Giants have formula -- and players -- to make another title run
San Francisco Giants
A scant 24 months separated the Giants' two World Series titles, but the roster turnover among position players was severe. Only catcher Buster Posey, last year's National League MVP, was a full-time starter on both title teams, with third baseman Pablo Sandoval the only other player to crack a starting lineup in 2010's Fall Classic win over the Rangers and 2012's victory over the Tigers.
Now, however, San Francisco has taken the opposite approach. Its Opening Day roster will likely have 21 of the same 25 players from the World Series, with only reserve players -- first baseman Aubrey Huff, infielder Ryan Theriot, outfielder Xavier Nady and reliever Guillermo Mota -- having departed, thereby keeping intact all eight starting position players and, with Tim Lincecum's return to the rotation, all five starting pitchers.
"It was good to see Affeldt, Scutaro, Pagan -- all those guys coming back," Posey said. "Obviously they were integral parts. I think that's what made our team so successful. Different guys were stepping up every night. It's definitely good to have as many guys back as we do."
The difference, of course, is that the 2010 club was veteran-laden, relying on 30-somethings such as Huff, Pat Burrell, Freddy Sanchez, Aaron Rowand and Edgar Renteria. Lost in the shuffle of the Giants' success last season -- in which pitching was again, rightfully, trumpeted as their bedrock -- was that the 2012 edition broke in two homegrown starting position players in first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford, not to mention catcher Hector Sanchez (who made 48 starts to either spell Posey or allow him to play first base) and reliever George Kontos (who stranded all six runners he inherited in the postseason).
As constituted, the Giants' window of contention should remain open for several more years, with only three key players set to be free agents at the end of 2013: Lincecum, rightfielder Hunter Pence and lefthanded reliever Javier Lopez. The Giants won last year in spite of Lincecum's disastrous season (10-15 record, 5.18 ERA and 4.4 BB/9) and poor offensive production after trading for Pence (.671 OPS); Lopez, though valuable, is one of three lefty arms in that bullpen alongside Affeldt and Jose Mijares. Starters Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong have contract options for 2014, though only Vogelsong's is likely to be exercised.
"When you have that success, why take it away?" Lincecum said. "Those first few years, it was an older team but we've transitioned into this younger, core group of guys that have walked the walk and talked the talk."
That only considers their own situation, which of course doesn't exist in a vacuum. While the Padres and Rockies took similar approaches, the Diamondbacks were as active as any club this winter in remaking their roster and the Dodgers, ever since the new ownership assumed control, have been on an unprecedented spending spree. As a result, the NL West should again be sufficiently fierce that the GM knows winning it needs to be the primary objective for the season.
"Our goal isn't global," Sabean said. "We're not trying to defend being champs. We're trying to win the division again, and I think that's humbling and that's good because you know how hard it is to do. But what we've also seen is that, if you're able to do it or get into the playoffs, because of the division that we play in, the type of roster and the window that we're in, we're kind of built for playoff baseball."
The traits of successful playoff teams are great pitching -- which the Giants obviously have and will have in abundance if Lincecum bounces back -- and a lineup that puts the ball in play, increasing their chances of timely, run-scoring hits.
The Giants do hit a ton of line drives (22.1 percent of balls in play, according to FanGraphs.com), which was the second-best rate in the majors last year. That plays well in the wide gaps of the NL West ballparks where even the two hitter-friendly parks (Arizona and Colorado) are huge. No one exemplified this better than Scutaro, who batted .362 in his 61 games and made contact on 99.3 percent of his swing on pitches in the strike zone after the Giants received him in a trade.
"With hitting, it's all timing and harmony," Pence said. "Home runs just happen, and gappers happen. Just competing, being strong, being fast, having your mind ready -- the focus isn't on do this or do that and that's how you win. To be ready you've got be good at everything and go out and compete to win."
For the architect of the team, however, there is a deliberate emphasis on constructing a lineup with a certain skillset.
"We found more and more that our ballpark is built for gap hitters and what we call line drive-down," Sabean said. "You can survive hitting singles, doubles and triples. If you're a team that puts the ball in play, doesn't strike out -- it's better as the season goes on, which we did last year with runners in scoring position."
Ultimately, the offense's production will dictate the Giants' fortunes. Last year was their first season exceeding 700 runs since 2006, while they've averaged allowing only 605 runs the past four years. That latter number shouldn't change much, given the solid defense in place and especially the pitching staff in which Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong headline another stellar rotation and Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and the three lefties lead a mix-and-match bullpen expertly deployed by manager Bruce Bochy.
It's a proven winning formula -- and one that should again succeed in 2013.
It was addition by retention for the Giants this winter. Rather than add to the World Series-winning club in any appreciable way, general manager Brian Sabean instead re-signed his biggest free agents to either three- or four-year deals, filling holes with known commodities.
First, there's the obvious caveat that the Giants surged in the second half without Cabrera, improving their offense and winning a World Series despite his absence due to a 50-game suspension for failing a test for PEDs. That said, he was undeniably productive when he was playing (.346 average and .906 OPS) -- numbers that the platoon of Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres won't come close to matching -- and his selection here is also commentary on how few players the club didn't retain.
Since 2010 the Giants have had a 3.52 starters' ERA, second in the majors only to the Phillies, and have had remarkable health in their rotation, too -- only once in three seasons have they needed more than five pitchers to make at least 10 starts and never more than six.
San Francisco hit the fewest home runs in the majors last year -- 103, which was 59 fewer than their 2010 champion club -- and was the only club with just one player, catcher Buster Posey, to hit more than 12. (For comparison's sake, the Yankees had 10 such players.) The Giants proved last year that home-run pop was optional: They had 447 extra-base hits (20th in baseball), including a majors-leading 57 triples.
In the increasing parity of the past two decades, only the Yankees have won back-to-back World Series or have won more than two titles; the Giants are a strong contender to join them in 2013 so long as the lineup and Lincecum both get a little better.