2018 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 2018 season. Next up: The San Francisco Giants.

Last season, the Giants tied the Tigers for the worst record in baseball at 64-98. Many things that could have gone wrong did go wrong: Madison Bumgarner suffered a serious non-baseball-related injury in a dirt bike accident, Brandon Belt dealt with another concussion, Hunter Pence had the worst season of his career, the entire starting rotation beyond Bumgarner was a mess, and the ninth inning was a source of anxiety all season. Just to name a few issues.

This offseason, the Giants thrust themselves back into Wild Card contention by acquiring third baseman Evan Longoria from the Rays and outfielder Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates. The club also signed Austin Jackson to play center field and added Tony Watson to the bullpen.

It’s easy to scoff at the moves the Giants made and suggest they won’t be relevant in 2018. Longoria hit a relatively lackluster .261/.313/.424 last season, setting a career low in adjusted OPS (100, right at the league average). His 20 homers were the fewest he had hit in a season since his injury-shortened 2012. Longoria, now 32 years old, is still a productive player as Baseball Reference valued him at 3.6 Wins Above Replacement last season. While AT&T Park won’t do him any more favors than Tropicana Field did, Longoria could be a doubles machine. He has hit at least 35 doubles in each of the last three seasons and he could finish in the 40-45 range simply from the change of scenery. Perhaps the most important thing for the Giants, however, is Longoria’s durability: the veteran has logged at least 156 games in five consecutive seasons, including at least 160 from 2013-16. Third base is a position that’s been a source of inconsistency for the Giants for many seasons.

McCutchen, 31, had a nice rebound season after a tough 2016. He hit .279/.363/.486 with 28 home runs, 88 RBI, and 94 runs scored in 650 plate appearances. His rate stats aren’t where they were in his prime, but the Giants will take his 121 adjusted OPS if he’s able to replicate it at AT&T Park. McCutchen’s track record foretells, at minimum, consistency in the lineup card as he has played in at least 153 games in each of the last three seasons. The Giants have slotted McCutchen in right field, moving Pence across to left and Jackson in center. McCutchen should be less of a defensive liability than he was in Pittsburgh.

To borrow an oft-used cliche, Pence will be an “X-factor” for the Giants this coming season. If he’s able to bounce back and have a quality season, the Giants could be menacing in the NL West. But after two injury-shortened campaigns in 2015-16, Pence struggled across 134 games last year. The 34-year-old hit .260/.315/.385 with 13 home runs and 67 RBI in 539 PA. Prior to 2017, Pence had never posted a slugging percentage below .425, but he fell below that by 40 points this past season. If Pence struggles again, he may end up having to share playing time in left field with Jarrett Parker.

At first base, Belt will be looking to have a completely healthy, uninterrupted season. He was putting together another solid year for the Giants until he was hit in the head last summer and suffered a concussion, more or less ending his season. He finished hitting .241/.355/.469 with 18 home runs and 51 RBI in 451 PA. He had already tied a career-high in home runs and almost certainly would have hit one more if he hadn’t been injured. While Belt possesses an above-average bat at first base, he provides a lot of value with his glove as well, ranking among the game’s best defenders at the position. When he’s fully healthy, the Giants can usually count on Belt for a 3-4 WAR season.

Second baseman Joe Panik and shortstop Brandon Crawford will continue to handle things up the middle in San Francisco. The slick-fielding Crawford had his worst offensive full season, compiling a paltry .709 OPS across 570 PA. There’s really not much the Giants can do but hope it doesn’t happen again. Panik is pretty unspectacular across the board. He hit .288/.347/.421 last year, slightly above-average numbers for a second baseman.

The starting rotation will be the determining factor in the Giants’ success this season. If Bumgarner stays healthy, and if Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija bounce back from subpar seasons, the Giants will be on the right foot. In 17 starts last year, Bumgarner managed a 3.32 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 111 innings. His strikeout rate was down a bit compared to previous seasons, but still plenty good enough. Cueto, meanwhile, struggled to a 4.52 ERA across 25 starts. The right-hander battled command issues, posting his highest walk rate (8.2%) since 2009.  It had been just above five percent in the previous two seasons. Samardzija had great strikeout and walk numbers, but yielded 30 home runs in 32 starts, a feat that’s hard to do pitching half one’s games at AT&T Park.

Ty Blach and Chris Stratton are expected to get the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the rotation. Blach was uninspiring across 24 starts and 10 relief appearances last year, finishing with a 4.78 ERA and a 73/43 K/BB ratio in 163 2/3 innings. In today’s game, it’s really hard to succeed without missing bats. Blach’s 10.6 percent strikeout rate was the lowest in baseball last season at 10.6 percent, well behind second-place Andrew Cashner‘s 12.2 percent. Stratton was solid in 10 starts and three relief appearances, owning a 3.68 ERA and a 51/28 K/BB ratio in 58 2/3 innings. The Giants won’t be expecting those numbers across a full season’s worth of starts, but a breakout from Stratton (or Blach) would be a welcome sight.

Closer Mark Melancon will handle the ninth inning for the Giants once again. He had surgery last September to repair the pronator muscle in his right forearm, which explains his uncharacteristic 4.50 ERA across 30 innings. In the four seasons prior, Melancon saved 147 games with a 1.80 ERA. The right-hander will turn 33 years old later this month, and given that he’s coming off of surgery, it may be unrealistic to expect him to return to his previous level of dominance. Still, a 3.00-ish ERA with a good save conversion rate will more than past muster.

Sam Dyson will help bridge the gap to Melancon in the seventh and eighth innings. Dyson was once one of baseball’s more feared relievers, but he absolutely collapsed last year. He gave up 23 runs (20 earned) in 16 2/3 innings for the Rangers until they traded him to the Giants in early June. He rebounded in San Francisco, putting up a 4.03 ERA in 38 innings. The Giants will need him to be even better to avoid drama in high-leverage situations. His defense-independent numbers don’t suggest Dyson is likely to be that kind of pitcher in 2018.

Watson will also handle some high-leverage innings ahead of Melancon. The lefty spent last year with the Pirates and Dodgers, putting together a composite 3.38 ERA in 66 2/3 innings. Watson has historically held lefties to a much lower OPS than right-handers, so manger Bruce Bochy will likely have to pick his spots with him. Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, Will Smith, and Cory Gearrin will round out the bullpen, which could be dominant or could be a mess.

The Dodgers appear built to once again run away with the NL West. FanGraphs is projecting the Giants to win 82 games while PECOTA has them at 83. If a few more things go right than expected, this is a team that could sneak into the Wild Card and do some damage. We all know what Bumgarner is capable of doing in the postseason.

Prediction: 85-77, third place in the NL West.

Dodgers sign OF Jason Heyward to minor league deal

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers signed outfielder Jason Heyward to a minor league deal and invited him to spring training.

The 33-year-old was released by the Chicago Cubs earlier this offseason.

Heyward, who was injured at times last season, put up the worst offensive numbers of his career, batting .204 and with 10 RBIs and one home run in 137 plate appearances. However, he’s a valuable defender in the outfield.

The deal reunites Heyward with first baseman Freddie Freeman. They came up through the Atlanta Braves system and have remained friends ever since.

Heyward was a leader in the Cubs’ clubhouse, helping them win the 2016 World Series.