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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

On a cold autumn night in San Francisco, with a three-run lead in the top of the ninth inning and a three-game deficit to reclaim in the NLDS, the Giants laid their even-year narrative to rest. Short of another championship title, it was the best outcome for a season that had seen massive ups and downs, from the early successes of the first half of the season to the collapse of a beleaguered bullpen and injured lineup down the stretch.

The Giants of 2017 will enter the season with a clean slate and, hopefully, a new narrative to write. They addressed two of their biggest weaknesses — a fragile bullpen and even more fragile left field corner — in the offseason while making little to no improvements in their lineup. On the heels of Angel Pagan’s departure, left fielder Jarrett Parker seems primed to take over the outfield corner, though his .236/.358/.394 batting line and .751 OPS in 2016 leaves a little to be desired.

When it comes to contending, however, the Giants are known for their pitching. AT&T Park is infamous for its appetite for hard-hit fly balls and warning track catches, and on some level it makes sense that the Giants would play to their strengths and double down on elite pitching. It worked for them in 2010 and 2012 with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, and it’s continued to work for them with Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto heading the rotation in recent years.

Bumgarner will lead the Giants’ pitching staff again in 2017, with Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija behind him. Jake Peavy, who was beset with back pain and effectively replaced in the rotation by Moore last year, will not return to the club. In his stead, Matt Cain and Ty Blach will vie for the fifth and final starting role. At 32 years old, Cain isn’t the hard-tossing spring chicken he used to be, and his middling numbers and poor health have compromised his position on the team, even with another $20 million still left on his contract. Blach, while younger, healthier and more dominant in camp, could double as a long reliever in the bullpen and might not secure a starting role until Cain hangs up his mitt for good.

Even an extreme pitcher’s park couldn’t disguise how poorly the Giants’ bullpen pitched in 2016. Santiago Casilla faded over the summer, nearly doubling his ERA during the second half of the season and blowing a career-high nine saves. Sergio Romo missed 84 days with a flexor strain, sidestepping Tommy John surgery but delivering just 30 2/3 innings during the regular season and blowing a save in Game 3 of the NLDS. Losing that pivotal Game 4 of the NLDS was a group effort: Derek Law, Javier Lopez, Sergio Romo, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland set the stage for the Cubs’ four-run comeback in the ninth and eventual Division Series win.

The problem was finally addressed over the offseason, when the Giants cut ties with Casilla, Romo and Lopez and signed closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million deal. The 32-year-old right-hander split his 2016 season between the Pirates and Nationals, delivering a combined 1.64 ERA, 1.5 BB/9 and 8.2 SO/9 and recording 47 saves over 71 1/3 innings.

With Melancon anchoring the back end of the bullpen, Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy should be able to abandon his closer-by-committee approach, though a bit of bullpen tinkering may be in order after left-hander Will Smith undergoes Tommy John surgery this week. With both Javier Lopez and Will Smith out of the picture for 2017, the Giants don’t have a viable lefty left in the bullpen. A midseason acquisition might be one possibility, but until then, Bochy is reportedly expected to utilize left-handed candidates Josh Osich or Steven Okert, leaving Derek Law and Hunter Strickland as potential set-up relievers for Melancon.

On the field, not much looks different in San Francisco. Buster Posey is still the league’s No. 1 performer behind the dish, and even though he regressed with a .288/.362/.434 slash line and just 14 home runs in 2016, he still profiles as one of the Giants’ top hitters entering the 2017 season. Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Eduardo Nunez round out the rest of the club’s infield, and if Crawford’s antics in the World Baseball Classic are any indication, he’s poised for a monster season at the plate as well.

Hunter Pence and Denard Span will return to right and center field, respectively, while veteran defender Jarrett Parker takes over for Angel Pagan in left field. Last year, Pagan’s offensive output was the best it’s been since 2014, but debilitating back soreness cut into his playing time and eventually forced him off the roster. Rumor has it he’s in talks with several major league clubs, one of whom could be the Giants, but his return to the team would likely come in the form of a bench spot rather than a starting role.

