How did this happen?
The odds-makers had put the 2017 Giants in the middle of the play-off picture, picked to win 90 games. From contender to dead last in just a single year!
There were signs of course. After a great first half in 2016, they had a dreadful second half.
Entering 2017, the team was essentially the same as it had been the previous year, with a few minor tweaks, though those proved to be crucial.
Comparing the position player line-ups for 2016 --
1B Brandon Belt
2B Joe Panik
3B Matt Duffy / Eduardo Nunez
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Angel Pagan
CF Denard Span
RF Hunter Pence
C Buster Posey
-- to those in 2017 --
1B Brandon Belt
2B Joe Panik
3B Nunez / Sandoval
SS Brandon Crawford
LF Hernandez / Parker
CF Denard Span
RF Hunter Pence
C Buster Posey
-- you wouldn't have had the feeling this line-up could underperform to the degree it has.
On the analytical side, it's a line-up structured around Pac Bell Park's dimensions. In exchange for fewer home runs, you hope for a lot of doubles and triples, good defense and excellent pitching. And indeed, the championship teams of 2010, 2012 and 2014 were built around excellent starting pitching, with good set-up men and a brilliant closer.
Since the departure of Barry Bonds after the 2007 season, management has consistently emphasized pitching and defense over power. Historically, success can be achieved with either formula. Some great teams of the 20th Century, the Yankees of the 1920's or '50's, for instance, were built around power. However given the legal reconfiguration of major league baseball, free-agency and salary caps, it's difficult for any team, no matter how well-heeled, to hold onto a squad of expensive stars.
With respect to the dimensions of Pac Bell, a good argument can be made in favor of a team with speed and agility--stealing bases and hitting lots of doubles and triples on offense, while covering the big outfield with speed and savvy--counting on good pitching to throttle opponents' power. But any team plays only half its games at home; playing in another park with shorter dimensions can put you at a serious disadvantage if you're playing pepper while the other guys are hitting dingers. In an ideal world, you have it all, power and speed, good run production and great defense, dependable starting pitching and great closers. But maintaining this kind of balance, year in and year out, even if you can somehow bring it together temporarily, is nearly impossible. Teams form and reform, stars rise and fall, older players drop out while young ones rise. Players have good years and bad, but they seldom have them all together at the same time, with the same team. And then there are the injuries.
This year, we lost our ace, Madison Bumgarner, to a freak accident at the beginning of the season. Had he not gone down, he was expected to win 14-18 games. That didn't happen. Samardzija, a good journeyman starter, was exposed for what he essentially is, a very talented player who will never rise to the first rank of performers. Matt Moore, a reconstruction project picked up last year for the stretch run, had a horrible time. Matt Cain, nearing the end of his career, was a shadow of his former self, while Johnny Cueto was lost for much of the year with nagging little injuries. Ty Blach, in his first full season in the bigs, showed signs of promise. Mark Melancon, signed in the off-season to replace the departed Casilla, went down with injury, too, forcing the team to use alternatives (hello, Sam Dyson).
It's hard not to think that when Bumgarner went down, much of the rest of the team didn't fall into an emotional nose-dive, especially when none of the other starters stepped up. Belt, Crawford and Pence all have had off-years, hitting well below their usual average(s). Left field--as everyone has come to characterize it--became the "black hole" which the team seemed unable to cover. Gorky Hernandez (Gorkys Hernandez??) in left field? Jarrett Parker, apparently the heir apparent, went down to injury too, so it's still unclear whether he has the stuff to be a real regular.
Once the season went south, management appeared to have given up too. On July 26th, in the middle of the season, they traded Eduardo Nunez, our starting 3rd baseman, to the Red Sox for minor leaguers. Christian Arroyo, another rookie at 3rd, gave hints of a possible future, then was injured. Throughout the second half, the team has cycled in a long list of minor leaguers, has-beens and also rans--Ryder Jones, Pablo Sandoval, Austin Slater, Conor Gillaspie, Aaron Hill, Mac Williamson, Justin Ruggiano, Orlando Calixte, Mike Morse, Drew Stubbs, Tim Federowicz, Derek Law, Kyle Crick, Steven Overt, Albert Suarez, etc.--none of whom seems likely to be with any major league team two years from now. It has looked a little like desperation.
