Giants Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 18, 2017

Giants Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

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    Giants right-hander Matt Cain.
    Giants right-hander Matt Cain.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    For the first time since the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, the San Francisco Giants didn't win the World Series in an even year.

    Now, as we prepare to inaugurate President Donald J. Trump, San Francisco will look to usher in an era of odd-year dominance. 

    First, they've got spring training issues to sort out, including position battles in left field, at third base and the back end of the rotation, where a former franchise cornerstone is trying to resuscitate his career.

    Limber up your commenting muscles and dig in when ready.

Key Position Battle: Left Field

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    Giants outfielder Mac Williamson.
    Giants outfielder Mac Williamson.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The Giants have been linked to multiple left fielders this winter, including, per Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan (via Matt Snyder of CBS Sports), the Detroit Tigers' J.D. Martinez, whose power bat seemed like an obvious fit for a team that hit the third-fewest home runs in either league.

    After giving four years and $62 million to closer Mark Melancon, however, general manager Bobby Evans indicated his offseason allowance was mostly spent.

    "I don't think there's anything more to ask of ownership," Evans said, per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's more what I can do with what we have."

    What the Giants have in left field is the inexperienced-yet-intriguing duo of Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker.

    The 26-year-old Williamson posted a .223/.315/.411 slash line in 54 games for the Giants last season but boasts an .855 OPS in five MiLB campaigns. In an admittedly small MLB sample, he owns a 4.4 ultimate zone rating and four defensive runs saved in left, per FanGraphs.

    Parker, who turned 28 on January 1, posted a .236/.358/.394 line in 63 games for the Giants in 2016 and has amassed an .823 OPS in six minor league seasons. Again, small sample caveat, but the metrics don't love his play in left field, as his minus-2.7 UZR and minus-1 DRS attest.  

    Speedy Gorkys Hernandez hit .259 in 54 at-bats with San Francisco and wields a solid glove, but profiles as a backup. Old friend Mike Morse will also be in camp, though the clomping 34-year-old is more an experiment in nostalgia than a legitimate part of the depth chart.

    Prediction: Williamson swings from the right side and Parker from the left, so the safe pick is a platoon. But where's the fun in that?

    Instead, I'll predict Parker, who hit three home runs in a single game in September 2015, once again rises to the occasion and shows enough in Scottsdale to win the job, with Williamson sticking as a fourth outfielder and getting his share of starts. 

    Both guys will have until the trade deadline at most to prove their worth before the win-now Giants go shopping.

Player to Watch: Jimmy Rollins

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Jimmy Rollins is hoping to end his illustrious career where it all began.

    A Bay Area native, the 2007 National League MVP signed a minor league deal with San Francisco with an invite to spring training. He's no lock to make the Opening Day roster after hitting .221 in 41 games last season for the Chicago White Sox, but he'll be one of the more notable names in Giants camp.

    San Francisco's keystone combo is set with Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik. The backup situation is murkier.

    Ehire Adrianza and Kelby Tomlinson have extensive experience in the role, but Rollins could supplant them with a strong spring.

    "I'm OK if I don’t play every day. That will be fine," the 38-year-old three-time All-Star said, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. "It probably will be even beneficial at this point. Now, if I had to play every day, trust me, I could do it. There's no doubt. I'm not going to be who I was 10 years ago obviously. But I'm not going to lose a game for you."

Key Position Battle: Third Base

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    Giants infielder Eduardo Nunez.
    Giants infielder Eduardo Nunez.Darin Wallentine/Getty Images

    After sending third baseman Matt Duffy to the Tampa Bay Rays at the 2016 trade deadline for left-hander Matt Moore, the Giants gave the bulk of the hot-corner starts to Eduardo Nunez.

    The Giants acquired Nunez in late July from the Minnesota Twins and got plus production from the 29-year-old, who finished with a .288 average, 14 home runs and 40 stolen bases between San Francisco and Minneapolis. 

    A September hamstring injury sidelined Nunez, however, and opened the door for Connor Gillaspie.

    A first-round pick by the Giants in 2008, Gillaspie had stints with the White Sox and Los Angeles Angels before boomeranging back to San Francisco in 2016. He slashed a modest .262/.307/.440 in 101 games but took the reins—and built a legend—in the postseason. 

    In 19 playoff at-bats, Gillaspie hit .421. His three-run homer off Jeurys Familia in the Wild Card Game and two-run triple off Aroldis Chapman in the division series were the Giants' signature October moments.

    Nunez is the favorite, but Gillaspie, also 29 years old, has the newfound mystique.

       

    Prediction: Nunez swings from the right side and Gillaspie from the left, so this could be another timeshare if neither player slays the spring. I'm going with Nunez for the Opening Day nod, while allowing for more Gillaspie magic.

Player to Watch: Ty Blach

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    Brad Mangin/Getty Images

    The top four spots in the Giants rotation belong to Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Moore and Jeff Samardzija.

    There's a high-priced veteran with an inside track on the fifth-starter gig, as we'll examine shortly, but Ty Blach is aiming to make things complicated. 

    Blach (pronounced "block," as in "block party") posted a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings for the Giants last season. He had one of the biggest starts of the year on Oct. 1, tossing eight shutout innings against the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers and helping propel the Giants into the Wild Card Game.

    Blach added 3.1 shutout innings out of the pen in the division series against the eventual-champion Chicago Cubs, leaving San Francisco with a decidedly positive impression.

    His fastball tops out in the low 90s, and he's averaged a modest 6.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 599.1 minor league frames. A power arm he ain't.

    He wouldn't be the first lefty with ho-hum velocity and a low strikeout rate who found MLB success, as McCovey Chronicles' Grant Brisbee spelled out. The odds of Blach becoming Tom Glavine or even Kirk Reuter, two of the pitchers Brisbee name-dropped, are low.

    His late-2016 heroics mean he'll get a protracted audition this spring, though, and it'll be well-deserved.

Storyline: Matt Cain's Swan Song?

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Once upon a time, Matt Cain was the backbone of the Giants rotation.

    Sure, Tim Lincecum won the individual hardware and captured the heart of San Francisco with his shaggy locks, spindly frame and whiplash delivery. 

    Cain, though, defined consistency, eclipsing 200 innings every season between 2007 and 2012. During that span, he made three All-Star teams, had two top-10 Cy Young Award finishes and twirled a perfect game.

    For the last four seasons, Cain's stock has been on a steady decline. 

    He hasn't posted a sub-4.00 ERA since 2012 while battling a litany of injuries. After putting up a 5.81 ERA through 17 starts in 2016, Cain was relegated to the bullpen in September and didn't pitch in the postseason.

    Cain, who turned 32 in October, is owed $21 million in 2017 and has a team option for the same amount in 2018 with a $7.5 million buyout.

    This could be his final go-round with the only MLB franchise he's ever known, which makes this spring both pivotal and poignant.

    "I expect him to come in camp probably in the best shape he’s ever been in, as determined as ever to win that spot in the rotation," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is his last year on this deal, and I've got to think he’s hungry to get back to who he was and be part of the rotation."

      

    All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.