Playing Pepper 2017: San Francisco Giants

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

San Francisco Giants
87-75, second in NL West, lost in NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

All good things come to an end, it seems.  While the Cardinals were mourning the end of their five-year playoff run, Giants fans saw a playoff series loss for the first time since 2003.  The Even Year Magic, which seemed to always carry San Francisco not only to but through to a title ran out a little early (unfortunately, as that led to a Cubs title).

Cardinal fans have had their issues with the Giants and their faithful over the years, but this is a good group of guys that I’ve rounded up for the Pepper Six today.  Programming note: I’ll be participating in another #ShopTalk over at Craig’s site tomorrow, which is always a lot of fun.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Michael Saltzman Around the Foghorn CandlestickWill
Richard Dyer The Giants Cove GiantsCove
Craig Vaughn THE San Francisco Giants Blog 1flapdown77

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

AtF: It was a productive off-season for the team. Bobby Evans has now had two off-seasons and his goal this year was a closer. In true Giants fashion, they went out and spent big on Mark Melancon, spending less than other teams did for other closers, but also not being afraid to overspend to get the right fit. He admitted he was disappointed in himself for not getting Melancon at the deadline, so to see him get his guy now shows he is staying consistent to the type of team the Giants have been in recent years.

Fans wanted a left fielder, and I had some dreams of a Joey Bats home run hitting the glove in left center field, but it wasn’t the right move. Going with Mac Williamson or Jarrett Parker right now is the smart move, with minor league free agents brought in like Michael Morse and Justin Ruggiano in case they struggle and one of the veteran options catches fire in Spring. The Giants know they can always go out and make a trade for a left fielder like J.D. Martinez as the season unfolds and his price tag drops. At the moment, however, it is smarter financially to let two rookies be given a chance. Ultimately, we are talking about the likely 7 slot in the batting order. If the Giants lineup is going to be strong, the production of Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence will be much more important than whoever plays left field.

GC: The San Francisco Giants had a much-publicized bullpen meltdown last season that quickly became dumbed down to “they need a real closer”. And that became the team’s one-dimensional focus this offseason.  But of the bullpen’s 30 blown saves in the 2016 regular season, only 9 occurred in the 9th inning. The real problem was the overall construction and use of the bullpen.

The Giants front office addressed that issue by signing free agent RH reliever Mark Melancon this offseason. Typical of San Francisco’s myopic approach, Melancon will be used the way closers were used in the 1990s: he will only pitch in the 9th inning, and then only when the Giants have a three run lead or less.  At a time in the game when bullpenning is the cutting edge of innovation, the San Francisco Giants shelled out a $62 million four-year deal for one of the better relief weapons in the game but will only use him in the narrowest way possible.

Amazingly, the Giants did not fix their gaping holes in left field or third base. Eduardo Nunez has little power and is below average defensively. Every time the Giants start Conor Gillaspie at third in place of Nunez they weaken their bench.  Left field has been hyped as a “battle” between Mac Williamson (27 this year) and Jarrett Parker (29), two aging rookies who strike out a great deal. Either way, all indications are that the loser in this battle will be the offense.

On a more positive note, it looks like San Francisco may finally put some professional hitters on their bench for the first time in years. Players like C Nick Hundley, IF Aaron Hill, and 3B Conor Gillaspie (re-signed) are capable of scoring runs and winning games in the 8th and 9th innings.

SFGB: They did the bare minimum by adding Melancon but I don’t think they did enough. Their outfield is a joke. Even the most optimistic person can’t look at the platoon in LF and Span and Pence and think that’s an outfield that will stay healthy and be productive over the course of a season. 

C70: Is this going to be another Giants team that’s focused on pitching and hoping to get enough hitting to be successful?

AtF: Yes. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore along with Jeff Samardzija and Matt Cain are an essential part of this team’s success. With much not many new faces in the everyday lineup, there is going to be an emphasis on them doing a little more while the pitching and defense leads them. If they can get slightly more consistent production from each member of the everyday lineup, they can ride their staff and defense to another postseason trip.

