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Sunday, March 30, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: San Francisco Giants

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MLB 2014 Team Preview: San Francisco Giants
By Wild on Sports Analyst Aaron Dorman

The World Series winners follow up their magic season with a belly flop. Most of their starters regress, Angel Pagan goes missing for most of the year, and nobody comes in to fill the hole left behind by Melky Cabrera, who hit .346 in 2012. It’s the pitching that does them in; the Giants finish 2013 12th in team ERA (4.00), which is 16 % below league average when you factor in the ballpark. That’s not a formula for success.

Winter Grade:
Coming: Tim Hudson, Mike Morse
Going: Barry Zito
Credit goes to GM Brian Sabean for not panicking even in light of such a disappointing season. The main culprits are identified and management responds accordingly. Barry Zito is now an ex-Giant and although he is re-signed, Ryan Vogelsong will now have to compete with some other candidates for the final starter spot. They still could use an extra outfielder; Mike Morse could be a power threat if healthy but he’s an odd fit for San Francisco’s large ballpark. Hunter Pence, however, has acquitted himself well, and he’s a solid if overpaid part of their future. Keeping Tim Lincecum and his upside also makes sense in light of the subsequent deals given out to inferior pitchers.

Wild Card(s): 
Brandon Belt fixed his swing after April and was a .326/.390/.525 hitter after the all-star break last year (221 AB). If he can keep that up, he will be one of the better first basemen in the league, as a batting champion threat with above average power. He’s 26 in late April, so he’s about to hit his peak years.
Also, Angel Pagan and Tim Hudson are coming back from injuries and both could be an unexpected surprise if they play up to their historic abilities, although Hudson is now 38 years old.

Key Contract Years:
Pablo Sandoval has had an up-and-down career, both in terms of health and performance. He’s always been a high contact hitter, but his power has oscillated and he’s hit between .268 and .330 in his full seasons. Never in great shape, Sandoval has maintained solid defensive ability throughout his career. He’s a somewhat difficult commodity to value and that makes him likely to hit free agency. But the Giants like to keep incumbent players who perform, so it’s possible they will overpay to keep him at the end of the year.

Rookies:
None of their best pitching prospects are ready. Heath Hembree is considered a ‘closer’ prospect, but that’s a bit of an oxymoron as the best relievers are often converted starters. Hembree throws hard but his secondary stuff is not great, and even in AAA he put up a pedestrian 4.07 ERA. Later on in the year lefties Edwin Escobar and Adalberto Mejia could debut in the rotation, and either could be at least a no. 3 starter based on strong results in the minor leagues.

Key Questions:
Is their rotation good again?
Was last year just a down year for Matt Cain?
Will Tim Lincecum ever be a top starter or is he a candidate to move to the bullpen at some point soon?
What do they have in Ryan Vogelsong, who for two seasons was a very good pitcher but looked like his ‘old’ self last year?
Do they have enough offense up the middle between Brandon Crawford and Marco Scutaro?

Farm System Overview: YELLOW (average) 

The Giants probably have more no. 3 starter candidates in the minor leagues than any other team, and that is probably a good thing. However, their minor league rosters are heavily imbalanced, with almost no positional player talent above rookie-ball. Outfielder Mac Williamson had a strong year in high-A San Jose but that’s a favorable hitting environment, and former top draft pick Joe Panik (shortstop) looked like a utility man last year. Their top prospect, Kyle Crick, could be a dominant starter, but he only made 14 starts last year and his control (career 5.5 BB/9) is well below average at this point. Sometimes those pitchers become stars anyway. Sometimes they have to move to the bullpen. And sometimes they completely collapse and never pitch in the majors.

2014 Prognosis: Likely Contenders 
The roster is not too different from the one that was a World Series champion two years ago, but times have changed. Was 2013 a down year for the rotation or was it really a sign of things to come? The Giants have a solid group of hitters but no depth and probably only one All-star in Buster Posey. So it’s up to the rotation to prove itself as a force again in the NL West. That said, it’s highly likely that Tim Hudson and whoever the fifth starter turns out to be are an improvement over Barry Zito and the 2013 version of Ryan Vogelsong, to the extent that even league average pitching in the 4 and 5 slot could make the Giants contenders. Add in a successful return for Angel Pagan and it’s more than possible that the Giants can at least grab one of the wild card spots.

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