Good news, Giants fans -- It's an even-numbered year. If you believe in patterns, voodoo, magic, coincidence being predictive or some combination thereof, you have to be excited about the 2014 season. After all, the Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, while falling short of expectations in 2011 and 2013. It's not just that this year is a multiple of two that makes the Giants dangerous, though.
If the Giants are to keep up their every-other-year streak, it will likely be behind the starting rotation. Madison Bumgarner is a legitimate ace, Matt Cain did not pitch nearly as poorly as you might remember last season, and the foursome of Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit gives the Giants depth all the way to their sixth starter. The rotation, too, is where fantasy owners will want to focus. Bumgarner is a top-10 option, Cain is in the top 20, and Hudson and Lincecum should be drafted in most mixed leagues.
The offense starts with Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, and gets pretty thin after that. Pablo Sandoval has 26 homers in the last two years combined. Marco Scutaro and Brandon Crawford don't offer much up the middle. Angel Pagan has a defined skill set, and could be a value in deep mixed leagues, while Michael Morse is certainly worth making a lottery ticket, as he has 30-homer upside if all breaks right. Pence remains one of the more underappreciated fantasy players, a wildly affordable player whose average season is .285/.339/.476 with 24 homers and 88 RBI in his seven-year career.
MORE TEAM PREVIEWS:
1. Angel Pagan, CF
2. Marco Scutaro, 2B
3. Buster Posey, C
4. Brandon Belt, 1B
5. Hunter Pence, RF
6. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
7. Michael Morse, LF
8. Brandon Crawford, SS
1. Madison Bumgarner
2. Matt Cain
3. Tim Lincecum
4. Tim Hudson
5. Ryan Voglesong
Bullpen: Sergio Romo (closer), Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Yusmeiro Petit, Santiago Casilla, George Kontos, Mike Kickham, Jean Machi
Can Matt Cain keep the ball in the yard this season? Cain's 2013 season, like the Giants', was a major disappointment. He posted an ERA of 4.00 for just the second time in his eight years in the majors, while also amassing his worst walk rate since 2009 and the highest HR/FB ratio of his career. He was a victim of some bad luck evidenced by a 3.93 FIP and 3.88 xFIP. However, pitchers have a lot of control over walks and homers, and Cain simply gave up too many of both last season. Limiting those will be crucial if he is to have a bounce-back campaign.
The first piece of good news is that Cain started to do just that in the second half last year. He brought his walks per nine innings down to 2.24 from 2.97 and his homers per nine innings to 0.87 from 1.29. His already-solid WHIP of 1.18 dipped to 1.12. In the second half of the season, Cain looked a lot like the guy we've come to know over the last seven seasons.
Secondly, most of Cain's peripheral stats were right in line with his career averages. No matter if it was his average fastball velocity, swinging-strike percentage or most of his batted-ball rates, they remained relatively flat year over year. In addition to the uptick in homers, he allowed more line drives and fewer fly balls, but he was able to keep his BABIP at .260, the fifth consecutive season it was at .265 or lower. At this point, we can safely call low BABIPs a skill in Cain's toolbox.
Cain particularly struggled with the gopher ball away from home, putting up a 12-percent HR/FB ratio on the road. He surrendered three homers apiece at Coors Field, Chase Field and Miller Park, two at Wrigley Field and one at Marlins Park. If you sense a theme in those stadiums, you're onto something. Each of the four in which he gave up multiple homers played was hitter friendly last year, some to an extreme degree. Coors Field boosted homers by 45 percent over an average park. Miller Park's home run park factor was plus-31 percent, Chase was plus-12 percent and Wrigley was plus-4 percent. Cain won't be able to avoid those NL West venues all season, but it's clear that bad environment and circumstances were at play here.
At this point, the fantasy community knows what to expect from Cain. He's going to stay healthy, win his fair share of games, put up solid -- though not spectacular -- rates and strikeout out about 7.5 batters per nine innings. Forget about last year's struggles. Cain should still be treated like a top-20 pitcher.
