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In the winter of 2014, long before the baseball season started, Giants president Larry Baer was putting on his makeup. Edit that. The makeup person at CSNBayArea was putting on Baer’s makeup while Baer sat in the makeup chair getting the final touches before a TV appearance.
Me, I already had my makeup on. I was talking with Baer about the Giants’ need for outfielders. I said they needed outfielders. Without looking at me — he had to keep his head straight while his face got sprayed — Baer said, and this is a rough attempt at reconstructing the quote, “Don’t you think we need to get our pitching set first?”
Actually, I didn’t think that. And I was wrong, way wrong, considering the Giants would win the World Series. But sitting there in the Green Room, I understood one thing. Baer wasn’t asking a question. He was stating a fact: With the Giants, pitching comes first. It always comes first. And it always will.
It’s not like the position players don’t matter. No sane person would say Buster Posey does not matter. But the Giants build their hopes — their entire reality — on the guys who throw from the mound.
How solid is their reality in 2015? That is the question.
Madison Bumgarner is the best starting pitcher in the big leagues. Kershaw us no Kershaws, as in Clayton. Put Bumgarner in a big game and he wins. Put Bumgarner in just about any game and he wins. And here’s the awe-inspiring part. He is getting better — if that’s even possible. Midway through last season, he perfected his curveball, made it a real beauty. He now has power and finesse and he can hit a dime from 60 feet six inches away, and his ball comes at batters with a million dips and loops.
There ought to be a law against him.
No other Giants starter is in his league. And that’s the issue and that’s what makes the upcoming season unknowable and interesting.
Who is the second starter? Hold the phone. Is there even someone who could be a No.2 on any other good team? Hard to say.
Jake Peavy, great competitor, recently admitted he has a dead arm. He said a dead arm is common this time of year. That may be true. But a dead arm doesn’t exactly sound like a good thing. It sounds kind of dead.
Matt Cain is coming off elbow surgery and a week before opening day was still leery about cutting loose his pitches. Although he pitched well Friday in the Bay Bridge Series, he is an unknown.
Tim Hudson did not finish well last season. He is 39. He had ankle surgery in the offseason and said he feels fine. We’ll see if he’s fine.
Speaking of fine, just how fine is Tim Lincecum? He supposedly has a more precise, spiffed-up delivery. And that may be true. But the Giants have Ryan Vogelsong in reserve just in case there’s no spiff.
What does all this mean? It means the Giants starting pitching — their essential reality — is an unknown. Unknown could turn out good. But it also could turn out bad. No one — and I mean no one — knows which it will be.
The bullpen is a definite known. The best in the big leagues. Closer Santiago Casilla is money. Setup man and part-time closer Sergio Romo is almost as good. Everyone knows he’ll throw a slider and few can hit it. A major-league scout told Sports Illustrated, “I have concerns about Sergio Romo. He’s so slider dependent. If he hangs it, it’s going to get hit out, and his fastball is often up.”
That is a legitimate concern about Romo, a well-stated concern. It’s just that Romo always has been slider dependent, and no one is putting him on a 12-step program to end his dependency. With him it’s, “Here’s my slider. Hit it if you can.”
Backing up Casilla and Romo are some of the best. Set-up man Jeremy Affeldt is a winner with a wicked curve. Long man Yusmeiro Petit could be a starter on the Giants staff or any staff. Affeldt and Petit were heroes in the 2014 postseason. And remember, lefty Javier Lopez isn’t exactly bad — he’s murder against left-handed hitters.
Which brings us to the position players. They are mostly the same as last year except where they aren’t. Posey is great. No need to elaborate. First baseman Brandon Belt will hit with more power this year. He is on the rise. Second baseman Joe Panik also is on the rise, should be the Giants’ second baseman for the next decade. Shortstop Brandon Crawford is a superb fielder who shows occasional power at the plate. He is the glue of the infield.
Not so sure about new third baseman Casey McGehee. He is a good fielder, but he hit only four home runs last season in Miami. His batting average was reasonable, .287, and he had 76 RBIs, respectable. The Giants say they do not need home runs. They will keep the line moving. That has been their line. You think of Posey and Panik dancing in a conga line. The line-moving theory may work. But, really, four home runs?
Then there’s the outfield. Oh, doctor!
In theory it’s a humdinger. Hunter Pence in right field, Angel Pagan in center and Nori (One Dinger) Aoki in left. Aoki hit one whole home run last season. Anyway, the theoretical outfield is not the real outfield for now.
