The Giants are hoping that Posey can bounce back to his MVP form of 2012.
For years, the starting rotation of the San Francisco Giants has been the steady force on a highly successful ball club. Not only had the organization's lack of starting pitching depth not been exposed, they've often been able to overcome a weak offense.
That wasn't the case in 2013, however, when Madison Bumgarner was the only Giants starter to finish with numbers that weren't well below expectations. And the Giants hitters, despite some bright spots, weren't capable of picking up the slack.
The result was an 86-loss season, their first sub-.500 finish since 2008.
They'll try to rebound in 2014 with mostly the same team intact, aside from offseason additions Tim Hudson and Michael Morse. A big year from third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who should be extra motivated as he enters his last season before he can become a free agent, would help, as would an MVP-caliber season from Buster Posey as opposed to the solid, yet unspectacular one he put together in 2013.
A return to stability for the rotation could be all this team really needs, though, to return to contention and avoid falling further in a very talented division.
After signing Hunter Pence to a five-year, $90 million contract extension in late September, keeping the 30-year-old from reaching free agency, the Giants filled out the three potential vacancies in their starting rotation by late November—Tim Lincecum was re-signed to a two-year, $35 million deal; Tim Hudson signed a two-year, $23 million free agent deal; Ryan Vogelsong was re-signed to a one-year, $5 million deal—and signed slugger Michael Morse (pictured) to be their everyday left fielder in mid-December.
Lefty relief pitcher Javier Lopez was also re-signed to a three-year, $13 million deal in November.
The quick strike approach seem to have worked to their advantage as the deals for Pence and Hudson could be bargains and Morse, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal, is a "Comeback Player of the Year" candidate after an injury-riddled and unproductive 2013 season.
Tim Hudson's recovery from July ankle surgery was going well enough for him to land a two-year deal early in the offseason with the expectation that he would be ready for the start of the season.
So far, so good as the 37-year-old right-hander is on track for regular bullpen sessions at the start of spring training, according to Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, though he could be eased into a running program.
If Hudson (pictured) isn't quite ready, Yusmeiro Petit could make a start or two in his place.
In 19 seasons as a big league manager for the Padres and Giants, Bruce Bochy has won over 1500 games, six division titles and has taken his team to the World Series three times. He's led the Giants to two World Series titles in the past four seasons, which should be enough to keep him in San Francisco for several more seasons.
The reality is that it's probably not. A few seasons of not meeting expectations and things can turn quickly.
While one poor season—they went 76-86 last season to break a string of four consecutive winning seasons—wasn't enough for the organization to make any coaching changes to Bochy's staff, a failure to bounce back while the rival Los Angeles Dodgers remain atop the division and the Padres and/or Rockies surpass them in the NL West could be alarming enough to put Bochy and/or his staff on the hot seat for the following season.
1 Angel Pagan, CF
2 Marco Scutaro, 2B
3 Brandon Belt, 1B
4 Buster Posey, C
5 Hunter Pence, RF
6 Pablo Sandoval, 3B
7 Michael Morse, LF
8 Brandon Crawford, SS
Between losing Pagan (pictured) for more than half the season with a hamstring injury and having Posey's production drop from his MVP season of 2012, the Giants' offense wasn't capable of making up for the unforeseen drop in production from the pitching staff.
A motivated Sandoval in his last season before he's eligible for free agency could be the key to a bounce back, as well as return to form for Morse, who had an .861 OPS from 2010-2012 before he struggled through an injury-riddled season in 2013.
On paper, this lineup has too much talent to be a major weakness and they could be primed for a big season if they can stay healthy.
1 Matt Cain, RHP
2 Madison Bumgarner, LHP
3 Tim Lincecum, RHP
4 Tim Hudson, RHP
5 Ryan Vogelsong, RHP
The consistent force that Cain's been over the years is the major reason why the 2013 drop-off was such a surprise. Lincecum (pictured) struggled badly in 2012 and Barry Zito's struggles throughout his Giants' tenure has been well-documented. Vogelsong had come out of nowhere to post back-to-back terrific seasons in 2011-2012, so a poor 2013 during his age 35 season probably shouldn't have come as much of a shock.
