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.

Settling the Scores: Tuesday’s results

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27:  Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees celebrates his first inning two-run home run against the Boston Red Sox with teammate Jacoby Ellsbury #22 at Yankee Stadium on September 27, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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The Sox’ winning streak ends at 11, thanks in part to Gary Sanchez continuing to hit like Barry Bonds or someone. Well, not quite Bonds, but his 20 homers in 49 games is ridiculous. I’d say “at some point pitchers need to stop giving him stuff to hit,” but this dude drove in a run when someone tried to intentionally walk him a week or two ago, so maybe there is nothing that can be done. In any event, Boston’s loss, along with the Blue Jays win, means that the AL East is not quite settled. It likely is practically, but not technically!

In other news, the Tigers pounded the Indians and their post-clinch, hungover lineup and, with the Orioles’ loss, pull a game closer in the Wild Card. The Mets pounded the Marlins who, one suspects, can only run on emotion so long and desperately want and ned to be with their loved ones to process this past week. The Cards and Giants both won as well, keeping the NL Wild Card at the status quo for another day: the Mets and Giants in, if the season ended today, the Cards one back.

The scores:

Yankees 6, Red Sox 4
Nationals 4, Diamondbacks 2
Cubs 6, Pirates 4
Blue Jays 5, Orioles 1
Tigers 12, Indians 0
Braves 7, Phillies 6
Mets 12, Marlins 1
Royals 4, Twins 3
Rangers 6, Brewers 4
White Sox 13, Rays 6
Astros 8, Mariners 4
Cardinals 12, Reds 5
Angels 8, Athletics 1
Padres 7, Dodgers 1
Giants 12, Rockies 3

Video: Aledmys Diaz hits a grand slam in remembrance of Jose Fernandez

ST. LOUIS, MO - JULY 21: Aledmys Diaz #36 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits an RBI single against San Diego Padres in the sixth inning at Busch Stadium on July 21, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz was childhood friends with Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, so it was expected when Diaz took time away from the team on Monday to visit Fernandez’s family in Miami. They grew up on the same street in Cuba and played for the same youth baseball team and both would ultimately wind up playing Major League Baseball in the United States.

In the bottom of the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s game against the Reds, Diaz hit a 2-1 Robert Stephenson fastball out to left-center field for a no-doubt grand slam. Teammate Yadier Molina gave Diaz a tight hug as he crossed home plate.

Before Tuesday’s game, Diaz said that the best way to honor Fernandez was to play with his passion, as MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch reports. Diaz said, “I only play for [Fernandez’s] family right now.”

Here’s the video.