San Francisco Giants: Predicting the 2014 Lineup
If the Giants continue their hot streak through the next few days and win a second World Series in three years, dynasty talk is almost certain to begin. To truly be a dynasty, however, San Francisco will have to continue contending for championships.
Do they have the talent to do that? Will the farm system provide enough reinforcements in the next couple years?
Here is a look at San Francisco's projected lineup for 2014—and the players who will determine whether winning it all will become a tradition.
(Of course, it's virtually impossible to predict free agent signings and trades, so wild speculation on these matters is saved for the "alternative" offerings for each position.)
Catcher: Buster Posey
As the likely 2012 NL MVP and the Giants’ undisputed team leader, Buster Posey is one of the premier players in baseball. As such, the Giants and their fans hope he sticks around for a long time.
Considering that he is still three years away from free agency, Buster will be around for at least that long.
Alternative: None, unless Posey suffers a career-ending injury. Hector Sanchez is still raw behind the plate, but he is a decent hitter who can develop into an everyday catcher. Prospect Andrew Susac is a power hitter who probably needs a couple more years growing on the farm.
First Base: Brandon Belt
Giants fans were probably hoping Brandon Belt would be the next Will Clark, but he is more likely the next J.T. Snow.
An excellent fielder, Belt showed steady improvement in 2012 at the plate and surprising speed on the bases, stealing 10 bases. With more experience, he should be able to improve upon his .275 average, possibly approaching .300 next year. The home run potential is there, but...
Alternative: San Francisco could benefit from upgrading at first base. The Giants could go after someone like lke Davis, who the Mets reportedly will make available on offseason’s trade market, or one of two 2014 free agents, Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse. Another (unlikely) possibility is moving Posey from behind the plate for preservation purposes.
Second Base: Joe Panik
This prediction depends on how much Panik develops next season. A first-round pick in 2011, Panik has shown excellent on-base skills, but he has yet to appear above Single-A.
This prediction also assumes that Panik will switch from shortstop, where he primarily plays now. If Brandon Crawford sticks around, a move would be necessary.
As for what he could contribute to the lineup, Panik’s offensive game projects to be similar to that of Marco Scutaro or pre-breakdown Freddie Sanchez, which means he has the skills to bat second in the order.
Alternative: Marco Scutaro’s scorching bat—he has hit better than .360 for the Giants in both the regular and postseasons—will make it difficult for San Francisco’s front office to let him walk in free agency. So if they reward Scutaro in the same way they rewarded Aubrey Huff two years, Panik would have to wait awhile for a starting spot.
Third Base: Pablo Sandoval
National baseball pundits expressed surprise about Sandoval’s three-homer night in Game 1 of the World Series. Well, the bigger surprise is actually that the Panda hasn’t had more nights like that.
The problem is that in consecutive years he has broken a hamate bone in either hand, causing him to miss significant time. Then upon returning each time, he took awhile to regain strength in his hand.
Now with both hands hamate-free, Sandoval can return to the form he showed in 2009 and 2011. This postseason, during which he is hitting .368 with six home runs and 13 RBI, could be the first sign of that. And considering how wildly popular the Kung Fu Panda is in the Bay Area, the Giants have plenty of reason to keep him.
Alternative: Conor Gillaspie, who had a brief major league stint this season, is the best in-house option to take over third base if for some reason Sandoval doesn’t stick around. But Gillaspie probably isn’t starting material, so the Giants would probably have to shop around. The free agent market for third basemen looks rather bleak in the next couple years, however.
Shortstop: Brandon Crawford
Giants fans are split on Brandon Crawford—they either rave about his glove or rant about his bat. The glove-lovers point to Crawford’s clutch hitting. But with a better hitter in the lineup, the improved production would override any flair for the dramatic Crawford offers at the plate.
The Giants could hope Crawford improves his hitting, but considering he was a .266 hitter in the minor leagues and that he has marginal power and speed, his offensive ceiling is rather low.
Alternative: The Giants could boost the offense by prying shortstop Elvis Andrus away from the Rangers, where baseball’s top prospect, Jurickson Profar, is forcing a logjam in Texas’ middle infield.
Left Field: Gary Brown
Gary Brown, San Francisco’s top prospect, is a speedy outfielder who has shown strong on-base skills in the minor leagues. Unless he blows away management in spring training, Brown is probably a mid-2013 call- up.
