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2014 Giants Team Preview: Belting For The Bay

Josh Fathollahi

Josh Fathollahi

Josh is an avid sports fan and fantasy player. A Bay Area native, he follows the Giants, 49ers, Warriors, and Sharks religiously. He plays fantasy baseball, football, and basketball. In his mind, baseball is his favorite of the fantasy sports, as he considers it a "marriage" while fantasy football is an "affair."

2014 San Francisco Giants Team Preview

Just as they did following their 2010 championship run, the Giants regressed in 2013 following their 2012 World Series season. They finished 4th in the NL West with a disappointing 76-86 record. Bringing back essentially the same squad from the year before, the Giants got off to a hot start in 2013, going 23-15 in their first 38 games. But on May 25th, Angel Pagan injured his hamstring on an inside-the-park home run which forced the club's center fielder to miss a large portion of the season. The Giants' lack of outfield depth (an issue not addressed in the offseason) caused the team to flounder offensively once Pagan went down. The Giants fell out of first place on May 26th and they never recovered, going 18-34 in the months of June and July.

Despite their mid-season struggles, the Giants were still hanging around the wild card race as the All-Star break approached. However, general manager Brian Sabean decided not to make a blockbuster deadline deal to bolster the team's offense, possibly gun-shy after the Carlos Beltran blunder in 2011 which cost the team their top pitching prospect, Zack Wheeler, while getting nothing permanent in return.

It wasn't just the loss of Pagan that hurt the Giants in 2013, as their usually stable pitching took a step backwards in 2013. The 36-year-old Ryan Vogelsong, who rejuvenated his career in 2011, was not the same pitcher he was for the team over the past two seasons. He posted his worst ERA as a Giant (5.73) after recording a 2.71 ERA in 2011 and a 3.37 ERA in 2012. His velocity was down from year's past, and he suffered a broken hand while attempting a bunt in May. The staff's horse Matt Cain also had a down year, posting an ERA above four for the first time since his first full season as a starter in 2006. While the end results weren't terrible for Cain, he had uncharacteristically high ERAs in April (6.49) and in June (8.40) when the team needed him most. He did finish the season strong with a 1.61 ERA in September, but it was too little too late. Finally, Tim Lincecum finished the 2013 season with a 4.37 ERA, which was an improvement over his awful 2012 season, but still wasn't anywhere close to his former dominant self. The lackluster pitching from the Giants in 2013 magnified the team's lack of offensive depth and the overall results suffered.

The Giants allocated most of their off-season money towards re-signing key players who were headed towards free agency (Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, Javier Lopez, and Ryan Vogelsong), coupling those moves with the signing of veteran starter Tim Hudson and outfielder Michael Morse. They were never serious bidders when it came to the big-name free agents this offseason, which shows that the club is hoping that a healthy Pagan and a bounce-back season from their pitching staff is all they will need to return as contenders. This is a bold move considering the former NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers' propensity to spend money and the Arizona Diamondbacks' activity this offseason in bringing in slugger Mark Trumbo from the Angels. It is shaping up to be a three-team race in the NL West this year, with the Giants looking like the weakest of the three contenders.

Offseason Moves

Lost Andres Torres (unsigned), Barry Zito (unsigned), Guillermo Moscoso (overseas), Jose Mijares (Red Sox), and Brett Pill (overseas) via free agency.

None of the players the Giants lost this offseason are of much consequence and they will be keeping the core of their club from last year intact. The signings of Tim Hudson and Michael Morse left the veterans Andres Torres and Barry Zito without a spot on the team. Moscoso and Pill both struggled in the majors last season and they will both try out their luck overseas. From a statistical standpoint, Mijares was probably the biggest loss to free agency this off-season, but the team re-signed Javier Lopez and didn't really have a need for a left-handed specialist like Mijares.

Re-signed Ryan Vogelsong to a one-year, $5 million deal.

Coming off of a horrific 2013 season, the Giants elected not to pick up Vogelsong's $6.5 million option and let him walk, only to re-sign him to a more affordable one-year, $5 million deal. As previously mentioned, everything that could have gone wrong for Vogelsong in 2013 did. The team is hoping that an offseason of rest will rejuvenate the veteran and have him pitching at levels closer to his impressive 2011 and 2012 campaigns. But even if Vogelsong doesn't bounce back, the contract he was signed to is such a low-risk deal that the club wouldn't fret if he was simply an innings eater at the back end of the rotation.

Re-signed Javier Lopez to a three-year, $13 million deal.

The Giants re-signed Lopez to a three-year contract this offseason after the 36-year-old put up career numbers in 2012. He finished the season with a 1.83 ERA and a career-best 8.5 K/9. It seems a bit odd that a player of his age would actually be improving, but it is a direct result of manager Bruce Bochy using Lopez primarily against left-handed batters, who he held to a .152 average all season. Expect Lopez to be used in a similar way again in 2014, opening up the possibility of a matchup-based save or two over the course of the year.

