Giants roll into 2017 with same strengths, weaknesses as before

Maybe it’s the fact that the world seems to have gone insane in recent months, but I can’t remember looking forward to a baseball season, at least to this extent, for quite some time. What’s remarkable about these anticipatory feelings is that the upcoming season shouldn’t be all that different from the previous one.

In case you’ve blocked it out for obvious reasons, the 2016 season made Giants fans feel about as frustrated as one can imagine for a group that, let’s face it, has been absurdly spoiled over the last decade with championships, MVPs, Cy Youngs, quirky characters, and a beautiful park that stays the same age every year.

No one else wants to hear Giants fans complain. But let’s face it, baseball is such a regional game nowadays that no one cares a lick about what any other fans think or talk about. Baseball fans, despite following what on the surface appears to be the most easygoing sport around, one that is often played in the sun during beer-soaked summer days, cling to their teams’ imperfections like a well-worn cap through the summer months. Last year the Giants plunged during the second half and their manager spent most of his time throwing his gum into the dirt before trudging back to the mound and requesting the ball from a reliever with dwindling confidence. As a result, most of us figured they’d make drastic changes to create different results in 2017.

New closer, new problems

Despite the Giants performing a facelift of sorts on their bullpen, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which they don’t suffer problems in this area once again.

Mark Melancon’s resume — at least as a closer — is more impressive than that of the previous two since Brian Wilson’s elbow ligaments took a break from supporting his massive muscles and violent delivery. However, the Giants got what they paid for, and that’s a good closer with moderate velocity. If they would’ve paid a little extra, they may have gotten Aroldis Chapman. At least Melancon has a cutter and his health. Oh, and unlike with Chapman, fans won’t have to hold their noses when they cheer Melancon’s saves.

Good health is now out of the question for Will Smith, the Giants’ best reliever at the end of last season. (I will go to my grave saying that Bruce Bochy’s big mistake wasn’t taking Matt Moore out of Game 4, but rather not trusting Smith with the ninth inning from the start.) Smith’s recent MRI revealed a sprained ulnar collateral ligament and a muscle or tendon strain. Uh oh. The Giants believe that if he avoids the knife he’ll still have to rest and rehab for quite some time, which is dreadful news.

Even worse news: he’s probably facing Tommy John surgery if we closely examine this Bochy quote (via Andrew Baggarly):

“You have to make a call, and the player has to make a call (on surgery),” Bochy said.

The Giants rarely discuss possible season-ending surgeries until they’re forced to do so.

Even if Smith somehow recovers this season, the Giants are left (no pun intended) with Steven Okert as their top remaining southpaw reliever. Ty Blach seems capable of handling just about any role, although with Matt Cain looking like the same pitcher we’ve seen over the past few seasons, he may be needed for a more important one than “lefty middle-innings guy” in short order. Baggs didn’t even mention Josh Osich (7.11 ERA, seven walks in seven innings) in his story about Smith, which shows how far he has fallen.

The Giants will in effect be replacing Smith, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez with Melancon and some pitchers who don’t possess nearly the same the “track record,” to borrow one of Bochy’s favorite phrases.

A love story the Giants hope will never end

The rotation may be the strongest part of this team other than defense around the diamond. The fifth starter situation is shaky, but welcome to the big leagues. Other than Jeff Samardzija surrendering more home runs than they’d prefer, the Giants can’t complain too much about the guys who are expected to pitch between five and seven innings every fifth or sixth day.

Those starters will have to be close to perfect more often than not, however, because it’s difficult to see how the offense will be much better than it was in 2016.

The 2016 San Francisco Giants hit 25 home runs in their first 25 games, a 162-homer season pace that sounds amazing by recent Giants standards, but would’ve put them in 24th place among MLB teams. They ended up with 130 home runs — barely ahead of the Marlins, who fired Barry Bonds after the season, and the Braves, who weren’t trying. Their leading home run hitter, Brandon Belt, hit 17. There were 117 major leaguers who hit 18+. I feel like I’ve written this before, but according to Baseball-Reference the league average for 600 plate appearances was 18 home runs last season.

The Giants didn’t have a replacement-level power hitter last year. Hunter Pence was on a 19-homer pace if he had played 154 games, but he only played 106 and hit 13. As a result of that and the roster the Giants created, the Giants were woefully thin when it came to right-handed power, in a ballpark where left-handed hitters are punished for hitting the ball to right-center.

In stepped Michael Morse, the team’s irreplaceable viking/mascot. If romance novels were written about dingers, Morse would be the shirtless cover model on every Giants fan’s nightstand. He whacked the ball all over the place in Arizona this spring, but even baseball Fabio has a weakness, and Morse’s is durability. The Giants hope he’ll push through his hamstring injury and be available later in the season as a power bat off the bench, but it’s unknown whether Morse wants to do the rehab thing after two lost seasons. He turned 35 today, by the way.

The roof is leaking in a few areas, but the foundation is still strong

The Giants still have a chance every year with these flawed rosters (we haven’t even touched on Denard Span, but there will be plenty of time to smack our faces with our palms in response to his deteriorating set of skills — both this season and next), even as the Dodgers seemingly get younger and better each season, and it’s not due to chemistry. Well, it’s partly due to chemistry, but it’s not some magical potion they pour in the clubhouse that smells like peanuts and crackerjack.

The core — with Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Brandon Crawford leading the way, but also including Belt, Pence and Joe Panik (as well as Johnny Cueto for as long as the Giants can keep him around) — simply wins. It’s not an intangible because we’ve seen it time and again. It’s no coincidence that Crawford was interviewed on the field after Team USA defeated a strong Japan squad 2-1 last night. When DJ Khaled created that song with the “all I do is win, win, win no matter what” chant, he might as well have been referring to the Giants’ foundational players.

MLB does a horrific job marketing them, but MAN, do they have a lot of young stars right now. Maybe more than at any point I can remember since the great baseball card boom of 1987. The Giants have none of these obvious young stars (most of them are Cubs, it seems), but San Francisco has several players who carry a tough-to-describe brand of classy arrogance, which allows their respective heart rates to get lower during the most pressure-packed moments of baseball seasons. As a result, the Giants consistently find themselves in the mix despite their lack of intimidating relievers or right-handed sluggers. It’s infuriating at times, because it’d be fun to see the Giants’ core on a roster that the experts refer to as “stacked” or “loaded,” and it’s not like their winning players will be around forever. Posey turns 30 on Monday, by the way.

Yet this is the team they created with the budget handed down by Charles Johnson and Larry Baer and the other owners, and it should be enough to keep things interesting up to, and perhaps through, October. They will be streaky, they will struggle to score runs, they will cough up leads, and they will drive you crazy. But they will hold your attention and provide just enough promise to dream of imaginable things, like Morse not retiring and becoming a hero once again, several months down the line. Yes, even during an odd year.

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