Is this finally Brandon Belt's breakout season? Even The Boy Who Cried Wolf would have tired of the fantasy industry's act with Belt by now. For each of the last three seasons, Belt has had plenty of supporters insisting his time had come. He put together his first useful fantasy season last year, hitting .289/.360/.481 with 17 homers and 67 RBI, but that still didn't make him a hot commodity at first base, where owners typically need to get a heavy dose of power. The position is deep, and the Belt proselytizers will be out there again this year. Can he crack the top 12 and become a regular fantasy starter? I'm not so sure about that.
If Belt is going to be worth starting every day in a fantasy league, he's going to have to hit around 25 home runs. Right off the bat, he's hindered by his home park. Over the most recent three-year sample, AT&T Park suppressed homers by 33 percent against a neutral stadium. Just six of Belt's 17 homers last year were at AT&T. What's more, ESPN's home run tracker identified nine of them as having "just enough" to leave the yard, with three of those coming at hitter's parks. His average true home run distance was 394.8 feet. The home run tracker awards a Golden Sledgehammer to the player with the longest average distance among those with at least 18 round-trippers. Belt just missed out on that, but his distance would have ranked in the bottom-quarter.
It's possible 2013 represents Belt's offensive ceiling, or, at least, is a reasonable estimate of what his ceiling might be. While that was worth four wins to the Giants last year, it doesn't move the needle all that much for fantasy owners.
Will spending all his time behind the plate hurt Buster Posey's fantasy value? Through the first three months of the 2013 season, Posey was well on his way to another fantastic year. He finished the first half in a bit of a rut, though he still hit .325/.395/.536 with 13 homers before the All-Star break. Rarely does an established player completely fall off a cliff in the second half of the season, but that's exactly what happened to Posey last year.
Posey came out of the break sputtering and never really turned his season around, hitting just .244/.333/.310 in the second half. He had just two homers and nine total extra-base hits. While it's hard to pinpoint an exact cause of his issues, it's equally as hard to ignore the fact that he played a career-high 120 games at catcher last year, including 73 before the break.
In late June, Posey played three games at first base in a four-game stretch due to what Bruce Bochy called "general tightness in his legs." He went 9-for-16 with three homers in those four games. He only played first 10 times the rest of the year, due in large part to the emergence of Brandon Belt, who doesn't have another position on the field. Given that they're the team's two best hitters, it's hard to see Posey coming out from behind the plate all that often this year. That is bound to keep a ceiling on his production.
Posey remains a wildly valuable catcher and my No. 1 player at the position. The pool he finds himself in is deep, though, and I find it impossible that Posey is a better pick in the fourth round of a typical draft then, say, Jonathan Lucroy is in the 11th. That's why I can safely say I will not own any shares of Posey this season.
Michael Morse, OF -- Morse has been banged up each of the last two years, but his wrist is 100 percent healthy after offseason surgery. Despite spending most of 2013 with the Mariners in cavernous Safeco Field, Morse hit 13 homers in 337 plate appearances, and accumulated a 16-percent HR/FB ratio. His power is legit and plays at any stadium, even one like AT&T Park. The left field job is his to lose, and if he can remain relatively healthy, 25-30 home runs is a distinct possibility.
Buster Posey, C -- The case against Posey is above. He's currently the No. 45 player at FantasyPros. I cannot see taking him at that price, given the likelihood of his ceiling being limited by his catching duties. The opportunity cost -- Justin Verlander, Jean Segura, Zach Greinke and Matt Holliday are all ranked in the same neighborhood -- is far too high.
Madison Bumgarner, SP -- Bumgarner is already a great player who requires no introduction. This is the year that he breaks into elite class of pitchers in the league. For my money, the only pitchers I'd take ahead of him are Clayton Kershaw, Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Jose Fernandez, Adam Wainwright and Stephen Strasburg.
NL-only guys to know
Angel Pagan, OF -- Pagan is just two years removed from a .288/.338/.440, 29-steal season, and he was well on his way to those numbers again last year before being derailed by injuries. He swiped 37 bags in 2010 and 32 in 2011, so his speed is a long-time asset. He could reach 100 runs with 30 steals, assuming a season of full health.
Yusmeiro Petit, RP/SP -- Petit had a great showing in seven starts last year, going 4-1 with a 3.56 ERA, 2.86 FIP and 47 strikeouts in 48 innings. He'll likely start the year in the bullpen, but Ryan Vogelsong is no sure thing to remain in the rotation all year. Petit is definitely worth a flier in NL-only leagues.