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San Francisco Giants’ most glaring obstacle to success in 2015?

By Mark ONeill
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Analyzing the San Francisco Giants in the off-season, is one of fans’ greatest passions in the world of sports. Even while fixating on seasonal festivities immediately on the horizon, contemplating the future is the stuff of which dreams are made. The sky is the limit and nothing is impossible, when gazing forward towards the opening of spring training, especially when your team has just established itself, definitively, as the best team the National League has set eyes on since World War II.

Just as every other team is doing at this time of year, the Giants must prioritize those issues which have presented themselves, and address each one according to its level of difficulty. I am going to take this mantle up, over the next two days, beginning with the starting rotation/lineup today, and proceeding to the bullpen and bench in tomorrow’s post, examining and analyzing what exists, in an effort to nail down the biggest dilemma in the difficulty department.

What is the single biggest obstacle blocking the San Francisco Giants from breaking the cycle of even-numbered years of success, and winning the National League West, outright, in 2015, and going into the playoffs with the same focus and success, as their previous three championship seasons?

Let’s begin with the starting rotation and place Madison Bumgarner at the top as staff ace, where he rightfully belongs, and then take the next logical step of inserting Matt Cain into the number two hole. Cain had surgery to remove bone spurs from his pitching elbow in late July, and a similar procedure done on his right ankle in August. Neither process will prohibit Cain from being completely rehabbed before the team assembles in the desert next February. The Horse returns to the track.

Oct 26, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (40) and catcher Buster Posey (28) celebrate after defeating the Kansas City Royals during game five of the 2014 World Series at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Yusmeiro Petit will logically fit into the third slot of the rotation, having  earned that spot through his stellar work during the regular season, in any capacity asked of him, and also in the playoffs, as well. Those twelve scoreless innings pitched, under the halogen-bright spotlight of the postseason, mark him clearly as a player who can handle the pressures of a number-three starter.

Tim Lincecum, about to embark on the second year of a two-year, 35 million-dollar contract, has a lot to prove to himself, as well as to his fans, who continue to support him every step of the way. Fans point to Timmy’s stretch last summer, in which he no-hit the San Diego Padres, and had a string of five consecutive stellar starts, before going into a mini-tailspin and being pulled from the rotation, as proof that he has not lost the path, only his confidence.

Mechanics for the diminutive right-hander have always been the issue, and as the mechanics get out of whack, the confidence follows suit. It’s hard to keep up your confidence level, when the opponents are knocking your pitches around like a pin-ball wizard having his way in the arcade.

Timmy is the exotic import that needs expert handling, and Dave Righetti is the specialist hired to iron out the timing issues and get him back in synch.

That being said,

Dave Righetti

is on staff for exactly that purpose, and even though Lincecum made only one appearance in the World Series, he retired the five batters that he faced. For all we know, he could have been an overwhelming force had he been given the chance, just as he was in both 2010 and 2012, as the Giants won their first two world championships.

Finally, missing in all the crush of speculation for 2015, as to whether or not either Ryan Vogelsong or Jake Peavy will be re-signed with San Francisco, is the simple fact that Tim Hudson is already in the fold, due to start the second year of his two-season contract with the Giants. He had an excellent first half of 2104, slumped in the second half while battling a hip issue, and pitched creditably in the postseason, if not as deep into the games in the World Series as he might have desired.

Sep 13, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Hudson (17) throws to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first inning of their MLB baseball game at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

OK, one and two-thirds’ innings in Game Seven of the World Series was terrible, but in all honesty, he only gave up two runs and three hits. Had it been a regular season game, he would not have been pulled as early as he was, and he at least would have had the chance to pitch his way out of the jam.

Any problem that the starting rotation poses, would not belong at the top of a list of Giants concerns, prior to the start of the 2015 season.

Moving on to the starting lineup, catcher Buster Posey, the heart and soul of the Giants, is signed forever to a 167 million dollar contract, and anchors the infield and pitching staff with his expertise and experience. In Brandon Belt at first, regardless of what his 2015 contract costs after the dust settles, the Giants have a power hitter capable of hammering out thirty home runs over a full season and driving in eighty runs, even while playing half of his games in AT&T Park, at the same time playing defense at a Gold Glove caliber level.

Joe Panik at second base, has stepped in nicely at the spot left vacant by Marco Scutaro’s injury, and done everything that the Giants have asked of him. His postseason achievements include his clutch walk, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, in Game Two of the National League Championship Series, leading to Pablo Sandoval’s game-tying double. Nine innings later, Brandon Belt’s upper-deck shot won the game for San Francisco.

