On deck: Clayton Blackburn led the Pacific Coast League with a 2.85 ERA, and thusly impressed, the Giants went out and spent $220 million on free-agent starting pitching, Talk about building young players’ confidence. There’s a range of opinion as wide as Pablo Sandoval on Blackburn, and given how the Giants spent their money, it’s a sure bet what they think. Blackburn is 23, has a career 2.98 ERA and 504 strikeouts in 518.2 innings and just 468 hits allowed. Yet Baseball Prospectus didn’t list him as one of the Giants’ top 10 prospects, even in a down year for the team’s farm system. Since its annual proclaims that it has commenatry on “almost 2,000 players,” it can be assumed the oversight is not accidental. Baseball America ranks Blackburn eighth, and John Sickels at minorleagueball.com, ranks him third, saying, “I believe in him.” He might be very much alone.
2015 Stat: Shortstop Brandon Crawford hit 21 home runs to lead the Giants. The last time a Giants shortstop hit that many was 2010 when Juan Uribe hit 24. The last time a Giant led the team with so few was 2008, when Benjie Molina’s 16 were high. And the last time a Giants shortstop led the team in home runs was 1905, when Bill Dahlen hit seven to tie Mike Donlin. Other Giants shortstop with at least 20 home runs in a season were Rich Aurilia (37 in 2001 when Barry Bonds hit 73, 20 in 2000 and 22 in 1999); Alvin Dark (20 for the 1954 World Series champions, 23 in 1953) and Hall of Famer Travis Jackson (21 in 1929). Johnnie LeMaster, who manned the position for large parts of a decade from 1975-85, hit 20 home runs in his Giant career – barely. He had 22. That was the output of a Silver Slugger compared to Hal Lanier, who hit eight home runs as a Giants shortstop from 1964-71, and went homerless for three straight season from 1967-69 despite 1,612 plate appearances.
What he said: Buster Posey on rehabbing starter Mat Cain: “I don’t think there’s any other way to put it. I think he really has the opportunity to win a lot of games this year.” What he meant: “He’ll win more than the two he won last year.”
Outlook: It’s an even year, which is supposed to be good for the Giants, who’ve won the World Series in the last three of them.
The Giants spent $250 million in the offseason to ensure it, which is usually a good sign it won’t.
Any team in need of that much investment isn’t as close to winning as it thinks (the 2009 Yankees excepted).
There’s a risk there the Giants haven’t typically taken, because there’s a difference between signing Nori Aoki for one season and Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija for a combined 11. Is it desperate or prudent?
Cueto pitched just 11 games in 2013 and had a 4.76 regular-season ERA for the Royals, which was almost enough to make Royals fans wonder why he was an upgrade over Jeremy Guthrie. They found out in the postseason — Cueto threw an eight-inning two hitter in the deciding ALDS game and a complete game two-hitter in his World Series start, but still threw in an ALCS clunker.
Cueto was either brilliant or ragged for the Royals, which is the kind of inconsistency that dropped him below David Price and Zack Greinke as desired free-agent pitchers last fall. Granted, that would also include almost all non-free agent pitchers not named Clayton Kershaw, too.
The Giants signed Jeff Samardzija for five years, at $18 million per after a year in which he led the AL in hits allowed (228) and home runs allowed (29). He should do better in San Francisco, but it’s easy to be skeptical of paying $90 million to a pitcher with a career 7.1 WAR and 4.08 ERA in three parks over his four seasons as a starter.
And the Giants spent $31 million on center fielder Denard Span, who played just 61 games last year. To the surprise of no one in Washington, Span was hurt last week in spring training, though he expects to be back soon.
That’s not to say the Giants’ infusion of free agents won’t work, because every other year almost everything the Giants try does work.
The Giants won the 2014 World Series, but they haven’t won more than 88 games since 2012, and their last Series triumph was as a wild card. Maybe that’s why the 2015 Giants didn’t fare better: their +69 run differential was eighth in MLB, their offense was 12th in runs scored and their pitching was ninth — all with Hunter Pence playing just 52 games and Jake Peavy just 19 starts. Last year’s Giants deserved better.
The 2015 Giants won 84 games with a great bullpen (seventh in ERA with six relievers 2.98 or less) and an offense that compensated for Pence’s absence and its lack of power by getting on base. The Giants were 27th in home runs, but third in on-base percentage.
The 2016 Giants don’t have an appreciable weakness, other than possibly Angel Pagan (a .635 OPS last year) and a weakened farm system. Even better, the Giants have a young infield for which praise generally hasn’t matched its performance: second baseman Joe Panik, 25, had an .833 OPS; Crawford, the oldest at 29, hit 21 homers and won a Gold Glove; first baseman Brandon Belt, 27, had 18 homers and an .834 OPS; and third baseman Matt Duffy, 25, took the job when Casey McGehee dropped it as if it were a ground ball, hitting .295 (McGehee grounded into 15 double plays in 127 Giants at bats).
In all, the infield totaled 17.7 of WAR, from a low of Panik’s 3.3 to a high of Crawford’s 5.6, an average of more than 4.4 per position.
That’s one way to win World Series, and there’s more reasons they could — Buster Posey, Pence, Madison Bumgarner, starting pitching depth, a superior bullpen and a manager who knows how to use it — than not.
That doesn’t mean they will. But, if you believe in it, it’s an even year.
Team Song: They Might be Giants: Damn Good Times