Though it did not deter them from winning the World Series in 2014, the San Francisco Giants have not claimed the National League West division title since 2012.
Four consecutive season have come to an end with the Giants trailing the rival Los Angeles Dodgers. That is a streak that is primed to end.
In 2016, the roster weakness was much more pronounced than it had been in the preceding second-place seasons. The bullpen’s Major League Baseball-worst 30 blown saves was enough to undo the game’s fifth-best starter ERA (3.71), making it more glaring an issue even than the punch-less offense’s 130 home runs (third-fewest) and .398 slugging percentage (sixth-lowest). Worse even than the fact that the Giants produced not a single win when trailing in the ninth inning or later.
Solidifying the back-end of the bullpen — which will in turn lead to defined roles for the middle relievers — along with improved health and production in the lineup and continued success in the rotation will lead the Giants back to October baseball. And this time, the 93 wins will be enough to overthrow SoCal’s boys in blue.
The bullpen could certainly have stood to reap the benefits of multiple additions, and the options were available this offseason. But if the front office’s intentions were to go after just one man to sway the entire group they couldn’t have aimed much higher than the one they acquired.
In the signing of free agent Mark Melancon, the Giants brought in a guy who has made three All-Star teams, finished more than 60 games in consecutive seasons and converted 168 of his 191 career save chances (88 percent). The San Francisco front office did check in on the other two elite-level relievers in the offseason, but neither Aroldis Chapman (90) or Kenley Jansen (88) boast a save percentage significantly greater than Melancon.
The club may very well have been considering the work-horse rotation, which compiled 982-1/3 innings, when looking to fill their need with just one signing, realizing that innings may be few and far between for a deep bullpen.
To supplant that decision, the team will need further growth from youngsters Derek Law, Josh Osich and Hunter Strickland, particularly considering the departure of the final three members of the “Core Four” reliever corps of its title runs in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Not to mention, the season-ending injury to veteran Will Smith.
No matter what type of strides they make, though, the success of this bullpen will come down to the new closer. And Melancon, who finished eighth in the 2015 NL Cy Young Award race after converting a league-leading 51 saves for the Pittsburgh Pirates bears shoulders broad enough for such demand.
The G-Men suffered three huge departures: Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo. But those losses will impact the mystique of a team that has won three of the last six world championships more than the product on the field.
Along with Jeremy Affeldt, who retired following the 2015 season, the Giants and their fans have now bid adieu to the four constants in a dominant bullpen that led the franchise to its first four titles on the west coast. While Lopez joined his fellow southpaw in the land of the retired, Casilla and Romo added salt to the wound finding homes with San Francisco’s top two rivals — Romo becoming a Dodger and Casilla returning to the Oakland Athletics.
But, considering advancing age and recent struggles of the group, the writing was on the wall for all three departures.
In actuality, the team’s key departure regarding play on the field may have been that of Angel Pagan. The left fielder had been a Giant since 2012, slashing .281/.329/.399 with the club, but injuries have become a factor costing him more than 150 games combined over the last past three years.
The 35 year-old has yet to land on a new club.
Compounding the issue, the Giants have yet to decide on which of three possible choices will fill the position on a regular basis, largely because neither of the three seem content to grab it and run.
No real secret here. The Giants have long been, and will continue to be, a team dependent on starting pitching.
Anchored by All-Stars Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija, manager Bruce Bochy’s staff is among the most overall overwhelming groups in recent history. And that is not including the outside chance that former ace and three-time All-Star Matt Cain will make a return to form after all but losing three straight seasons to an elbow injury.
Now ready to hand the ball to a much more confidence-instilling closer, the rotation will almost certainly see an increase in what was already the third-highest win total (62) from starters a year ago.
As metronomical as Melancon has been in his career, none of the relievers assigned to get the ball from starter to closer have yet earned the trust as big leaguers.
With Law, the sample size has not yet reached a point of inspiring confidence, while Cory Gearrin and Osich were both hit hard in 2016. Strickland seems to be a lock for the eighth-inning role setting up the closer given his impressive track record, but the seventh inning and earlier will create far more questions than answers.
The good news for the Giants is, this starting staff has shown an affinity to get through the seventh with regularity. Almost something of a brag, San Francisco’s biggest weakness is more a pondering than a weakness, per se.
With no real major league-ready waiting for a phone call in the minors, however, any significant injuries could derail the Giants season.