How the San Francisco Giants Are Stacking Up to Preseason Expectations

Hope Schwartz@@HopeSchwartz16Contributor IApril 23, 2013

How the San Francisco Giants Are Stacking Up to Preseason Expectations

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    Coming off two World Series wins in three years and bringing back most of their major contributors, the San Francisco Giants have to live up to lofty expectations.

    With the return of all five members of the rotation, several key bullpen members and All-Stars Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, the Giants were expected to make a run at the West. 

    So far, San Francisco has gotten off to a decent 13-7 start, good for second in the West behind the Colorado Rockies.

    Early season pitching struggles have overshadowed a productive and well-balanced offense, and among standout performances and unexpected slumps, the Giants have shown remarkable potential against a variety of opponents.

    Here, I break down the major units of San Francisco’s team so far in this young season and how they have stacked up to the high expectations.

The Rotation

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    Lauded as the key to the Giants’ success—the unit that led San Francisco to two World Series championships in three years—the rotation has struggled in the early season.

    This season, the Giants returned all five of their starters and with their lineup should, arguably be the best rotation in baseball. Behind ace Matt Cain, veteran Ryan Vogelsong and 23-year-old Madison Bumgarner were expected to continue to be consistent.

    Although two-time Cy Young Tim Lincecum had his worst-ever season in 2012, he made leaps and bounds in the postseason, developing into a dominant relief presence. Fifth-starter Barry Zito, largely regarded as one of the Giants’ biggest contract mistakes, held his own and impressed in the playoff run and the World Series. 

    In 2013, with the rotation holding a collective 4.40 ERA, four of five starters have been rocked for big innings in their early season starts. However, all five have shown glimpses of dominance in their starts.

    The season is young, and the sample size may be small, but what’s missing from the Giants rotation right now is consistency—something the baseball world has come to expect from such an experienced group.

    Highlight: Madison Bumgarner

    Bumgarner would be an ace on any other team. Dealing in the shadow of Cain and Lincecum for the past few seasons, Bumgarner has developed into a reliable starter with a high strikeout rate and the ability to go deep into games.

    This season has been no different. 

    With four starts, the lefty leads the team in ERA and innings pitched, including a perfect 3-0 record. Bumgarner opened the season with an eight-inning, two-hit performance against the Dodgers to hand the Giants their first win of the season. While some fear that the Giants have invested too much in the young lefty, his early-season dominance has demonstrated that he is only continuing to grow.

    Lowlight: Matt Cain

    Cain started the season with a no-decision despite going six scoreless innings in an opening-day duel with Clayton Kershaw. Since then, the right-hander has disappointed the front office, holding a team-high 7.15 ERA and giving up nine earned runs in his second outing against the Brewers.

    Although no one is ready to panic yet, Cain’s early-season slump is reminiscent of a 2011 Tim Lincecum trajectory. His strikeout to walk ratio is down, as is his ground ball to fly ball ratio. However, the good news for the Giants is that Cain does not seem to be hurt, and with such a small sample size, it may be too soon to tell if his early season performance is indicative of a greater problem.

The Bullpen

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    Though often overshadowed by the Giants’ star-studded rotation, the bullpen has more than lived up to its preseason expectations.

    With closer Brian Wilson out for the season, the Giants bullpen spent 2012 going though growing pains. Manager Bruce Bochy’s choice to go with a “closer by committee” approach meant that roles in the bullpen were constantly being rewritten.

    After a successful season, General Manager Brian Sabean made his appreciation of the bullpen known, resigning left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, extending Santiago Casilla and buying out newly appointed closer Sergio Romo’s remaining seasons of arbitration. 

    Now the second-highest paid bullpen in the majors, it seems that Sabean’s moves have paid off. The games that the Giants have lost have largely been due to starting pitching or lack of late-game offense. The bullpen holds only three of San Francisco’s losses and is ninth in the majors with a 2.72 ERA.

    With the return of Jose Mijares and George Kontos, the bullpen has continued to show its flexibility and dominance of opposite handed hitters in the early season.

    Highlight: Sergio Romo

    Using the combination of a fastball and a deadly slider, Romo has continued to build on his role as the closer for San Francisco. The right-hander leads the Giants with eight saves and holds a 2.00 ERA with a 1-1 record.

