2014 Team Preview: Can the San Francisco Giants win another even-year championship?

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

2010, 2012, 2014? Bay area baseball has been rejuvenated in recent years, but can the Giants keep up with their division rivals?

Even-numbered years have been kind to the San Francisco Giants lately. They were the benefactors of a late collapse by the San Diego Padres in 2010 and got an incredible 160 starts out of their impeccably healthy rotation in 2012. Sure, they made their own luck en route to a pair of championships, and Buster Posey's season-ending injury in 2011 may have cost the team a shot at a three-peat, but relying on that run of good fortune and timely execution in 2014 is... risky. It's not that the Giants did nothing with their offseason -- hey, they signed Michael Morse! -- it's that they are betting on a team that showed some serious red flags in 2013 when their NL West competition did much more to improve for 2014.

Manager: Bruce Bochy (8th year)

2013 record: 76-86, t-3rd in NL West

SB Nation blog: McCovey Chronicles

Other Giants coverage: San Francisco Chronicle

First series vs. Tigers: September 5-7 @ Comerica Park

Lineup

Hunter Pence led the team in WAR in 2013, but the efficacy of the Giants' offense begins and ends with catcher Buster Posey. Coming off an MVP season in 2012, Posey hit .294/.371/.450 with 15 home runs. Mere mortals would be ecstatic with this type of production, but it was a far cry from the .957 OPS Posey produced the year before. His lackluster numbers were largely a result of a .643 OPS in the second half, and the Giants' front office has promised that Posey will get more rest in 2014. Spelling him will be Hector Sanchez, a 24 year old whose defensive abilities are average at best. He has received #BSOHL treatment so far in camp, and his production could determine how fresh Posey is down the stretch.

They will have to stay extremely healthy to contend, but it can be done despite the front office's stagnation this offseason.

At first base, Brandon Belt finally showed some power to go along with his sweet swing and patient eye in 2013. He hit .289/.360/.481 with 17 home runs and 67 RBI, all career highs. He has been dealing with a sore neck during camp, but that hasn't stopped projection systems and scouts alike from being bullish about his potential this season. Marco Scutaro continued to never strike out in 2013, hitting .297/.357/.369 with 34 strikeouts in 547 plate appearances. His back has been acting up this spring, so expect Joaquin Arias to see more time there in order to keep the Scutaro machine running efficiently. Based on a side comment in this post about Tim Hudson, Grant Brisbee seems to think that minor leaguer Joe Panik will factor into the equation at some point, and I trust Grant Brisbee about baseball things. Panik hit .257/.333/.347 in Double-A last year.

The left side of the infield is set in stone for 2014, but 2015 and beyond is still up in the air. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval will be a free agent after this season, and his fluctuating numbers make him a risky bet for a long-term deal. Sandoval stands to make a lot of money with a big year in 2014, especially if he can show the Giants that he is able to stay in shape. At short, Brandon Crawford has quietly offered up 4.0 WAR in two seasons as the team's starter. He is a below average hitter, but a .296 wOBA and 91 wRC+ were easy numbers to digest given his above average defense. Any progression at the plate is a blessing, provided he continues vacuuming up ground balls at his current pace.

For better or worse, Hunter Pence and his gangly limbs will man right field for the next five years. Pence signed a $90 million extension shortly after the season ended that will pay him through 2018. He played in all 162 games last year and hit 27 home runs with 99 RBI, both of which led the team. In center, Angel Pagan is looking to rebound from a hamstring injury that limited him to just 72 games in 2013. He will be 33 years old in July, but is still capable of a .750 OPS with league-average defense in center field. Gregor Blanco filled in for Pagan last year, starting 63 games in center. Provided Pagan stays healthy, Blanco will split time with Michael Morse in left. Morse played through the 2013 season with a bone spur in his wrist, but appears to be fully healthy so far this spring.

Rotation

The Giants' rotation sported the third-highest ERA in the National League last season -- an impressive feat considering they play their home games in the depressingly pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Their 3.93 FIP was slightly better, but still ranked in the bottom half of the league. A lot of the blame falls upon the failures of Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, who combined to produce -1.0 WAR in 44 starts. While Zito is currently looking for a new home -- in more than one sense of the phrase -- Vogelsong is being counted upon once again in 2014. After allowing three runs in four postseason starts in 2012, he saw his strikeout, walk, and home run rates all go in the wrong direction in 2013. He also gave up line drives at an alarming 27.1% clip, leading to a 5.73 ERA in 103 2/3 innings. He was slightly better down the stretch after missing two months with a finger injury, but tallied 27 strikeouts to 20 walks in 57 1/3 innings.

