The Stove Is Still Cold, but the 2018 Giants Are Taking Shape

by Dr Lefty

Another week has gone by. Today is January 21, and spring training camps open in just over three weeks. And with the exception of Shohei Ohtani, none of the top free agents on the board has a job yet.  Of the ones listed in the top 10 by MLB Trade Rumors the day after the World Series ended, exactly one (Wade Davis) has signed with a new team, while another (Masahiro Tanaka) declined his opt-out and is staying with the Yankees. Everyone else, as of today, is still unemployed.

The theories about this season’s incredibly slow free agent market abound–after all, what else have baseball writers had to discuss?–and range from “collusion” to “the monster 2018 class” to “Scott Boras” to “new efficiencies of the modern front office” to  “this free agent class just kinda sucks.”  The most interesting (and long) analysis was a 3,500-word piece by Jeff Passan of Yahoo.com, that, among other things, highlighted teams’ extraordinary current willingness to not compete. This last point is not just a problem for free agents and their paydays. It’s a problem for fans and for the overall competitive balance of the league. What does it mean to win 100+ games and have “the best record” in a league if a third or more of the teams in your league are tanking?

 

The Giants, though, are competing

Watching all this unfold, I’ve moved as a fan from slight embarrassment (“My team is too stupid to know it’s time to give up and rebuild”) to pride: “My team has self-respect and feels they owe their fans a competitive product.” They’re not sitting out the final years of Bruce Bochy’s managerial career, of Madison Bumgarner’s contract, or Buster Posey’s run as the best catcher in baseball. Our Giants are “old, bold, and unwilling to fold.”  I resonate with that!

Sure, they could have waited for 2022 and Heliot Ramos and the Draft Class of 2018, but in the meantime, there’s 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. So let’s talk about 2018. My subheadings have a carefully selected range of modal auxiliaries to help me express my varying moods.

 

The lineup will be a lot better

The Giants got exactly what they needed: two durable, experienced right-handed hitters with power. They will help take the pressure off Posey, and anything they get from Hunter Pence can be a bonus. The lineup will have a nice righty-lefty balance. It would be nice to see more speed, and maybe whoever ends up playing CF will help with that, but at least there should be more power potential and better all-around hitting.

 

The defense should be better

The infield wasn’t bad last year. Crawford won another Gold Glove, Belt was leading the world in defensive metrics when his season ended prematurely, and Panik and Posey are still really good. Adding Longoria, the reigning AL Gold Glover at 3B, can only improve matters.

The outfield defense instantly improved when Denard Span was shipped to Tampa. Sure, the Giants had already told him to prepare for a move to left field (a la Angel Pagan in 2016), but let’s face it: Did anyone really think Span would be good enough there, either? He’d have less ground to cover, sure, but a move to left field doesn’t fix bad instincts, lackluster jumps, and a terrible arm.

https://www.mlb.com/video/cain-vs-span/c-1869420583

The non-Span picture is murky, though. It’s fair to wonder how moving two guys (Pence and McCutchen) who have not recently been good defenders to new positions is going to work. I think we’ll have to wait and see. Is 35-year-old Pence, with his shot hamstrings, still a better right field option at AT & T due to his years of experience with playing there? My set of guesses: (1) Pence will spend a lot of time on the DL (2) McCutchen may end up in left field before the year’s over (3) Younger guys (e.g., Slater, Williamson, Duggar) may be manning one or both of the corners at points. We may even see one or more of those guys coming in as late-game defensive replacements, especially when Pence starts games.

Centerfield, however, will be a position of relative defensive strength. That was the #1 priority articulated by Evans after the season ended. Since then, he’s (a) tried to trade for Billy Hamilton (one of the top 2-3 defensive CFs in baseball) (b) sent Span away and (c) expressed confidence in Steven Duggar, a plus-defender. I believe that either the Giants will sign a modestly priced glove-first free agent or Duggar will open the season in CF. Knowing how the Giants operate, I think the former is more likely than the latter, but either way, there will be a much-improved defensive player in centerfield when the season begins.