Signed free agent Tim Hudson (Braves).

The Hudson signing was undoubtedly the Giants' biggest acquisition this offseason. The 38-year-old starter inked a two-year, $23 million deal with the club and will likely serve as their third starter come Opening Day. Hudson had his 2013 season shortened by a freak leg injury when Eric Young Jr. stepped on his foot in a bang-bang play at first base. Prior to the injury he was having an up-and-down season, but his ERA remained under 4.00 for the seventh straight season. He isn't getting any younger, but Hudson's ability to induce groundballs with his excellent sinker convinced the Giants that he can provide a couple more years of useful production. All indications with Hudson's rehab indicate that he should be ready for the start of the season.

Signed free agent Michael Morse (Orioles).

Morse struggled all season, first with the Mariners and then with the Orioles where he finished the season 3-for-29. Morse played through a wrist injury and had surgery after the season that should enable him to be fully healthy heading into spring training. An increased strikeout rate (25.8%) and a low BABIP (.254) were partly to blame, as was a quad injury throughout the middle of the season. Morse is always a risk to land on the disabled list at any moment, but the Giants' took a chance on him due to his power potential and their lack of power from the left field position over the past couple of years. He should be given every opportunity to see regular at-bats with club given their lack of depth in the outfield.

Traded for David Huff (Yankees) in exchange for cash considerations.

Huff was acquired by the Giants in response to losing Jose Mijares (Red Sox) to free agency. In 69 career major league appearances (54 starts), Huff has posted a 5.32 ERA and a 5.2 K/9. He's not a realistic rotation candidate, but Huff could eventually work himself into a lefty-specialist's role in the Giants' bullpen, and he could also be a spot-start option.

Projected Lineup

1. Angel Pagan, CF
2. Marco Scutaro, 2B
3. Pablo Sandoval, 3B
4. Buster Posey, C
5. Hunter Pence, RF
6. Brandon Belt, 1B
7. Michael Morse, LF
8. Brandon Crawford, SS

The Giants are bringing back essentially the same Opening Day lineup as last season, with the only difference being the addition of Michael Morse to the lineup. Most of their regulars will see steady playing time with little to no changes in the batting order. Posey will see the occasional start at first base in an effort to keep his legs fresh while keeping him in the lineup. In those instances, Hector Sanchez will take over catching duties and Brandon Belt will either receive a day off or slide into left field. The general consensus is that Morse will be the club's everyday left fielder, but given his injury history and manager Bruce Bochy's propensity to favor defense over offense, we may see a timeshare develop with Gregor Blanco as the season progresses.

Projected Rotation

1. Matt Cain
2. Madison Bumgarner
3. Tim Hudson
4. Tim Lincecum
5. Ryan Vogelsong

Really no surprises here, as any rotation questions were immediately answered after the Hudson signing and the Lincecum and Vogelsong re-signings. Despite Bumgarner acting as the ace of the staff last season, manager Bruce Bochy will likely have Cain act as the Opening Day starter in order to have a righty-lefty-righty combo atop the rotation. The Giants do have two intriguing rookie arms in the wings - Clayton Blackburn and Kyle Crick - but neither will likely be ready for the 2014 season.

Closer: In 2013, Sergio Romo received his first full season as the Giants' closer and came through with flying colors. His saves (38), ERA (2.54), and WHIP (1.08) all ranked in the top-five for closers in the National League. His ERA actually rose from 1.79 in 2012 due to his unreal strand rate (90.7 LOB%) returning to a realistic level (78.0 LOB%). Still, it was hard to find anything to complain about from Romo in 2013. He doesn't fit the mold of a typical closer, as his fastball isn't overpowering (87.7 mph), but he relies on pinpoint control and a dominating slider that is considered to be the best in baseball. He will enter 2014 as the unquestioned closer for the Giants, and should remain so barring injury.

Key Bullpen Members: Santiago Casilla had an interesting year in 2013, as he saw his strikeout rate drop (6.8 K/9) and his walk rate rise (4.5 BB/9), but his ERA ended up being lower in 2013 (2.16) than it was in 2012 (2.84). This anomaly can be explained by his ability to keep the ball in the park last season (0.4 HR/9) as opposed to 2012 where almost everything left the yard (1.1 HR/9). This drastic change in peripherals from year-to-year shouldn't come as a surprise from a pitcher whose stuff can be extremely erratic. He should continue to provide decent hold and strikeout numbers while serving as a right-handed setup man for manager Bruce Bochy this season.

