It’s not an even year, but it might as well be. After coming within three outs of taking the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs back to Wrigley for a deciding game five in the NLDS, the San Francisco Giants head into 2017 with a bad taste in their mouth. They will also enter their first odd numbered campaign since 2009 where they are not coming off a World Series title, adding all the more fuel to the fire in their quest to return to baseball’s pinnacle.
The good news is, they have the tools to do it. The Giants core group of Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Joe Panik in conjunction with a rock-solid rotation has proven capable of getting the job done in the past, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t do the same again. In fact, a strong argument can be made that this Giants team is better than both their 2010 and 2014 championship rosters. But the Giants are not without their share of question marks, and those will need to be addressed if they are going to live up to their lofty expectations. Here are three areas to keep an eye on heading into 2017:
San Francisco Giants 2017 Season Preview
For the past seven seasons, Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and Javier Lopez ensured the back end of the Giants bullpen was the least of their worries. Unfortunately, all three were clearly past their shelf life in 2016, instead proving to be the Giants Achilles heel. But although it was certainly time to move on, there remains a degree of uncertainty with respect to who will take on the roles they had locked down for so many years.
The first order of business for Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans this past off-season was to shore up the closer role, and that has been achieved with the signing of Mark Melancon. Still, the Giants will be counting on a number of younger arms to provide a solid bridge from the starters to Melancon in the ninth inning. Most notably, Derek Law and Hunter Strickland are expected to be key cogs at the back end of the Giants ‘pen, and will be handed the ball in a number of late-game situations. How they cope with the added responsibility remains to be seen, but whomever responds better is going to have the inside track to be the Giants set-up man. There is no question both Law and Strickland have the stuff to excel in bigger roles, but it will be a matter of who can bring it to the ballpark on a more consistent basis.
Another intriguing battle to keep an eye on is the competition between Josh Osich and Steven Okert for Lopez’ old job as the Giants primary left-hand specialist. Both are fairly safe bets to make the team as the only two real left-handers on the active roster (Will Smith is also a lefty, but has the weird reverse splits that see him get right-handed batters out more effectively than left), so the Giants are likely to start the season by turning to whomever is pitching better at the present time. But like the set-up role, they will probably want to peg one of them as their main go-to guy for high pressure left-on-left matchups as the season progresses.
A dominant bullpen has been a staple of the Giants three world championships, with Casilla, Romo and Lopez leading the way. But those shoes are now empty, and the task for Bruce Bochy and Dave Righetti will be to bring in the next wave of bullpen arms and figure out who can be relied upon to get the job done.
Hitting for Power
Brandon Belt led the Giants a season ago with 17 home runs, tied for 118th overall in the MLB. To put that in perspective, Belt’s 17 dingers would have made him the seventh leading home run hitter on the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals last season. And yet, in an era where the long ball has become more and more of a requirement for winning ballgames, the Giants found a way to keep themselves in the thick of the Wild Card race.
That’s not to say they couldn’t use a little more pop at the dish, however. The Giants are hoping that will come from some combination of Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson in left field, who have both proven capable of leaving the yard throughout the Minor Leagues and even shown flashes in their abbreviated Major League at bats. It remains to be seen who will win the starting job in Spring Training, but the criteria for the opening is no secret. We know Parker and Williamson aren’t going to win any gold gloves in left, and we also know they’re going to have their fair share of strikeouts. But given the composition of the Giants’ order which includes a number of strong defenders and hitters who put the ball in play, it’s safe to assume the Giants would gladly sacrifice those two things for an upgrade in power.
Meanwhile, a clean bill of health for Hunter Pence would go a long way towards boosting the Giants’ souvenir tally, while Buster Posey will be looking to rekindle his power stroke after posting his lowest home run total (14) over a full season since he entered the league.
Emphasis on Speed
The speed game has become more and more of a factor in postseason baseball over the past couple of seasons, and teams are beginning to realize it’s value. For one, the ability to actually steal bases is an asset in and of itself, but even the threat of stealing has the potential to distract opposing pitchers and cause defensive miscues. And in postseason baseball, every little edge matters. It was about time the Giants started to conform.
At their year-end press conference last November, the Giants brass stated a desire to do exactly that. As a result, they elected to let go first and third base coaches Bill Hayes and Roberto Kelly and replace them with Jose Alguacil and Phil Nevin to add some fresh new ideas into their base-running philosophy. The question now becomes whether or not the Giants have the personnel to actually make a more aggressive approach play to their advantage.
The most obvious key to making that work is Eduardo Nunez, who is far and away the team’s biggest speed threat after stealing 40 bases a season ago. Meanwhile, Denard Span is an intriguing case as a guy who was, at one point in time, one of the top speed demons in all of baseball. At age 33, it is evident that Span doesn’t have the same top-end speed he once did, but he is still an above average base-stealer and will have plenty of chances to run situated at the top of the Giants order. If Sabean, Evans and Bochy are to be believed, Nunez and Span will be set in motion on a much more frequent basis in 2017.
Beyond those two, however, the Giants running game gets significantly more precarious. Sure, Kelby Tomlinson and Gorkys Hernandez are both A+ pinch-running options off the bench, but bringing them into the ballgame for their legs requires sacrificing both the bat and glove of one of their starters for the remainder of the night. That’s something Bochy probably doesn’t want to do all that often, so the alternative is to give the green light to the likes of Panik, Pence, Crawford, or even Posey who was an impressive 6-for-7 in stolen bases last season. Sometimes the element of surprise is more effective than speed itself, so who knows? It just might work.
Looking Ahead to 2017
With the same core group returning to the clubhouse, the Giants enter this season with high yet attainable expectations. The starting rotation is as solid as ever while the team’s defense in the field will once again be elite, two critical strengths of a World Series contending ball club. On paper, this Giants team appears primed to compete for the NL West crown and do damage in the postseason. But a fresh batch of arms in the ‘pen, an uptick in power at the dish and a more aggressive strategy on the basepaths are three keys that have the potential to take the Giants over the top in 2017. Even years are overrated, anyways.