Who now on the team deserves to stay next year, and become a part of a better team?
Posey seems solid, as does Panik. We'd be stupid to let either of these stars depart. Crawford's still a great fielder, and he still leads the team in RBI's, despite having an off year at the bat. Belt's been a puzzle, throughout his career. On paper, he seems intriguing, but watching him play everyday, you have the feeling he doesn't quite realize is talent. He should be hitting 25-30 homers a year, and at least .275. He also rarely performs in the clutch. Surrounded by a great team, he looks fine, but it's hard to justify his presence here, given our power vacuum. Pence is a quandary too. When he first came here, fans were overjoyed. His enthusiasm, his hustle, his combination of speed AND power, seemed perfect. But he's become injury-prone, and he seems frequently clueless at the plate, swinging at bad balls, over-anxious. Is 2016 an anomaly, or is his career on a decline? Hard to say. I like him in right field. On balance, I feel he would be hard to replace.
The weak spots on this team are --
In the past, I've recommended the team seek to improve its power, and that's my recommendation now. Traditionally, you want production from the corner positions. 1st and 3rd should give you homers and RBI's. Ditto with left fielders. We'd like a right handed power hitter (25-30 homers, 85 RBI's) at third and in left field.
As Posey's career enters its second phase, it would be prudent to move him to 1st, at least on a regular part-time basis, to extend his career and reduce the wear and tear on his body. With luck, he could play until he's 40, and be productive throughout his 30's. He already has Hall of Fame numbers.
On the mound, Bumgarner's the ace. He looks durable, and there's no reason to think he won't bounce back next year. Cueto's contract status is up in the air at the moment. If he elects to stay, we could expect him to put in more good years (he's only 31). Samardzija's no favorite of mine, unless you figure him for a fourth or fifth in the rotation; if he left, I wouldn't miss him. At this point, I want no more of Moore, or Cain. Melancon may or may not be as good as his rep, but Dyson is welcome to replace him, if he can.
So we need one more good starter, and we need a good set-up man or two. No one the team has used this year looks good enough to stay. Gearrin, Strickland, Osich, Law, Suarez, Overt--a mediocre list at best.
Once upon a time, the Giants farm system was among the best, but in recent decades, there hasn't been the same quality. My own theory is that major league baseball has too many teams, and that there's been a watering down of overall talent. Broadcasters today will talk casually about "prospects" in the minor leagues: "Then there's this fellow at Pawtucket, pretty good stuff, ERA of 5.43, a 2-5 record and impressive fast ball at 89 mph." I can remember when that kind of "performance" at Triple A wouldn't have landed you a job at the local hardware store.
When I first started following major league baseball, in 1958, there were 16 teams, 8 in each league. Today there are 30. Imagine how much better teams would be today, if the best players of those 30 teams had to be winnowed down to fill just 16. Most of the marginal contributors would either be in the minor leagues, or out of professional ball completely. Players like Belt, Hernandez, Tomlinson, Moore, Strickland would probably be struggling in Double A.
Is the general level of play better or worse than it was half a century ago? It's an interesting question. Can mere statistics tell the whole story?
In 2018, the Giants will have to play better, and they will certainly need to make some changes. Can the team afford to bring in some sluggers, another quality starter, and some decent set-up hurlers? On paper, you'd think it would be possible. But does the management have the will? Is it a matter of money, or are there other factors? Just this week, Giants management opined that star hitters would be hard to convince to come play for the team, given its "difficult" ball park, and California tax rates. But these problems don't seem to have hurt the Dodgers, who have one of the most feared line-ups of all, and will win our division title for the fifth year in a row.