Jeremy Affeldt had a rough season in 2013, even before he suffered a season-ending groin injury in the second half. While his 3.74 ERA wasn't terrible by any means, his K/9 (5.6) and BB/9 (4.5) were far worse than his totals from the previous two seasons. Affeldt is starting to get up there in age (34), but his struggles last season were likely more mechanical and injury-related rather than a sign of a serious decline for the veteran lefty. After undergoing successful groin surgery in the offseason, Affeldt will look to bounce back in 2014 and provide his typical solid middle-relief peripherals and holds.

Javier Lopez rounds what should be a solid veteran core of relievers for the Giants in 2014. As previously mentioned, the 36-year-old Lopez was re-signed to three year deal this offseason and he should continue to serve a prominent role in this bullpen as a left-handed specialist. His glaring splits against righties (.296/.361/.444) and lefties (.156/.208/.222) will likely limit his innings once again (39.1 innings in 2013), as manager Bruce Bochy will lift him against most right-handed batters.

Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:

Is this the year Brandon Belt finally puts it all together?

Belt got off to a slow start in 2013, slashing just .235/.287/.353 in the month of April and having many critics questioning whether he would ever deliver on his potential. But a strong finish to the season (.346, 7 HR, 28 RBI in August and September) restored faith in his prospects as a usable first baseman in fantasy. Belt has always exhibited great plate discipline and gap power, but the big change in the second half of 2013 was the closure of a gaping hole in his swing. A slight change in batting stance allowed him to handle pitches down-and-in better than he had in the past. Assuming he sticks to the adjustments he made late last year, we should see Belt finally put together a strong fantasy season.

Will Pablo Sandoval's weight loss result in better numbers?

After reportedly losing 42 pounds in the off-season, Sandoval will enter Spring Training in the best shape of his career. This news has many believing that Sandoval will put up career numbers in 2014. The weight loss will undoubtedly help Sandoval on the defensive side of the diamond, but his numbers may not see a similar uptick. Even at his bloated size, Sandoval was already an excellent hitter, providing a high batting average with low-20s power, so his production isn't likely to change at a lower weight. However, being in shape could do wonders for his ability to stay healthy. Sandoval hasn't played an entire season since 2010, and the foot injury he suffered last year was almost a direct result of his weight. So coming into the season fit increases his prospects of staying on the field, which will result in more opportunities to produce.

Will the Giants' rotation return to their dominating ways after a shaky 2013?

Pitching has been the strength of the Giants during their championship runs in 2010 and 2012, but it was one of their weaknesses in 2013. Matt Cain struggled and hit the disabled list for the first time in his career. Ryan Vogelsong missed significant time with a hand injury and never really got it going when he was healthy. And Tim Lincecum improved on his 2012 numbers, but still was subpar considering his decorated past. But what can we expect in 2014? Cain's 2013 season seemed a bit fluky, and his strong finish to the year indicates that he should return to his former glory this year. Lincecum showed flashes last season, but he may never return to his Cy Young form now that his velocity has dropped. Bumgarner is one of the more dominating left-handers in the game, and there are no worries there. The big change is the addition of Tim Hudson, who should provide the stable presence in them idle of the rotation to bring this rotation back to the upper echelon.

Strengths

As much as they struggled last year, the Giants' rotation looks to be their strength heading into 2014. It will all be dependent on bounce-back campaigns from Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong, but the addition of Tim Hudson is more valuable than people may think. Having a solid number three starter - who was the ace for the Braves in the past couple of seasons - can really take the pressure off of the rest of the staff. Cain should return to his dominant self, and Bumgarner is as reliable as they come. Lincecum is still a question mark, but it is hard to find a better fourth starter on any staff in the majors. The team will thrive if the starting pitching stays healthy and the bullpen continues to dominate like they did in 2013.

Weaknesses

Outfield depth remains the biggest concern for the Giants. They brought in Michael Morse to hopefully solve their power issues in left field, but he is a huge injury risk and his defense is suspect. They do not have any organizational depth at that position, as Gary Brown - their former top outfield prospect - has struggled mightily in the minors and has failed to develop as planned. Putting all their chips in a player like Morse is an extremely bold move, and it could cost them down the stretch if he fails to stay healthy.

Rising: Madison Bumgarner - The left-handed Bumgarner put together a career year in 2013, getting his ERA under 3.00 for the first time as a full-time starter. He also experienced improvements in his K/9 (8.9) and HR/9 (0.7) from the year before, while keeping his walks (2.8 BB/9) in check. He only netted 13 wins for an offensively-challenged Giants team, but victories are almost impossible to predict on a yearly basis. Looking ahead, Bumgarner projects to throw 200-plus innings for the fourth consecutive season and should be one of the more reliable arms taken early off the board.

