The Anatomy of the S.F. Giants' Incredible Turnaround in 2014
The turnaround of the San Francisco Giants isn't nearly as dramatic as that of the Boston Red Sox, who went from last place and 93 losses in 2012 to an AL East division title and World Series Championship the following season.
Still, there is obviously a huge difference from the team that lost 86 games in 2013 and finished 16 games behind the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the one that is currently leading the NL West with a league-best 29-18 record.
What has been the difference?
Here's a look at what has transpired since their disappointing 2013 campaign.
Unlike the Red Sox, who had some chemistry issues throughout their clubhouse, resulting in the ousting of manager Bobby Valentine and a complete makeover of their roster prior to the 2013 season, the Giants didn't feel the need to blow things up and start from scratch after a rough year.
A strong core of talent remained in place, and manager Bruce Bochy and his coaching staff hadn't lost an ounce of respect or confidence from their players or upper management.
Winning two World Series titles in seven seasons on the job will do that. But Bochy has a long track record as a successful manager who will stick by his veteran players and isn't quick to give a regular job to a young player.
As frustrating as that may be for some fans, it's why veterans love playing for him and why a young player like Brandon Belt, who was on the wrong end of that managing style for a couple of seasons, can now feel a strong sense of accomplishment and job security after finally winning over his skipper.
The tight-knit clubhouse is a big reason why veterans like Jeremy Affeldt, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro were so quick to re-sign with the team after the 2012 season, as did Tim Lincecum, Javier Lopez and Hunter Pence (pictured) prior to this season.
With 20 of 25 players on the Opening Day roster (two others, Scutaro and Affeldt, were on the disabled list to start the season) returning from last year's squad, general manager Brian Sabean was making a clear point that he wasn't going away from the philosophy that had made the organization so successful in the past.
Draft and develop players who will become stars so they don't have to break the bank in free agency. Spend big to keep their own guys. Take calculated risks on players like Pagan and Scutaro, who cost the team almost nothing to acquire. Build depth with smart "under-the-radar" signings, which is how they end up with a Gregor Blanco, Santiago Casilla, Jean Machi or Ryan Vogelsong.
It's worked in the past, and sticking to their guns has resulted in another successful season thus far.
Addition of a Steady Veteran to Rotation
The starting rotation had been the rock of the 2010 and 2012 championship teams for the Giants.
Consistency, dominance, durability and reliability could all be used to define the starting pitching without any argument whatsoever.
In 2013, however, that was gone. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were OK, but no longer dominant. Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong were awful. Only Madison Bumgarner could be defined with the aforementioned terms.
With Lincecum, Vogelsong and Zito all headed for free agency, there was a chance that the Giants would head into 2014 with three new starters in place.
Sabean opted to cut that down to one by re-signing Lincecum and Vogelsong. He couldn't afford to miss on that "one," though.
With a deep class of free-agent starters to choose from, it's hard to imagine Sabean making a better choice than Tim Hudson, who signed a two-year, $23 million deal very early in the offseason.
The 38-year-old came at a discounted rate because he was returning from an ankle injury that ended his 2013 season in late July. But he hasn't missed a beat, posting a 2.13 ERA through his first nine starts with only six walks and 39 strikeouts in 63.1 innings pitched.
Regardless of what happens with the others, the Giants know what to expect when Hudson takes the hill, and it's made a huge difference.
Low Risk, High Reward Acquisition
Several free agents were available this offseason at reduced rates, mostly due to an injury-plagued season or a poor performance. Gavin Floyd, Rafael Furcal, Jason Hammel, Corey Hart, Josh Johnson, Justin Morneau, Felipe Paulino and Grady Sizemore were some of the more notable names that fit into at least one of those categories.
Michael Morse (pictured) fit into both, though it was uncertain how much his injuries—he battled through a quad injury early in the season before landing on the disabled list and a wrist injury later in the year that required arthroscopic surgery after the season—played a part in his mediocre numbers (.651 OPS, 13 HR, 88 K in 88 games).
The Giants, who have lacked much offensive production from their left fielders over the past two seasons, took a one-year, $6 million chance that the 32-year-old was slowed considerably by his injuries and could bounce back and return to his pre-2013 form when he posted an .861 OPS with 64 homers in 346 games for the Washington Nationals between 2010 and 2012.
They were right.
Adding Morse's right-handed power bat to the middle of the lineup has made the Giants' offense a force. In 47 games, he has an .848 OPS with a team-leading 10 homers and 29 runs batted in. They're third in the majors in homers and 11th in runs scored and OPS.
His versatility has also paid off as he's been able to fill in at first base while Brandon Belt recovers from a fractured thumb.
With Morse's top competition for "Comeback Player of the Year" award being teammate Tim Hudson, general manager Brian Sabean just might have the early edge for Executive of the Year.
Continuous Arrival of Young Talent
The Giants' farm system hasn't had much depth the past few years, but it's hard to find a team that has more homegrown talent making a positive impact on the major league roster. The list of stars who have contributed to the team's championships in 2010 and 2012 is impressive.
Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey, Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval and Brian Wilson all come to mind as playing key roles. All were drafted or signed as amateurs and developed by the Giants.
First baseman Brandon Belt (pictured) and shortstop Brandon Crawford have joined the list, and a handful of prospects down in Triple-A, including catcher Andrew Susac, second baseman Joe Panik and outfielder Gary Brown, could all contribute in 2014.
There is also a long list of solid starting pitching prospects throughout the organization's Double-A, High-A and Low-A affiliates and one in particular, right-hander Kyle Crick, who could emerge as a top-of-the-rotation starter in a couple of seasons.
Strong Positional Depth
Injuries are unavoidable. It's hard to find a team who hasn't lost an impact player for an extended period of time. Picking up the slack is difficult because the player next in line is usually one who was claimed off of waivers or signed as a minor league free agent.
The impact that these types of players have had on the Giants is amazing, though, considering how many teams have passed on or given up on them.
Jean Machi, signed as a minor league free agent in February 2011, is 5-0 with an 0.40 ERA and four holds. With Santiago Casilla, another minor league free agent signed prior to the 2010 season, on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, the 32-year-old Machi is now the primary right-handed set up man.
Lefty David Huff, purchased from New York Yankees after they designated him for assignment this offseason, and J.C. Gutierrez, another minor league free agent, have also pitched well out of the bullpen.
With second baseman Marco Scutaro out indefinitely with a back injury, the Giants initially gave most of the starts at second base to Joaquin Arias and Ehire Adrianza. But it's been 28-year-old Brandon Hicks (pictured), who came into the season with a career .493 OPS and three homers in 55 career big league games, who has taken the job and ran with it.
In 40 games, Hicks has a .733 OPS with seven homers, five doubles and 18 runs batted in. In 17 at-bats with runners in scoring position and two outs, he has five hits, including two doubles and a homer.
It doesn't end there. The latest minor league free-agent acquisition to join the team, outfielder Tyler Colvin, has 10 hits in his first 31 at-bats with a homer, six doubles and a triple.