GC: Yes, but progressive franchises dumped that model years ago. Today successful MLB teams like Houston, the Cubs, St. Louis, Boston and the Dodgers are built to be balanced offensively and defensively, with quality multi-positional hitters and flexible bullpens.

The Colorado Rockies demonstrate how just having the best offensive in the game is not enough; and the Tampa Bay Rays show how just having above average pitching isn’t enough.

SFGB: Yes. I’m not really *allowed* to argue against the philosophy because of its success but I don’t see the point in actively ignoring your offense. 

C70: What caused last year’s second-half collapse and is there any reason to think it will rear its head again?

AtF: The Giants didn’t seem to have all three phases of the game ever working together in the second half. They seemed to lose 1-0, followed by an 8-7 loss. Some nights the bats were strong and the pitching was awful. Sometimes it was the opposite. The team that always seemed to dig deep in the late innings couldn’t hold leads and couldn’t come back from any deficit. Their performance in games where they were losing after 8 innings was anemic. That can weigh on a team that is struggling. I do think that final game of the season against the Cubs was due in part to the scar tissue of the bullpen’s lack of success throughout the season. It seemed like whoever Bruce Bochy put in the game, they didn’t get the outs they needed. Because every pitcher in their pen had some struggles, it felt like none of them could be counted on. In reality, Santiago Casilla, Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, Will Smith and others had good seasons. However, because of all of the blown saves by every member of the bullpen, Bruce Bochy continually had a quick trigger and it cost them.

With Mark Melancon signed, I do think the Giants will have a more structured bullpen, which will give pitchers more confidence, knowing what situations they will be asked to pitch in. That should help limit the chances of 2016 repeating itself.

GC: The Giants’ 2016 season was actually the reverse. Between the first and second halves of last season, it was the first half that was the false positive.  The schedule up to the All Star break featured a preponderance of weak teams, and San Francisco was able to put up wins. The second half was a much more challenging and the team folded.

Over the past several years the Giants have been constructed as a one-dimensional team with little depth. When key hitters or pitchers are injured (which predictably happens to every team every year) or need rest, San Francisco has no league average replacements to back them up.

As I noted in a recent blog: the Giants’ front office blueprint for 2017 is very familiar– get the fans to buy into the “magic” hype, keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

SFGB: They played over their head in the first half so the *collapse* probably wasn’t as drastic as it looked in the standings. Bochy is famous for sitting around and *waiting* on his guys to perform. He probably did too much of that last summer. As long as he keeps trotting Span out there at leadoff I could see more long stretches of under performing from this team. 

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

AtF: Matt Moore was outstanding for the Giants at the end of the season. His performances against the Dodgers as well as his final outing of the postseason against the Cubs showed that he is right there with Bumgarner and Cueto.

Conor Gillaspie became a household name in San Francisco this year for even the casual fan with his Wild Card performance, but he will still be just a utility player in 2017.

One young player to keep an eye on is Derek Law. He was a possible closer for the Giants before Tommy John surgery a few years ago and he became the most consistent relief pitcher last season. He could end up taking over as the 8th inning guy in front of Melancon. If he can win that job, the Giants bullpen might get a lot shorter and a lot more dangerous.

The other guy to look at is Mac Williamson. The Giants have several left handed hitters, so if Williamson and Parker are even at the start of the year, Williamson might win the LF job. He has all 5 tools, and has shown them in the minor leagues, but he also had Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago. If he can put together a 500 at bat season, the Giants will be in the postseason. They won’t let him play that much unless he wins the job and keeps it.

GC: Because he always seems to be under everyone’s radar I always tout 1B Brandon Belt. Belt has been the team’s #1 offensive weapon for the past three years— more than Buster Posey or (certainly) Hunter Pence.  In 2017 Belt had 104 walks and a .394 OBP. His .868 OPS was 5th among all National League hitters and his 66 XBH was 14th best in the NL.

I think RHP Chris Stratton is a player who could break through this season and I expect 2B Joe Panik to finally play to his impressive potential.

