With the band virtually intact, the Giants are poised for another title run
A band of misfits won the World Series in 2010. Two years later, the Giants simply banded together. Their second title in three seasons felt more scripted than ad-libbed, as a fantastic defense made plays behind a talented pitching staff, and NL MVP Buster Posey steadied the entire operation from behind the plate. The Giants survived six playoff elimination games and became the first NL team since the Big Red Machine in the 1970s to win two World Series in a three-year span. But these Giants aren’t seen as a dynasty yet, mostly because they’ve had so much turnover in their everyday lineup. There will be new challenges as the Giants seek to wear the crown a bit better this time around, especially since the archrival Dodgers all but broke into Fort Knox while loading up their roster with former All-Stars since the middle of last season. Even though the Giants brought back all their impact players from a year ago, they might be considered, by some, underdogs to win the West. It’s a role that has suited them just fine.
The Giants received at least 30 starts from five different pitchers — and all five return this season. Stalwart ace Matt Cain had no complaints after signing a $112 million extension, throwing the first perfect game in the Giants’ 129-year existence, starting for the NL All-Star squad and capping it off with another World Series ring. Madison Bumgarner, who turned 23 in August, topped 200 innings for the second consecutive year. Well-traveled Ryan Vogelsong proved his breakout 2011 campaign was no fluke; he led the NL in ERA as late as Aug. 12 and completed at least six innings in each of his first 21 starts — the longest streak by a Giant since Atlee Hammaker in 1983. As for Barry Zito, long the butt of jokes for his $126 million contract? He paid dividends as the Giants went 21–11 in his starts — including 14 consecutive wins to end the season, if you include his three playoff starts. Those fantastic four made it easier for the Giants to absorb a wildly erratic year from two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, whose 5.18 ERA was the highest among all NL pitchers to qualify for the ERA title. But this lines up to be the NL’s best rotation in 2013.
It’s hard to replace a ninth-inning presence like Brian Wilson, but the Giants made a successful adjustment after the black-bearded Taco Bell pitchman was lost to elbow surgery on the season-opening road trip. After non-tendering Wilson and letting him become a free agent, the Giants will be in committee mode again to open the season. Sergio Romo is expected to get first crack at the ninth inning after he fearlessly threw his sweeping slider and 88 mph two-seamer to escape every big spot in the playoffs. The Giants re-signed valuable lefthander Jeremy Affeldt to a three-year contract and wrapped up righthander Santiago Casilla for three more years, too. Casilla saved 19 of his first 20 chances last season before yielding the closer job in July. Sidewinding lefty Javier Lopez also returns; he’s allowed one home run in two-plus seasons as a Giant.
Brandon Crawford is a Bay Area native who grew up idolizing Royce Clayton. When Crawford took over the everyday shortstop position, his idol gave him one piece of advice: Stabilize the infield. Crawford struggled to do that in the first two months of last season while committing 12 errors in his first 59 games. But he committed just six miscues after that, and he was a playmaking force in the postseason while mixing in a few clutch hits. The Giants paired Crawford’s youth with second baseman Marco Scutaro’s professionalism after they acquired the league’s best contact man (he misses on just 5.3 percent of swings he takes) from Colorado at the trade deadline. Scutaro, the NLCS MVP, hit .362 for the Giants during the regular season, and he carries a 20-game hitting streak into 2013. The 37-year-old probably won’t approach those numbers, but he’s a reliable hit-and-run presence for a team that thrives on crossing the plate without home runs.
The bad news: Pablo Sandoval spent a lot of time on the disabled list for the second straight year. The good news: The switch-hitter has no more hamate bones to break, after dealing with surgeries to repair fractures in both hands. Sandoval, the World Series MVP by virtue of his three-homer game off of Justin Verlander, is forever on the verge of an MVP-caliber season. Although his weight is scrutinized, he’s a gifted athlete who moves well enough to be a solid defender at third base. Brandon Belt endured an up-and-down first season but showed flashes of the pure-hitting talent that allowed him to rocket through the minor leagues. The former pitching prospect is a Gold Glove-caliber presence at first base, even if he hasn’t put up the kind of power production associated with the position. Expect Posey to log 30 or so starts at first base as the Giants seek to save the legs of their most gifted hitter.
Angel Pagan’s career year included a MLB-leading 15 triples, which broke the Giants’ San Francisco-era franchise record previously held by Willie Mays. The club responded by signing him to a four-year, $40 million contract — a bit of a reach for a 31-year-old who’d only played in 125 games twice in his career. But the Giants didn’t have another in-house candidate to replace Pagan’s leadoff presence, since top prospect Gary Brown isn’t ready yet. Right fielder Hunter Pence reached 100 RBIs for the first time in his career, and even managed to knock in 45 runs in 59 games as a Giant despite hitting .219. The Giants’ toughest task in the outfield will be replacing the production of Melky Cabrera, who was leading the majors in hits and runs on Aug. 15 when he was suspended 50 games for a positive testosterone test. Gregor Blanco, a non-roster invitee last spring, will get the bulk of time in left field. But a former 2010 World Series hero, Andres Torres, was re-signed to a one-year contract and will compete for at-bats. The switch-hitting Torres is likely to start against lefthanders.
