In modern baseball, with the number of teams that make it into the playoffs following losing seasons, it comes as no shock when "surprise" teams play in October. Last year, there were three such teams: The Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and World Series-winning Boston Red Sox.
This upcoming season, the San Francisco Giants are poised to join them.
Following a 76-86 record, the Giants look to be a largely similar team this season. After all, the only key offseason additions are left fielder Michael Morse, who is coming off a rough down year, and veteran pitcher Tim Hudson.
Having a similar roster on paper, however, doesn't mean the Giants will repeat their disappointing performance from 2013. In fact, they're set to once again play October baseball, and here are three reasons why.
Vastly Improved Pitching Rotation
Spring training might not mean much, but it's hard to ignore the success the Giants rotation has achieved thus far: One walk and one run allowed in 17 innings. Whether that dominance will translate in 2014 remains to be seen, but this early success can only be construed as positive.
With Hudson replacing Barry Zito in the Giants' rotation, the outlook already looks significantly brighter. It's no secret that Zito had a tough 2013 season (to say the least), but he was stunningly bad on the road, with an 0-9 record and a 9.56 ERA away from AT&T Park.
Aside from the drastic improvement there, it's reasonable to assume that Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum will also come back with better seasons in 2014. Cain posted the worst numbers of his career since 2006, but his dominant second half, including a 1.61 ERA in September, indicates he may be set for a return to the norm.
Lincecum, on the other hand, is coming off of a second consecutive down year, but the trends are all positive for the two-time Cy Young award winner. He decreased his walk totals, one of the biggest problems from his disastrous 2012 campaign, and he also did a better job of keeping the ball in the yard, according to baseball-reference.com.
One of the biggest question marks coming into the season is starter Ryan Vogelsong, who posted a 5.73 ERA in 19 starts in 2013, while missing nearly half of the season due to injury.
The right-hander has looked solid in spring training, allowing just one run in five innings, and he's expressed his desire to return to his level of performance from 2011-12. Even so, it remains to be seen whether we'll see the Vogelsong reminiscent his tenure with the Pirates (6.00 ERA) or when he compiled a 3.05 ERA in his first two seasons in San Francisco.
Chance for Breakout Seasons from Key Hitters
The Giants historically haven't possessed great offenses, at least during the last several years, and 2014 looks to be no exception. However, despite not owning a true power hitter (with the possible exception of Morse), the Giants have a chance to put up a few more runs than many are expecting of them.
The biggest story around camp for the past few weeks has been the weight of Pablo Sandoval, who came into spring training looking slimmed down and ready to play. The Giants third baseman has shown he's capable of producing elite numbers, and despite failing to do so in each of the last two seasons, many are expecting big things (no pun intended) from Sandoval.
Of course, one shouldn't put too much stock into Sandoval's weight drop. It takes a lot more than just being in shape to be a productive hitter in the majors. But Sandoval's positive results at the plate have generally come when he's on the lighter side, as evidenced by his early-career numbers, and his late-season surge (.322/.410/.540 in September) means the third baseman could be set for a huge season.
Another breakout candidate is first baseman Brandon Belt, who began to fulfill his potential by posting career numbers across the board in 2013, including a .326/.390/.525 line after the All-Star break. He'll have to prove his ability to produce throughout a full season, but if his turnaround at the plate is any indication, Belt has an excellent chance to become a mainstay in the middle of the Giants lineup.
In short, San Francisco's hitters are loaded with question marks. Morse, like Sandoval, posted disappointing numbers in 2013 despite a history of success.
Angel Pagan returns from an extended injury, but can he stay healthy?
Will Buster Posey be able to maintain success in the second half, a time when he faltered in 2013?
These are all questions that, when answered, will largely dictate the Giants' success this season. The potential is there, but whether it will be fulfilled is a different story entirely.
Giants relief pitchers put together the eighth-best bullpen ERA in 2013, thanks to consistently solid performances across the board. The most obvious contributor, Sergio Romo, recorded a career-high 38 saves to go along with a 2.54 ERA, which was actually below-average by his standards.
But it was the contributions of certain other key relievers that really solidified the Giants bullpen as one of the top units in the league. One of the biggest surprises was Jean Machi, who posted a 2.38 ERA in his first full season in the majors after spending 11 seasons in the minor leagues.
Similarly, Sandy Rosario put up solid numbers in his first full season, including a 3.02 ERA. For Machi and Rosario to contribute as they did, despite having 14.1 innings of big league experience between them, heading into 2013 was one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Now, with a season of big league experience under their belts, 2014 could have an even brighter outlook.
Other familiar faces will also return in 2014. Lefty specialist Javier Lopez will look to build on another fantastic season, in which he posted a 1.83 ERA, tops on the Giants. Jeremy Affeldt, despite struggling at times, proved once again reliable out of the bullpen, and he's shown excellent command this spring thus far.
Contending for the division title seems like a bit of a stretch for the Giants, who don't quite have the roster firepower (or payroll) to compete with the Dodgers just yet. However, with a solid lineup from top to bottom and a pitching staff that has a chance to return to its elite status, the Giants will contend for a wild card spot, and they should sneak in, thanks to the expanded playoff format.
All statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com.