Giants fans should temper expectations, considering Brown is a 24-year-old who has yet to play above Double-A, not exactly a sign of an elite prospect. But his speed and decent on-base skills should translate to good productivity at the top of San Francisco’s batting order.
Alternative: Depending on what the Giants decide to do elsewhere in the outfield, Brown could end up in center field, perhaps as soon as April 2013. In which case, a rejuvenated Ryan Ludwick or Nick Swisher could slide into left field for a couple years and add power to the lineup.
Center Field: Angel Pagan
Angel Pagan becomes a free agent after the World Series, and considering how effective he has been as San Francisco's leadoff hitter, he will be a popular option this winter for teams seeking outfield help.
Yet, the Giants would be foolish to let him walk. Pagan’s style of play fits perfectly at AT&T Park, where the switch-hitter takes advantage of a funky outfield fence with his gap power. Plus, with an intensity that reminds some of Will Clark, Pagan has emerged as a fan favorite.
Alternative: If Pagan walks in free agency, Gary Brown will take over center field.
Right Field: Hunter Pence
Giants fans haven’t been terribly impressed with Pence’s play since he was acquired from the Phillies in July. But he has a strong track record, including 22 or more home runs in the five full seasons he has played in the majors, and he has never landed on the disabled list.
He will turn 30 early next season, so he likely doesn’t have much room for growth. But he still has several productive years ahead. The Giants would be wise to keep him, though Pence may want to test free agency after the 2013 season before signing an extension with San Francisco.
Alternative: In-house options don’t suffice. Francisco Peguero is a fourth outfielder, while minor leaguer Roger Kieschnick appears to be a Quadruple-A type, similar to John Bowker. Milwaukee’s Corey Hart, Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo and Texas’ Nelson Cruz are due to be free agents after 2013, and any one of them would be a nice addition to San Francisco’s lineup.
Starting Rotation: Cain, Bumgarner, Vogelsong...
The starting rotation will continue to have familiar faces, but it will also undergo changes that could inflict serious emotional harm on Giants fans.
Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner have long-term contracts, so they will remain fixtures in San Francisco's rotation. Ryan Vogelsong is under contract for two more years, so he should be sticking around as well.
It's the final two spots where there will be change, including the departures of fan favorite Tim Lincecum and the overpaid Barry Zito.
Now, Lincecum could well bounce back next year from his awful 2012 season. In which case, he will probably be too expensive for the Giants to retain. If he doesn't return to his Cy Young form, he is likely destined for the bullpen. Either way, Lincecum won't be starting for the Giants in 2014.
So who will be? Eric Surkamp has been impressive throughout most of his minor league career, so he should eventually be in line for a rotation spot. However, he is recovering from Tommy John surgery, which makes his future effectiveness uncertain. But if his recovery goes as well as it does for many pitchers these days, he should be back in form by the time Lincecum and Zito have departed.
Chris Stratton, San Francisco's first-round pick this past June, could also be ready for the rotation by then. The 22-year-old put up decent numbers in his minor league debut, though 16 innings isn't much of a sample. The way the Giants scout and develop pitching talent, however, is reason enough to believe Stratton will be an effective major league pitcher in a couple years. Fellow Giants farmhand Kyle Crick is considered a slightly better prospect, but he is only 19 years old.
Alternative: Maybe Lincecum returns to form and the Giants manage to pay him. Or they could troll the free agent market, which won't be all that strong in 2014. Josh Johnson will be the best of the bunch and will likely demand a large sum of money. The next best are Lincecum, Jon Lester and Matt Garza. Or maybe they find the next Ryan Vogelsong under a rock somewhere.
Closer: Tim Lincecum
Brian Wilson should be back next year from his elbow injury, but closers tend to struggle more than starters to return from Tommy John surgery, and Wilson is coming off his second such operation. That's not to say the Bearded One won't be a dominant closer again by 2014, but that is quite uncertain at this point. Maybe he becomes an effective reliever again, but not able to handle the rigors of regular closing.
Tim Lincecum, on the other hand, has looked downright unhittable during his relief appearances this postseason. According to Fox Sports reporter Ken Rosenthal, Lincecum said he is thriving in the role because he doesn't have to think, whereas during his starts this season, he suffered from overthinking.
That makes some sense, since Lincecum maintained a high strikeout rate this season, meaning his stuff was still effective. Almost every bad start was the result of one disastrous inning in which he appeared to lose control of the strike zone.
Moving Lincecum to closer would be a great way for San Francisco to continue benefiting from his dominant stuff and for the fans to continue rooting for one of their favorite players.