The crowning of a World Series champion is considered universally to be the end of another season of baseball. All 30 Major League Baseball teams have all winter to construct their team at both the minor and the major league levels in hopes of bringing that same World Series trophy to their city.
The San Francisco Giants, for only the second time in four years, were forced to witness another team hoist the trophy and celebrate as world champions. But as the Giants always do, they made every transaction over the offseason count and have once again put together a team capable of making noise during the regular season and postseason.
However, like every team in the league, the Giants face big questions about a number of different spots on their roster. Every major league roster has strengths and weaknesses, but the true winning teams manage to manipulate their strengths to overshadow their weaknesses. Where are the Giants’ biggest weaknesses? Are their strengths enough to overcome their disadvantages? All of their players haven’t been seen in months. Some of them are entering career-defining years, and could very well determine where the Giants end up in the standings this season.
So what are the biggest questions the G-men face as they enter Spring Training?
1. Will the pitching staff rebound from a lackluster 2013 performance?
This is by far the biggest question the front office and everyone connected with the Giants’ organization is asking themselves. After being the primary driving force behind two world championships in three years, the pitching staff faced major decline in 2013. After being the workhorse of the staff for years, Matt Cain suffered his second-worst season to date in terms of ERA, finishing with a 4.00 ERA and a record of 8-10. Tim Lincecum, after being the second-worst qualified starter in the majors, bounced back with a slightly less egregious ERA of 4.37. While Madison Bumgarner (2.77 ERA, 199 K’s, 201.1 IP) had a career year, Cain and Lincecum were meant to be the cornerstones of the rotation.
Entering spring training, the pitching staff will be under even more scrutiny. Brian Sabean only made one change to the rotation — acquiring veteran starter Tim Hudson in the place of the ineffective Barry Zito. Clearly he is banking on Cain, Timmy and Ryan Vogelsong returning to form.
Vogelsong also had a forgettable year in 2013. After being the surprise gem of 2011 and a postseason hero in 2012, he participated in World Baseball Classic prior to the 2013 season. For the beginning portion of the schedule, he battled fatigue and a dead arm before breaking a bone in his finger and missing the majority of the remaining games. Though he returned and pitched fairly effectively, Bochy and Sabean are counting on him to hold down the fifth spot in the rotation.
Experts and analysts have attempted to explain the Giants’ pitching staff’s poor performance in 2013. The most popular belief is that they had run out of gas after pitching deep into the playoffs in two of the past three seasons. But the truth is, we don’t and may never know the real reason four out of the five starters in the rotation struggled last year. It is likely a combination of several different factors, a combination we will never be able to break down. At this point, all we can ask is – will they bounce back this season? Will Matt Cain return to ace status, being a co-anchor of the rotation along with Madison Bumgarner? Will Tim Lincecum continue on his path back to respectable pitching and be a solid No. 3 starter for the rotation? Will newcomer Tim Hudson be the reliable innings-eater he was with Atlanta? Will Ryan Vogelsong solidify the back-end of the rotation?
Madison Bumgarner is the only sure thing among the Giants’ rotation members. Every other starter brings both potential rewards and risks. The question is – which side will we see of the 2014 pitching staff – the good or the ugly?
2. Will the Giants finally have a formidable, balanced heart of the order?
This is the question that has plagued Giants fans since the departure of Barry Bonds. Even in the championship years of 2010 and 2012, the Giants never had a solid collection of hitters in the middle of the order that struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Last season, reigning NL MVP Buster Posey was supposed to team up with newly-acquired Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt to form the strongest group of middle-of-the-order hitters the Giants have had in a long time. But, of course, it didn’t turn out that way.
Pablo Sandoval once again battled weight and injury concerns throughout the season. After coming into camp out of shape once more, he dealt with several weight-related injuries over the duration of the season, leading to long bouts of inconsistency.
Brandon Belt battled a severe flu virus in the early part of the season, causing him to lose considerable weight. Much of the beginning of his season was lost trying to regain that weight; once he got back on track and made some adjustments to his swing, he never looked back. Belt was one of the best hitters in the National League towards the end of the season, flashing that contact-power combination he was known for when he was a top prospect in the minors.
After Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro suffered long-term injuries, there were no impact hitters before or after Posey and Pence. As a result, pitchers pitched around them and dared the other hitters in the Giants’ lineup to beat them. With Posey and Pence unable to counterbalance the ineffectiveness of the rest of the team, the offense suffered.
For this reason, it is absolutely crucial the Panda and the Giraffe come through this season. After supposedly shedding 42 pounds this winter and coming into a contract year, Sandoval looks ready to be a force. Belt, with a nicely trimmed beard, should be able to pick up where he left off last year. Ultimately, Sandoval, Belt, Pence and Posey are the Giants’ most talented hitters and will form the heart of the lineup. Will they be able to come together and finally complete the Giants’ lineup?
If they do and the pitching staff returns to form, the San Francisco Giants should be able to once again challenge the rival Dodgers for a playoff berth.