One season removed from their first World Series championship in 56 years, the San Francisco Giants were poised to defend their title heading into the 2011 season. Despite the difficulties associated with a repeat championship, the Giants were confident heading into the following season, retaining a large portion of the same talent that came through for them in 2010.
Most importantly, San Francisco could rely upon their stellar starting rotation combined with a very good bullpen. Barring unseen circumstances, the Giants were to repeat as National League Western Division champions and likely candidates to represent the National League again in the World Series.
Unseen circumstances happen, however.
No one within the Giants organization could have predicted the amount of significant injuries that sidelined many of the Giants' key players. In fact, the Giants used the Disabled List 25 times in 2011, the most since 1987.
The season ending injury to star catcher Buster Posey on May 25, may stand as the epitome of the Giants 2011 season. There was so much promise for the year, and suddenly the Giants' chances were as quiet as the crowd at AT&T Park watching Posey writhing on the ground in agony.
Other injuries were also detrimental to the Giants 2011 campaign. Losing second baseman Freddy Sanchez on June 10 for the season hampered San Francisco's ability to get men on base in front of the middle of the order.
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval's broken hand also forced him out of the lineup for a number of weeks. While Sandoval returned and remained a key offensive force in the Giants abysmal lineup, one cannot help but wonder if his presence over the course of a full season may have helped San Francisco win a few more games and retain their lead in the National League West.
Outfielders Andres Torres and Cody Ross also suffered injuries early on during the 2011 campaign and while both returned to duty on the field, neither regained the production that spurred the Giants to a championship the year before.
Another unseen circumstance was the inability of the Giants' offense to score enough runs despite another stellar year from their starting pitching.
Perhaps the greatest example of the Giants offensive woes came from first baseman Aubrey Huff. Huff, who signed a one year deal worth $3 million in 2010, put up career numbers in his first year with San Francisco and was a key element to their championship run. The Giants subsequently rewarded him with a three year deal and shall pay him $10 million in 2012. Huff responded by hitting a mere .246 with 59 runs batted in and looked more like the player that Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Detroit let go.
Combined with the aforementioned struggles from Torres and Ross along with lackluster production from free agent acquisition Miguel Tejada and the overpaid Aaron Rowand, the Giants offense would clearly lack the level of hitting they needed to seize another playoff berth.
To their credit, the Giants remained competitive throughout the regular season and were in the race for both the division title and the Wild Card until the final few games of the year.
Their pitching, especially from a resurgent Ryan Vogelsong, was once more peerless in 2011. Their bullpen, despite losing closer Brian Wilson for a few weeks down the final stretch, remained intact.
In addition, the Giants tried to make some moves to bolster their lineup. From within, the Giants tried to give backup outfielder Nate Schierholtz a starting job and he rewarded them with career best numbers.
Furthermore, the Giants were able to make a series of trades to help the offense to a degree. Trading for Jeff Keppinger and Carlos Beltran helped make up for the injuries suffered to Freddy Sanchez and slumping Cody Ross respectively. Acquiring Orlando Cabrera also was an attempt to replace the worn out Tejada and inexperienced Brandon Crawford at shortstop.
The Giants also made a statement that they were not afraid to admit the contract mistakes they had made with Rowand and Tejada. Both were designated for assignment towards the end of August.
Yet these moves were not enough to supply the Giants with enough offense to guarantee them a return to the postseason.
With the offseason upon them, the Giants know how they have to redress the problems that plagued them in 2011. The offense needs to improve and aside from Sandoval, Posey, and perhaps Schierholtz, the lineup shall remain the biggest question mark moving forward.
Torres, who sparked the Giants offense atop the order in 2010, may resort to the defensive replacement role he experienced years prior. Ross, a fan favorite, might also not see another season in a Giants uniform. Sanchez, while still a viable hitter, remains an injury risk and retaining Keppinger as either a backup or potential shortstop may be a plausible option.
The Giants have stated they would like to re-sign Beltran who still remains a legitimate threat in the lineup. They will not however overpay for him and he could potentially sign elsewhere if another team would be willing to pay him a significant salary.
Perhaps the largest question mark will be how San Francisco handles their situation at first base. With Huff signed for another two years, would the Giants be forced into relying on a rebound season.
Brandon Belt, who showed some versatility in the outfield, might force the issue pending offseason moves. Brett Pill also was a pleasant surprise late in the season, but making his Major League debut at age 27, the Giants would have to wonder how much upside he would have in a full time role.
Nonetheless, the Giants are forced to look towards 2012 knowing full well what they have to do. The offense has to get better and the team has to stay healthier. That means moving away from older, injury prone players, and getting younger; something the Giants have not focused on very well over previous years.
On the positive side, and betting on the likelihood that the Giants pitching will again be stellar in 2012, San Francisco is not very far removed from the formula that won them the World Series in 2010. All Star pitching, an effective bullpen, combined with solid defense and good enough hitting can win you championships.
The Giants possess three out of those four elements. The offseason will show whether or not they can obtain the fourth.