2015 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 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.

Zack Wheeler will miss at least two starts when his wife gives birth

Zack Wheeler miss starts
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Per The Athletic’s Matt Gelb, Phillies starter Zack Wheeler will miss at least two starts when his wife goes into labor and gives birth to their first child, expected to be later this month. Wheeler, in fact, is not sure if he will return to play at all once their child is born.

Wheeler said, “We just have to see how things are here at the field and at the stadium. I’m happy with what I see so far. But things could change, especially once our baby’s born. I always think about what’s going on around me. Is it safe? Is it OK? Literally every single day. I have to just ask myself that. I’m going to continue to keep asking myself that every day.”

Wheeler, 30, inked a five-year, $118 million contract with the Phillies in December. He is slated for the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Aaron Nola. Last season, with the Mets, Wheeler posted a 3.96 ERA with 195 strikeouts and 50 walks over 195 1/3 innings.

The No. 5 spot in the Phillies’ rotation is currently up for grabs between Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Ranger Suárez, and prospect Spencer Howard. One of the remaining three could fill in for Wheeler when he needs time off, temporarily or otherwise.