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The Strike Zone

Pitching should keep Giants in position to repeat in 2013

Brian Wilson will be back in 2013 but he may have to batle Sergio Romo to get his closer's job back. (AP)

The San Francisco Giants have won two World Series in the last three years, but as Joe Lemire wrote on Sunday, their roster experienced significant turnover in between. Looking at their 25-man playoff rosters, the 2010 and 2012 teams had just three hitters in common: Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Aubrey Huff. Sandoval barely played in the 2010 postseason, while Huff barely played in this one. Furthermore, two of their top starting pitchers in the last two rounds of this postseason -- Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito -- made no contribution to the last one and their ace closer from 2010, Brian Wilson, was sidelined this year due to Tommy John surgery.

Heading into this offseason, six members of the Giants’ World Series roster are due to become free agents, including NLCS Most Valuable Player Marco Scutaro, centerfielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan and lefty relief ace Jeremy Affeldt. Given that, can San Francisco enter 2013 with a decent chance of getting back to the Series?

The short answer is yes. The primary reason the 2010 and 2012 Giants won was their pitching, and with the exception of Affeldt, San Francisco has the key pieces of their 2012 staff locked up for 2013. It will also be getting Wilson back early in the year as April 19 will mark the one-year anniversary of his surgery.

The fact that Tim Lincecum’s relief dominance this postseason failed to translate to his lone postseason start remains something of a concern. San Francisco fully intends to restore him to the rotation in the spring alongside Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Vogelsong and Zito, but the Giants won this year despite Lincecum ranking dead last in ERA+ among qualified major league starters (65) and leading the National League in losses (15). It’s hard to imagine he could be worse in 2013, and if he rebounds significantly, San Francisco will be that much better.

The only other potential rotation issue is Zito, who will be in the final guaranteed year of his contract in 2013, but whose $18 million option for 2014 can vest with 200 innings pitched next year. Zito has yet to compile 200 innings pitched in his six seasons with the Giants, but he has topped 190 three times and came just two outs shy of 200 frames in 2010, when he was left off the postseason roster. As the team’s fifth starter, Zito shouldn’t get enough starts, or pitch well enough, to get to 200 innings next year, but the Giants have to be careful. Despite his 15 regular season wins and postseason heroics, Zito likely remains untradeable. He’s still owed $27 million ($20 million for 2013 and $7 million for the buyout on his 2014 option) and owns a full no-trade clause that he would likely require additional compensation to waive.

The bullpen largely returns intact, though there could be some controversy over who will close with Wilson coming back and Sergio Romo having proven perfectly capable of the job in the postseason. Both pitchers are arbitration eligible this winter, two of 11 Giants who are, including likely NL MVP Posey and trade-deadline addition Hunter Pence. With lefties Javier Lopez and Jose Mijares under control, the Giants need not worry too much about losing Affeldt, though given how well he has pitched as a Giant, his ability to retire righties, his affable personality and his modest price tag (he earned $5 million in 2012), don’t be surprised to see him return.

Where general manager Brian Sabean has the most work to do is on the other side of the ball. In Posey, Sandoval, first baseman Brandon Belt -- who hit .329/.390/.494 in August and September -- and future Gold Glove winner Brandon Crawford, the Giants have a solid young core. Posey, Sandoval and Crawford will be 26 in 2013 and Belt 25. That will be augmented for one more season by Pence, who turns 30 in April but seems like a good bet to rebound from what was his worst major league season. The Giants’ rightfielders hit .250/.324/.410 in 2012. Pence, a career .285/.339/.475 hitter should be able to improve upon that, though he’ll likely be overpaid to do so, coming off a season in which he earned $10.4 million and heading into his final year of arbitration.

Still, the Giants have holes to fill at second base, where Scutaro and his predecessors, Ryan Theriot and Freddy Sanchez, will all be free agents, and in the other outfield pastures, where Pagan is also headed for free agency and Gregor Blanco, fielding heroics aside, simply doesn’t hit enough to remain a starter, even in centerfield. San Francisco could do a lot worse than to re-sign Pagan and Scutaro, though Maicer Izturis could provide similar production at second base while making them five years younger at the position, and the Giants have to be careful about investing too heavily or for too long in Pagan, who is 31 and was a late-bloomer (which often suggests an early decline).

Topping the top free agent alternatives to Pagan are B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn, who will be 29 and 30, respectively, next season. Of those two, Bourn might be the better fit as he’s the superior fielder and basestealer. Upton is the better hitter, but not by as much as you’d think, and AT&T Park could swallow some of the home runs that distinguish him from Bourn at the plate.

The biggest issue for San Francisco heading into this postseason is likely leftfield. Watching the World Series, it was easy to forget that the Giants were nearly five wins above replacement in left for the first four months of the regular season thanks to Melky Caberera. Cabrera was suspended for a positive performance-enhancing drug test in mid-August, is a free agent this offseason and will almost surely not be invited back, only partially because no one can be sure how much of his breakout performance over the last two seasons was the result of his doping.

The problem is that there aren’t many compelling free agent alternatives. With all of those players headed for arbitration, the Giants, whose Opening Day payroll this year was $131 million, up $35 million from 2010, aren’t going to go big for top-tier players like Josh Hamilton. Mostt of the second-tier free agent outfielders are centerfielders, including Pagan, Bourn, Upton and Shane Victorino.

San Francisco could try to bring back ex-Giant Cody Ross, but he is coming off a career year with the Red Sox, who seem interested in re-signing him. The Giants could also go for a high-priced short-term deal with an old-timer such as Torii Hunter (37) or Ichiro Suzuki (39), or try to lock down the position for longer by bringing ex-A’s star Nick Swisher back to the Bay Area, but they’d likely have to overpay for any of those options.

The budget-priced alternative would be to try to set up a platoon as some of the best righthanded platoon outfielders in the game are available, including Jonny Gomes, Reed Johnson, Scott Hairston and Matt Diaz. The list of potential platoon partners for that bunch is less impressive and it is the lefty that would have to carry the bulk of the position (and, for what it’s worth, Blanco was worse against righties than lefties this season). Last winter, Sabean upgraded his outfield via trades for Cabrera and Pagan. Look for him to turn to the trade market for a solution again this offseason.

Barring an astute Sabean swap, the Giants seem sure to see a drop in production in leftfield in 2013, but they should get more from Pence, Sandoval, Belt and Crawford as the latter two continue to develop and Sandoval stays healthy (one encouraging fact: he has no more hamate bones to break). A full season of Scutaro or Izturis would be an upgrade at second base, and the pitching staff should be as good or better with the return of Wilson and a potential rebound from Lincecum.

If Sabean can solve center and left, there’s little reason not to expect the Giants to be back in the thick of things in 2013, and, as we’ve seen in two of the last three years, if you let the Giants and their pitchers into the postseason, they’re awfully hard to beat.

-- By Cliff Corcoran

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