The ending to the 2016 Giants season was perfect, at least from a narrative perspective. All season, the Giants were plagued by an equally incompetent and unlucky bullpen. According to Grant Brisbee’s Pain Index, which is the difference of games won after trailing in the ninth inning minus games lost after leading in the ninth inning, the 2016 Giants were the most painful team to watch since 1990 and it wasn’t especially close. It was only fitting that the season–and Even Year Bullshit–would end with a disastrous ninth inning wherein now-retired LOOGY Javier Lopez gave up a walk to Anthony Rizzo with no one on and up by three, one of the best defensive players in the majors committed an error at exactly the wrong time, and five different pitchers couldn’t preserve a three-run lead.

Still, even after losing nine winnable games, the 2016 Giants made it to the playoffs and nearly forced a winner-take-all game against the best team in the majors and eventual World Series Champion Chicago Cubs. With a normal bullpen, who knows, maybe the Giants make it past the Cubs. Even Year Bullshit lives on and in October 2018, Giants twitter would be ablaze with an even stupider portmanteau/hashtag than #believen. With a normal bullpen, the Giants at least would have had a very good chance to win the NL West after the Dodgers underperformed expectations.

The 2017 Giants should have a normally functioning bullpen with a new, expensive pitcher who has been very good at getting outs in the ninth inning. Will this be the first year the Giants (or someone other than the Dodgers) wins the NL West since 2012?

Haha. No.

Even with the addition of Mark Melancon and the subtraction of Santiago Casilla, the Giants haven’t made up any ground on the Dodgers. Baseball Prospectus expects the Giants to win 86 games while ZiPS has San Francisco at 87 wins. Both systems predict the Giants to win the Wild Card. The 2017 Giants will be competitive, unless of course Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey collide trying to catch a pop-up in the WBC and both break their legs.

 

The Good

 

The Giants have a few obvious strengths. Buster Posey is the best player at his position. Brandon Crawford is one of the best all-around shortstops in either league. Brandon Belt is criminally underrated and last season, he became the first Giant since Barry Bonds to draw over 100 walks in a year. Johnny Cueto would be a number one starter on most other teams, but he’s forced to play second fiddle (and second horseman) to Madison Bumgarner.

The top of the rotation would be a fine start for any team, but Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore turn the rotation into a strength. The top four starting pitchers for the Giants are projected for 8.7 WARP, which isn’t far off from, say, the Cubs, whose top four are projected for 10.1 WARP. PECOTA is even being curiously bearish on Bumgarner, only putting him at 3.5 WARP even though he’s never been below 4.0 in a full season. Samardzija and Moore certainly have their flaws as pitchers, but the rotation has vastly improved over 2015 and the addition of Moore enabled the Giants to improve their roster in other areas.

Last year, Giants fans were understandably upset when Bobby Evans traded Matt Duffy for Matt Moore. A fan favorite and good player was gone and a pitcher who hadn’t been good since 2014 took his place. There’s upside with Matt Moore though. Moore was once one of the best prospects in baseball, but is currently the Adlai Atkins of Major League Baseball. Moore’s first few starts with the Giants were rocky, but he eventually settled down and nearly no-hit the Dodgers, then stymied the Cubs in an elimination game that should have sent the series back to Chicago with Johnny Cueto on the mound. With the Giants, Moore had a 3.53 FIP and 101 ERA+, which isn’t exactly exciting until you remember he’s the Giants’ fourth best starting pitcher.

The Trade of the Matts looks much savvier than it did in the moment. Eduardo Nunez is essentially a sidegrade at third and can spell Brandon Crawford at short, giving the Giants more options when it comes to their bench. Mendoza Line-threatening Ehire Adrianza stayed with the roster for so long because he was out of options and the Giants felt they had no other viable options at short. Nevermind that Matt Duffy will get most of his starts at shortstop in Tampa Bay.

Part of the reason the Giants never won a game in which they were trailing going into the ninth inning was the lack of not-only power, but simply good hitters coming off the bench. This year, instead of sending Ehire Adrianza or Gregor Blanco to the plate with the game on the line, the Giants can turn to someone like Conor Gillaspie or Michael Morse or Jarret Parker or Mac Williamson or Jimmy Rollins or Jae-Gyun Hwang. Even if none of them are fearsome hitters, most have legitimate home run power.

 

The Not Bad

 

The Giants had two glaring holes going into the 2016-17 offseason: a closer and left field. They fixed one of those holes with one of the best options available. They decided to stick with in-house options for the other. The plan for left field is (A) a platoon of Jarret Parker and Mac Williamson, (B) Williamson or Parker becomes the starter and the other becomes the fourth outfielder/goes to AAA Sacramento, or (C) uhh… Michael Morse? Justin Ruggiano?

PECOTA is going with option A and is predicting Parker and Williamson combining for 2.3 WARP, which would be acceptable, but the Giants might want to explore other options. Parker is likely to make the MLB roster considering he’s out of options, and the Giants don’t want to lose him on waivers. The Giants may also decide to only carry four outfielders while carrying an infielder who can also play center like Orlando Calixte.