The same question haunts every team that emerges from the long, dark stretch of the offseason: Have we done enough? Is this team fundamentally better than the last one that took the field, more capable of enduring another 162 games to improve its record, capture a title, sustain a franchise? For the Giants, the answer appears to be ‘yes.’ Mark Melancon isn’t the club’s only ticket to reclaiming the NL West, but he’s an integral part of the younger, healthier bullpen the Giants so desperately needed. With a fully functioning pitching staff, these Giants stand a chance of improving on their 28-27 record in one-run games, and perhaps even edging out the competition in close playoff races as well.

Whether that will be enough to overtake the division-leading Dodgers remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Whatever success the Giants build on in 2017, they won’t need any odd-year magic to do it.

Prediction: 2nd place in NL West.

Miguel Sano fouls a ball off his shin, so a columnist slams him for his weight

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As Bill wrote last night, the Twins have placed third baseman Miguel Sano on the 10-day disabled list with a stress reaction in his left shin. He sustained the injury Friday after he fouled a ball off of his leg, attempted to play through it, and left the game on Saturday when the pain became too great.

That’s baseball, though, right? Sometimes you foul a ball off your foot or your shin or something. Stuff happens and you just gotta accept it. Unless, of course, you’re Jim Souhan, columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, in which case you use it as a pretext for going after Sano for his weight:

Souhan acknowledges that Sano injured himself with the foul ball and says that he’s not fat-shaming him. He says he’s merely concerned about him and how well a man of his size can recover from injuries. Maybe that would wash for most columnists, but it doesn’t for Souhan, who has made it his business over the years to treat illness and injuries of sports figures as moral failings and evidence of poor character.

His most famous target has been Joe Mauer, who he has slammed as “fragile” for years, arguing that he was coddled for missing time and losing effectiveness to a concussion — a concussion! — which he compared to “a bruise.” Given that Souhan had a front row seat for a concussion all but destroying the career of Justin Morneau you’d think he’d have a bit more empathy about that, but apparently not. Then again, this is a guy who once wrote that the University of Minnesota football coach should be fired because he has epilepsy, so empathy is not his strong suit.

And so it is with Sano. A guy injured with a foul ball which, apparently, makes him deserving of a sermon about watching his weight. It’s a column I would bet Souhan has had written and saved for months, hoping he could use it in the event Sano went on the disabled list for some conditioning-related ailment or a pulled muscle or something, but which had to be pressed into service for this occasion.

It’s practically pathological. And it’s sad.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Tigers 6, Dodgers 1: Justin Verlander dominated the Dodgers, allowing one run on two hits over eight innings, snapping their six-game winning streak. Audition for Verlander? He lives in L.A. in the offseason and would waive his 10-5 rights to play there, I imagine. Not that the Dodgers really need any help.

Royals 7, Indians 4:  Cheslor Cuthbert homered and drove in three runs for the Royals. Between him and Whit Merrifield, Kansas City has more guys with names that sound like they belong to prep school bad guys from a 1980s snobs vs. slobs movie than any team in baseball history. Add Cam Gallagher to that list. He drove in a run too. Afterwards they had a meeting to try to figure out just how they keep losing to the nerd fraternity/poor kid camp/random band of neighborhood misfits in whatever improbable sporting event they’re all competing in. Thing is, they’ll never figure it out AND the nerds/poor kids are gonna steal their girlfriends. Sad.

Angels 5, Orioles 4:  Kole Calhoun and Andrelton Simmons homered and Cameron Maybin drove in the go-ahead run with a pinch-hit single in the eighth. The Angels have won nine of 11. Orioles pitchers issued nine walks. Yep, the Angels walked nine times.