 

The rotation must be better

I chose my modal auxiliary carefully in that subheading. I didn’t say the rotation will be better. But it needs to be better than it was last year. In fact, this is probably the biggest distinction between a slightly improved Giants team that maybe wins 75 games and one that wins 85 games or more.

There is good news and bad news about the 2018 Giants rotation.  Let’s start with the bad news.

Bad news: The back end of the rotation is massively unproven. Of the four guys in line to compete for the fourth- and fifth- starter spots, the most experienced is Ty Blach with 26 major league starts over two seasons. A full season for a starter in a five-man rotation would be 31-33 starts, so Blach is well under even one full year of experience. Chris Stratton made 10 starts in 2017. Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez haven’t made their major league debuts, and Suarez isn’t even on the 40-man roster yet.

Good news: The Giants’ #4-5 starter spots for the last couple of years have, as a group, been pretty terrible. This is all to say that, unproven or not, it may be hard for the back end of the Giants’ rotation to get worse than it was in 2016-17, and, best case, it could be better.

Bad news: The Giants’ stellar Big Three from 2016 took a huge nosedive in 2017, or at least Bum and Cueto did. Bum’s nosedive was literal. SMH. Samardzija in many ways pitched very well, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep up his pace of almost never walking anyone and if his outcomes improve with better outfield defense.

Good news: If Bum and Cueto can bounce back, this could be an excellent Big Three again. Buster Olney, in his recent annual round-up of top-ten lists, actually had the Giants’ rotation in his top 10 (OK, it was #10, but hey–they were on the list!), and he had Bumgarner as the sixth-best starting pitcher in baseball. As this article notes, Samardzija deserved better in 2017 (in fact, he’s the cover boy for the piece).

 

The bullpen could be better

The same article about “Pitchers who deserved better” also highlighted Mark Melancon and predicted that he will have a strong bounce-back season, assuming good health. The return of Will Smith should help a good deal, too. So the biggest question mark is “Will Melancon and Smith be healthy?” If the answer is yes, it seems highly likely that the 2018 bullpen should be better than the desultory 2016 version and the even worse 2017 version (see my post last week for a discussion of this).

Smith and Melancon are the biggest keys to a turnaround, but who will be behind them? Will Sam Dyson be a Giant, or will he be offloaded to make salary cap space for Jarrod Dyson? Will Derek Law show that he can be 2016 Law again? Will either of the O-Twins finally step up and become a capable LOOGY, or will D.J. Snelten sneak in and grab the opportunity they’ve so far squandered?  Will Rule 5 Guy somehow stick, despite having not pitched beyond A ball? (My guess: he will not.) Who will drive us insane first, Strickland or Gearrin?

Keep an eye on Reyes Moronta. He may turn out to be a big part of this before it’s all said and done.

 

My way-too-early 25ManGuys™

I’m going to fudge a little bit because I don’t know who the Giants will sign for centerfield, but I do think they will sign someone. So here’s my early, unofficial take:

Lineup (not batting order): Posey C, Belt 1B, Panik 2B, Crawford SS, Longoria 3B, McCutchen RF, Mystery CF, Pence LF

Rotation: Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Stratton, Beede (I believe Blach will start the year in the bullpen)

Bullpen: Melancon, Blach, Dyson, Strickland, Gearrin, Law, Snelten (why not) (I believe Smith will start the year on the DL)

Bench: Hundley, Sandoval, Tomlinson, Parker, Gorkys (Slater, Duggar, Williamson in AAA)

 

AFC and NFC championship games today. Super Bowl in two weeks. You know what that means: It’s almost time for baseball. And after the addition of McCutchen this week, I’m excited again!  Lefty out.

 

Mr. Lefty’s Little League photo, 1971