Are the 2014 San Francisco Giants Closer to 2012 Champs or 2013 Chumps?
The San Francisco Giants have had quite the ride the past two seasons by the Bay.
The 2012 campaign ended with the ultimate triumph. Closer Sergio Romo painted a pitch on the outside corner to freeze Miguel Cabrera in the bottom of the 10th inning in Detroit, before catcher Buster Posey delivered one of his patented bear hugs near the mound. The Giants had swept the mighty Tigers in the World Series and were atop the baseball world for the second time in three years.
Essentially the same roster returned for 2013 and big things were expected, but the Giants stumbled to a third-place tie in the National League West with a 76-86 record.
So what's in store for 2014?
Once again, San Francisco will return the same nucleus of players from the past couple of years with some notable additions like starter Tim Hudson and left fielder Michael Morse, while pitchers Barry Zito, Chad Gaudin and outfielder Andres Torres are gone.
Projected Starters: C Buster Posey, 1B Brandon Belt, 2B Marco Scutaro, SS Brandon Crawford, 3B Pablo Sandoval
Projected Bench: C Hector Sanchez, IF Tony Abreu, IF Joaquin Arias
Analysis: Buster Posey remains the rock of this Giants team.
Like many of his teammates, though, Posey endured a frustrating 2013, as he appeared to wear down in the second half and his production dipped. Before the All-Star break, the catcher batted .325/.395/.536 with 13 homers and 56 RBIs, but hit just .244/.333/.310 with two HRs and 16 driven in the rest of the way—and a broken finger in September didn't help.
Still, he played in 148 contests for the second straight year and finished the year with an impressive 138 OPS+. In order to combat late-season fatigue, Posey has added about 10 pounds to his frame this offseason, per Chris Haft of MLB.com.
Speaking of weight, Pablo Sandoval's scale is always a hot topic this time of year.
As he enters the final year of his contract at a time when free agents are receiving unprecedented money, Sandoval has plenty of incentive to be in tip-top shape for 2014. In fact, Giants general manager Brian Sabean told Haft during the winter meetings that Sandoval could be in line for an extension if he looks good during spring training.
Sandoval has been training all winter in Venezuela and recently began playing in the Winter League playoffs, impressing Sabean with his weight loss in the process, per Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News. That's good news for the Giants, as Sandoval certainly didn't live up to his potential last year.
Aging veteran Marco Scutaro dealt with a bevy of nagging injuries throughout the year and his status will be key to monitor throughout the 2014 season. Meanwhile, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford should be counted on to duplicate their respective production from last year.
Projected Starters: LF Michael Morse, CF Angel Pagan, RF Hunter Pence
Projected Bench: OF Gregor Blanco, OF Roger Kieschnick
Analysis: The Giants only made one major addition to their offense this winter when they inked free agent Michael Morse to a one-year, $6 million deal. Morse will turn 32 during spring training and is expected to step in as the everyday left fielder despite a disappointing 2013 campaign with the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles.
Morse showed a lot of ability with the Washington Nationals during the 2011-12 season, when he batted a combined .297/.343/.515 with a 131 OPS+ and yearly averages of 24 homers and 78 RBI. But the hulking right-hander regressed mightily in 2013, hitting .215/.270/.381 with 13 dingers and 27 RBI in 88 contests. The potential is certainly there, though, and the Giants are hoping a return to the National League can revitalize his swing.
San Francisco didn't allow Hunter Pence to test the free agent market this offseason, signing him to a five-year, $90 million extension near the end of the season. It was announced shortly after Pence held a lengthy postgame chat with Giants president Larry Baer, who went on to tout Pence's skills and leadership at a press conference later in the week.
As good as Pence is, he might not even be the most valuable player in San Francisco's outfield. You can make a good case that Angel Pagan is the man who makes this offense go, as he was a key table-setter on the 2012 championship squad. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $40 million contract before the 2013 season, but Pagan played in just 71 contests due to hamstring surgery.
The veteran outfielder's impact was undeniable last year, as the team went 39-32 when Pagan was in the lineup compared to 37-54 when he was out. But it marked the seventh disabled list trip of his career and the third of the 60-day variety, which has to be concerning for the Giants going forward.