 

Braves 8, Reds 1: Atlanta rode a six-run fifth inning to victory and that inning was powered largely by a Tyler Flowers grand slam. Braves starter Sean Newcomb tossed five shutout innings, allowing five hits but also walking five guys which is sort of what he does. I don’t have a “five times” GIF.

Twins 12, Diamondbacks 5: The Twins scored nine runs in the first — yes, they scored NINE TIMES — thanks in part to an Eddie Rosario grand slam. Per baseball rules, a forfeited game is scored 9-0 in favor of the winning team. The Dbacks shoulda just thrown in the towel after the first inning and hopped their flight to New York a lot earlier. Really, playing out the rest of this one had to pale compared to 2-3 extra hours to do stuff in New York. In other news, Bartolo Colon won his third game in five starts for the Twins. It’s his first ever win over the Dbacks, which was the last team he had never beaten.

Marlins 6, Mets 4: Giancarlo Stanton hit a three-run homer, turning a 2-1 game into a 5-1 game. It was his 45th dinger of the year. Adam Conley backed him up by allowing one run over seven innings and striking out 11 before the Marlins bullpen got a bit roughed up, but they held on. The Mets have lost six of nine, which is not nice.

Rays 3, Mariners 0: Blake Snell tossed seven shutout innings, allowing only two hits. Kevin Kiermaier homered. He went 5-for-12 with a couple knocked in on his first weekend back following a two-month absence, so he definitely landed on his feet. Seattle took two of three from the Rays, however, and remains one and a half games back of the Angels and Twins for the second Wild Card. Tampa Bay is four back.

Red Sox 5, Yankees 1Jackie Bradley Jr. drove in three with an RBI triple and an RBI single and Rick Porcello and three relievers allowed only one run on three hits. Boston extends its lead over New York to five games after taking two of three from the Yankees.

Athletics 3, Astros 2: How are things going for the Astros lately? Like this, mostly:

That’s how two of the A’s three runs scored. The third: on a passed ball. Woof.

Cubs 6, Blue Jays 5: It was tied 3-3 heading into the 10th inning and then the Jays scored two. Most times that’d be enough to win an extra innings game — in fact, per ESPN, teams with multi-run leads in extra innings were 50-0 this season before yesterday — but the Cubs scored three, with one coming in on a wild pitch and two coming in on Alex Avila‘s walkoff single. Two of the Cubs base runners that frame reached on strikeout/wild pitch combinations too. Not an inning Roberto Osuna will remember fondly.

White Sox 3, Rangers 2: Miguel Gonzalez shut the Rangers out for six and two relievers made it eight shutout innings in all. Texas made it close in the ninth thanks to a two-run homer from Rougned Odor, but it was too little too late. Tyler Saladino doubled in two runs for Chicago in their three-run fourth inning, Omar Narvaez singled in the other one.

Brewers 8, Rockies 4Jesus Aguilar hit two homers, driving in three and scored three times. Keon Broxton knocked in a couple of runs with a single. Chase Anderson allowed one run and two hits in five innings in his first start since late June.

Phillies 5, Giants 2: Pedro Florimon doubled in a run early and hit two-run single late to give the Phillies the lead. Rhys Hoskins homered for some insurance in the ninth, his fifth in 11 games. If you’re really bad, having one young kid come up late in the year and look good is a pretty decent silver lining on that cloud. No word what the Giants are doing for silver linings these days.

Nationals 4, Padres 1: Gio Gonzalez allowed one run on five hits — all singles — and struck out eight in six and two-thirds. Daniel Murphy drove in two of the Nats four runs. The Nats took three of four from San Diego.

Pirates 6, Cardinals 3: Josh Bell homered and drove in four runs in the first ever Little League Classic, which took place on a converted Little League field in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, not far from the Little League World Series. Coolest part, aside from the fact that the players all hung out with Little Leaguers all day and the Little Leaguers getting front row seats at the game: after it was over, the major leaguers lined up on the field and did the “good game” high five line, just like you did when you were 12. The highlights, with the handshake at the end: