2015 Preview: San Francisco Giants

27 Comments

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 2015 season. Next up: The defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

The Big Question: Will they do it again?

The Giants came roaring out of the gate last season and looked like one of the best teams in the majors early on, but they stumbled through the middle of the year before playing better in August and September (and getting some help from the collapsing Brewers) to secure a Wild Card spot with 88 wins. Of course, we all know what happened after that. They beat the Pirates in the Wild Card game before upsetting the Nationals in the NLDS and the Cardinals in the NLCS. On the strength of one of the best individual postseason performances of all-time from Madison Bumgarner, the Giants beat the Royals for their third World Series title in the past five years.

“Will they do it again?” is the operative question for any defending World Series champion. The Giants have looked like a mess in spring training, but I’m not going to dismiss them outright because 2015 is an odd-numbered year. It’s cute to joke about it, but there’s no such thing as an odd-year jinx because jinxes aren’t real. We’re all adults here. We can admit it, right? However, I will say that the path back to October has its share of challenges.

After fan favorite Pablo Sandoval signed a five-year, $95 million contract with the Red Sox, many wondered if the Giants would use the cost savings to make a big splash in free agency. It didn’t happen. They re-signed Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, and Sergio Romo while adding Nori Aoki to their outfield, but that was about it. Chase Headley was briefly mentioned as a possible alternative to Sandoval, but the Giants ultimately acquired Casey McGehee from the Marlins. Not the most exciting offseason, but Brian Sabean has a knack for keeping the band together and winning the offseason isn’t everything.

I can spend a lot time talking about the greatness of Bumgarner and Buster Posey here — and man, are they are great — but what the Giants get from some key rebound candidates will likely tell the tale about where this team goes. Matt Cain didn’t pitch after July 9 last season due to an elbow injury which eventually required surgery. He also had ankle surgery in September. The 30-year-old owns a 4.06 ERA over his last 45 starts dating back to the start of 2013? Can he revert to his old form? Angel Pagan was a key to the team’s World Series run in 2012, but he has been limited to just 167 games over the past two seasons and is coming off back surgery. He’s currently shut down with more back discomfort. Can the Giants count on him at this point? Brandon Belt might be a better bet than those first two. The 26-year-old had some tough luck on the injury front last year, as a fractured thumb and concussion issues limited him to just 61 games, but he has looked great this spring and should produce if healthy. His best baseball is likely still ahead of him. The Giants don’t have a lot of pop, so it would be helpful if 2015 is that year.

What else is going on?

  • The rotation has a bunch of questions even beyond Cain. The workload for Bumgarner last year (270 innings between the regular season and playoffs) can’t be ignored altogether. Tim Hudson is 39 and is coming off surgery in January to remove bone spurs from his right ankle. Peavy has avoided arm problems for the past three years and should benefit with a full year in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in the NL, but he’s going into his age-34 season and has a major injury in his past. Tim Lincecum is getting another shot in the starting rotation despite a 4.76 ERA (73 ERA+) over the past three seasons.
  • If things don’t work out with Lincecum (and it’s hard to believe it will, as fun as a sudden revival would be), Yusmeiro Petit is someone to keep an eye on. With his lights-out curveball, the 30-year-old compiled a 3.69 ERA with an excellent 133/22 K/BB ratio in 117 innings across 12 starts and 27 relief appearances last season. He’ll likely begin 2015 in Bruce Bochy’s consistently-excellent bullpen along with the likes of Vogelsong, Jean Machi, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt, Romo, and Santiago Casilla, but he deserves a long look in that rotation. I’m guessing he’ll get it one way or the other.
  • Hunter Pence has been one of the game’s most durable players since entering the league, but he suffered a freak injury earlier this month when he was hit by a pitch and suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left forearm. He’s likely to miss most or all of April. We should see a lot of Gregor Blanco in the meantime and potentially guys like Travis Ishikawa, Justin Maxwell, and Juan Perez too, especially if Pagan’s back keeps acting up. It’s only a month, but Pence’s production will be missed in this lineup.
  • Hey, remember when the Giants had Dan Uggla play a handful of games at second base last season? That was fun. Fortunately, rookie Joe Panik eventually emerged and proved to be a solid contributor down the stretch and had some big moments during the postseason. What does the 24-year-old have in store for his first full season in the majors? There’s still some question about how much he’ll hit, but between him and Brandon Crawford, it looks like the Giants might not have to worry about their middle infield for a while.

Prediction: There are definitely ways I can see this working out, but I have too many doubts about the rotation and I don’t think there’s enough power in this lineup. It’s going to be close with the Padres and the numerous other teams in the Wild Card race, but I’m going with…Third place, NL West.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

tony la russa
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
1 Comment

CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.