On paper, they were underdogs at the start of spring training back in 2014. How did they do? They won it all. Fast forward to spring training 2015, and the defending champion San Francisco Giants, who've won three World Series titles in five years, may be underdogs once again.
With Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse heading east, fans were hoping the Giants could land big names this offseason, like Jon Lester, Justin Upton or even Melky Cabrera (again).But the flashy name never made it to San Francisco. Instead, General Manager Brian Sabean brought in under-the-radar players, leaving us with a few questions.
How strong is the starting pitching?
The Giants essentially won the World Series last year with a one-man rotation. Other than Madison Bumgarner, no starting pitcher made it to the sixth inning during the 2014 Fall Classic.
Tim Hudson started 2014 like a Cy Young candidate, but fell flat mid-season. After the All-Star Break, Hudson went 2-7 with a 4.73 ERA. His ankle surgery during the 2013 season affected his conditioning, possibly contributing to his mid-season struggles. And in January, Hudson underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle. Hudson will turn 40 in July, so how quickly he can rehab could be an issue.
Matt Cain was once the anchor of the Giants' rotation, until he was sidelined by injuries. Cain had ERAs in the fours for the last two seasons, after posting a 2.79 clip in 2012. Cain had season-ending surgery in August when bones chips were removed from his elbow. In September, he also had bone chips removed from his right ankle. He is expected to be ready for spring training, but his conditioning will probably be affected. The Giants will have to wait and see which Cain they get.
Like Hudson, Jake Peavy had a tale of two seasons in 2014. The Giants re-upped Peavy for two years, $24 million this offseason. But he earned his paycheck in the second half. Since joining the Giants in July, Peavy has gone 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA after posting a 4.72 ERA in Boston last year.
And then there's Tim Lincecum, who hasn't come close to his Cy Young seasons. Lincecum threw a no-hitter in both 2013 and 2014, but had disappointing overall seasons since 2012. In his last three seasons, Lincecum combined to go 32-38 with a 4.76 ERA. Although his strikeout totals remain high (averaging nearly eight per nine innings in 2014), Lincecum is having trouble stopping the big inning. He once had a blazing fastball and a devastating split-changeup to blow hitters away, but now has to be crafty, since his velocity has dipped to about 89 mph. And he has even reunited with his father--who honed and created Tim's unique pitching style--in hopes of returning to Cy Young form. Lincecum still appears to be in transition heading into 2015.
Where's the power?
The Giants ranked seventh in the National League in home runs last season -- and hit only a handful in the postseason -- but it appears they are sacrificing power for on-base percentage in 2015.
After third-baseman Sandoval and outfielder Morse signed with East Coast teams, the Giants replaced their combined 32 home runs last season with Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki, who combined for just five homers last season. But both McGehee and Aoki bring new offensive skill sets. McGehee boasted a higher average and on-base percentage (.287/.355) than Sandoval (.279/.324). And Aoki (.285/.349) shows the same when compared to Morse (.279/336).
The Giants will rely on Brandon Belt to make up for Morse's and Sandoval's departures. He hit 12 home runs in just 61 games last year due to injury, putting him on pace to hit over 30 home runs if he was healthy. Belt will need to prove he can bounce back from the concussion he sustained in July.
Will Angel Pagan be healthy?
After a healthy 2012, when he helped propel the Giants to a World Series title, Angel Pagan has battled through injury problems. In 2013, he only played 71 games before injuring his hamstring. As Pagan went, so did the Giants. They finished 76-86 in 2013.
In 2014, Pagan was sidelined due to injury again. Back surgery eventually kept him at out of the lineup towards the end of last year. However, this time the Giants didn't skip a beat. Gregor Blanco stepped up in the leadoff hitter position throughout the 2014 postseason.
But Pagan's impact on the Giants' lineup is vital to its success. In his three seasons as a Giant, he's hit .290 with a .338 on-base percentage. He has a disciplined swing as a leadoff hitter, and provides energy to fuel the rest of the lineup. And with the loss of Sandoval and Morse, he may be needed more than ever in 2015.
The numbers don't lie. In the last two seasons, the Giants were 91-71 when Pagan was in the lineup. When he wasn't, the Giants were 73-89. Will he be fully healthy after season-ending back surgery last year?
Replacing Panda: Impossible task?
Replacing Sandoval at third base will not be easy. As the Panda, he was a fan favorite who had his own unique style that endeared Giants fans to him. Although newcomer McGehee is capable of replacing Pablo's bat, which McGehee will the Giants get?
McGehee, a Northern California native, won the Comeback Player of the Year in 2014 with these stats: .287 average, four home runs, 76 RBIs, and a .355 on-base percentage. With the exception of home runs (Pablo hit 16), McGehee had higher numbers than Sandoval in those stats. But McGehee's power took a dip last year with the Miami Marlins after he spent 2013 playing for Japan. As recent as 2010, McGehee hit 23 home runs for Milwaukee, with 104 RBIs and a .285 average. The Giants would certainly take that in 2015. But as recent as 2012, McGehee had a dismal season -- .217 average, nine home runs, and a .284 on-base percentage in 114 games. Playing in Japan seemed to help McGehee shorten his swing more, but his power numbers dipped. Which McGehee will the Giants see in 2015?
On the defensive side, McGehee does not have the range that Sandoval has, but he will field what he gets to. McGehee made the second-fewest errors among all third baseman last season, but he may not get to all the baseballs hit to him. According to ESPN, he had a -0.1 defensive WAR (wins above replacement) last season, compared to Sandoval's 0.6. The Giants defense will suffer at third base a bit in 2015, but while Sandoval made the flashy plays and got to balls McGehee could not get to, McGehee is an average third baseman and should not hurt the Giants too much.
Are two backup catchers needed?
The Giants seem to have two backup catcher candidates heading into 2015, although one appears more likely to make the team. Hector Sanchez had been the Giants' backup to Buster Posey since 2012, but rookie Andrew Susac opened some eyes last season after Sanchez's injury problems.
Susac last year hit .273, with three home runs in 35 games (88 at-bats). He came up after Sanchez suffered concussion symptoms in late July and showed flashes of opposite-field power, along with a disciplined plate approach. One of his biggest hits came against the Dodgers in a 13-inning game in late-September, which helped them win the game.
Although Sanchez has done adequate as a backup in his three-plus big-league seasons (.246 average, nine home runs, 82 RBIs, 541 at-bats), the emergence of Susac probably means Sanchez will start in AAA Sacramento. But he may have a chance to earn his job back in spring training.
Follow Vince on Twitter @vintalkingiants.