What a difference Posey makes. In 2011, when a vicious home plate collision destroyed his ankle and ended his season in May, the Giants coughed away the division in the final eight weeks. Posey didn’t take long to reestablish his offensive presence and poise behind the plate. He’s the cleanup centerpiece the Giants had lacked ever since Barry Bonds retired. Posey became the first Giant since Bonds in 2004 to drive in 100 runs; more notably, he became the first NL catcher to win a batting title since Ernie Lombardi in 1942. Not bad, considering it was his first full season in the bigs.
Joaquin Arias is a better right-handed hitter than the numbers indicate, and he can fill in at three infield positions. Backup catcher Hector Sanchez developed a good rapport with Lincecum and Zito, and the switch-hitter is far from an easy out. Aubrey Huff and Xavier Nady are gone, so the Giants could look within the system for depth, with outfielders Roger Kieschnick and Francisco Peguero knocking on the door.
In three seasons, Bruce Bochy went from being viewed as a slow-talking retread to a certifiable genius with a Hall of Fame résumé. He brilliantly shuffled a tired rotation in the postseason and turned Lincecum from an inconsistent starter into a radioactive weapon in long relief. Brian Sabean returns for his 17th season — the longest consecutive tenure of any current GM in the game. It’s hard to find a manager and GM who are more on the same page than Bochy and Sabean.
Not only did the Giants get the band back together by re-signing Pagan, Scutaro and Affeldt, but they also brought back a 2010 World Series hero in Torres. They can’t count on smooth sailing to another division title, though, given their rivals’ free spending.
Lineup CF Angel Pagan (S)
Rare hitter whose game thrives at AT&T Park, which is made for triples. 2B Marco Scutaro (R)
Veteran knocked in 44 runs in 243 at-bats after joining the Giants last summer. 3B Pablo Sandoval (S)
Judged Miss Universe pageant over the winter, now hoping for an all-world season. C Buster Posey (R)
Patient, disciplined, confident and calculating; Posey is a pure hitter. RF Hunter Pence (R)
Plate discipline is lacking, and he doesn’t look pretty, but he still finds a way to drive in runs. 1B Brandon Belt (L)
The “Baby Giraffe” hit .254 before the break, .293 after it; only hit seven home runs in 411 at-bats. LF Gregor Blanco (L)
Superb defender is a solid OBP guy but wears down when he plays every day. SS Brandon Crawford (L)
Wasn’t even a finalist for the Gold Glove last season, which was a crock.
Bench OF Andres Torres (S)
A year after trading him to Mets for Angel Pagan, Giants scooped him up again as a free agent. INF Joaquin Arias (R)
Former top prospect hit .303 vs. left-handed pitching in his first season with the Giants. C Hector Sanchez (S)
Caught 25 of Barry Zito’s 32 starts and 16 of Tim Lincecum’s 33, allowing Buster Posey’s legs to stay fresh. 1B Brett Pill (R)
Beat Clayton Kershaw with a two-run homer, but had arthroscopic knee surgery in March and will miss the start of the season. OF Francisco Peguero (S)
Tooled-up and with a cannon arm, Peguero needs to get on base more to become an everyday player.
Rotation RH Matt Cain
His 14 strikeouts in a perfect game matched Sandy Koufax for the most all-time. LH Madison Bumgarner
His 16 wins were most by a Giants lefty since Kirk Rueter in 1998. RH Tim Lincecum
Delivery was a mess as he led NL in losses, runs allowed, earned runs, wild pitches; second in walks. LH Barry Zito
Pivotal win in Game 5 of NLCS at St. Louis was his first in postseason since 2003 with A’s. RH Ryan Vogelsong
Postseason ace (3–0, 1.09 ERA in ’12) has thrown 41 quality starts over last two regular seasons.
Bullpen RH Sergio Romo (Closer)
Only Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Eric O’Flaherty posted a lower ERA among NL relievers. LH Javier Lopez
Sidearm specialist held lefties to a .191 average and did not allow a hit in 3.0 postseason innings. RH Santiago Casilla
Had a 1.82 ERA after Aug. 1 but didn’t regain closer role; saved 25 games total. LH Jeremy Affeldt
Filthy curveball artist has thrown 42.2 consecutive innings without allowing a home run. RH George Kontos
Made huge improvement stranding inherited runners, especially in playoffs. RH Chad Gaudin
Is now pitching for his eighth franchise in last six seasons. LH Jose Mijares
He had seven holds and a win after joining the Giants in early August.
Athlon previews the Cardinals-Giants matchup in the NLCS.
Neither the Giants nor the Cardinals made anything look easy in the NLDS. After losing the first two games at home, the Giants handed the Reds three losses in a row in Cincinnati, the only time the Reds dropped three straight at home all season. The Cardinals — stop me if you’ve heard this before — were down to their last strike twice, down two runs at Washington.
The St. Louis Cardinals couldn’t muster enough offense yesterday and face elimination in St. Louis today. Meanwhile, rookie Josh Collmenter pitched the Diamondbacks to a win over Milwaukee, allowing Arizona to live another day.