    Though many worried about Bochy’s decision to slot Romo as a closer late last season given his history of injury and lack of experience in the position, Romo’s early-season performance has silenced the critics for the time being, demonstrating that last season’s success may be replicable in the long term. 

    Lowlight: Jeremy Affeldt

    Often plagued with injury, the left-handed Affeldt is at it again. A key player in the 2010 post season, Affeldt pitched 4.2 innings and racked up a 5.79 ERA in 2013 before being placed on the disabled list with a stained right oblique.

    Before his injury, Affeldt was pitching with an uncharacteristic lack of control, walking five and striking out only three, while throwing fewer than half of his pitches for strikes.

The Lineup

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    The typically low-scoring Giants have started the season with a bit of a bang and are currently fourth in the majors in batting average and eighth in runs scored.

    The front office worked hard in the offseason to return many of its 2012 stars, including locking up mid-season acquisition Hunter Pence and extending all-star catcher Buster Posey.

    Adding former Giant Andres Torres to platoon with Gregor Blanco in left field, the Giants starting lineup is almost identical to the end of last season, and so far it has built on last season’s success.

    With the speed of Angel Pagan in the leadoff spot and Marco Scutaro’s consistent bat in the number two hole, San Francisco has looked to play small ball and manufacture runs in the absence of a major power hitter.

    Pablo Sandoval and cleanup-hitter Buster Posey have yet to find consistency in the long ball, and the Giants have hit more home runs than only five other teams. Fifth-place hitter Pence leads the team with four home runs. 

    Despite the lack of power, the core of San Francisco’s lineup remains effective, with Sandoval hitting over .300 and Posey leading the team in extra-base hits.

    Highlight: Brandon Crawford

    The shortstop has had a breakout early-season, leading all starters with a .303 batting average and .387 OBP. Better yet for the Giants—who have kept the left-handed hitter in the lineup through major slumps due to his defensive prowess—Crawford has begun to show a little bit of power.

    Though the Giants have come to expect his solid presence in the infield, the four doubles and two home runs are somewhat of an added bonus for management, which just needs Crawford to put the bat on the ball hitting in the seventh or eighth spot.

    Lowlight: Brandon Belt

    Belt’s early season journey feels like the same story we’ve all heard before. The first baseman once again had a hot spring training but came out cold on Opening Day. 

    The lefty played three full games before getting his first hit of the season, and he currently holds a .195 batting average with only three extra-base hits. Recently Bochy has decided to sit Belt against left-handers, opting for Joaquin Arias at first base instead.

    More worrisome is Belt’s OBP. Even in slumps last year, Belt was able to remain in the lineup because of his ability to grind out at-bats and get on base. However, this season, the longer he has gone without hitting, the more desperate his at-bats, and his current OBP sits at .239.

The Bench

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    Besides its regular starters, the Giants returned a couple of key bench players and added some new blood.

    Infielder Joaquin Arias was a solid presence in the clubhouse last season, often entering the game in late innings due to his defensive ability and flexibility as well as his tendencies to come up with big hits in the clutch.

    With the combination of Arias, Nick Noonan, Gregor Blanco and Hector Sanchez coming off the bench as pinch hitters in various situations—and the addition of former Giant Andres Torres—Bochy has a number of strong options to turn to late in the game.

    Highlight: Nick Noonan 

    The Giants’ addition of second baseman Nick Noonan contributed to an already talented bench. So far, Noonan is hitting .389—.429 as a pinch hitter—with seven hits in 18 at-bats. Although his hot streak will likely be tempered by time, the rookie has shown his ability to compete against major league pitching. 

    Currently holding a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, Noonan will have to work on the quality of his plate appearances, but in the early season he has been nothing but an asset to the bench.

    Lowlight: Hector Sanchez

    Sanchez was effective at spelling Posey last season—usually every fifth game—and was an asset to the lineup because of his ability to hit for power, finishing the 2012 season with a solid .280 batting average.

    Although Sanchez started this going 1-for-3 against the Dodgers, he went hitless in his next four games, and he has yet to pick up his first extra-base hit. However, as San Francisco’s best option to back up Posey, it looks the Giants will be in it for the long haul with Sanchez this season.