San Francisco Giants' Hot Start Shows 2013 Failures Are a Thing of the Past
Early on, the San Francisco Giants are looking like a serious playoff contender with a 10-5 record, including three consecutive wins to take a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.
Maybe it's as simple as this team just being very good during even years this decade. It won the World Series title in 2010 and again in 2012. It missed the playoffs in 2011 and again in 2013, when it posted its first losing season in five years.
Naturally, the Giants are on their way to winning it all again, right?
OK, it's really not that simple. There are several reasons why they were so successful in their championship seasons, why they weren't good enough in 2011 and why they were a complete disaster last year.
A lot of the same faces remain from the championship teams but several also remain from last year's 86-loss team. Remember that they were 9-4 at one point last season. And 13-7. And 19-12. On May 16, they were 24-17 with a one-game divisional lead. Then, things slowly begin to unravel, and they were out of the playoff race by early August.
So why should we believe that they have truly turned things around and are headed for another magical season?
Two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum probably won't ever again be as good as he was from 2008-2011, and there's a good chance Buster Posey will never again match his MVP season of 2012. The necessary 15 to 20 game improvement that it will likely to take to win a playoff spot will have to come from the combination of several other positives that take place.
If the first two weeks of the season are any indication, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Here are four reasons why it's apparent that last year's struggles are in the past.
The Additions of Tim Hudson and Michael Morse
It's impossible to know what to expect from Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong in 2014. They could be great again. They could be bad again. They could be somewhere in the middle. What the rotation needed was some stability.
The Giants, as a result, signed veteran Tim Hudson (pictured), one of the better starters in the game over the past 15 seasons, to a two-year, $23 million deal early in the offseason.
After finishing second to last in the majors in home runs in 2013, adding power to their lineup was a priority. As a result, they signed Michael Morse, who posted an .861 OPS with 64 homers in 346 games between 2010-2012, to a one-year, $6 million deal.
Both players signed at discounted rates, as Hudson was returning from ankle surgery and Morse was coming off of a poor season in which he battled multiple ailments while with the Seattle Mariners and the Baltimore Orioles.
Through 15 games in 2014, both appear healthy. Both have been productive—Morse is 15-for-46 with two homers, four doubles and 10 runs batted in; Hudson is 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings pitched. Both are early season candidates for Comeback Player of the Year. Both appear to be bargain signings.
If they keep it up, general manager Brian Sabean could be the front-runner for Executive of the Year.
The Emergence of Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford
Posey proved in 2010 and 2012 that he's capable of carrying a team on his back. In 2013, he was good—just not "carry-a-team-on-his-back good."
If the 2014 Giants are going to be great without relying on Posey to return to his MVP form of 2012, they'll need a more balanced offense and at least one other hitter to come through with a career season.
Two young candidates are emerging from the shadows.
While first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford (pictured) each had stretches of greatness in 2013—Belt had a .915 OPS in the second half; Crawford had an .825 OPS through the first 48 games—they have yet to do it for a full season.
Through 15 games this season, the 25-year-old Belt has a .917 OPS with five homers and 10 RBI while the 27-year-old Crawford has a .953 OPS with five doubles. Can both "Brandon's" have a breakout season in 2014? They're off to a pretty good start.
The Improvement of Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong
Lincecum went from one of the top pitchers in baseball from 2008-2011 to one of the worst in 2012 to a very reliable, yet unspectacular pitcher in 2013. Vogelsong won 27 games and posted a 3.05 ERA from 2011-2012 and then posted a 5.73 ERA last season.
With Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Hudson forming a very strong top of the rotation, the Giants don't need Lincecum and Vogelsong to be stars again. They just need to give the team a chance to win.
After both pitched poorly in their first two starts of the season—Lincecum allowed 11 earned runs and 15 hits in 10 innings; Vogelsong allowed eight earned runs and 14 hits in nine innings—they turned things around at just the right time.
In Lincecum's third start Tuesday against the rival Dodgers, the 29-year-old allowed one run on five hits in five innings with no walks and five strikeouts in a 3-2 victory. Vogelsong followed up Wednesday with six strong innings, allowing just one run on four hits with two walks and two strikeouts.
While their overall numbers are still ugly, the Giants have to be relieved that each pitcher proved capable of quality outings against a very good lineup. Now, if they can just flip the trend and pitch well in every two of three starts, the Giants will be pleased with the back of their rotation.
The Return of Angel Pagan
When Angel Pagan (pictured) was shut down with a hamstring injury after a May 25 win against Colorado last season, the Giants were 27-22 and tied for first place. By the time he returned August 30, they were 59-74 and well out of the playoff race.
It's no coincidence that the team struggled without their center fielder, who was a catalyst during the team's World Series run of 2012. In 154 games, Pagan posted a .778 OPS with eight homers, 38 doubles, 15 triples and 29 stolen bases.
It's been just like old times during the first 15 games of 2014. The 32-year-old is hitting .383 with four doubles, a homer and two stolen bases to help lead a Giants team that is in the top 10 in the majors in several offensive categories.