However, the strength of the Giants bench isn’t the quality of the players; it’s that they have options for once. Here are a few of the different ways the bench could be constructed with PECOTA’s projected WARP:

Balanced Power Three Catchers Defense Highest WARP
INF Kelby Tomlinson (0.3) Jae-Gyun Hwang* Orlando Calixte (0.0) Kelby Tomlinson (0.3) Kelby Tomlinson (0.3)
INF Conor Gillaspie (0.1) Conor Gillaspie (0.1) Kelby Tomlinson (0.3) Orlando Calixte (0.0) Conor Gillaspie (0.1)
OF Mac Williamson (1.3) Michael Morse (-0.1) Mac Williamson (1.3) Gorkys Hernandez (0.2) Mac Williamson (1.3)
OF Gorkys Hernandez (0.2) Jarrett Parker (1.0) Nick Hundley (C) (-0.4) Mac Williamson (1.3) Justin Ruggiano (0.4)
C Nick Hundley (-0.4) Nick Hundley (-0.4) Trevor Brown (-0.2) Trevor Brown (-0.2) Trevor Brown (-0.2)
Total WARP: 1.5 0.6 + Hwang 1.0 1.6 1.9

*PECOTA doesn’t have projections for Jae-Gyun Hwang

I’m assuming that Mac Williamson or Jarrett Parker would be the starting left fielder. These are just a few examples of some of the many permutations the Giants bench could undertake. It’s possible that Christian Arroyo or Austin Slater impress enough in spring training to force their way onto the roster.

While it would be nice if the Giants had a Javier Baez-type utility player, the real advantage here is that the Giants have something to offer in a midseason trade. The Giants farm system was recently ranked 24th by Baseball America, and even if the Giants are higher on some of their guys than the rest of the league, other teams would need to be persuaded that the Giants prospects are worth a JD Martinez or a Sonny Gray. The addition of major league-ready talent could sweeten any deal. If the Giants’ other options work out, Tomlinson, Hwang, Williamson, or Parker could be included in a package that might have otherwise required Joe Panik. If one of the extra infielders or outfielders are dealt, Christian Arroyo or Austin Slater could be ready to replace them either this season or in 2018.

 

The Bad

 

As good as the top four starters are going to be, the fifth spot in the rotation is likely to be weak. Matt Cain will almost assuredly receive the fifth starter job. Neither Ty Blach or Tyler Beede are currently good enough to force out a former franchise player who is still owed a ton of money. At least not at the start of the season. Since 2013, Cain has posted a 4.64 ERA while only averaging 106 IP per season. PECOTA projects Cain for a 4.33 ERA, 156 IP, and a 5.05 DRA. Frankly, that’s optimistic. It would be his best season since 2012.

Last season, Cain showed some flashes of his former self, but it mostly came the first time through the order. No pitcher is immune from the times-through-the-order penalty, but Cain was especially susceptible to it in 2016. Here’s Cain’s TTO from 2016:

TTO IP ERA wOBA AVG OBP SLG
1st 35.2 2.52 .303 .237 .318 .376
2nd 31.0 6.39 .390 .298 .393 .517
3rd 15.2 12.64 .488 .385 .434 .781

 

The first time through the order, hitters were Danny Espinosa. The third time, they were Ted Williams. Those numbers are inflated because of small sample size, sure, but it should be pretty telling that Cain was only able to accumulate 15 IP against batters the third time through the order.

In September, Cain went to the bullpen and was mostly effective in limited action. The move to the bullpen makes a lot of sense for Cain, but the Giants are hoping to squeeze some value out of him as a starter. After all, he’s the highest paid member of the team, and he might have something left.

If Cain can’t put it together and is either relegated to the bullpen or buried on the DL, the Giants have at least two internal options. Ty Blach has shown glimmers of brilliance in his few major league starts, though in two seasons of AAA he’s posted a 3.95 ERA with 0.7 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9, and 5.7 K/9. Last season, his results were much better, putting up a 3.35 ERA though his peripherals were largely the same. The low strikeout rate is the biggest red flag, but if he finds his way into the rotation, he’ll have the benefit of a mostly excellent defense to cater to him pitching to contact.

The Giants may also turn to Tyler Beede at some point in 2017. Beede was the Giants’ first round pick in 2014 and consistently placed in the top three on Giants prospect lists this offseason. In 2016, he had a 2.81 ERA and a 3.48 FIP with decent HR and K rates. His BB/9 rate of 3.2 is a little alarming, but it’s an improvement over his walk rate of 4.4 in 2015. He’s yet to pitch above AA, so he might not make it to the MLB roster until after the All-Star break, if at all.

*

Though the Giants’ chances of winning the NL West this year may be low, they have a very good chance at one of the Wild Card spots. The Giants are lucky in that the only real sense of urgency to win is the likelihood that Johnny Cueto will opt out of his contract at the end of the season. Their key contributors—Posey, Crawford, and Belt—are getting older, but it’s not like their window is rapidly closing. Even if it were, they still have three championships this decade which is three more than—oh, let’s pick a team at random—the Dodgers have since 1988. I’m predicting this team to go 90-72, which may not be enough for the division title, but should earn them a postseason berth. Anything else would be a very welcome bonus.

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