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If there’s one thing you shouldn’t expect the Giants to do in 2017, it’s win.
Three championships in five years can disrupt the equilibrium of a fan base, particularly one that has grown accustomed to seeing their team as a perpetual underdog. Between their 1954 pennant win and 2010 title run, the Giants were in a constant state of flux, occasionally graced with the rare Bondsian talent while struggling to remain on the fringes of contention.
The even-year magic (or curse, depending on how you look at it) of the early 2010s changed everything. Winning that first drought-snapping title in 2010 seemed as unlikely as bottling lightning, from the Padres’ late-season collapse to the team’s veteran-driven postseason run against a Rangers roster featuring both Josh Hamilton and Cliff Lee in their prime. The championships that followed in 2012 and 2014 cemented the Giants’ status as perennial contenders, a team fastened together by elite pitching and scrappy hitters and, minus a few injury-plagued off years, the kindness of the baseball gods.
It was an unsustainable model, however, one that haunted the 2016 Giants as they attempted to win their fourth championship in six years. The bullpen stumbled down the stretch, flat-lining in the NLDS against the Cubs. Matt Cain, once an integral part of the rotation, paired a 5.52 DRA and -0.2 WARP with a hamstring strain and chronic back pain. Jake Peavy timed his back injury with the implosion of Santiago Casilla, whose 2.86 ERA ballooned to a 4.86 ERA during the second half of the season. Once again, their offense ranked in the bottom half of the league, scraping by on 715 runs scored and the third-fewest home runs in the majors.
For all that went wrong during the Giants’ 2016 season, however, they managed to unseat the Mets 2-0 in a one-game playoff to secure the Wild Card. They pushed the Division Series to four games against the Cubs, thanks to a stunning walk-off win in the 13th inning of Game 3. Madison Bumgarner continued to build his case for Cooperstown, putting up 5.2 WARP for the second time in his career and forming a potent 1-2 punch with Johnny Cueto. Buster Posey, while posting some of his lowest career numbers at the plate, was more valuable behind it than any other backstop in the league and carried a .289 TAv that put most of his competitors to shame.
Not much is projected to change for the Giants in 2017, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They restructured their bullpen, shedding Casilla, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo and signing heavyweight closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million contract. Derek Law and Hunter Strickland are the presumed setup relievers in lieu of Will Smith’s pending Tommy John surgery. Smith is projected to miss the entire 2017 season, which leaves the team without a viable lefty in the ‘pen, something they could rectify with a midseason pickup or a combination of internal lefty candidates Josh Osich and Steven Okert. Smith’s loss notwithstanding, it’s one of the sturdiest bullpens the Giants have constructed in the last half-decade.
Bumgarner and Cueto lead the rotation, with Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija primed to cover for the absent Peavy. The fifth rotation spot is shrouded in mystery, at least until Bochy announces his selection later this week, though it doesn’t look like much of a competition. Cain’s command is sharper, his breaking balls more refined, but the 8.10 ERA in 20 spring training innings evokes his struggles of yesteryear. While a rough spring doesn’t necessarily preface a rough season, it’s difficult to set aside Cain’s age and declining value, especially in light of Ty Blach’s strong showing in camp. In fact, the only mark against Blach is actually a positive: he appears as well-suited to starting as pitching in long relief, something that cannot be said for his competitor. When, not if, Cain exits the rotation this season, it will mark the end of an era for the club.
With or without Cain, the Giants are poised to roll out the same defense-heavy strategy that worked wonders for them in the past. They may have taken considerable measures to secure their bullpen over the offseason, but just as conspicuously failed to strengthen their lineup. Posey, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt will once again form the nucleus of the offense, accentuated by many of the familiar faces and loud personalities the team relied on in 2016: Joe Panik, Eduardo Nunez, Hunter Pence, Denard Span, even Bumgarner, ace-turned-home-run-machine.
The only upgrade came in left field, where Angel Pagan vacated his position after sustaining multiple back, groin, and hamstring issues in 2016. The veteran outfielder has just enough pop at the plate to attract another major-league team, and rumors indicate that the Giants may have some interest in re-signing him. Pagan profiles better as a bat off the bench than a starting outfielder, however, and the team has Jarrett Parker all but locked into the position, with Mac Williamson just a rehabbed quad injury away from a backup role.
The Giants discarded their even-year narrative in the shadows of last year’s postseason loss, but a new one awaits them in the division battles and playoff hunts of 2017. Perhaps we’ll remember them for a return to form, channeling the sheer electricity of a 2010 pitching staff that muscled its way to the forefront of the division—this time with Mark “career 2.60 ERA” Melancon preserving those extra-inning nail-biters. Perhaps we’ll recall Bumgarner’s first Cy Young award, or his first 20-win season, or the way he launched a game-winning grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series (it could happen!).
Perhaps, like the seasons before it, we’ll remember these Giants for another late-season collapse, a bullpen implosion, an offense that can’t quite dig itself out of enough one-run losses to overtake the Dodgers at the front of the division. There’s no telling what lies ahead of the slightly-revamped Giants of 2017, other than the inflated expectations that follow their championship record over the last decade.
Hyperbole aside, the Giants look good this year. They patched holes in their offense and gave the bullpen a much-needed facelift, and it’s not a stretch to imagine them running away with the NL West—or the pennant. Just don’t expect them to win. It’s more fun to be surprised.
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