It’s an even year; they’ll win it all.

Wait, I need more than that?  Oh, well, I guess there’s more to the story then.  While it is true that this is an even year, and Giants Devil Magic causing them to win it all is certainly in play, I’ll try to examine what the other storylines will be if they happen to get there.  Let’s start with an offseason review.

In Out
LHB OF Denard Span (Free Agent, Nationals) RHP SP Yusmeiro Petit (Free Agent, Nationals)
RHP SP Jeff Samardzija (Free Agent, White Sox) SHB C Hector Sanchez (Free Agent, White Sox)
RHP SP Johnny Cueto (Free Agent, Royals) RHP SP Tim Lincecum (Free Agent, Nobody yet)
RHP SP Mike Leake (Free Agent, Cardinals)
RHP SP Tim Hudson (Retirement)
LHB OF Alejandro de Aza (Free Agent, Mets)
LHP MR Jeremy Affeldt (Retirement)
RHB OF Marlon Byrd (Free Agent, Indians)
LHB OF Norichika Aoki (Declined Option, Mariners)

 

There seems to be a consensus that the Giants went big this offseason, but as you can see from the above table, they actually lost a lot of guys.  Now, admittedly, none of the guys they lost were world beaters.  Sure, there are definitely some nice pieces there in guys like Aoki and Leake, but all of them were either short-term rentals or complimentary pieces.  The Giants’ offseason is indicative of a definitive strategy; let’s get big names at positions of need.  Previously, as indicated by their losses, they’ve felt that their team had a strong core, but it just needed some smaller pieces here and there.  They’ve added depth.  This season they let a lot of depth walk to free agency in favor of signing three big free agent deals.

We could talk about a lot of things here.  We could talk about the Giants’ poor history with big-ticket free agents, or why signing depth is a good way to build a winner, but I’d rather talk about their motivations behind this.  The Giants identified two areas of weakness to fix; the outfield (either left or center is fine) and the starting rotation.  They decided to add Span, Samardzija, and Cueto, basically to replace Aoki, Leake, and Hudson respectively, a gain of 3.5 projected WARP.  To reach the point where they feel confident that those are the moves to make, that means they must have a core that’s ready to carry them elsewhere.  Do the Giants have that core?  Will these additions push them over the Dodgers (and possibly the D-Backs) for the NL West?  Let’s find out!

SFG Record wRC+ SP ERA- RP ERA- DRS UZR BsR Pay – $M
2013  .469 (19) 100 (11) 126 (29) 96 (20) 4 (16) 37 (6) -5 (17) 139 (8)
2014 .543 (8) 101 (8) 111 (25) 89 (9) -5 (17) 3 (15) 0 (16) 172 (6)
2015  .518 (12) 107 (2) 109 (22) 92 (14) 28 (5) 37 (2) 0 (17) 187 (4)

 

Let’s start with the Infield.  Erik Malinowski, in his excellent essay for the Giants in this year’s BP Annual, expounded on the current state of the offense:

Very few GMs get three golden ages.

It was Sandoval who broke the hitter-development slump, producing a 124 OPS+ over six full seasons as a homegrown All-Star before cashing in on the East Coast last winter.  The Giants of the past would’ve scrambled to free agency to fill the void he left at third.  This is the franchise of Russ Davis and David Bell, of Juan Uribe and Edgardo Alfonzo, of Mark Lewis and Charlie Hayes and Jose Castillo.  But that’s an old vision of the Giants; 2015 was the year it became apparent that the Giants’ future lies in that core of young position players that eluded them for so long.

Buster Posey is the consensus best catcher alive at the moment.  He’s a legitimate middle of the order bat, as basically a lock for a .300 batting average, 20 home runs, and a high .370s OBP.  He’s an excellent framer, too, netting his team nearly two wins a year over the last four seasons (though his 12.7 Framing Runs were, admittedly, his worst since 2011).  He’s a breakeven blocker, and he posted his best mark as a thrower since his rookie year in 2010.  Brandon Belt may not be the superstar the Giants hoped for, but he’s also getting better.  Despite playing in just 137 games last year due to some groin injuries and concussion issues, he clubbed 18 home runs with excellent defense at first with the ability to hit both sides for better than an .800 OPS.  His brother-in-arms-and-name Brandon Crawford posted a career-high 4.7 WARP thanks to a huge power surge, more than doubling his previous career-best in home runs with 21.  PECOTA doesn’t buy his evolution to one-dimensional slugger, but it still loves his defense, so even if he loses some pop he’ll be among the better shortstops in the game.

