2016 Preview: San Francisco Giants

Associated Press
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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 2016 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

If the Dodgers have questions about their rotation, the Giants sure don’t. At least at the top. San Francisco made a concerted effort to upgrade the pitching over the winter, signing star right-handers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. They’ll join Madison Bumgarner atop what looks to be a devastating 1-2-3 combo for opposing hitters. At least if Bumgarner’s aches this spring prove to be minor. Which, at the moment, they seem to be. Depth could be a concern, though. Matt Cain‘s continued injury woes have pushed Chris Heston into the five-spot behind Jake Peavy at four, and beyond those guys, there are not a lot of reinforcements should any of the horses pull up lame.

The lineup is likewise solid. As always, things start with a Hall of Fame-bound catcher Buster Posey. The biggest non-Posey factor in the lineup may be Brandon Belt, who was terrific during the 137 games he played in 2015, hitting .280/.356/.478 with 18 homers and 68 RBI. The most curious part of Belt’s 2015: 18 homers, which came alongside his lowest fly ball percentage of his career (37.9%). His contact and his talent is such that, if that fly ball rate was an anomaly, Belt could be find himself having a breakout year some point soon, pairing that nice uptick in on-base and slugging with a bunch of extra long balls too. Beyond those two, the supporting cast of Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Matt Duffy were all excellent last year, giving the Giant a well-rounded lineup. If Hunter Pence can shake off his injury-plagued 2015 and return to form this season, that lineup goes from well-rounded to downright scary.

As is the case with the rotation, depth may be the offense’s only weak spot. Denard Span was signed to a three-year contract to serve as the club’s leadoff hitter, and he’s a good on when healthy, but he missed a lot of time last year. If he and Pence are on the DL again this year Gregor Blanco can definitely fill in, but Angel Pagan showed some serious decline last year so Blanco may be better-used to replace him in left than to fill-in for injuries. A bigger question is the catching corps behind Posey, which has been racked with injuries this spring. Finding a way to keep their star fresh without the DH is a challenge Bruce Bochy is used to, but one which is still kind of annoying.

The Giant are an excellent team on paper. And hey, it’s an even year and they always win the World Series in even years, right? The biggest x-factor for them is what to do if and when the injury bug hits, which it always does in some way, shape or form. They have a front office which has, in the past, done well in finding replacements on the fly, however.

I’m bullish on San Francisco. Depending on the injury situation, they could easily beat the Dodgers for the NL West crown. Even if they don’t, they have enough talent to be in the playoff mix all season long.

Prediction: Second place, N.L. West, but it will be not at all shocking if they win the dang thing.

Manoah, Merrifield lead Blue Jays to 3-1 win over Rays

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alek Manoah pitched seven shutout innings, Whit Merrifield hit a three-run homer and the Toronto Blue Jays regained the top AL wild-card spot with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.

The Blue Jays lead Tampa Bay by one game. The top wild card finisher will host all games in their best-of-three opening-round series, while the other two wild cards play strictly on the road.

Manoah (15-7) scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight while throwing a season-high 113 pitches. The righty worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth by striking out Randy Arozarena and getting a flyout from David Peralta.

Jordan Romano replaced Tim Mayza with two on and two outs in the eighth and allowed pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez‘s RBI infield single but avoided further damage by striking out Manuel Margot. Romano finished the game to get his 35th save in 41 chances.

Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen (10-7) gave up one run, three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five.

The teams combined for 31 runs, with the Rays accounting for 20, in the first two games of the series that were both won by Tampa Bay.

Arozarena got the Rays’ first hit off Manoah with a two-out double in the fourth. He became the first Tampa Bay player and 20th big leaguer to have 40 doubles, 20 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season.

Teoscar Hernandez ended Rasmussen’s night with a double in the seventh. Brooks Raley entered and, after a walk to pinch-hitter Danny Jansen, Merrifield made it 3-0 on his 10th homer of the season.

Merrifield homered twice in Thursday night’s 10-5 loss to the Rays.

Alejandro Kirk opened the second with a single before Rasmussen retired 12 in a row until Merrifield’s leadoff double in the sixth.

Plate umpire Corey Blaser took a hard foul ball by Margot on the mask in the eighth but remained in the game.

HONORING KK

The Rays posted a thank you on the message board for CF Kevin Kiermaier, who is out for the season following left hip surgery. Kiermaier is in the final season of a $53.5 million, six-year contract that includes a club option for 2023 that is expected to be declined.

TEAM AWARDS

Rays ace Shane McClanahan was voted the Don Zimmer MVP award winner by members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. CF Jose Siri was selected as the outstanding rookie. 3B Yandy Diaz received the Paul C. Smith Champions award as the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (lat strain) allowed three runs and three hits over two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Buffalo.

Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe (lower back) is done for the season.

UP NEXT

McClanahan (12-6), pulled from his start Tuesday in the fifth inning due to neck tightness, will face Blue Jays RHP Ross Stripling (8-4) on Sunday.