Philadelphia at St. Louis
Roy Oswalt, who made it clear in the past that he would like to pitch for St. Louis, will be on the mound in an effort to send the Phillies into the NLCS. The righthander spent much of the season nursing injuries, but is healthy now and will assume his position as the No. 4 starter in the best rotation in baseball. The Cardinals will send righty Edwin Jackson, whom they acquired from the White Sox in midseason, to the hill.
The Cardinals knocked Oswalt out of a start in June with four runs in the first two innings. That lineup included Colby Rasmus and Tony Cruz, not Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. A few weeks ago, Oswalt tossed seven shutout innings at the Cardinals as they were battling to overcome the Braves in the wild card race. That lineup featured the guys most likely to be in there tonight.
Jackson has been a little Jekyll and Hyde, but mostly Jekyll of late. The Redbirds won six of his last seven starts, although he factored in the decision just three times going 3-0. He represents the biggest x-factor of this series, having very little history against the Phillies hitters. The first four hitters in the lineup, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard have a combined 12 plate appearances against Jackson with just one hit. That’s not much of a sample size and typically favors the pitcher.
I certainly expect more runs than last night, and for the Cardinals to send the series back to Philadelphia for Game 5.
Winners Philadelphia Phillies
After making a run at Carlos Beltran of the Mets, the Phillies acquired Hunter Pence (right) from Houston. It would have been a surprise had the Mets actually dealt with a division rival. It was also surprising that the Phillies focused their efforts on improving their lineup. They must believe getting Brad Lidge back will be enough to deepen their bullpen, which actually had been a strength this season despite being hit hard with injuries.
Strengthened their bullpen with two of the dominant setup men in the game in Mike Adams from San Diego and Koji Uehara from Baltimore. With closer Neftali Feliz set for the ninth inning, Adams and Uehara essential turn Texas games into 6-inning games. In the 95 innings the two have combined to pitch this season, they have 11 strikeouts and only 17 walks with a 1.42 ERA. As the rotation begins to tire, taking pressure off the starters to go deep into games should really bolster the staff. The Texas offense should continue to be no problem. These moves also give the Rangers a better chance to compete with New York and Boston in the playoffs. Right now, the Rangers might be favored in a series with either team.
The Braves traded youngster Jordan Schafer and two Double-AA starters to obtain the MLB steals leader Michael Bourn from Houston. With catcher Brian McCann out for significant time with a rib cage injury, the Braves desperately need to boost their lineup. Chipper Jones should return this week to improve the middle of the order, but Bourn provides a spark at the top of a lineup that will rely more on manufacturing runs. With a pitching staff that keeps the Braves in just about every game, using speed to put pressure on defenses will serve Atlanta well.
It may not be enough to finish off the deal in the AL Central, but acquiring Ubaldo Jimenez was a coup for the upstart Indians. If nothing else, the organization has convinced its fans that it is serious this season. Jimenez, who can be a horse atop the rotation for the stretch drive, is under contract for less than $10 million per season through 2014.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants were able to procure the bat they needed in the middle of their order in Carlos Beltran (right) without giving up multiple players. Blessed with young pitching, the organization felt it could part with Zack Wheeler, a top-50 type prospect currently at the Single-A level.
Suffering through the longest losing streak in franchise history as the trade deadline dawned, the Mariners had a few trading chips and landed lefthander Charlie Furbush and outfielder Casper Wells from the Tigers. Then the M’s received Trayvon Robinson from the Dodgers in a deal that sent Erik Bedard to the Red Sox. Seattle did not have to give up ace Felix Hernandez and improved its organization for the next 3-5 years.
Obviously going nowhere this season, the Orioles parted ways with veteran Derrek Lee and setup man Koji Uehara. In return, the Orioles received Chris Davis, who they believe will be their first baseman of the future and Tommy Hunter, who could become their ace next season. Baltimore now has talented young players at just about every position as well as some young talent in the rotation. The future really is getting brighter in Baltimore.
Having traded or demoted five of the eight Opening Day starters this season, the Astros appear several years from seeing any fruits of their rebuilding efforts. At the same time, there is currently not enough continuity for fans to hang onto. Expect a few more seasons hitting the century mark in losses.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels don’t exactly have the meat in the lineup or the depth in the bullpen to compete with the Rangers. By standing pat, it’s almost as if the Angels are giving up. Not a great message to fans. In its defense, the organization doesn’t want to do anything to compromise the future to take what could be a long shot to win in 2011.
Long out of the race and burdened with a roster filled with veterans with huge contracts, the Cubs were unable to accelerate any rebuilding process by trading veterans for youngsters. Carlos Zambrano was available, but there were no takers. The only two significant trading chips — Marlon Byrd, who has been injured, and closer Carlos Marmol — apparently weren’t discussed at a high level. The Cubs were able to unload Kosuke Fukudome as a salary dump to the Indians, but received very little in return.
Follow Charlie Miller on Twitter @AthlonCharlie or email him at Charlie.Miller@AthlonSports.com.