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.
The San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers—both of these franchises have been in business for more than 100 years, but the two tradition-laden clubs have never met in the World Series. Detroit has won 11 American League pennants, winning the World Series four times. The Tigers last won the Series in 1984 and lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006. Since 1900, the Giants have 19 pennants, appearing the World Series 18 times, winning six, the most recent coming just two years ago when they defeated the Texas Rangers in 2010.
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.
This is the 11th season that the All-Star Game has “counted.” If you recall, way back in 2001, both teams ran out of pitchers and the game ended in a tie after 11 exciting innings, leaving fans at the stadium and TV viewers disappointed, to put it mildly.
So, in all his wisdom, Commissioner Bud Selig — along with TV executives — led efforts to bring some meaning back to the All-Star Game. The result is that the All-Star Game determines home-field advantage for the World Series.
I don’t understand how players and teams accept determining home-field advantage by teams elected by the fans in a popularity vote. No disrespect to Pablo Sandoval, but the National League will play the game with one of its best players, David Wright of the Mets, starting on the bench. Dan Uggla, maybe not even the third-best second baseman in the NL, will start the game, leaving Brandon Phillips of the Reds out of the game completely.
(And before you start going all Dusty Baker on me, it’s clear to most everyone outside of Cincinnati that Jose Altuve is the most deserving second baseman in the NL, and it doesn’t make sense to take three second baseman, so Phillips must be left out.)
And even the players aren’t above the whole popularity thing. How else do you explain why A.J. Pierzynski wasn’t selected by his peers to represent his league? He’s having as good a season as any catcher in the American League, but he’ll be watching from home as the AL tries to secure home-field advantage.
With the starters voted in by the fans, some players elected by a survey of players, and other reserves selected by the manager, how can we expect the best of each team to be there?
And without the best vs. the best, how can we use this game to determine home-field advantage?
While there are so many things wrong with that, it isn’t the only problem MLB has with its midsummer showcase.
In case you missed it over the winter, there was a clear directive from MLB requiring players selected for the game to be there. No more begging off with slight or phantom injuries. So, how’s that working out?
The Nationals’ Ian Desmond, selected as a reserve for the National League, has already begged out of the game due to an injury involving his side. Okay. However, over the weekend he seemed healthy enough to get four hits in seven at-bats with two home runs and two stolen bases — and that was just Saturday and Sunday. How does that make sense? Even with the Nationals in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 1981 when the franchise was in Montreal, Desmond doesn’t seem too concerned with helping his NL mates secure home-field advantage for the World Series.
The game no longer reflects the way the game is played on a daily basis. Only in the All-Star Game do we see pitchers throwing no more than two innings. Since that’s the way the game is played, if you really wanted to win, wouldn’t you stock your team with relief pitchers who have mastered the one-inning appearance?
And rarely do we see All-Star managers attempt to get favorable matchups. There’s no lefty vs. lefty strategizing like you would see during a pennant race. In case you haven’t noticed, there are no setup men on either roster. Not only are there some deserving candidates, but those pitchers are perfectly suited for this type of game.
And managers take great pains to get everyone in the game. If they were really trying to win, would you see Matt Joyce replacing Josh Hamilton or Howie Kendrick subbing for Robinson Cano? Those are just two of the moves made in last year’s game.
And I know that this year’s situation is rare, but we have a manager (Tony La Russa) selecting a good portion of the team for the National League and actually running the game, but with no stake in it whatsoever.
Here are a couple of suggestions to improve the All-Star Game for the fans.
1) Forget home-field advantage for the World Series
I know that players treating this game as meaningless is what caused MLB to overreact in the first place. But here’s a thought: Tie players’ foundations to the game. Most players have a cause they support, and if they don’t already, being selected to play in the All-Star Game would give them a reason to find a cause. Only foundations and charities of players who participate will benefit. Winning players’ foundations will benefit more than the losers. How many players will beg out of an opportunity to boost their charitable work? No more than are begging out now.
2) Keep player selection as is
Keep the fans involved in selecting players. Keep the players vote. Allow managers to select reserves. And, by all means, keep the rule that all teams must be represented. No group of fans should be left out of this classic.
3) Make it a complete All-Star week
I really like the idea of the Futures Game. It’s a terrific way to reward prospects and give the fans a glimpse into the future. The Futures Game should be played at the site of the All-Star Game on Monday night, prime time, when there’s no other baseball. After the All-Star Game on Tuesday, honor the past with an Old-timers All-Star Night. Rather than having the recently retired Randy Johnson face the aging Yogi Berra, have a three-inning game with older players from the 1950s and ’60s. Then have a seven-inning version with more recently retired players like Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. You think fans wouldn’t flock to see those guys in uniform one more time? After an off-day on Thursday, it’s back to the regular season on Friday.
Oh, and the solution for home-field for four games in the World Series? How about taking the most wins in interleague play? After all, that seems to be a more fair and accurate way to judge the better league anyway.
If you were trying to win a championship this season, would you rather have youthful talent? Or seasoned experience? Consider a roster of players age 25 and younger vs. a roster of veterans age 35 and older. Here’s my 25-man roster of players who were age 25 or younger on Opening Day (April 4). Next week, I’ll showcase the veterans.