Today really should be a holiday. The day that all of baseball is reporting to work. Not just pitchers and catchers, but second baseman and right fielders too. On this glorious day, let’s take a look at the defending champs, the San Francisco Giants, and their chances at a return trip to October baseball in 2015.
CF Angel Pagan
2B Joe Panik
1B Brandon Belt
RF Hunter Pence
LF Nori Aoki
If everyone stays healthy, this could very well be the 2015 Opening Day lineup April 6 in Arizona, and it would almost certainly be the lineup at the Oakland A’s new training complex March 3 for the Spring Training opener.
The top three in the order will all come into 2015 with one specific question mark that will get asked over and over again.
1. Can Angel Pagan stay healthy?
2. What can Joe Panik do in his first full season?
3. Can Brandon Belt hit 25-30 home runs?
There are other questions for those three, like any baseball player, but the conversations over the next month will start and end there. Ultimately, if Pagan can stay healthy, Panik can be productive all season, and Belt can hit for power, this is a team that can play October baseball.
The 4-5 hitters don’t come into 2015 with question marks. Buster Posey and Hunter Pence have been the most consistent performers in the Giants lineup since their arrival in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Their abilities as two-way players, and their leadership on and off the field make them nearly immune to scrutiny during batting slumps.
Fans will continue to push for Posey to play first base more to take pressure off his legs during the season. However, those same fans want more production from Brandon Belt. Hard for both to happen since only one can play first at a time.
The bottom three in the order also come into the 2015 seasons with specific questions on their performance.
6. Can Casey McGehee earn the 3B job and keep it throughout the season?
7. Can Nori Aoki earn the LF job and keep it throughout the season?
8. Can Brandon Crawford improve his defense and become the elite shortstop we all know he can be?
McGehee (pronounced Mah-Gee) and Aoki come in with the same question because they are both new to the team. This is the generic question for anybody brought in to start for any team. Aoki isn’t as crucial because Gregor Blanco has proven he can start in spurts as well. McGehee doesn’t have any real competition at this point at third base in the organization, so there is more pressure for him to succeed.
Crawford has improved as a hitter each season he has been in the big leagues, so whether he struggles at the plate or improves again isn’t as important as his defense. His defense is what got him to the big leagues in the first place, and the amount of errors he has committed over his career is much more than any elite shortstop should be committing. If he is able to cut down on the mistakes in the field, he will not only become a contender for a Gold Glove, but more importantly, the leader of a defense that has been a critical element to October success. To Crawford’s credit, he has always performed better at shortstop in October than any other month in his career.
Madison Bumgarner will be fine. Throwing 270 innings last season has been talked about all off-season, but Bumgarner is 25, stronger than most his age, and clearly is Paul Bunyan. If you don’t believe me, here’s proof:
ICYMI: #MadBum was looking like a BOSS in the parking lot yesterday. http://t.co/zEjyg60vDl #BusterPosey #FaceOfMLB
— #BusterPosey (@SFGiants) February 24, 2015
The rest of the rotation is loaded with question marks. It starts with the most consistent pitcher the Giants have had in their organization since Juan Marichal, Matt Cain. Cain hasn’t been himself since the 2013 All-Star break, and it’s because of bone chips he’s had in his elbow for the last 10 years. For eight of those years, Cain pitched with them without much problem at all, becoming one of the greatest pitchers in the organization’s history. Now that he has had surgery to remove the bone chips, Cain has come into 2015 with a renewed sense of health. Cain was quoted as saying he felt “18 again” and was looking forward to a “new beginning” in 2015. This doesn’t stop fans from being pessimistic, but it certainly allows be to be optimistic.
Peavy, like Panik, has never played a full season for the Giants, but unlike Panik, he is 33 and has pitched 12 seasons in the major leagues. There is some hope that he can repeat the regular season success he had in San Francisco last year. There is also some concern that he might repeat the post season performances he had in October that weren’t as good. There is also the obvious worry that his struggles with Boston were severe enough for the Red Sox to trade him to San Francisco in the first place last year, and that those performances could return. His presence in the locker room and his attitude on the mound are both big pluses for most Giants fans, and that will minimize some of the concern as well
Hudson had an All-Star appearance in 2014 for his tremendous performance in the first half of the season. He also was pulled in the 2nd inning of Game 7 of the World Series because his 2nd half was not nearly as productive. The tale of two seasons is the story line for Hudson in 2015. Will we see more of his 2014 1st half or 2014 second half?
Lincecum will get the first shot at the fifth starter spot, and if the reports are accurate, Lincecum enters 2015 with a “chip on his shoulder” and something to prove. He went back to his father, Chris Lincecum, to work on his mechanics, and feels he has found something that has been missing the last three seasons. If that is true, Lincecum could end up being one of the main pieces of the rotation instead of its fifth starter. If Lincecum doesn’t show improvement, the team has two capable starters on the roster already in Vogelsong and Petit.
Bullpens always have turnover, but what has kept the Giants successful over the last five seasons is the consistency they have had at the back-end of the bullpen. Despite many changes in their roles, the “core four” of Jeremy Affeldt, Javy Lopez, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla have made the Giants bullpen one of the strongest in baseball.
Casilla will enter 2015 as the closer, which should allow Romo and Lopez to continue to thrive in their previous roles as matchup guys in the late innings. Affeldt, like Casilla, has shown the ability to pitch late as well as pitch multiple innings, and that versatility to what makes the bullpen so effective.
Despite all the question marks, there are two things that make the 2015 season look promising.
First, the financial flexibility the team will have in the next season or two that could allow the organization to make moves at the trade deadline if anyone gets hurt or struggles through July or August.
Second, the combination of Brian Sabean, Bruce Bochy, Posey, Bumgarner, and Pence are hard to match with any team in the game. Other teams may even have a better top three players on their team, but no team has the combination of an elite, general manager, elite manager, and three elite players at key positions.
Even though it’s an odd year, the Giants have set themselves up to compete again for some October baseball.