Yes, it's an even year, but there are plenty of on-field reasons to like the Giants as title contenders this season—so long as everyone stays healthy.
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 9: the San Francisco Giants.
2015 Record and Finish:
84–78 (.518), second place in National League West (12th overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
88–74 (.543), second place in NL West, second place in NL wild card
The Case For
Yes, all you believers in the power of the #EvenYear mystique: The Giants, off a postseason-less 2015, are right where they want to be heading into '16. But let’s also not overlook just how good the Giants were last year: They were only four games worse than the 2014 title team, and their plus-69 run differential was fourth best in the NL (and just three behind the Dodgers) and matched that of the '12 championship.
We’re accustomed to this team winning games with sterling pitching, but the Giants revealed themselves last year as much more than the Madison Bumgarner Show. A potent offense is fueled by an impressive core of young homegrown hitters, with the unexpected emergence of 25-year-old third baseman Matt Duffy to go with the core of Buster Posey (who turns 29 on March 27), Brandon Crawford (29), Joe Panik (25) and Brandon Belt (27). San Francisco's suddenly scary offense led the league in batting average and on-base percentage and was fourth in OPS and fifth in runs scored. Given his track record, Duffy is a regression candidate, but Hunter Pence, who played in just 52 games last year, should be healthy. So should Belt, who mostly avoided the injury bug last year and played in 137 games. There’s no reason why the offense can’t be just as good, or even better, this go around—and not just because we’re in an even year.
The Case Against
The Giants had to find a way to replace the 335 innings they got from the departed trio of Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, so they went and shelled out $210 million for two veterans, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. A year ago, those additions to a rotation headed by Bumgarner would have given the Giants a starting five that would look like the finest in the galaxy, but heading into this season, there are some real concerns as to whether it was money well spent.
On the surface, Samardzija seems like a big bounce-back candidate, as he goes from the bandbox in the South Side of Chicago to spacious AT&T Park. But it’s hard to ignore just how bad he was in 2015, when he had a disastrous season with the White Sox under the tutelage of noted pitching guru Don Cooper and posted career lows in strikeout and ground-ball rates while leading the majors in hits and earned runs allowed. The Shark’s wobbly spring—his velocity has been reportedly down this spring—only adds to the concern. Cueto may be an even bigger enigma. His ERA over the last five seasons (2.71) is second only to Clayton Kershaw’s among pitchers with at least 500 innings, but he was so inconsistent during his time in Kansas City last year that there were real concerns that he was hurt. The truth is, no one has any idea which Johnny will show up in San Francisco.
With the big question marks surrounding old horses Jake Peavy and Matt Cain in the rotation, the Giants need quality seasons from their two new hurlers. If they get the bad versions of Cueto and Samardzija, they’ll be in trouble.
X-Factor: Matt Cain, SP
Cain was once as reliable as they came: With six straight seasons of 200 or more innings and over 30 starts in each, he lived up to his nickname, The Horse. Then bone spurs sidelined him in late 2014, followed by a miserable, injury-riddled '15 season. The statistically minded have always been skeptical of this particular fly-ball pitcher’s ability to keep the ball in the park, and perhaps his recent struggles have something to do with that luck catching up to him. Whatever the case, the Giants still owe Cain $50 million, so they have big hopes he can become a top-of-the-rotation starter once again. If he does, behind Bumgarner, the Giants will be hard to beat.
Number To Know: 32
That's how old Denard Span is—and he's the youngest of San Francisco’s starting outfielders, a unit that suddenly seems very injury prone. Pence was once an ironman, playing 162 games in both 2013 and '14 (and at least 154 games every season before that), but he suddenly found himself hobbled by numerous injuries last year (a broken forearm, wrist tendinitis and an oblique injury). Angel Pagan did manage to stay mostly healthy last season, but the 34-year-old showed signs that he may be slowing down as a base-stealing threat (he stole just 12 last year) after dealing with knee injuries over the years. Span, meanwhile, played in just 61 games last year and is returning from hip surgery; he also may never again be the stolen base threat that he once was. Fourth outfielder Gregor Blanco is 34, and beyond him, the Giants' bench is thin. One or two injuries to the outfield, and the Giants could have some serious problems.
Most Overrated: Johnny Cueto, SP
"He had a pretty hefty price tag, and there’s enough red flag indicators to wonder if they’re going to get value on that one. The ballpark should help him. He banks on deception. The margin for error isn’t as much as it used to be because his stuff ain’t as good as it once was. His velocity ticked back a little—it used to be mid-90s, now it's 92 or 93—and his slider's not as tight. He’s had to come up with more tricks. You wonder if all the stuff in his delivery has taken away from his stuff, too."
Most Underrated: Hunter Pence, OF
"He is my favorite guy on this team. I just don't know how he does it. It’s the most unconventional approach. To create the impact that he does is a little bit freakish to me. You watch his practice swing, and it's so awkward. I'd like to ask the scout who found him, 'How did you ever figure this would work?' I think he’s the glue guy, too. They can’t afford to lose his production or what he brings to the clubhouse."