Declining: Marco Scutaro - The second baseman Scutaro's 2013 season can be summed up in one word: injuries. He managed to play in 127 games, but it felt like he was battling either a hand, finger, or back issue all season long. The hand injury was a result of getting hit by a pitch in June, which could explain a career-low in power (.072 ISO). He actually lowered his minuscule strikeout rate (6.2 K%) while improving his walk rate (8.2 BB%) from a season ago. Scutaro had surgery on his injured pinky tendon in the offseason, so his power numbers should increase a bit, but not by much. The 38-year-old second baseman is not getting any younger, but he can still provide runs and a high batting average at a shallow position (111 wRC+), even if he does have to take an extra day off every now and then.

Sleeper: Brandon Belt - It was a tale of two seasons for Belt in 2013, as he got off to a slow start, while being hampered by an illness and a minor neck injury. He really turned things around after the All-Star break, though, putting together an impressive .326/.390/.525 line in 247 second-half plate appearances. Just when we thought we had Belt figured out - a patient hitter with light power and light speed -- he showed a spike in power, with a .193 ISO this past season compared to .146 in 2012. The improvement in the power department may not be a fluke, as his HR/FB ratio in 2013 was a maintainable 10.6 percent and was actually lower than the 15.8 percent he posted when he burst onto the scene in 2011. Because of the disparity between his first and second halves, Belt will likely be a polarizing asset come draft day, but there is upside here, if he continues to build on the expanded power output that he displayed last season.

Supersleeper: Heath Hembree - The flamethrowing Hembree finally put a strong season together in the minors last year, posting a 4.07 ERA with 35 saves for Triple-A Fresno. The strikeouts (10.3 K/9 with Fresno) have always been there, but the added control (2.6 BB/9) is what earned him a September callup. His success continued in the majors as he didn't allow a run in 7.2 innings with the Giants. Hembree even showed a sign of maturity as he dialed his fastball velocity back slightly in the majors to assure that he exhibited pinpoint control. The success he experienced coupled with his approach in the majors have all but guaranteed a middle-relief spot for Hembree in the Giants' bullpen in 2014. He was drafted to be groomed into the closer of the future, so if Sergio Romo were to go down with an injury, Hembree would definitely be in contention to step into the closer role.

Top Prospects

Kyle Crick, RHP - Arguably the Giants' top prospect, Crick held true to that title in 2013, posting a 1.57 ERA (2.37 FIP) with an impressive 12.5 K/9 in 68.2 innings with High-A San Jose. He did have an issue with his control (5.1 BB/9), and that is something he will have to fix before making it to the majors, even if it means taking a little bit off his stuff and taking a slight cut in his strikeout rate. Crick should start the year at Double-A Richmond with a chance for a September callup if he continues to dominate minor league hitters.

Edwin Escobar, LHP - The 21-year-old Escobar has come on strong in the Giants' minor league system over the last two years. He has maintained an ERA and FIP below 3.00 spanning across Low-A, High-A, and Double-A in 2012 and 2013. He has also lowered his walks and home runs allowed (his biggest knocks when signed as a teenager), all while maintaining an exceptional strikeout rate. He's definitely a legitimate pitching prospect now and warrants monitoring in dynasty leagues. With the Giants rostering five starting pitchers heading into the 2014 season, Escobar won't sniff the majors until September at the earliest. He will likely start the year with Triple-A Fresno to see if he can maintain his success against tougher competition.

Chris Stratton, RHP - After suffering a scary head injury that cut his 2012 season short, Stratton came back strong in 2013, posting a 3.27 ERA in 132 innings for Low-A Augusta. The former first-round pick exhibited excellent strikeout numbers (8.4 K/9) while keeping his control in check (3.2 BB/9). Despite not pitching above the Low-A level, the 23-year-old Stratton will likely be on a fast track to the majors as his arsenal (fastball, slider, curveball, changeup) appears ready for the big leagues.

Christian Arroyo, SS - The Giants selected Arroyo with the 25th pick of the 2013 draft and he went on to excel in the rookie league, winning the league MVP award to the tune of a .326/.388/.511 line in 209 plate appearances. The Giants received a bit of criticism for taking Arroyo a round or two before he was projected to go, but the team saw something in the 18-year-old that others did not. Despite his young age, Arroyo brings a mature approach to the plate; he doesn't try to do more than is asked of him, and that mindset has made him a difficult out in his early years. He has a level swing with gap power, but doesn't project to be a legitimate basestealer in the majors. Arroyo is still a few years away from sniffing the majors, but he is definitely a prospect to consider or at least track in dynasty leagues for 2014.

Clayton Blackburn, RHP - The move from Low-A Augusta to High-A San Jose proved to be no challenge for Blackburn in 2013, as he maintained his excellent strikeout totals (9.3 K/9), while keeping his walks in check (2.4 BB/9). The big-framed righty (6-4, 225) showcases a sinking mid-90s fastball, as well as an above-average curveball and a solid changeup. He should start the season with Double-A Richmond, but there is a good chance he could be fast-tracked to Triple-A Fresno midseason, if he continues his dominance on the mound.