BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
As they prepare to return to the field for the first time since their heartbreaking collapse against the Cubs in the NLDS, the San Francisco Giants appear to have addressed their biggest weakness with the signing of free-agent closer Mark Melancon. The question is whether it will be enough to bridge the gap with their biggest rival, the four-time division winning Los Angeles Dodgers.
As has been the case throughout the Giants championship run this decade, and dramatically evidenced once again last October, this club will only go as far as it’s pitching takes it. While the addition of Melancon, a three time All-Star whose 131 saves since 2014 are the most in baseball, is highly likely to solidify the back end of a Giants bullpen that led the majors with 32 blown saves in 2016, getting to the closer could continue to be a challenge.
Left-hander Will Smith, who finished 2016 with a streak of 18 consecutive shutout appearances after being acquired from the Brewers at last years trade deadline, appears to be headed for Tommy John surgery and will be out for the year. Righty Derek Law and lefty Steven Okert, both of whom were called up to the majors for the first time in 2016, have shown significant potential but each are unproven. If Hunter Strickland can harness his control and keep the ball in the park he has the potential to become a solid set-up man able to hand the ball to Melancon with a lead.
The Giants starting rotation returns intact. The Big Three of Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore should again compare favorably with any in Baseball. Bumgarner is a workhorse elite at every level and Cueto demonstrated his reliability last season with a 2.79 ERA to compliment his team leading 18 wins. Moore, acquired in the Matt Duffy trade from Tampa, appears to have fully recovered from his own Tommy John surgery, having pitched admirably down the stretch in 2016 along with authoring a masterpiece in Game 4 of the NLDS for eight innings before the bullpen gave it away.
The backend of the rotation is another question mark. While Jeff Samardzija made strides last season and was consistently reliable for six innings, his 12-11 performance was the first winning record of his career. An even bigger question mark is what can be expected of Matt Cain or committee from the fifth spot. Handcuffed by Cain’s hefty salary, the Giants appear likely to enter the season handing him the ball every fifth day. But after three consecutive injury plagued seasons there is major doubt in the 32 year-olds reliability as Ty Blach waits in the wings hoping for a chance to prove that his performance after his September call-up wasn’t a fluke.
Future Hall of Famer Buster Posey continues to be the teams backbone behind the plate having added his first Gold Glove to his lofty resume in 2016 along with a WBC Gold Medal just last week. Another longtime face of the Giants is Hunter Pence. A one-time ironman used to playing everyday, Pence has missed 166 games the past two seasons while being limited to only playing 158 due to injuries. As both an emotional spark plug and one of the teams most reliable hitters, Pence’s ability to stay in the lineup and put up numbers comparable to his first three seasons in San Francisco is pivotal to the teams success.
Continuing the theme of being strong up the middle, shortstop Brandon Crawford, coming off an MVP caliber performance in route to a Gold Medal during the WBC tournament, has established himself as one of the best in the game. Setting career highs last season with 155 games played and a .275 average with 11 triples while driving in 84 runs for the second year in a row, Crawford also won his second straight Gold Glove. Second baseman Joe Panik experienced something of a sophomore slump as his batting average fell over 70 points to .239, but he too took home a Gold Glove and a return to his All-Star form of 2015 would go a long way towards solidifying the Giants postseason prospects.
While the hot corner at third is looking like a platoon between Conor Gillespie and Eduardo Nunez, Brandon Belt is a fixture at first base coming off a career high 156 games played while establishing new personal standards for most RBI’s and walks in a season. Rounding out the outfield, Jarrett Parker appears set to replace Angel Pagan in left while Denard Span will again bat leadoff and man centerfield.
More power would be nice, but the days of Bonds and Kent are long gone. With the exception of Bumgarner’s one man show in the 2014 World Series, the Giants have won each of their three championships with a deep and balanced pitching staff. There’s a lot to like on this 25 man roster, but it’s the revamped staff that will once again dictate just how far the team will get towards their goal of a fourth.