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.

Red Sox even ALCS 1-1, defeat Astros 7-5 in Game 2

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Game 2 of the ALCS, held Sunday night in Boston, was a play in three parts. For the first three innings, it was a back-and-forth affair between the offenses of the Red Sox and Astros. The middle three innings involved both team’s pitching staffs calming things down. The final third of the game saw the Red Sox add insurance. Ultimately, the Red Sox went on to win 7-4 to even the ALCS at one game apiece.

The Red Sox opened the scoring in the bottom of the first inning, with Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers hitting RBI singles off of a shaky Gerrit Cole. The Astros returned the salvo in the top of the second against David Price as George Springer fisted a double that just barely stayed fair down the right field line to plate two runs to tie the game. Marwin González broke the 2-2 tie in the top of the third, turning on an inside cut fastball for a two-run homer over the Green Monster. In the bottom half of the third, the Red Sox put together a rally, loading the bases with one out. After Ian Kinsler struck out, Jackie Bradley, Jr. drilled an opposite-field double off of the Monster with the carom taking left fielder Marwin González back towards the infield, allowing all three runs to score, putting the Red Sox back on top at 5-4.

Price, whose postseason woes are well-publicized, pitched better than his line indicated. He was on the hook for four runs on five hits with four walks and four strikeouts. His counterpart, Cole, went six frames, on the hook for five runs (four earned) on six hits and a pair of walks with five strikeouts.

Once Price was out of the game, Matt Barnes got four outs with nary a scrape. Ryan Brasier worked around a two-out walk in the seventh for a scoreless frame. In the bottom half of the seventh, facing Lance McCullers, Jr., Mookie Betts led off with a walk. As Benintendi struck out, Betts moved to second base on a wild pitch. During J.D. Martinez‘s at-bat, Martín Maldonado allowed a passed ball, which gave Betts the opportunity to move to third base. Martinez struck out, but Maldonado was unable to handle a pitch from reliever Josh James, so Betts ran home to score a crucial insurance run.

Rick Porcello took over in the eighth, setting down Tony Kemp, González, and Carlos Correa in 1-2-3 fashion, striking out the latter two. In the bottom half of the eighth, Betts added yet another insurance run with an RBI double to right-center.

Kimbrel has had a rough postseason thus far, giving up a run in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees followed by two more in Game 4. Those struggles continued on Sunday. He got Evan Gattis to pop up, then struck out Josh Reddick. So far, so good. Unfortunately for Kimbrel, Springer poked a double to left field, then advanced to third base on a wild pitch while José Altuve batted. Altuve then ripped a single off of the Monster to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Alex Bregman. Mercifully, for the Red Sox and their fans, Kimbrel got Bregman to fly out to Benintendi just in front of the Monster in deep left field.

David Price’s team won a postseason game he started for the first time. This was his 10th postseason start and he had been 0-8 with one no-decision.

With the ALCS tied up at one game each, the Red Sox and Astros will take Monday off to travel to Houston. Game 3 is slated for a 5:09 PM ET start on Tuesday. The Red Sox haven’t yet named a starter but the Astros will go with Dallas Keuchel.