The San Francisco Giants have had an interesting last six seasons. Three World Series championships. Three seasons without a playoff appearance. Every even season they win it all. Every odd year, they don’t even make it to the dance. How can we explain this? It’s very simple. Even year magic. Also, baseball is very hard and making the postseason is never easy. In pro basketball or hockey, more teams make the postseason than stay at home. In Major League baseball, only 10 of the 30 teams reach the playoffs, and two of the 10 only get guaranteed nine innings.
There are some obvious reasons 2011, 2013, and 2015 ended without October baseball. For one, the team suffered some back breaking injuries, both literally and figuratively in each of those seasons. From Buster Posey‘s broken leg and Freddy Sanchez broken back in ’11, to Angel Pagan‘s hamstring and Marco Scutaro‘s broken back in ’13, to Hunter Pence‘s various injuries and Joe Panik‘s broken back in ’15. If there was one thing we knew was going to happen in odd years, it was a critical member of the lineup was going down for several months and the team’s second baseman was going to injure their back.
Fans wanted the “odd year curse” to be over this season, and had high hopes that the Giants could get back to the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2002-03. There was reason to be hopeful too. Hunter Pence did play some games this season and the Giants were 34-18 in those games. That .653 winning percentage would translate to 105 wins. That doesn’t mean the Giants were going to win 105 games, or even 95 games, but since the Dodgers won 92 games to win the National League West, a healthy Pence could have made a huge difference.
Also, there were those pesky one-run games. The Giants won 19 one-run games in 2015, which is more than the 15 the Blue Jays won, but it was their 2-15 record in one-run games down the stretch that made all the difference. The Giants had several starters out during those 17 games, including Brandon Belt, Panik, Brandon Crawford, Gregor Blanco and Nori Aoki and several key pitchers out, including Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Tim Hudson, Mike Leake and Jeremy Affeldt.
Looking ahead in 2016, there is room for much optimism. First and foremost, the Giants still have three of the best players in baseball in the prime of their careers. Madison Bumgarner will not win the Cy Young this year, primarily because of some of the greatest pitching seasons we’ve seen in the National League in a decade. However, Bumgarner had an incredible season that proves he is one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. His 8.9 Wins Above Replacement over the past two seasons is 13th best in baseball. And compared to those other 12 pitchers, his ERA of 2.95 is tied for 10th best, while his FIP is 8th. He also hit five home runs this season and has become a legitimate threat to the lineup when he bats. His pinch hit at-bats have become epic performances. His .468 slugging percentage was higher than Evan Gattis and Prince Fielder, among others.
When healthy, Pence has been incredible for the Giants, as the 34-18 record and World Series victory in 2014 has showed. If Pence can get back to being an everyday player that can play 150 games, the Giants will be much improved without making any upgrades. Buster Posey is still the team’s primary catcher, despite fans and media members questioning when he’ll move to first base. However, one of the main reasons he is the team’s primary backstop is because he is an elite catcher. He may very well be a finalist for the Gold Glove this season, and could win it for his ability to throw out runners, call a game and frame pitches. His offense was once again MVP caliber, as he narrowly missed a second batting title. If it wasn’t for Bryce Harper‘s otherworldly season, Posey could make a case for his second MVP.
The Giants defense has always been a source of strength during their successful runs to the postseason and to the World Series, and the two main players in the greatest double play in World Series history are coming off tremendous seasons. Crawford and Panik are both going to be finalists for Gold Gloves in their own right, and Crawford also ended up leading the Giants in home runs with 21. He is the first shortstop to lead the Giants in home runs in over 100 seasons. Panik, despite a back injury that ended his season, had a tremendous sophomore year and will certainly be one of the anchors of the team going forward.
Third base was the biggest hole from last season with the departure of Pablo Sandoval, and not just because of his weight. Sandoval was a member of all three championship seasons and his absence was evident immediately. Casey McGehee, brought in to replace the “Panda” did so poorly in the first five weeks of the season, that rookie utility player Matt Duffy replaced him in the starting lineup. Duffy, who had never played third base regularly in his professional career, became an instant success, ended up winning the team’s prestigious Willie Mac Award, and will be a finalist for the Rookie of the Year award. Like Posey, who will lose out to Harper, Duffy will probably lose out to Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs. However, Duffy has made fans, teammates and front office people forget about Sandoval and completes a homegrown infield with Posey, Crawford, Panik and Belt.