On the other end of the spectrum, Madison Bumgarner continued his three year run as "best lefty in the division not named Clayton Kershaw." He was the only Giants starter to pitch 200 innings, leading the staff with a 2.77 ERA. He narrowly missed his first 200-strikeout season, tallying 199 punchouts to 62 walks. While Bumgarner's remarkable consistency continued, Matt Cain's run of six consecutive seasons with 200+ innings pitched and a sub-4.00 ERA ended in 2013. He hit the 4.00 ERA on the nose in 184 1/3 innings, allowing a career-high 23 home runs. According to people who like math more than I do, Cain's elevated home run rate is not a cause for concern. His second half performance, which included a 2.36 ERA in 72 1/3 innings, further suggests that 2013 was a blip on the radar.

Rounding out the rotation will be Tim Lincecum and Tim Hudson. Hudson was one of the safest bets in a very risky class of free agent pitchers, and it took a two year deal for the Giants to win his services. He posted the third-highest ERA of his 15 year career in 2013, but a 3.46 FIP and 55.8% ground ball rate suggest that he's an ageless cyborg. If ageless cyborgs can also recover from fractured fibulas, Hudson should be useful in the middle of the Giants' rotation. Meanwhile, Lincecum partially recovered from a disastrous 2012 season with a 4.37 ERA and 3.74 FIP in 2013. He also threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres and resurrected his changeup, which led to a boost in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He is probably no longer the two-time Cy Young winning Lincecum we saw in 2008 and '09, but could be a serviceable mid-rotation starter.

The bullpen, on the other hand, was a different story. The group's 3.30 ERA and 3.54 FIP ranked fifth and sixth in the National League, respectfully. Sergio Romo continued to dominate in his first full season as the team's closer, allowing a 2.54 ERA while racking up 38 saves. He wants to be a better teammate in 2014, but I'm sure the team will take the occasional grumpy moment as long as he continues to pitch like he has in his stellar six big league seasons. Jean Machi, Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla, and Jeremy Affeldt are all back as well. The first three of that group pitched well in 2013 and hope to continue doing so. Machi's 4.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio was only slightly lower than Romo's, at 4.83. Affeldt, meanwhile, was limited in 2013 by a mess of an injury that included some or all of his groin and/or abdomen. He had surgery in September, so optimism is limited for the 34 year old lefty.

And here's another hit, Barry Bonds

It is not uncommon for past greats to come to Spring Training and serve as instructors for their former clubs, but someone as polarizing as Barry Bonds will undoubtedly generate more headlines than usual -- even ones with bad Kanye West lyrics. Bonds, the all-time home run king and face of the steroid era, is one of the best and most polarizing baseball players to ever play the game. A hitter as skilled as Bonds will have a useful tip or two for Giants hitters, especially left-handed slugger Brandon Belt. Belt slugged a career high .481 with 17 home runs in 2013, but the Giants are hoping that he and Bonds can harness a bit more pop, especially in the suffocating shadow of McCovey Cove.

Player to watch: Hunter Pence

You will not watch Hunter Pence play baseball for aesthetic reasons. Well, you might, but it is because Pence might be the most aesthetically displeasing baseball player this side of Yuniesky Betancourt. Pence swings the bat like a professional wrestler wielding a folding chair and runs like an engineering student. Despite these physical oddities, Pence is good. He put up a career-high 5.4 WAR last season, hitting .283/.339/.483 with 27 home runs and 22 stolen bases. He plays decent outfield defense, given his inability to run like a normal human being. His unique biomechanics are fascinating, and are the reason to watch him play baseball... even if it looks like he has a bug in his pants when he's chasing down a fly ball.

Outlook

The Giants are not an old team in the same sense that the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Phillies are old teams, but there are several key contributors who have age concerns. Marco Scutaro is 38, Tim Hudson and Ryan Vogelsong are both over 35, and the entire outfield is in their 30s. That said, this team will rely heavily on Belt and Posey for its offensive production, and Cain and Bumgarner atop the rotation. They do not have the depth to survive a rash of injuries, but the top-end talent is there to return them to their winning ways. They will have to stay extremely healthy to contend, but it can be done despite the front office's stagnation this offseason. Will it be done? I doubt it.

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