SFGB: He’s gonna have to make the team and then find consistent at bats but I am a big fan of Jae-gyun Hwang who is affectionately known as The Donger at The Flap. His power blossomed nicely in Korea the last couple of years and I had a Flapper in AZ last weekend who said he’s *bigger* than advertised (ie, looks like a MLB player). He’s my guy assuming he’s on the team.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

AtF: I think this can be a 90 win team. Even with all the injuries over the last couple of years, the Giants have proven they are willing to make trades and go get players if they need to. I do not see the Rockies, Diamondbacks or Padres challenging the Dodgers and Giants for the West, but I do see them each improving. Especially the Rockies. The Dodgers could win the West again with all of their talent, but I don’t see them having the same success if they have all those injuries again. Clayton Kershaw was having the greatest season I have seen from a starting pitcher at the beginning of last year, so he will always make them a contender. Their trade this week for Logan Forsythe makes them even better.

GC: It’s not just that the Dodgers will win the NL West, they also built to go deep into the postseason next October. The question here is can the Giants finish second in the West with just enough wins to again qualify for a Wild Card spot?  The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies may not have enough in the tank to grab a second place finish in the NL West this season, but their days as doormat teams are over.

That translates into 38 games that will be a lot tougher for the Giants (and Dodgers) in 2017.

SFGB: Their pitching will always keep them in the race but I am suspicious of this offense. I’ll say 88 wins and it could be 10 off that if Cueto or Bum get hurt.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Giant and why?

AtF: Matt Cain. I grew up in the 1980’s and while every 80’s Giants fan loved Will Clark, I loved Kevin Mitchell more. His trade to the Seattle Mariners in 1991 crushed me. Even Barry Bonds replacing him didn’t help much at first. However, with all the great bats and all the great players, the Giants continued to struggle. As I got older, I realized that the 1989 A’s swept the Giants because their pitching was just better. In 2002, the Giants lineup was potent, but the Angels bullpen was stronger and ultimately outpitched the Giants staff.

Cain came up as a 20 year old and he had 2 pitches. He was throwing complete games with a fastball and a curveball. His fearlessness was amazing. What made me forever a fan was when he was our best pitcher in 2007 and 2008. Matt Cain was 22 and was the best pitcher on the staff. Our team was horrible, as Barry Bonds and his fellow retirees were well beyond their prime years. While Bonds was still hitting a few home runs here and there, nobody on that team was any good.

And yet, every fifth day, Cain pitched. He outpitched opponents consistently and then the Giants bullpen would collapse or even worse, we would just lose 1-0. Cain’s record in 2007 and 2008 was 15-30. However in those two seasons, he had a combined 3.71 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 120 ERA+ and a 9.2 WAR over 417.2 innings. To put those numbers in perspective, not pitcher in Giants history has a higher combined WAR in the their Age 22 and 23 seasons in the last 100 years. The only two pitchers who were better were Amos Rusie and Christy Mathewson, who pitched 926 and 734 innings respectively in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

With all of that, he never once publicly complained about a lack of run support. He always said he could have pitched better and that we have to find a way to win together. When the Giants finally built a team around pitching and defense, Cain shined. His 0.00 ERA in the 2010 postseason was overshadowed by Tim Lincecum. In 2012, his best season, he threw a perfect game, started the All-Star game and pitched in every clincher in each round of the post-season.

It kills me that injuries have crippled his Hall of Fame career. From 2005-2012, Cain was on pace to be one of the best pitchers in baseball history to that point. His injury in 2013 has led to four years of injuries and inconsistencies. He will forever be my favorite Giant for helping lead them to the 1st championship in 2010 and the journey of excellence he showed to get there.

GC: Can’t pick one “all-time”. While I appreciate the historic NY and SF Giant icons of the past I really enjoyed watching Angel Pagan play the game. His talent and cool leadership made 2012 a standout season for me.

SFGB: Will Clark is my favorite baseball player of all time and there really isn’t a close second. I loved his swing and his fiery attitude on the field. He made going to games at Candlestick fun again. When he hit that grand slam off Maddux I just about jumped out of my college dorm window. The Thrill is probably the main reason why I love baseball.

Good stuff, as always, from the guys by the bay.  Appreciate their help and look forward to seeing just which Giants team shows up this year!

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