7 San Francisco Giants with the Most to Prove Down the Stretch

Laith Agha@@LaithAghaContributor ISeptember 14, 2012

7 San Francisco Giants with the Most to Prove Down the Stretch

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    The San Francisco Giants didn’t win the World Series two years ago because they were loaded with talent at every position. While the pitching was strong, the offense relied on career years from unlikely sources, a lucky waiver-wire pickup and the leadership of a rookie catcher.

    That’s not exactly the typical championship formula.

    The Giants were also beneficiaries from the complete lack of expectations, as their success caught the baseball world by surprise. This year, as they enter the final three weeks of the season with a seven-game lead on the Dodgers, they aren’t sneaking up on anybody. And their fans, having recently savored ultimate victory, want more.

    While they appear to be running away with the division, the Giants are not without problems: struggling stars, fill-ins at key positions, diamonds in the rough losing their sparkle. 

    So, there’s reason to believe San Francisco’s success won't carry into the playoffs. To prove otherwise, however, some Giants have to snap out of their funks, while others have to keep up their solid play.

    Here are seven Giants (well, technically, eight) who have something to prove down the stretch.

Tim Lincecum

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    In the last five years, there has been no bigger star in the San Francisco sports scene than Tim Lincecum, save for maybe 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. (Brian Wilson’s beard doesn’t count—it's an inanimate object.)

    Between two Cy Youngs and leading the Giants to a World Series title, he is responsible for just about all the city’s sporting glory since Barry Bonds’ heyday.

    But his star has sagged significantly since enduring the most difficult stretch of his six-year career. The All-Star break brought mercy on his disastrous first half of the season, during which he amassed a major league-worst 6.42 ERA.

    Lincecum has looked like a different pitcher in the second half of the season, posting a 3.33 ERA in 12 starts. Yet, signs remain that he hasn’t fully regained his pre-2012 form.

    While the second-half ERA is decent, it’s still higher than the career 2.98 ERA he carried into this season. His 1.33 WHIP since the All-Star break is significantly higher than his pre-2012 WHIP of 1.19. And he’s been giving up a home run every nine innings since mid-July, compared to one every 15 innings prior to 2012.

    Lincecum is no longer the liability he was earlier in the season, but he isn't the force he was earlier in his career. He needs a couple dominant starts in the coming weeks to show he can be an impact player come the playoffs.

Pablo Sandoval

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    If one were to graph Pablo Sandoval’s first four full seasons in the major leagues, it would involve a complex equation based on his tremendous hitting ability, a pair of broken hands and a fluctuating waistline, all of which have conspired for one head-bobbling, inconsistent career.

    Had Panda not suffered a broken hamate bone for the second consecutive season, and had his weight not ballooned throughout the year, and had he not pulled his hamstring in July, he may very well be one of the top hitters in the game right now. 

    As it is, he’s scuffling at the plate, showing little resemblance to the player who started 2012 with such promise. 

    Sandoval had a mini-hot streak last week, when he strung together three consecutive multi-hit games. But he has since gone 2-for-21 and was given Wednesday off to clear his mind. 

    The Giants are doing fine for now with Buster Posey, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro pacing the offense, but the team would greatly benefit from a productive Sandoval. Plus, after falling out of favor and out of the lineup during San Francisco’s World Series run two years ago, Sandoval needs to prove he can be there for the Giants when they need him most.

The Two-Headed Closer

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    Early on, Santiago Casilla appeared to be the Giants’ answer at closer after Brian Wilson got Tommy Johnned. Then Casilla stumbled in the role, and manager Bruce Bochy had to resort to the dreaded closer by committee.

    The situation has since shaken out, and instead of a rotation of three or four relievers, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo are thriving as co-closers. Since August 20, the two are a combined 11-for-11 in save opportunities.

    The results have been great, but it’s a small sample size. Lopez and Romo have to continue pitching lights-out down the stretch to give Bochy the confidence that he has a stable closer situation heading into the postseason.

Brandon Belt

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    Is Brandon Belt a big part of the Giants' future, or he is merely San Francisco’s version of James Loney, the Dodgers’ recently discarded first baseman?

    If the last six weeks are to be trusted, he’s more likely the former.

    Since Aug. 1, Belt is batting .347, giving the first-place Giants some nice production from the sixth spot in the batting order. He has been especially hot in September, racking up 12 RBI while posting a .978 OPS.

    So it’s tough to argue that Belt isn’t proving himself worthy. 

    But a hot streak can freeze over in the course of a few at-bats, and with such limited evidence that Belt is a bona fide major league hitter, his current stretch could be an aberration. If he were to lose his stroke in the coming weeks, that could revive doubts of his long-term viability in San Francisco. 

    At 24 years old, Belt still has room to grow, though he's at an age when his play should be signaling what kind of major leaguer he will be, going forward. If Belt is going to secure the starting first base job for next year, he would be well served to keep up the hot hitting into October.

Ryan Vogelsong

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    A month ago, Vogelsong was cruising along as a possible Cy Young candidate, leading the National League in ERA and proving that last year’s impressive return to the majors wasn’t a fluke.

    Well, a month and a day ago, that is.

    His ERA inflated from 2.27 to 2.72 on August 13—when he gave up eight earned runs to the Nationals—and it has continued going up ever since. He now ranks 14th in the league in ERA, and third on his own team.

    In his 21 starts prior to the eight-run debacle, Vogelsong held opponents to two earned runs or less on 15 occasions. In his last six starts, he has failed to achieve that even once. So while Vogelsong’s strong start to the season helped compensate for Lincecum’s struggles, he now has to overcome his own struggles to justify a spot in the postseason rotation.

    He has four starts to do so, including one Sunday against the Diamondbacks.

Hunter Pence

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    Of all the Giants, Hunter Pence probably has the most points to prove down the stretch.

    As a high-profile pickup at the non-waiver trade deadline, he has to justify the acquisition. For that to happen, he has to prove that, after playing in hitter-friendly parks in Houston and Philadelphia, he's capable of slugging in the more expansive AT&T Park. And heading into his last year of arbitration, he has to prove to the Giants he's worth a substantial pay raise—or even a long-term deal. 

    While Pence's batting average and home run total since the trade are disappointing, he continues excelling in the most important category—driving in runs. In 40 games with the Giants, he has 30 RBI. And if he keeps up this pace over the final 19 regular season games, he will reach 100 RBI for the first time in his career. (He drove in 59 runs while with the Phillies earlier this season.)

    His bottom-line production has helped offset the loss of Melky Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval's slump. But he can't realistically maintain this torrid RBI pace if he continues batting .224 and slugging .378.

    So if Pence is going to continue being an asset to the Giants, he needs to start mixing in some home runs (just one in September) and multi-hit games (none in September).

Buster Posey

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    Surprised to see Buster on this list?

    It’s not because he needs to prove his worth to the Giants—he’s the unquestioned star of the offense. But with a tight MVP race featuring a gang of studs from the NL Central, Posey has to convince the voters that the award belongs out west.

    Among the MVP candidates, his offensive numbers don’t stand out, particularly with reigning league MVP Ryan Braun repeating last year's performance and Andrew McCutchen carrying Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes on his back.

    Posey’s advantage is that he is probably having the best season of anyone on a team currently holding a playoff spot. Also, being a catcher doesn't hurt. But if either the Pirates or the hard-charging Brewers sneak into the wild-card game, that team’s best player could justifiably be deemed league MVP. St. Louis, which currently sits in the second wild-card position, offers Matt Holliday as a strong candidate as well.

    In order for San Francisco’s best player to prove his case as MVP, he needs to maintain his hot hitting and keep his team atop the NL West.