But you all know about Posey, Belt, and Crawford.  It feels like they’ve been around forever, and they’ve been good for about as long.  Let’s talk about the new guys in the infield, Joe Panik and Matt Duffy.  Panik has overcome a lack of prospect hype by posting a huge 2015, with his plus hit tool carrying a solid batting line across the board.  He showed strong doubles power, good plate discipline, and the potential to win a batting title.  FRAA hated his defense, putting him at -6.8 in just 100 games, UZR loved him and DRS thought he was OK, so he’s probably fine.  Similarly, Steamer and ZIPS both like him to repeat in 2016, while PECOTA is more bearish.  Once the Giants finally let Duffy take the reins at third base full time, he ran with it.  If it weren’t for an excellent crop of NL rookies, Duffy probably would have run away with the Rookie of the Year Award.  He demonstrated a strong all-fields approach and great command of the zone, and his defense drew good reports despite this being his first year at the position.  As a converted shortstop, there’s a high ceiling here.  It’s easy to see from the Giants’ point of view why they think they have a core, if these two guys can repeat.

The crazy thing about this is that you consider all of these guys core guys.  Posey, Belt, Crawford, Panik, and Duffy are five guys who could be plus contributors on both sides of the game.  The only one who isn’t locked in for team control is the most easily replaceable, and that’s Brandon Belt (at the very least, there are always attractive first basemen in the free agent market).  So who else on this roster would one consider a core guy?  Well, the obvious name is Madison Bumgarner The 2014 postseason savior had possibly his best year ever in 2015.  He posted career highs in IP, walk rate, K rate, and cFIP.  He did all of that while fighting questions of overuse following that magical 2014 run.

After that…the core gets a bit more nebulous.  It’s easy to look at that infield & Bumgarner and see a lot of game 7’s being won.  The question is, can they get to that point?  Is this a roster built to get them to the postseason?  There are, unfortunately, a lot of question marks here.  The biggest one is the bullpen. While the Giants’ pen has been extremely reliable the last five years, the cracks in the hull are obvious.  Affeldt has retired.  Closer Santiago Casilla‘s metrics all look rather pedestrian, including a 0.1 WARP and 4.53 DRA.  When you add in his age (35) it’s hard to see him returning to his glory days, despite somehow posting a career best strikeout rate in 2015.  Sergio Romo seemed to return to elite status, with fabulous fWAR, K Rate and HR rate scores in 2015, but those mask the obvious reason; Bochy is deploying him much more in the platoon advantage now.  In 2015 his RIP ratio of righties faced to lefties faced was 2.97:1, up from 1.98:1 in 2014 and and 1.35:1 in 2013.  His wOBA against lefties was an indefensible .403 in 2015.  That doesn’t make him bad, it just makes him a complimentary piece in the pen rather than a lockdown set-up man.  With the Giants not making any moves to shore up this pen, they’ll need big years from Hunter Strickland (great 2015 but low BABIP and short track record as well as confusingly good production against lefties) and the rest of the cast of characters making up the pen.  Unless they get some serious surprises, this may be a team that depends heavily on their rotation and offense to win.

What about the rest of the offense and the rotation?  Hunter Pence was good when he played, but he missed significant time with injuries last year and he’s at the age when you have to wonder if those injuries will have lingering effects.  The two-headed monster of Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan is shaky at best, and the Giants have never been ones to employ great depth pieces in backup roles (looking at you, Joaquin Arias).  Filling out the back-end of the rotation are Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, and Chris Heston.  Outside of his outlier 2012, Peavy hasn’t posted a WARP above 2 since 2009, so while he’s consistent, he’s basically a #4 starter who only pitched 110 innings last year and is over 35.  Cain looked awful last year, posting negative 2 WARP in just over 60 innings.  Heston was a pleasant surprise in 2015, but was much worse in the second half (.354 wOBA against compared to .298) and will have a hard time against any teams that can stack lefties against him.

So, with the above question marks, it’s easy to see why Span, Cueto, and Samardzija were targeted.  These guys all have question marks (Span has his health, Cueto has his awful start with the Royals and Samardzija has all of his 2015), but they also could be breakout studs who help give this team consistency in otherwise weak spots.  However, I’m not sure these three guys are enough.  The Giants were an 84 win team in 2015.  To win the division, they would have needed 8 more wins to top the Dodgers in the West, or 13 more wins to nab a Wild Card berth from the Cubs.  This team should be better if all things break right, but assuming that this year plays out similarly in 2015, will the Giants be eight wins better?  I have a hard time believing that.  It’s hard to assume that all three of their big-ticket free agents will perform well, and that both of Duffy and Panik will continue to improve, all while the bullpen magically solidifies and nobody at a position without depth gets hurt.  One or more of these things will happen, causing the Giants to become an improved, but not quite postseason-worthy team.

Final Predicted Record in 2016: 89-73, 2nd place in the NL West, no playoffs.
Check out Effectively Wild‘s season previews and the schedule of our own companion previews.

2013-15 team stats via FanGraphs. Salaries via Spotrac.

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