Panik also brought the Giants from behind in Game Five of the NLCS, by clubbing his first home run in 43 postseason plate appearances, after hitting only one big fly in 269 at-bats in the regular season. If you are only going to hit one over the wall in the postseason, you may as well make it a big one. Finally, his epic glove-toss in Game Seven of the World Series, reminding fans of the first defensive play he ever made as a Giant, back in June, started a one-of-a-kind double play, that resulted in the first World Series, Instant Replay Review, won by Bruce Bochy and the Giants.

Brandon Crawford will be back at shortstop, after having forever etched his name in the record books, by not only leading the Gaints to victory in their one-game, WIld Card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates, with his grand slam, but becoming the first shortstop to ever hit a bases-loaded bomb in the postseason in the process. Those shortstops would include a certain player from the New York Yankees, who just retired from baseball, and whose name shall remain unmentioned.

Brandon Crawford waves his magic wand, and delivers at shortstop and the ball disappears, into his glove. Photo by Denise Walos 7/4/14

Crawford has earned his reputation by saving many a run through his stellar defense, despite coming close to leading the league in errors. In his defense of that last fact about errors committed, it has to be argued that he gets to a lot more balls than the average shortstop, so he encounters more opportunity for a botched play. Having watched Crawford now for three seasons, fans recognize that the tighter the ballgame, the more he ups his game; the errors almost always occurred when there was nothing on the line, almost as though Crawford’s baseball acumen increases in its effectiveness, the more tense the situation becomes. 

Finally, in the infield, there is the third-base conundrum with Pablo Sandoval and his demands for a five-year, Hunter Pence-like contract, and the unlikelihood that he will get it. The Red Sox and the New York Yankees are only too excited to offer one hundred million dollars, plus, to cage the Panda, and Brian Sabean has made it clear that he will not “blow the budget up” to retain Sandoval. Is that a problem?

Is losing Pablo a problem? Duh. Is it the Giants’ biggest problem? No, first of all because it hasn’t happened yet and secondly, because the Giants are too well-situated, as far as the continuity of their team and their organization, to be that impacted by any one given player’s absence. If you don’t believe me, then account for the Giants being able to overcome the loss of Angel Pagan, in winning the 2014 World Series.

Moving to the outfield, the indomitable Hunter Pence ranges, if not the best defensive right fielder in the league, certainly the one who hustles the most, and one who is well-versed in the unique configuration of AT&T Park. Besides Posey, who orchestrates the pitching, Pence is the single biggest weapon the Giants have, not only because of his stellar play on the field, but because of his emotional leadership in the dugout.

Normally more likely to be associated with football than baseball, emotional displays on the diamond have become much more prevalent, it seems, since the Preacher Pence Traveling Road Show started to make appearances during the 2012 World Series. Pence contributes vital elements to the chemistry beaker and is a team leader in every way.

With Angel Pagan on pace to be completely ready for the 2015 season, the Giants have their offensive spark plug back in place at the top of the order, and their defensive captain back in center field. After seeing how San Francisco rallied together to overcome the odds and win the World Series without him, it will be gratifying to see Pagan’s salute back in place.

Jul 5, 2014; San Diego, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants left fielder Michael Morse (38) before the game against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Who ends up playing left field remains to be seen, with Michael Morse having completed the one-year deal he made with the Giants a year ago, and Travis Ishikawa eligible for arbitration. Neither is ideal in left field as far as defense is concerned, but it will be up to Brian Sabean to determine  whether or not there is enough of a falloff to demand a new face in left field.

Morse did an admirable job this past season, committing only two errors, but just as Crawford gets to more infield grounders than the average guy, it could be said of Morse, that he gets to fewer balls hit to left field than the average guy, so that helps explain his few number of errors.

Both Morse and Ishikawa wold be bargains, and both cold end up on the Giants again. It offers Sabean some maneuverability, in that he can look elsewhere to fill the spot, or he can keep one or both of his existing options, and still not have it be the most pressing problem. Again, after seeing the way Bruce Bochy got the most out of his bench this year, left field is not going to loom as the biggest hurdle to be jumped in assembling another team capable of competing in the playoffs.

Still looking for the number one impediment to continued success in the 2015 season, I will sign off for today, and continue the search tomorrow, with the bullpen and the bench coming under the microscope.

Interesting though, the notion that one can examine the starting rotation and lineup, in search of a the biggest quandary facing the Giants, and stroll away, convinced that this nebulous challenge must be found elsewhere.

The knowledge brings with it a warm and comfortable glow, sort of like the cat who ate the canary and got away with it, feathers and all.

Tomorrow: The bench and the bullpen

May 31, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey (28) looks on from the dugout against the St. Louis Cardinals during the fourth inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

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