With that said, Bumgarner's continued ace-caliber rise, Cain's strong finish to the season, Lincecum's return to consistency and the signing of the veteran Hudson gives the team plenty of reason for optimism in 2014.
CL Sergio Romo, RHP
SU Santiago Casilla, RHP
SU Jeremy Affeldt, LHP
MID Javier Lopez, LHP
MID Jean Machi, RHP
MID George Kontos, RHP
LR Yusmeiro Petit, RHP
Between the rotation's struggles in 2013 and the hitting woes of offenses of the recent past, the bullpen has remained a strength and the prognosis for the upcoming isn't much different.
Romo (pictured), Casilla, Affeldt and Lopez continue to be one of the more reliable groups of late-inning relievers in the game while journeyman Jean Machi also stepped up and earned a spot last season. "Closer of the Future" Heath Hembree is waiting in the wings and should become a mainstay in 2014.
The Giants' much-improved farm system is still about a year away from producing some big league talent once again, especially in the starting rotation. Kyle Crick, Edwin Escobar and Adalberto Mejia are just three of the names to keep an eye on, amongst to deep group of impressive prospects in Double-A and High-A.
In 2014, however, the one prospect who is a lock to make an impact is reliever Heath Hembree (pictured). While he's no lock to make the Opening Day roster, the 25-year-old right-hander will join the Giants' bullpen at some point in 2014 after a short, yet impressive September audition (7.2 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 2 BB, 12 K). He could even make a case to be the team's closer as soon as 2015—current closer Sergio Romo is eligible for free agency after the season.
Despite a free fall from prospect relevance, outfielder Gary Brown will have a shot to win a big league bench job and possibly a decent share of playing time in left field if he can bounce back from a poor debut season in Triple-A (.660 OPS, 13 HR, 17 SB).
Brandon Belt's .841 OPS with 17 homers and 39 doubles in 2013 could be considered a break out, as he established that he could be a very good big league regular. But it's not out of the question if has another breakout performance, pushing him from very good big league regular to superstar.
In a span of 88 games beginning in mid-June, the 25-year-old posted a .914 OPS with 10 homers, 25 doubles and 38 runs batted in. The potential is there for Belt to hit 25-30 homers in a season, which would place him in a whole new light as an elite first baseman.
Just because Ryan Vogelsong was guaranteed $5 million to return on a one-year deal and Michael Morse will make $6 million on his one-year free agent deal doesn't mean they're guaranteed starting jobs.
While that duo could prove to be bargains if they can bounce back from awful 2013 seasons, neither deserves to be an integral big league role if they continue to struggle.
In Vogelsong's case, the 36-year-old is coming off of a season in which he posted a 5.73 ERA in 19 starts. Competition won't be strong, at least not on paper, but it should be noted that Yusmeiro Petit had an impressive stint in the rotation at the end of last season (3.59 ERA, 42.2 IP, 40 H, 11 BB, 40 K) and could push Vogelsong for the No. 5 spot in the rotation this spring.
While most of their top pitching prospects haven't pitched above A-ball, there's always a chance one of the more polished one's could impress enough to make a case in the spring. Lefty Edwin Escobar, who posted a 2.67 ERA in 10 Double-A starts last season, could be that guy.
Morse gives the Giants' lineup some big-time power potential from the right side. He also is a huge downgrade defensively from what Gregor Blanco (pictured) gave them in left field.
Considering that there really isn't much difference in their offensive production if the 31-year-old Morse comes to camp as the same hitter who posted a .651 OPS last season, it would be tough to give the majority of starts to him while Blanco sits. Morse as the starting left fielder could be less of a slam dunk than you think.