Pence suffered a busted forearm, as you know. It was the busted forearm heard ’round the world. And Pagan gets hurt a lot. Not sure why. He just does. Pence will be back mid-May. Not sure how good he’ll be then. Pagan could play 162 games or he could play half that. Pagan can’t be sure. No one can be sure. That means two-thirds of the outfield qualifies for the Not Sure Category.
The Giants will press Gregor Blanco, a bench player, into a starting role for a while. He is a terrific fielder and a good hitter in streaks.
There’s talk about putting the Baby Giraffe — Belt — in the outfield. Then there’s 31-year-old Justin Maxwell. In six major-league seasons, he’s had only 919 plate appearances and a .224 batting average. Not exactly Willie Mays.
So, what are the Giants’ prospects, especially when you consider the Dodgers are a powerhouse and the Padres appear new and improved?
The Giants are the defending world champs. Every team, every scout, every fan must take them seriously. The Giants will contend. And remember, contending does not mean winning the National League West. It means getting into the playoffs where the Giants become for-real giants. Last season, they were the low-seed wild-card team, and look where that got them.
The Giants probably will hit well enough in the regular season. They certainly will field well enough. Everything comes down to the starting pitching. If it flops, no amount of makeup can make this team look good.
For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
San Francisco Giants
2014: 88-74, 2nd place, wild card, World Series champions.
Manager: Bruce Bochy (ninth season).
He’s Here: 3B Casey McGehee, OF Nori Aoki.
He’s Outta Here: 3B Pablo Sandoval, OF Michael Morse, INF Marco Scutaro.
Projected Lineup: LF Nori Aoki (.285, 1 HR, 43 RBIs, 17 SBs with Royals), 2B Joe Panik (.305, 1, 18), CF Angel Pagan (.300, 3, 27), C Buster Posey (.311, 22, 89), 1B Brandon Belt (.243, 12, 27), 3B Casey McGehee (.287, 4, 76 with Marlins), RF Gregor Blanco (.260, 5, 38) or Hunter Pence (.277, 20, 74), SS Brandon Crawford (.246, 10, 69).
Rotation: LH Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA, 219 Ks, 217⅓ IP), RH Jake Peavy (7-13, 3.73 with Boston and San Francisco), RH Matt Cain (2-7, 4.18), RH Tim Hudson (9-13, 3.57), RH Tim Lincecum (12-9, 4.74).
Key Relievers: RH Santiago Casilla (3-3, 1.70, 19/23 saves), RH Sergio Romo (6-4, 3.72, 23/28 saves), LH Jeremy Affeldt (4-2, 2.28), LH Javier Lopez (1-1, 3.11), RH Jean Machi (7-1, 2.58, 2 saves), RH Hunter Strickland (1-0, 0.00 in 9 games), RH Yusmeiro Petit (5-5, 3.69 in 39 games, 12 starts), RH Ryan Vogelsong (8-13, 4.00).
Hot Spots: Starting rotation. Bumgarner became the eighth pitcher since 2000 to throw at least 270 innings combined in a regular and postseason. Even though Chris Carpenter was the only one of those heavily used pitchers to have a significant injury or drop-off the next season, the Giants will keep a close eye on Bumgarner to make sure he stays fresh. Bumgarner almost single-handedly led San Francisco to the title last season, going 4-1 with a 1.03 ERA in the postseason, including a five-inning save in Game 7 of the World Series against Kansas City. Beyond Bumgarner, there are serious questions about San Francisco’s rotation. Cain is coming back from elbow surgery, Hudson turns 40 this summer, Peavy has a 4.00 ERA the past five seasons and Lincecum has the fifth-highest ERA in the majors (4.76) over the last three seasons.
Outlook: The Giants are coming off their third World Series title in five seasons and hope to end the pattern of following a championship by missing the playoffs. The biggest offseason change was the loss of postseason star Sandoval, who signed a $95 million, five-year deal with Boston. McGehee takes Kung Fu Panda’s spot at third base, but the Giants will need to find another way to fill the power void. With Pence out at the start of the season with a broken left arm and Morse now in Miami, there is little power left in San Francisco’s lineup. The projected opening-day lineup combined for 62 homers last season. Only four of the eight position players hit more homers than Bumgarner’s four.
— Associated Press