By Casey Berkovitz (Welcome, Casey!)
Full disclosure: Spencer is a die-hard Giants fan. Casey is a die-hard Dodgers fan. Because Antland is a journalistic endeavor full of straight shooters respected on both sides, Casey and Spencer will argue why each other’s team will win the National League West this year. It wasn’t easy on the emotions, but hopefully it’ll be easy to read. Enjoy.
When a team has won three of the past seven championships, it’s hard to say that they’re going to “take the leap.” That’s what up-and-comers and rebuilding teams do; in the NL West alone, the Rockies would seem to be more leap-worthy than the Giants. Yet that’s what Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans have managed to set up in San Francisco: a repeat championship winner ready to be even better, mostly by building a team that will be consistent enough that it definitely won’t be worse.
The even-year championship teams of 2010, 2012, and 2014 found success based on all-time great pitching performances, hitters getting hot at the right time, and (take it from a bitter Dodgers fan) some dumb luck. Though there’s no guarantee of any team finding success through streaks, Sabean and Evans have ensured that there is enough consistent talent to compete this year, regardless of hot streaks – and manager Bruce Bochy might be better than anyone else in baseball at sparking the streaks that will push them past expectations.
As fondly as Giants fans remember those #EvenYearMagic teams, this year’s team retained most of the talent and has more room for error, and more room to excel, than previous years. New additions have added consistency that was lacking in the past, bedrocks of past teams like Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner aren’t going anywhere, and a revamped bullpen seems set up to avoid the frustration of last year’s squad.
The rotation, always a strength of these Giants teams, is strong enough again this year to drive San Francisco to a division title. Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto form one of the strongest 1-2 punches in the league at the top of the rotation and make the Giants likely favorites in every game that they start. Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija – and their combined under-4 ERA last year – round out the rotation with solid, consistent performances. While Samardzija is on the wrong side of 30, Moore still occasionally reminds us why he was a top prospect. And despite his injuries and recent struggles, you could do a lot worse than Matt Cain for a fifth starter. The same goes for noted Dodger Killer Ty Blach, if the team opts to use him every fifth day rather than Cain.
On the other side of the plate, the stars in the lineup – Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt – have all been better than league average for at least three seasons, and are expected to continue that trend this year, barring injury. Brandon Crawford has done the same, and as they say, defense doesn’t slump. Meanwhile, although Joe Panik, Denard Span, and newcomer Eduardo Nuñez won’t be All-Stars, there’s basically no chance that they’ll be black holes either. In AT&T Park, that’s more than enough.
Your guess about production in the left field spot is as good as mine – and probably Bruce Bochy’s too. Jarrett Parker doesn’t seem like much, but neither did Panik or Matt Duffy before the Giants recalled them from their farm in Marin that grows white guys who are almost good enough to be All-Stars. Whether he’s another in their tradition or not, no team expects much from the number 8 hitter in its lineup.
Finally, the bullpen, which was the source of so much inconsistency, frustration, and all those late-inning losses last year, will be much improved with the addition of Mark Melancon. Gone is Sergio Romo, whose recent performance had gone nearly as sideways as his delivery. Instead, Melancon will be set up by a group of pitchers – highlighted by Hunter Strickland and Derek Law – who may not be individual guarantees, but can combine to reliably fill the 7th and 8th innings.
All of these pieces make for a team that will be solidly over .500 this year, before the possibility of a hot streak at the right time. Fangraphs and PECOTA, two of the best-regarded (and publicly available) projection systems, both have the Giants slated for 87 wins this season. This is not as high as the Dodgers, but the Giants carry much less risk on their roster – no player is as hot-and-cold as Yasiel Puig, for example – and have a second ace to carry the rotation if Bumgarner or Cueto were to get hurt.
None of this is a guarantee of a division title, of course. The Dodgers’ best-case scenario in the regular season is definitely better than the Giants’ is. But there is much less risk in San Francisco, and recent memory has a few examples (three, to be exact) of what Bochy and Co. can do when they’re put in a position to succeed.
Giants. Division champions. Sharpie.