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.

Padres sign Trevor Cahill

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Trevor Cahill (53) during the seventh inning of Game 3 in baseball's National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, Oct. 12, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
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The Padres have signed Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $1.75 million contract.

As recently as the middle of the 2015 season it looked like Cahill’s career would meet a premature end, but after being released by the Braves and signing with the Cubs in August of that season he has been a remarkably effective reliever. He has posted a 2.61 ERA in 61 games in Chicago and has posted a strikeout rate far above his career norms.

He’s not someone you necessarily want taking the hill when the leverage is high, but in San Diego the leverage won’t be all that high all that often.

Justin Verlander: “I’m too old to be part of a rebuilding process”

DETROIT, MI - JULY 20: Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers pitches in the eighth inning of the game against the Minnesota Twins on July 20, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
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The Tigers have sent some mixed signals this winter. The offseason began with widespread reports that GM Al Avila was going to break up the team. Indeed, it was reported that he was willing to field offers for any and all players, on up to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera.

As the offseason has unfolded, however, a rebuild has not materialized.

Avila traded away outfielder Cameron Maybin. He signed old friends Omar Infante and Alex Avila. He made the usual sorts of minor league signings every team makes to fill out the roster. Detroit still needs a center fielder and there continue to be rumors that outfielder J.D. Martinez and second baseman Ian Kinsler could be had for the right price, but it’s been pretty quiet at 2100 Woodward Avenue.

If that changes, however, and the Tigers do start to rebuild, there’s one key member of the team who doesn’t really want a part of it. From the Detroit Free Press:

Justin Verlander is 33 years and 330 days old.

He’s not that old.

But the Detroit Tigers ace right-hander – a 12-year major league veteran – is old enough in baseball years to know that he doesn’t really want to be part of a rebuilding process.

“Would it have been upsetting for me if we started trading away everybody?” he told MLB Network Radio on Friday morning. “I’m too old to be part of a rebuilding process.”

Verlander will make $28 million a year for each of the next three seasons and has a vesting option for 2020 if he finishes in the top 5 of the 2019 Cy Young vote. He had an excellent return-to-form in 2016, but his contract is still pretty big for a pitcher with his mileage, making it seem unlikely that he would be moved absent the team eating a huge portion of his salary. The same could be said for Miguel Cabrera who, despite still being one of the best hitters in baseball, is making between $28-32 million between now and 2023. A wonderful player, but an extraordinarily difficult contract to move. Both superstars have full no-trade protection as 10-5 men as well.

At the moment the rebuild does not seem to be materializing and the Tigers — as I think they should, probably — will enter 2017 aiming for the AL Central crown, not aiming at restocking their farm system.

But what will Verlander think, however, if the Tigers find themselves out of contention come May? What will he think if Ian Kinsler — a valuable player on a tradable contract — is sold off? Or Justin Upton? Or J.D. Martinez?

It’s worth watching.