Projected Starters: LHP Madison Bumgarner, RHP Matt Cain, RHP Tim Hudson, RHP Tim Lincecum, RHP Ryan Vogelsong
Analysis: The Giants spent $58 million on their starting rotation this winter, with veteran free agent Tim Hudson securing a two-year, $23 million pact from the Giants to return to the Bay Area.
Hudson was one of baseball's best pitchers for the Oakland Athletics from 1999-2004 before spending the past nine years with the Atlanta Braves. A freak ankle injury, while covering first base, derailed his 2013 season after 21 starts, but the 38-year-old still looks like he has plenty to offer.
Hudson finished the year with an 8-7 mark, 3.97 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.19 WHIP and 6.5 K/9 ratio in 131.1 innings of work. It marked just the second time in his career that he finished with an ERA+ under 100, but Hudson should still be a solid middle-of-the-rotation force behind co-aces Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain.
The other $35 million San Francisco spent went to mercurial right-hander Tim Lincecum, who earned the high paying two-year deal despite struggling again in 2013. Even though he had two Cy Youngs under his belt by the age of 25, the past two years have been inconsistent at best. Since the start of 2012, Lincecum has gone 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA, 72 ERA+, 1.39 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9. Those are hardly numbers to warrant $17 million in 2014, and Lincecum clearly has a lot of work to do to prove he's worth it.
Ryan Vogelsong should be able to edge out Yusmeiro Petit for the final spot in the rotation and is a prime candidate for a big bounce-back year. After pitching in the World Baseball Classic, Vogelsong admitted the early start to the year may have led to his struggles at the beginning of the season before a broken finger further complicated his campaign. After a fluke 2013, look for Vogelsong to recapture the form that made him a solid rotation force in 2011-12.
Projected Bullpen: RHP Sergio Romo, RHP Santiago Casilla, RHP Jean Machi, RHP George Kontos, RHP Yusmeiro Petit, LHP Javier Lopez, LHP Jeremy Affeldt
Analysis: All roads lead to fan favorite Sergio Romo in San Francisco's bullpen again in 2014. As long as he has that nasty slider, Romo should be counted on to be a reliable ninth-inning option after converting 38 of 43 saves with a 2.54 ERA and 1.08 WHIP last season.
This year's group in the bullpen is essentially the same as last year, while Chad Gaudin's departure could loom large, since he was such a valuable long man that could also help the rotation. But Yusmeiro Petit showed flashes of brilliance last year and seems fit to fill a similar role in 2014.
Otherwise, this is a veteran-laden group that is highlighted by steady southpaw Javier Lopez, who signed a three-year, $13 million contract to stay with the Giants this offseason.
As much trouble as San Francisco had in 2013, the team's bullpen fared relatively well and finished with a 3.30 cumulative ERA, the fifth-best mark for any National League team.
In a forum at Giants FanFest this past weekend, outfielder Hunter Pence offered up some choice words on the team's approach to 2014.
"I'm excited, I'm thrilled. I think you can see there's a lot of fire," Pence said. "There's a chip on a lot of our shoulders and I'm sure a lot of you guys are ready to see this team come out and play with the passion that we're about to show you."
Leave it up to Reverend Pence to get you fired up for the new season. The potential is certainly there but so are the question marks.
In the end, though, 2013 looked like a perfect storm of injuries and other factors that led to a down year and it shouldn't happen again. Watch for this team to look more like the 2012 champs than the 2013 chumps.
I think Pablo Sandoval and Ryan Vogelsong are both due for big seasons, while free-agent additions Michael Morse and Tim Hudson should also bring solid contributions to the lineup and rotation, respectively.
Much of the success of the season also hinges on the health of Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro. Predicting future health prospects for players is an almost impossible task, but I suspect the duo should play in far more than the 198 contests they combined for in 2013.
As for Tim Lincecum, the jury's still out him, but a return to his dominant form would do wonders for the Giants in their quest to chase down the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. For now, L.A. looks like the favorite to win the division, but I envision the Giants topping the 90-win plateau and earning one of the NL Wild Card bids to return to the playoffs.
While it might be a stretch to call them championship-caliber just yet, this year's squad looks poised to get past last year's struggles.
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