Bruce Bochy AP

2014 Preview: San Francisco Giants

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

The Big Question: Can the Giants prove that last year was an aberration?

After winning their second World Series title in the span of three seasons, the Giants took a big step backward last year by finishing with a 76-86 record, 16 games behind the division champion Dodgers. They were pretty much out of it by midseason. While it wasn’t quite on the level of what the Marlins did (or what was left of them) as defending champs in 1998 or even the Reds in 1991, it was quite a change of pace from 2012.

Of course, it’s not hard to see why Bruce Bochy’s club regressed last season, as they dealt with injuries to key contributors from the World Series team (Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro, Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong, Buster Posey at less than 100 percent during the second half) and their starting pitching simply wasn’t as effective as we have seen in the past. The rotation finished with a 4.37 ERA, which ranked 24th in the majors. And that was even with another excellent year from left-hander Madison Bumgarner.

Despite the poor finish, Giants general manager Brian Sabean only made a couple of tweaks to the roster. Hunter Pence (five years, $90 million – done last September), Tim Lincecum (two years, $35 million), Javier Lopez (three years, $13 million), and Ryan Vogelsong (one year, $5 million) were all retained while Tim Hudson (two years, $23 million) and Michael Morse (one year, $6 million) were brought into the fold.

Save for Morse, the lineup is pretty close to what we saw last season. The same goes for the rotation and the bullpen, with the exception of Hudson. So basically, Sabean is banking on improved health and better all-around seasons from those who underperformed last season. While landing a big ticket item for the outfield or acquiring another quality starting pitcher in place of Vogelsong (or even Lincecum) would have instilled more confidence coming into 2014, it’s not the worst plan.

What else is going on?

  • Pablo Sandoval appears motivated going into his contract year, as he shed somewhere in the area of 40 pounds during the offseason. The 27-year-old hit .278/.341/.417 with 14 home runs and 79 RBI in 141 games last year, but it would be a big boost to the lineup if he can stay healthy and return to his 2009 or 2011 form.
  • Quick, who led the Giants in OPS+ last year? Nope, it wasn’t Buster Posey or Hunter Pence. It was Brandon Belt. The 25-year-old really took off after making some adjustments to grip during the second half, hitting .346 with seven home runs and 28 RBI in 52 games over the final two months of the season. He finished the year with a career-high .841 OPS. Looking at OPS+, which adjusts for league and ballpark, Belt ranked 17th among qualified hitters. He could go from underrated to All-Star if he can keep up what he did during the second half last year.
  • Many questioned whether Sergio Romo and his sometimes-cranky elbow would be able to make it through a full season with the demands of the closer role, but he managed to do it last year, posting a 2.54 ERA and 58/12 K/BB ratio over 60 1/3 innings while going 38-for-43 in save opportunities. Not quite the crazy elite numbers we saw from 2011-2012, but that’s to be expected given that he wasn’t being used in as many matchup situations. Romo took a beating early on this spring while he attempted to work on the other pitches in his arsenal, but he always has that electric slider in his back pocket.
  • Matt Cain should be fine this year if he can avoid another weird month like last April, but Tim Lincecum remains an enigma. While some hoped his no-hitter last season would be the start of a turnaround for the former two-time Cy Young Award winner, he posted a mediocre 4.54 ERA in 13 starts after the 148-pitch outing. Looking back over the past two seasons, only Edinson Volquez has a higher ERA. The Giants paid big money to keep him around, but with his drop in velocity, there’s very little to indicate a return to elite form or even close to it. Whispers about an eventual move to the bullpen will only get louder if he continues to struggle.

Prediction: The Dodgers are a cut above in this division, but I think that the Giants have the best chance of the remaining teams to emerge for one of the Wild Card spots. Second place, NL West.

Gerrit Cole set to begin throwing program

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 24:  Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates sits in the dugout in the second inning during the game against the Houston Astros at PNC Park on August 24, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
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During the Pirates’ FanFest on Saturday, right-hander Gerrit Cole announced that he is back up to full health after being shut down with elbow inflammation in September. Per Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Cole said he’ll start a throwing program on Monday as he works on regaining his form for the 2017 season.

The 26-year-old pitched through 116 innings for the Pirates in 2016, delivering a 3.88 ERA and 2.5 WARP before landing on the disabled list in June with a triceps strain and again in August with elbow inflammation. It was a steep drop for the right-hander, who saw a considerable spike in his ERA and BB/9 rate and struggled to strike out batters at the 8.7 mark he managed in 2015.

The upside? Inflammation was the worst of Cole’s issues in 2016, and while the newfound health issues didn’t help his case for an extension, a more serious injury doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

The White Sox wanted Astros’ top prospects for Jose Quintana

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 27:  Jose Quintana #62 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the first inning at U.S. Cellular Field on August 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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The Astros, Braves and Nationals came sniffing around White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana during the Winter Meetings, but each appeared to find the Sox’ asking price well beyond what they were willing to give up for the starter. On Saturday, Peter Gammons revealed that the White Sox had floated Francis Martes, Kyle Tucker and Joe Musgrove as a possible return for Quintana.

It’s a strategy that worked well for Chicago in the past, most recently when they dealt Chris Sale to the Red Sox for Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech, among others, and flipped Adam Eaton to the Nationals for a trio of pitching prospects. Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow didn’t appear eager to sacrifice some of his core talent to net a high-end starter, however, and told the Houston Chronicle’s Jake Kaplan as much on Wednesday:

We’re prepared to trade players to improve our club right now. […] We’re just not prepared to trade away players that are core to our production in 2017, and those are sometimes the players that are required to get these deals done.

While Lunhow was speaking specifically to the inclusion of third baseman Alex Bregman in future deals, it’s not unrealistic to think that top prospects Francis Martes and Kyle Tucker would also be considered instrumental to the Astros’ plans for the next few seasons.

Martes, 21, currently sits atop the team’s top prospect list on MLB.com. The right-hander blazed through his first full season in Double-A Corpus Christi, posting a 3.30 ERA and career-best 9.4 K/9 over 125 1/3 innings in 2016. Tucker, meanwhile, profiles as the Astros’ second-best prospect and made a successful jump to High-A Lancaster last season, slashing .339/.435/.661 in 69 PA. Rookie right-hander Joe Musgrove is the only player left off the top prospect list, but he got off to a decent start with the club in 2016 as well, going 4-4 with a 4.06 ERA and 3.44 K/BB rate in 62 innings during his first major league season.