The San Francisco Giants entered the 2013 season on top of the baseball world, feeling great about their future.
It's safe to say that their feelings have changed.
The Giants' 2013 season has gone down the drain, as the team was mired in a seemingly endless 29-52 slump, one that led to the team currently residing in last place, for three months.
Unfortunately for the Giants, the resilience demonstrated in last season's thrilling championship run hasn't carried over. As a result, the team isn't going to win a championship this year.
In addition, it likely won't in future seasons.
Injuries to Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Ryan Vogelsong and Santiago Casilla have plagued the team, and some underwhelming performances have also factored into the Giants' failures. The rock-solid pitching staff hasn't been good this year, as its ERA is a poor 4.45 (24th in the league).
Barry Zito has a 5.34 ERA, Matt Cain has a 4.35 ERA, Tim Lincecum has a 4.38 ERA and the aforementioned Vogelsong has a 6.75 ERA. While Lincecum's numbers and Cain's numbers are deceiving (bad luck has played a major role in their poor numbers), the fact remains that those four have unimpressive numbers.
Chad Gaudin, who has a stellar 3.06 ERA, has done a nice job filling in, but he hasn't been able to perform at a high level consistently over the course of his career. When he comes back down to earth, it will severely dent the team's ERA.
The pitching numbers have been atrocious this year, and they could be worse in 2014. There are positives, as Cain is bound to improve upon his horrid ERA, and Madison Bumgarner is primed to continue his tremendous run. However, the bullpen is laden with unreliable, unproven players, and Lincecum, Vogelsong, Zito and Gaudin will free agents in the offseason.
How Many Current Starters Will the Giants Retain?
Unless the Giants want to pay Zito, who hasn't compiled a sub-4.00 ERA in any of his seven years with the team, a lucrative $18 million (for a club option), he will be gone. As for Lincecum, Vogelsong and Gaudin, the Giants will have to pay all three hefty salaries to keep them.
Lincecum will attract high-paying visitors, as his 3.56 FIP places him in the same category as some solid pitchers. Vogelsong's marvelous 2011 and 2012 seasons should lead to him commanding a solid amount of money, and Gaudin's decent performance will lead to him luring in a decent amount of cash.
However, Gaudin might obtain that cash elsewhere. Gaudin surrendered eight earned runs in his last start, and his control hasn't been the same lately. If he continues to struggle, the Giants would likely not retain him as a starter.
While the free-agent market will be laden with quality starters, the Giants don't have the money to land a big fish like Hiroki Kuroda. Consequently, they would have to look for a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher on the market and retain their other two starters.
Unfortunately for the Giants, doing those three things might prove troublesome.
If either Lincecum or Vogelsong leaves, they would have a huge problem on their hands. If they retain two, or somehow manage to sign the two while also adding a free-agent starter, it would dent their payroll.
And it would limit their options elsewhere. That's something the Giants can't afford to do.
The outfield is in shambles, as Hunter Pence is an impending free agent, and the Giants don't have a clear-cut starting left fielder. Pence has been an emotional leader who has also contributed on the field, so he should be back in San Francisco.
Still, left field is an issue. Roger Kieschnick took over the position in late July, and he will most likely occupy the hole until at least the end of the 2013 season. However, it remains to be seen if he can start every day for the duration of a 162-game season.
His stats aren't tremendously impressive, as he has an appalling .286 slugging percentage. His power numbers aren't where they should be, and if he doesn't improve in that department, he might be relegated to a bench role.
In other words, the Giants would have to pursue a left fielder.
The market isn't thin in the outfield, as Nelson Cruz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo are among the big names on the open market. If the Giants manage to reel one of them in, it would bolster the outfield, but it would make a negative impact financially.
So, the Giants' left-field troubles might continue. And, those might not be the only troubles.
Can the Giants rely on the farm system?
The team has lots of holes to patch up, and it doesn't have the money to fill all of them. It can't rely on the farm system, as the depleted system isn't laden with solid, major league-ready talent.
Edwin Escobar, Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn and Chris Stratton will all likely pitch in a major league rotation, and it's safe to say that at least one of them will start a game for the Giants next season.
However, it remains to be seen when the team's top pitching prospects will be ready to face big league hitters.
If that time is 2015, 2014 would be a hard year.
Luckily, the future of the rotation looks promising. Escobar, who has registered a stellar 2.78 ERA overall this year, can fill a spot in the rotation. Crick can do more than just fill a spot, as he has the of attributes of an ace.
FanGraphs ranked Crick as the league's 20th-best prospect, noting his overpowering fastball and his ability to save San Francisco's rotation. Crick can strike hitters out at will, as he has an astounding 12.9 K/9 rate this year.
His control has been an issue, but that's a solvable problem. He has the raw talent to become the next Madison Bumgarner and help spearhead the rotation. If he does validate his incredible scouting reports, it would answer some questions within the team.
However, it wouldn't solve San Francisco's biggest problem: hitting.
When it comes to pitching, the Giants can turn to the farm system. They lack major league-ready arms, but they don't lack quality minor league starters. However, the team has a paucity of talented hitters in the farm system.
They do have one solid prospect, though. Bleacher Report's Mark Reynolds ranked Andrew Susac as the team's best hitting prospect, and for good reason. Despite being nagged by injuries, Susac has compiled exceptional numbers this year. He has hit 12 home runs and has posted an .820 OPS.
Barring injuries, Susac should have a solid career, but he might have a spend that career in a different uniform. Buster Posey is the Giants' catcher, and he is going to stay in San Francisco for a long time.
In other words, Susac will likely be exported for another bat soon.
After Susac, the hitting depth is very thin. Joe Panik has been tabbed as second baseman Marco Scutaro's replacement, but if his minor league numbers are any indication, he wouldn't be great. This year, Panik has a measly .353 slugging percentage.
If Panik can't improve upon that and his mediocre .262 batting average, he won't be great in the majors. That would leave a gaping hole at second base, one the Giants might have trouble filling.
Unfortunately for them, the farm system isn't the place to solve that problem.
The Giants need an influx of quality hitters, and general manager Brian Sabean will have to work to get them. Pence should stay in San Francisco, but the Giants still need to address the outfield. First baseman Brandon Belt could move to left field, but he hasn't seen action there since 2012. In addition, he has a miserable .944 fielding percentage there.
So, a switch for Belt is unlikely.
What does the future hold for the Giants?
As for the pitching, Sabean has his work cut out for him. In addition to the rotation's struggles, the bullpen isn't great, as the team has had issues at setup man. Sabean will have to ace the offseason to fill all of these holes, and he won't be able to do it all in one offseason.
Because of that, the Giants might falter down the stretch this year and in future years.
While the Giants will be a solid team as long as Bumgarner and Posey are playing on the shores of McCovey Cove, they will have to make a lot of changes to become legitimate championship contenders again. The future has a chance to bring good times, but top prospects will have to pan out, and Sabean will have to do a marvelous job.
And for that to happen, a lot will have to go right. Unfortunately for the Giants, there might be too many things that can go wrong for another season to culminate in a championship.