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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evaluating the Giants After Their First Tour of the NL West

The Giants end their first tour through the NL West with an 11-8 record.  All of the games they've played so far in this young season have come against their division foes.  Not so surprisingly, the team that gave them the biggest problems was that Southern California team.  Oh wait, not those big spending Dodgers but those thrifty Padres.  The Padres are the NL West version of mosquitoes.  They are annoying, they are pesky, and they have the ability to bite you.  The Padres are very much a mirror version of the Giants, but without the star power, awesome history, and World Championships.  They play small ball.  They pitch and pitch well.  And they can't really hit.  The Giants Way pamphlet apparently was stolen, copied, and distributed to the Padres for about as long as I can remember.  The Giants were lucky to get away with a victory.

But this post isn't about the Padres.  It's about the Giants and what we could gleam from the first 19 games.  They've played all 4 other NL West teams and what can we determine?  Well, they've performed well against the Big Baddies and they've kind of disappointed against the awful Dbacks.   Here's what the facts say:

They are 4-2 vs Los Angeles
They are 2-1 vs Colorado
They are 4-3 vs Arizona
They are 1-2 vs San Diego

San Diego was their second series loss of the season after the Giants embarrassingly dropped 2 of 3 to Arizona at home.  But really, the Giants have been all over the place.  They could have the National League's best record (which they held ever so briefly) or they could be several games under .500.  It's hard to truly gauge a team's strengths and weaknesses when in the first week they're one of the best offensive teams in the game and then follow that up with a week where they were swinging worse than NBA players throwing blind haymakers in a court scuffle.  The Giants have played 19 games and of those 11 have been one run contests.  They are 6-5 in one run games thus far.  Had they won a couple more, they'd have one of baseball's best records.  Lost a couple more and they'd be in last place. Baseball is a funny game.

So aside from the maddeningly consistent way the Giants have played their games for the past several seasons (torture) we still had hope after Week 1 that the Giants offense might actually be good.

WRONG.  Well, maybe wrong.  The Giants went 3 straight games scoring one measly run.  Matt Cain gave up 1 earned run in 2 starts spanning 14 innigs and got saddled with two losses.  That has to be, like, SO annoying you guys.  Tim Hudson got a taste of what it feels like to be Matt Cain when he had an excellent start on Saturday (7 IP, 2 ER) and lost.  We as Giants fans have sort of got used to this. That being said, there are some positive signs that this offense just might actually be good at some point.  And if our pitching keeps up, then the Giants could be primed to run off a bunch of wins in bunches at a time.

Mike Morse has been everything as advertised; pretty scary in the outfield but a beast with the bat. Brandon Belt is proving his 2nd half of 2013 wasn't just pixie dust.  Pagan has come back like a man on fire proving that he is very much one of the biggest keys of the Giants offense.  But Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence have struggled to put it mildly.  Both are under .200 for the season.  This will change.  Both Sandoval and Pence are too good of hitters to struggle for much longer.  When their bats come to life, it'll take pressure off the rest of the line-up.  Buster Posey has quietly been struggling of late as well, despite his home run Sunday.  Those are 3 major bats in the line-up that the team is counting on for production.  It's hard to believe Posey will be hitting in the .230's much longer.  That's the silver lining.  The Giants have been winning while some of their best hitters have been ice cold. While it's somewhat disappointing the Giants haven't capitalized more on playing 7 games with a horrid Arizona team or separating themselves from LA while the Dodgers are missing Clayton Kershaw, they're only 1 game out of first place.  The only one concern I have with the offense is that they haven't done more with the pitchers they have so far faced.  The Giants have not truly encountered many aces through 19 games.  They faced the Dodgers' Zack Greinke once.  He is really the only one you can call a true ace.  Hyun-Jin Ryu is a good pitcher but he's not an ace.  Nor is Tyson Ross, Eric Stults, Josh Beckett, and 6 guys in the Rockies bullpen - all whom Giants hitters made to look like Cy Young.  The offense SHOULD get better but the Giants also should start seeing better pitchers so it'll be interesting to see how good or bad SF's offense really can be.  

The clear positive aspect of the team is somewhat of a surprise:  the bullpen.  The bullpen has been surprisingly effective given that Jeremy Affeldt started the year on the DL and that, really, the only reason Yusmeiro Petit, David Huff, and Jean Machi made the team were because they were out of options, not specifically due to merit.  The Giants have bullpen depth.  Heath Hembree and Derek Law WILL be on the squad at some point.  Juan Gutierrez was taken off the scrap heat and has looked really good so far.  And let's not forget George Kontos and Jake Dunning.  Brian Sabean might not even have to make his usual deadline deal for a reliever this year.

However, the most interesting (and biggest) key to the team is the starting pitching.  The first week, everyone not named Tim Hudson didn't look very good.  Then they rounded into form a bit.  Giants fans don't seem to be worried about Madison Bumgarner even though he hasn't put together a truly great start quite yet.   He should iron out the kinks.  Cain has returned to being the Cain that earned him a 127 million dollar extension.  He's being counted on for top tier starter production so hopefully he can keep it up.  Tim Hudson has been what Sabean and company envisioned when signing him -  An efficient and productive innings eater.  The two big question marks are Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong.  Both started off the year poorly.  Both have since put together passable starts.  Those two, more than anyone else on the staff, will determine if the Giants can truly hang with Los Angeles in the division.  The Giants need to know that most of the time, these guys will turn in quality starts or keep their team in the game.  If not, the Giants will have issues.

However, after 19 games and a pass through the entire NL West, the Giants should be happy with where they are:  With a winning record, one game back of first place, and clear opportunities to improve.