This is the first in what will be an occasional series comprising slightly belated MLB season previews.
This year, 2016, is an even year and Giants’ broadcasters, social media accounts, and Bay-Area brands are here to make sure you don’t forget it. Sports are built on finding meaningful narratives in feats of physical ability, or at least forcing them in. But with long months of near-daily games in which to generate tension that stretches beyond nine innings, baseball often mythologizes to especially epic proportions. I don’t mind this one bit; it’s one of the most useful manifestations of sports as malleable low-stakes microcosm. So, the fact that it’s an #evenyear is supposed to Mean Something. But maybe you have the sort of anxious, fatalistic temperament that makes all these expectations look like precipices, prime for falling from. Because, let’s face it: The San Francisco Giants probably won’t win the 2016 World Series, just statistically speaking. Right now, the best team in baseball (damn Cubs!) has a one-in-five chance at taking home the title, according to Fangraphs. And even that is shockingly generous compared to the other 29 clubs. Expectations like these might make the Giants’ middling start to the season look disastrous, and their viable playoff chances seem sort of so-what. But let’s not jump to the finish line just yet. Baseball season is upon us and it’s shaping up to be a fun one for Giants fans—if only they can let themselves enjoy the ride.
It’s inescapable: The Giants are a team that has won the World Series three out of the last six years. Part of what has made this run so noteworthy (and narrative-worthy) is that they failed to even make the playoffs in the off years. Last year was one of those off years. They scraped by for much of the 2015 season despite mounting injuries and an under-performing rotation on the back of Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 World Series victory lap, but faltered too much in the final stretch to match the NL Central’s trio of first place-caliber clubs.
They won the 2014 World Series after playing better in October than they had for much of the season, but if you consider the past couple of years in conjunction, the Giants are a team characterized by a gaggle of likable personalities that belies incredibly calculated talent evaluation. They’ve produced a handful of position players who have over-performed on their prospect status while getting their money’s worth out of standout stars like Buster Posey. In recent years, they’ve avoided any disastrous trades and gotten just enough production out of undervalued veterans like Marco Scutaro and Michael Morse, and should do so again with Denard Span.
And if they do get back to the playoffs this even year? They’re a team that in theory plays well under pressure. Between the 2012 and 2014 postseasons, the Giants won eight games in a row while facing elimination.
If you watch baseball at all, you already know Buster Poesy. And if you follow the Giants on social media, you’ve at least seen the antics of Hunter Pence. After missing most of 2015 to injury, Pence is off to a strong start this year, turning his Restless Leg Syndrome approach at the plate into production and power.
About that homegrown talent? It’s populating the entire infield this season with potential All-Stars (and some sure things). Posey is the best catcher in baseball by an ever-widening margin and Trevor Brown (one of a few farm system nobodies holding his own in the majors) is good enough to give the face of the franchise as much time off from behind the plate as he needs. Brandons Crawford and Belt have both developed from average major leaguers into cornerstones of the team and both are on track to have some of their best seasons yet.
Joe Panik proved in 2015 that his pivotal contribution down the stretch in the previous championship year wasn’t just beginner’s luck. His surprising ability got the Giants off a strong start last year that they couldn’t sustain without him when he missed almost all of the final two months to injury. If he can stay healthy in 2016, that sort of talent should push his team into the playoffs.
An even more surprising story than the low-first-round Panik is 18th rounder Matt Duffy, who came in second for Rookie of the Year in 2015 with a .295/.334/.428 slash line. The 25-year-old’s defense probably even outweighs his production at the plate—and the Giants are getting he and Panik for around the major league minimum.
This offseason, the Giants put a big chunk of the change they’re saving on infielders towards beefing up the rotation. The role of ace was easily refilled by Madison Bumgarner; the man of more snot than words has yet to live up to his 2014 SI Sports Person of the Year status, which could cost the Giants crucial games if he doesn’t return to form. Of course, if the velocity doesn’t get back up, he could always pull a Babe Ruth.
But the biggest story of the Giants’ offseason was their pitching acquisitions. After failing to win out in a bid for Zack Grienke, the Giants got two potential star starting pitchers for the price of one by scooping up Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. Both will serve as tests of San Francisco’s talent evaluation abilities after they disappointed their previous teams, but both are making the franchise’s pro scouts look good in the early going. Cueto, especially, is off to a strong start, consistently pitching at least seven innings and climbing to fifth in the majors in pitcher WAR.
I like to think so. Although they were only 2-4 against them last year, even-year Giants have twice eliminated the Cards in the playoffs. But I might be buying into the narrative a little too much with that evaluation. They may not get much help from Johnny Cueto, whose career numbers against St. Louis are well below his averages.
Most chiseled? That’s gotta be Superman in several levels of disguise, Kelby Tomlinson.
The Giants’ season got off to a rocky start with a decidedly mediocre April and their recent success in close games can be viewed one of two ways: Either as an ability to eke out iffy wins ... or as an inability to dominate decisively. Bumgarner’s struggles have cost them and could continue to do so, Cueto and Samardzija are hardly safe bets to be this good all year, the young talent could slip up or fall prey to injury, and their bullpen has been remarkably consistent throughout the past couple years but lacks a brand-name Closer. But all that is worst-case-scenario stuff that never looks good for any team, especially one with expectations based on little more than horoscopes. For right now—coming off a five-game winning streak mostly on the road that put them in first place—it doesn’t feel like too bold a statement to say that even without my even year-colored glasses on I think this is a team that at least makes the postseason.
You shouldn’t. This even-year voodoo crap can only become more insufferable if they win and the Giants will have worn out all the goodwill they earned from going the first 52 years in San Francisco without a championship. But I sure will be.