This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 11: the San Francisco Giants.
2014 Record and Finish: 88–74 (.543), second in NL West (tied for eighth overall)
2015 Projected Record and Finish: 84–78 (.518), second in NL West (11th overall)
The Case For
The Giants won the World Series last year and, as is their habit, are returning largely the same team this year, minus two notable names: third baseman Pablo Sandoval and first baseman/outfielder Michael Morse. The loss of Sandoval, the 2012 World Series MVP, will hurt, even though he had devolved into more of a solid regular than a star. Morse, meanwhile, was relegated to pinch-hitting duty in the postseason by an injury, and his poor play in the field during the regular season largely undermined his production at the plate. Nori Aoki’s more balanced, National League-friendly skill-set should make him a sufficient replacement in the outfield.
Meanwhile, the team is hoping for full seasons from first baseman Brandon Belt and second baseman Joe Panik, who combined for just 134 games last year. The same goes for righthander Matt Cain, who made just 15 starts and could see an improvement in his performance after having bone chips in his pitching elbow removed in August and a bone spur removed from his ankle in September. San Francisco will open the season without rightfielder Hunter Pence, whose left arm was broken by a pitch early in spring training, but Pence could return before the end of April. If so, and if he, catcher Buster Posey and ace Madison Bumgarner have representative seasons, the Giants should be in the mix again.
The Case Against
It would be easy to leave this at "It’s an odd-numbered year"—San Francisco won the World Series in 2010, '12 and '14 but missed the playoffs in 2011 and '13— but the Giants only won two more games last year than in 2011 and the same number as in '09, so even that reductive analysis is wanting. More significantly, San Francisco barely squeaked into the playoffs last year by claiming the second wild-card spot. The Giants lost a three-win player when Sandoval signed with the Red Sox, and his replacement, Casey McGehee, is a decided downgrade with both the glove and the bat; McGehee has hit .249/.312/.353 (83 OPS+) over his last three major league seasons, including .243/.310/.310 after the All-Star break.
The starting rotation is at least as problematic. Bumgarner’s postseason heroics resulted in him throwing 270 innings in his age-24 season, making him a serious candidate for decline or injury in the coming season. Cain has posted an 85 ERA+ over the last two years. Tim Hudson, who will turn 40 in July and had a 4.98 ERA over his final 22 starts last year between the regular and postseasons, looks finished. Jake Peavy, who started 32 games for the Red Sox and Giants in 2014, hasn’t had consecutive seasons with 30 or more starts since '06 and '07 and will turn 34 in May.
Meanwhile, San Francisco seems determined to keep Tim Lincecum in the rotation despite his 73 ERA+ over the last three seasons. That’s probably because its primary alternative is 37-year-old Ryan Vogelsong, who has a 75 ERA+ over the last two years. In the bullpen, look for regression from Jean Machi (.237 BABIP in 2014) and continued gopheritis from Sergio Romo and Hunter Strickland.
No team has repeated as champions since the 1998–2000 Yankees, one of the greatest teams in major league history. The current Giants quasi-dynasty makes that list, as well, but it seems unlikely that they will improve their standing on it in 2015.
X-Factor: Matt Cain
San Francisco's ace as recently as three years ago, Cain is hoping to recapture his previous form after having those bone chips removed from his elbow. There’s some reason for optimism: He’s still just 30 and has never lost velocity, and while his peripherals all went in the wrong direction last year, none did so dramatically. Perhaps most significantly, Cain’s consistently low BABIP (batting average on balls in play) has never wavered. Since 2009, the highest its been is .268, which was last year’s figure but also a match for his career mark.
Assuming he's healthy, it’s reasonable to expect a rebound this season, something a small reduction in walks and home runs and a small uptick in strikeouts could facilitate. However, if his surgeries restored his health but not his effectiveness, the Giants’ lone hope for an above-average starting pitching performance will be the heavily-worked Bumgarner.
Number To Know: 31.7
That was the weighted average age of San Francisco's pitching staff last year, the oldest in the majors. This year, the only pitchers projected to make the Giants’ Opening Day roster who will still be in their 20s by mid-June are Bumgarner (25) and Strickland (26). Meanwhile, the only starting pitcher in baseball older than Hudson is the Mets' bionic-armed Bartolo Colon, who is 41.
Most Overrated: Brandon Crawford, SS
“He’s a durable guy that plays every day. I just don’t think he’s a force on either side of the ball. He’ll come up with a clutch hit, but, to me, he’s a below-average hitter, and I think they think he’s a special, above-average hitter. I just think you’d like a little more consistency offensively and more agility and speed at that position. He makes the routine plays, but for me, he doesn’t get to a lot of balls that he should. His positioning is such that it helps his range play up. I think if you break down his pure range, you’d be hard-pressed to call it average.”
Most Underrated: Yusmeiro Petit, RP
“His ability to pitch effectively in multiple roles is very valuable. He’s not a stuff guy, but he’s got enough pitches and command to stay off the barrel of the bat and get outs. He’s savvy in his ability to mix his pitches and keep hitters off balance. He can pitch on fairly short rest and his stuff holds up, and if you have to get 10, 12, 15 starts out of him on the year, he’s going to go out there and compete and give you a good effort.”