5 Reasons to Keep Watching the San Francisco Giants with an Eye on 2014
For just the second time in four years, there'll be no World Series championship to celebrate in San Francisco.
In fact, the Giants are on pace to finish with 90 losses for the first time since 2008 and in last place for the first time since 2007. Going into today, they were 15.5 games back of a wild-card spot. So why is there any reason to keep watching them play seemingly meaningless games in September?
For starters, keep watching because it could be the last few chances to see two-time Cy Young Award winner and future San Francisco legend Tim Lincecum in a Giants uniform—at least as an active player and not in a old-timers' game 20 years from now.
The 29-year-old free agent-to-be has very likely done enough to where the qualifying one-year offer the Giants make to him will be less enticing than the multi-year offers he'll get on the open market. In his last 15 starts, Lincecum has a 4.15 ERA with 32 walks and 97 strikeouts in 93.1 innings.
That won't get him the possible record-breaking deal he was on pace for after the 2011 season, but he's been consistent enough that he'll still be one of the top starters available in the winter. Had he not turned things around after a year-and-a-half of mediocrity, it's probable that he'd be satisfied with a one-year deal to return to San Francisco.
Due to make another six or seven starts, his market value can still move up or down depending on how he finishes. More importantly, this could be his farewell tour after a mostly terrific seven-year run with the Giants.
Here are four more reasons to keep watching in September.
End of the Line for Pablo Sandoval?
Unlike Lincecum, who'll likely get several standing ovations in his last home start of the season just in case he leaves as a free agent, Pablo Sandoval could depart this offseason without his fans getting a chance to say goodbye.
This is pure speculation on my part, but could it be that the Giants have finally lost patience with the 27-year-old switch-hitter and are willing to cut ties this winter while he still has a year left on his current contract? The third-base market is extremely thin, so there will interest on the trade market from teams who haven't yet had to deal with Sandoval's history of injuries, weight gain and inconsistent production.
Despite not having a capable heir to the hot corner, the Giants' poor season might lead general manager Brian Sabean to shake things up and trade a player who has been such a big part of the team's success from 2009-2012.
The 2012 World Series MVP, Sandoval will always be beloved in San Francisco for coming up with several big hits in big games. He might even go on to do great things with another team. Unfortunately, Sandoval might have just worn out his welcome after a season in which he fell far short of expectations.
Open Audition for 2014 Rotation Spot
With Lincecum, Barry Zito and Chad Gaudin all set to become free agents, the Giants could find themselves on the market for starting pitching for the first time in years.
Before they do, they'll have to figure out if they have a good chance of retaining Lincecum and/or Gaudin, a journeyman who pitched very well (3.53 ERA in 12 starts) when inserted into the rotation earlier in the season, and if they have some good in-house options for 2014.
As of now, the answer is probably not. A few pitchers could get a chance to change that opinion in September, however. Don't expect Yusmeiro Petit or Zito to take too many starts from potential 2014 candidates Michael Kickham and Eric Surkamp (pictured), a pair of lefties that have each started games for the Giants this season.
Despite poor results, a longer look is warranted based on minor league success. The 24-year-old Kickham, who is currently in the Giants' bullpen, has a 4.31 ERA in 20 Triple-A starts with 49 walks and 90 strikeouts in 110.2 innings pitched. While he might fit best as a reliever, now is a good time to find out if he can be more.
Surkamp made the jump to the big leagues two seasons ago after dominating at the Double-A level (1.94 ERA, 148.1 IP, 114 H, 45 BB, 170 K) but he missed the entire 2012 season and some of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The 26-year-old appears to be rounding back into form as he's posted a 2.54 ERA in 10 Triple-A starts. At the least, he should come into camp next spring with a shot at the No. 5 starter job.
While the Giants' best pitching prospects, including Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn, are in the low minors and at least another season away from the majors, lefty Edwin Escobar is one who could be a dark horse in 2014. And since he's on the 40-man roster, it's also possible he'll get a look in September.
The 21-year-old lefty has a combined 2.77 ERA between Double-A and High-A with only 28 walks and 140 strikeouts in 123.1 innings pitched.
Is Brandon Belt's Future in the Outfield?
The Giants were satisfied to go into 2013 with a Gregor Blanco/Andres Torres platoon in left field. Not surprisingly, it hasn't quite worked out. Blanco is a nice fourth outfield option in 2014, but it's become quite obvious that the team will be looking for two outfielders to flank Angel Pagan next season.
Re-signing right fielder Hunter Pence remains a strong possibility. Even if they can that done, they'll likely need to find a better answer for left field. Or will it be first base? Manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged the possibility that Brandon Belt (pictured) could move to the outfield if the team were able to acquire a first baseman this winter, according to Hank Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Young outfielders Roger Kieschnick and Francisco Peguero, and possibly even center field prospect Gary Brown, who has struggled badly in Triple-A, could get a long look as the Giants try to find a potential in-house option for 2014.
If Belt does indeed move to the outfield next season, he'll have an entire offseason to work on the transition. But if he gets any starts in the outfield next month, it will be a strong indication of how open they are to the move.
Prospects to Watch
Along with the aforementioned rotation possibilities, Escobar and Kickham, the pitching staff will likely add a top relief prospect to the mix as well.
Right-hander Heath Hembree (pictured), who was deemed a potential "closer of the future" shortly after being taken in the fifth round of the 2010 MLB draft, is a near lock to get the call in September, according to Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com.
The 24-year-old, who would have to be added to the 40-man roster anyway this winter to avoid being taken in the Rule 5 draft, is having another stellar season in the minors. In 53 games for Triple-A Fresno, Hembree has a 4.14 ERA with 16 walks and 61 strikeouts in 54.1 innings to go along with 30 saves.
Giving him his first look when pressure is low next month, then easing him into a high-leverage role in 2014 before he could possibly take over as the team's closer (if Sergio Romo departs as a free agent the following season) seems like a realistic path.
As far as position player prospects, Brown would be a very interesting player to watch if he gets the call.
Gifted with plus speed, the former first-round pick hasn't hit much since he posted a .925 OPS in his first full pro season back in 2011. While that was done in the hitter-friendly High-A California League, the reports on Brown had him as a very good near-major league-ready center field prospect.
The 24-year-old has fallen far off the radar since a so-so season in Double-A in 2012 (.731 OPS, 7 HR, 33 SB) and a rough Triple-A debut this season (.661 OPS, 13 HR, 16 SB). He can change the perception that he's a prospect bust with a strong September. But first, he'll have to get the major league call-up, which he hasn't quite earned with his performance.