
Ryan Theriot played for St. Louis’ World Series title team last season, while Pence reached the playoffs last year with the Philadelphia Phillies. Scutaro hasn’t seen any postseason action since 2006, when he played for the Oakland A's, but his last two seasons with the Boston Red Sox gave him plenty of experience playing under pressure.
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Because of the expanded playoff for this season, the Giants have three opportunities for a playoff berth; if they don’t win the division they can still land one of two wild-card berths.
Of course, one of the wild-card spots will likely go to an NL East team (if the season ended today, that would be Atlanta), which leaves San Francisco with two realistic chances of getting in: holding onto their division lead or the other wild card.
San Francisco is currently 1-1/2 games up on the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. The Giants won the first two games of the series they’re currently playing against the Dodgers, but even if they finish out the series sweep tonight, the Giants won’t have much of a cushion.
And they can’t forget about Arizona. Currently six games back in the division, the Diamondbacks are a hot streak away from charging into first place.
The Pirates currently hold a tenuous half-game edge over the Cardinals for the second wild-card spot.
Speaking of the these two teams…
The Longest Game of the Year
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Sunday’s 19-inning epic between the Pirates and Cardinals felt much like a playoff game.
It involved two division rivals jousting for a playoff berth, neither one willing to go quietly. When Pittsburgh ended an 11-inning scoring drought with a run in the top of the 17th, St. Louis promptly responded with a run of its own to extend the game.
As compelling as such a game can be, it’s not exactly the best thing for a team in a playoff hunt—especially at this point in the season.
Losing such a battle can be demoralizing, but more than that, win or lose, it can be debilitating. Bullpens often take awhile to bounce back from such taxing affairs. And if the schedule isn’t kind, the team as a whole has little chance to catch its breath.
There’s no certainty that either team will falter as a result of this game, though if one does, it’s more likely to be the Pirates.
For one, the Cardinals are defending World Series champions with no shortage of veteran leadership. The Pirates, on the other hand, haven’t produced a winning record in two decades.
Three Pittsburgh relievers pitched at least two innings, and starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez tossed a pair of innings to finish out the game.
And then the team had to board a flight to San Diego after the game for a three-game series starting the next day. They San Diego Padres swept them.
St. Louis, meanwhile, got Monday off, and the bullpen was largely saved by Joe Kelly’s 5-2/3-inning relief appearance.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, Kelly, who had just been demoted from the rotation, last pitched five days earlier. So he was effectively still on the same schedule as when he was starting.
If either or both teams come out of that game slumping (the Pirates apparently have), that could derail their playoff aspirations—and eliminate some competition for the Giants.