The San Francisco Giants started the year by playing good baseball. Over the course of the last eight weeks, they've done anything but that.
Since May 14, the Giants have put up a miserable 17-30 record. The fourth-place Giants are treading water in the NL West, and they're currently 5.5 games behind the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks.
San Francisco doesn't have to climb Mount Everest to win the NL West, but it has lots of work to do and lots of improvements to make. Somehow, San Francisco has won just two of its last 12 games, and somehow, it has scored 17 runs in its last nine games.
Oh, and it fell victim to the first no-hitter this season on Tuesday against Homer Bailey of the Cincinnati Reds.
The starting pitching hasn't been anything but flawless, as Matt Cain has a 4.85 ERA, Tim Lincecum has a 4.66 ERA and Barry Zito has a 4.44 ERA (and has let opponents hit .310 off of him). Injuries to Ryan Vogelsong and Chad Gaudin have hampered the rotation. The Giants are an astonishing 2-5 in games started by Vogelsong's replacements.
In short, the Giants aren't playing well and aren't winning.
After one of the worst road trips in franchise history (they went 1-8), the Giants started a pivotal three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 10-2 loss. The offense missed chances to score, the pitching struggled and the Giants got blown out. It summed up the season and San Francisco's seemingly endless slump.
The same problems plagued the Dodgers at the beginning of the year, but they have recently hit their stride. Everything has fallen into place for the team that spent boatloads of cash to build a juggernaut, one that has won 11 of its last 14 games. Despite trailing the Diamondbacks by 4.5 games, the Dodgers are looking like the favorite to emerge with the NL West.
Based on their two championships since 2010, you would think the Giants would be the favorites. Instead, they look like a last-place team stuck in a maze with no way out.
The pitching staff needs an upgrade, the offense needs a spark and the bullpen needs quality depth. Setup man Santiago Casilla will return soon, but that won't completely solve San Francisco's problems.
Lots of inconsistent relievers, such as Jean Machi, George Kontos, Sandy Rosario and even Michael Kickham, have been thrown into the fire due to injuries and lack of depth. None of them have done a great job, and the bullpen hasn't done as well as its 3.08 ERA suggests.
Simply put, the Giants don't have the depth or talent required to contend.
Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, Gregor Blanco and Brandon Crawford are all talented, but they have all been mired in incredibly deep slumps. In addition, Marco Scutaro hasn't been as sharp as the Giants would like him to be lately. All-Star catcher Buster Posey has been carrying the Giants offense by himself, and he hasn't been enough.
Posey is hitting .309 with a .387 on-base percentage and 12 home runs this year. No other Giant has come close to matching the combination of getting on base and supplying the power he does.
As a result, the offense has suffered a lengthy power outage. Opposing offenses haven't, though. Young southpaw Madison Bumgarner has held opponents to a measly .193 batting average and has spearheaded San Francisco's rotation.
Unfortunately for Bumgarner and the Giants, no one else in the rotation has picked up the slack.
There are starting pitchers such as Jake Peavy, Cliff Lee, Bud Norris and Matt Garza on the market, but they will require a package of top-tier prospects.
Do the Giants need to make a trade?
In addition, most of the affordable pitchers on the market have flaws. Garza has always let guys get on base against him, Peavy isn't the ace he once was and Norris has let opponents get on base against him at will.
In addition, the top-to-bottom struggles of the rotation mean that not much will be changed by one middle-of-the-rotation starter. While Cain and Bumgarner are ace-type pitchers, Cain certainly hasn't pitched like one. Bumgarner has done a nice job, but he isn't the best pitcher in the league.
Because of the reputation of the Giants staff, you would think that the depth they had would allow them to get by without another top-tier pitcher. However, that may not be the case.
Lee is the only ace on the market, and he likely won't end up in San Francisco. The Giants would have to part with some top-flight prospects (likely including star pitcher Kyle Crick), and that's not the path general manager Brian Sabean wants to take.
In addition, if the Giants wanted to add Lee to their rotation, they would likely have to part with a right-handed bat to support the Philadelphia Phillies' southpaw-laden lineup. The offense hasn't been exceptional lately, and parting with a bat would only help if the Giants received some offense in return.
If the Giants were to add an ace like Lee or even a middle-of-the-rotation arm like Norris or Garza, they probably wouldn't be able to add an impact bat as well. San Francisco simply doesn't have the major league depth or minor league talent to make a blockbuster deal happen.
While a blockbuster won't take place, the Giants will need to make and rely on trades to squeak back into the postseason. However, no matter how active Sabean is, the current roster isn't going to look too different once the trade deadline rolls around.
And that's anything but good news.
San Francisco's offense is in the middle of the pack, the bullpen is tiring and the rotation isn't living up to expectations. Close wins helped the Giants stay strong and stay in the NL West race early in the year, but San Francisco's 3-12 spurt has dented its hopes of winning the division.
With the chemistry and leadership the Giants have, you would expect them to snap out of all funks instantly. However, they haven't been able to do that, and the result has been lackluster play.
Can the Giants salvage their season?
So far, the Giants haven't given us many signs to believe that they can play better.
The NL West is easily baseball's worst division, but one day, the Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies or San Diego Padres will heat up. The Dodgers are already off and running, and with the offensive firepower and the quality arms that they have, they could run away with the division.
Games aren't won on paper, but the Giants simply aren't playing as well as the Dodgers are. A roster overhaul isn't going to happen, but the Giants will have to shore up the pitching and the hitting in an effective way.
They could add another starter and move Lincecum to the bullpen, they could add another starter and hope that Casilla's return transforms the relievers, they could add a bat and hope the pitchers return to form, or they could add a pitcher and hitter and hope for a Marco Scutaro-type impact.
All of those options seem like they could work, but none will directly lead to the Giants turning it around. It's going to take a major bounce-back second half from Cain, Lincecum and Zito, a paucity of slumps and a plethora of consistency.
Right now, none of those things seem possible.
This should be rock bottom for the Giants, who have simply failed to meet expectations. Somehow, the Giants are hanging around (although they are on the brink of falling out of the race), but with this kind of play, they will be in dire straits as soon as the All-Star break.
The season isn't over yet; the play from the four other NL West teams has kept San Francisco in the race. However, if someone doesn't light a fire under the squad soon, the Giants will continue struggling and run out of chances to win the NL West.
And if moves aren't made before the 2014 season, they could struggle in the future.