Remember when we used to make fun of San Francisco Giants’ General Manager Brian Sabean? We used to deride him as hapless and veteran obsessed — and with reason — but then he made the Giants into the closest thing to a dynasty since the late 90s Yankees. The first time around, in 2010, San Francisco relied on the strength of their unrivalled pitching staff which carried one of the worst offenses in baseball to a World Title. In 2012, the Giants relied on a much more balanced attack with a good, but not great pitching staff and an equally impressive lineup.
The Giants have developed an impressive crop of homegrown superstars and Sabean has done a nice job filling in the rest of the roster with quality role players. Despite his seemingly old-school ways, the Giants GM seems to have a method to his madness and the Giants currently find themselves in their San Fran glory days because of it.
Over the winter, the Giants set their focus on bring back almost the exact same team for 2013, re-signing center fielder Angel Pagan and second baseman Marco Scutaro instead of letting them walk as free agents. Sabean and his brass are hoping that the same group gets it done again and the core he has assembled should keep the team competitive for a while.
The biggest story for the Giants pitching staff in 2012 wasn’t the perfect game thrown by Matt Cain in June, nor the continued development of Madison Bumgarner into one of the game’s premier lefties. It was the precipitous fall of Tim Lincecum who had by far his worst season as a professional in 2012. After a string of dominant years, Lincecum’s numbers fell off across the board. He still struck out a great deal, but his walk-rate ballooned, he gave up a lot of hard contact due to a staggering loss of in-zone command, and he barely topped 90 mph on the radar gun.
The Giants decided to use him as a high-leverage reliever in the post-season and the results were very encouraging, but they need Lincecum to find at least some of his form again in 2013 as a starter otherwise the rotation starts to look thin.
Bumgarner and Cain make a great one-two punch – the two combined for 427 1/3 innings and more than seven Wins Above Replacement according to FanGraphs in 2012. They’re not as formidable as Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in LA, but most teams would be happy with those two at the top.
Ryan Vogelsong has now put up two consecutive seasons of at least 2.5 WAR after resurrecting his career with the Giants. At 35, there’s always a risk of regression, but if he can sustain what he’s done over the past couple years, he’s an excellent number three. The final spot in the rotation will go to Barry Zito who is finally — mercifully — in the final year of that massive seven-year, $126-million deal he signed ahead of the 2007 season. Although he’s been mostly durable over that stretch, he’s been pretty awful. Last year, he posted a respectable 4.15 ERA in 32 starts, but his peripherals suggest it was a bit of a fluke.
If Lincecum can’t get back what he had as a starter or if Zito is just too terrible, the Giants don’t have an awful lot of depth. Yusmeiro Petit is the strongest candidate to take a starting spot, though he just cleared waivers and now has the option to become a free agent. Longman George Kontos and minor leaguer Chris Heston may be the next in line. The organization’s top two pitching prospects—Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton—are still a long way off, although promising left-hander Mike Kickham is a little closer.
The Giants boast one of the best bullpens in baseball over the last few years which has been key to their run of success. Even without closer Brian Wilson last year, the Giants were terrific. Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla will again be frontrunners to close out games this season as the Giants decided not to bring Wilson back. Joining them will be left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez; all four of them had ERAs well below three with the peripherals to support it.
The Giants will likely carry a third lefty in the ‘pen as well with Jose Mijares who was excellent as a lefty-specialist in 2012 once he was acquired from Kansas City for a song. The rest of the bullpen will be filled out by Ramon Ramirez—who returns after a year with the Mets—and Kontos. He of five different teams this off-season, Sandy Rosario, could also be in the mix for a spot.
The Giants finished sixth in the NL in runs scored despite finishing last in home runs with only 103. They did this by getting on base as well as anyone in the NL. Catcher Buster Posey entered the realm of superstardom in 2012, winning the MVP while leading the league in both batting average and on-base percentage.
Joining him in the middle of the lineup will be third baseman Pablo Sandoval and rightfielder Hunter Pence. Sandoval continues to post excellent numbers from a position with not much in the way of quality players, while Pence was the inspirational leader of the club down the stretch, even if his performance on the field was sub-par.
At the top of the order will be Pagan and Scutaro. Pagan posted a career-best 113 wRC+ and was rewarded with a four-year, $40-million contract which will pay him through his age-34 season. Scutaro meanwhile, was one of the best hitters in baseball down the stretch after being acquired from Colorado and was also excellent in the playoffs. He was in turn rewarded with a three-year, $20 million contract that will pay him through his age-39 season. Neither of those contracts is big enough to be an albatrosses, but both could end up being regrettable as Pagan and Scutaro age/regress.
First baseman Brandon Belt finally received everyday playing time last season and with Aubrey Huff now permanently off the roster, he has no competition heading into the season. Although he had his flaws, he still posted an excellent .275/.360/.421 slash line and a 116 wRC+. He should eventually start hitting for more power and could be a monster in the middle of this lineup.
Brandon Crawford is back as the everyday shortstop and although his bat is anaemic, his superior defensive skills give him serious value. He’ll be joined at the bottom of the lineup by another defensive specialist in left fielder Gregor Blanco who got his first taste of everyday playing time last year at the age of 28. If he falters, the Giants brought back Andres Torres from the Mets to be the fourth outfielder and first baseman Brett Pill can also play the outfield.
Up-the-middle defense is of utmost importance and the Giants appear set in that regard with Posey, Crawford, Scutaro, and Pagan all considered good defenders. The rest of the outfield defense is also very good with Blanco and Pence in the corners and Torres on the bench. Sandoval defies logic by being a decent defender at third and Belt is excellent at first. The Giants were only seventh in the NL in defensive efficiency last year, but look for that number to go up this year.
Say what you will about Sabean’s love of underwhelming veteran talent, the Giants have shown a knack for producing superstars at the Major League level. The core of this team rivals anybody’s and their success over the last three seasons is a testament to that. The one problem with the Giants as they head into 2013 is a lack of pitching depth. If Lincecum continues to decline and Zito becomes just a little more useless, there’s not really anybody to step in and take their spots. And what is Vogelsong’s magic fairy dust runs out? Cain and Bumgarner are terrific at the top, but an injury or some ineffectiveness could really de-rail their season. Still, they should be in the conversation for both the NL West and a wildcard spot.
2013 Prediction: 85-77, 3rd NL West