Injuries were the story all season in the outfield. Not only did the team miss Pence, but Pagan, Blanco, Aoki and Juan Perez all missed significant time. The team tried several players from outside the organization, from Justin Maxwell, who made the team out of spring, to Marlon Byrd and Alejandro De Aza, who the team traded for during the season. Byrd and Aoki could both be options to return in 2016. Blanco and Pagan are signed for next season, but will both be free agents in 2017. Pence is the only lock to be with the team in 2016, and he ended the season on the disabled list. Needless to say, the outfield has huge question marks.
The outfield isn’t a huge concern for fans because they are too busy being worried about the starting rotation. For all the superlatives fans can say and make about Bumgarner, there isn’t another pitcher in the rotation that is a lock to have a strong 2016. Jake Peavy is the most likely, after ending both 2014 and 2015 strong. However, there is no guarantee that Peavy will stay as effective as is the case with any pitcher in their mid-30’s. Same goes for Matt Cain, a “horse” for the Giants for nearly a decade, Cain has struggled the last three seasons to stay healthy. Cain, who showed flashes of being his old self in the season finale, will need to be healthy if the team wants to battle in the National League next season. The team wants to re-sign Mike Leake, who will be a free agent this winter, but even if the Giants sign Leake, they may want to try to bring in another starter in case Cain struggles or in case some of their young pitchers, like Chris Heston, struggle. Heston, who had a very strong first half that included no-hitting the New York Mets, struggled in the second half and now his roster spot on the 25-man roster is in doubt. With Lincecum, Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong all free agents and Yusmeiro Petit due a raise in arbitration, the starting staff could look vastly different in 2016.
The bullpen and the bench are always in flux every season for every team. They are the two hardest areas of a baseball team to have consistency because of the nature of the job descriptions. The bench, in particular, because one of the hardest things to do in sports is to perform consistently when you play inconsistently. Same goes for the bullpen, where pitchers may go several day without pitching at all and other days where they pitch many days in a row. That being said, one of the strengths of the Giants these last six seasons has been the consistency of their bullpen. The “core four” as they have been named, each have three World Series rings. Affeldt is retiring, so the team will no longer have all four members of the core. Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez will all be back, but all will be in the final year of their contracts. So even if they all perform well in 2016, this could be the final year for the remaining three members of the core four. Josh Osich, another rookie who was brought up due to all the team’s injuries, will look to replace Affeldt in the ‘pen. Hunter Strickland, another rookie pitcher, will be asked to take on a more prominent role in 2016. George Kontos had a career year in 2015, and should be another lock for the bullpen next year.
The bench could include Byrd or Aoki or Blanco or Perez but it also could be rookies Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson, two of the young players promoted in September. Parker and Williamson may be long shots because they have the option of returning to Sacramento and start the year in Triple-A. The team has expressed interest in bringing Byrd and Aoki back. They may platoon in LF, or they may both begin the year on the bench. The team will only start the year with five outfielders, so if Pagan isn’t traded, the team will have a numbers crunch. Andrew Susac should be back healthy and his play at catcher has been encouraging. One of the bright spots of 2015 was the late emergence of Kelby Tomlinson. Tomlinson is primarily a second baseman, so the team has suggested he spend time this winter in center field. Much like Duffy in 2014, Tomlinson was initially an afterthought in 2015, but now looks like he could be a key contributor in 2016. That may be the one positive to all the injuries is the opportunities it gave Tomlinson, Osich and others.
This winter will have a lot of Hot Stove talk about the Giants going after the top pitchers on the market, such as David Price, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann and others. However, the Giants have proven over the last six seasons that they don’t always need to find the best free agents. Sometimes they just need to find the right fits for their ballpark and their clubhouse. Leake and Byrd could be two of those fits. Will those moves be enough? Will the Giants buck recent trends and overpay for the top-tier free agents? Will they stick to their blueprint and try to be more strategic about who they sign?
Should be a fun winter in the Bay Area.