On Saturday, the Giants pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training. This is glorious news, because it means that baseball is, somehow, right around the corner.
This is doubly glorious news for Giants fans because it moves them past the nightmare that was 2011, and triply glorious because it focuses on the one thing the Giants are very good at: pitching.
It also means that Buster Posey Watch gets cranked up. Let's preview the positions, using for whatever reason, a poker analogy.
In the Hole: The aces, as it were, are Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. You may know them. They are quite good. Lincecum went 13-14 last year and still posted a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 4.4. This means that despite his terrible -- losing -- record, he was still one of the best pitchers in the bigs. Cain was equally awesome.
Here is a list of pitchers who threw 200 innings, struck out more than seven batters per nine innings, struck out more than 175 batters for the season and managed to produce an ERA+ (relative to the league average) of 110 or higher. It is a list of awesome pitchers and, yes, we sorted it by win-loss percentage just to prove how bad the Giants offense was.
Up the Sleeve: Because Cain and Lincecum were so swell in 2011, many people might not have noticed what Madison Bumgarner did. The North Carolina native was, however, absolutely stupendous, and could/should/(will?) be headed for a breakout year in 2012. In fact, if you actually clicked on the list above, you'll notice that BumGeezy made it as well.
Maybe Bumgarner's not a secret though? He finished 11th in the Cy-Young balloting in 2011. Or maybe he is? Lincecum finished sixth and Cain finished eighth. A look at his second-half splits -- 9-4, 2.52 ERA, 99 strikeouts in 100 innings pitched and just 19 walks -- forecasts a potentially monster season in 2012.
The Wilds: Ryan Vogelsong was the FOURTH All-Star pitcher for the Giants in 2011. He deserved it; it should tell more how much of a waste it was to not have offense on last year's team. But can he repeat the out-of-nowhere success he had in 2011? Eeeeeehhh ... yes. I mean, maybe. Maybe not. He could struggle under the weight of a new contract. He could continue to randomly breakout. If he struggles everyone will not be surprised, because of his past. And if he continues to do well, Vogelsong will simply be performing up to expectations. It's a fine line there.
AT&T Park should install a countdown to the end of Barry Zito's contract. That's about all I have to say about that. Eric Surkamp will provide backup. Gulp.
Bullpen: This offseason, the Giants, in desperate need for more pitchers, paid Jeremy Affeldt $5 million for 2012 and gave Javier Lopez a new contract. Oy. Whatever, it's still likely a strong bullpen: if Brian Wilson is healthy and can resemble 2010 form (and not 2011), he'll close again.
Sergio Romo and his GIF-making monster of a slider should be poised for another dominant year. Lopez, the ageless Guillermo Mota, a slew of lefthanders (Affeldt, Dan Runzler, Surkamp) and the very underrated Santiago Casilla make this a very good unit.
Summary: The Giants are great at pitching. It is their strength. Their muse. The reason they can compete. This should be no surprise.
Quickly, on Catching: Posey said on Thursday he's "optimistic" about being ready for Opening Day. And while that's a quick recovery, it's not the sort of thing you say if you don't think it's happening. If it's not happening, you slow play it so fans aren't furious/upset when you're not back. If Posey is healthy and hits like he did in 2010, this is a totally different team. If not, Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside will combine to do battle against the evil forces of the Mendoza Line.
Best Case: Bumgarner breaks out in a big way to form "The Big 3," no major injuries on the pitching staff, no major regression for Ryan Vogelsong, Posey's healthy and inspires the rest of the lineup to hit well and the Giants cruise to an NL West title.
Worst Case: Posey's not ready, suffers setbacks, injuries and age depletes the bullpen, Vogelsong returns to the form he flashed the first time he was a Giant and the team barely sniffs the playoff race.