By Ryan Ward | @RyanJWard
Well, it finally happened.
Oakland A’s faithful and MLB fans nationwide can rejoice, because the "Even Year Magic" (or “Even Year BS,” as some say) has finally run out for the San Francisco Giants.
Fitting as it may be, it was painful for Giants fans to watch the backbone of their team - the definitive strength of the 2010, 2012, and 2014 championship teams - directly lead to their demise. It felt ironic, but it was only a matter of time before their reliable bullpen arms aged, became fatigued, lost precision, and the luck began to run out.
The warning signs were there throughout the year, as the team blew an incredible 30 saves during the 2016 regular season. The front office took a gamble by not making significant improvements to the bullpen at the trade deadline - aside from 8th-inning lefty Will Smith - and it couldn’t have ended worse in the playoffs.
The 9th inning of Game 4 of the NLDS was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Derek Law, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo failed to record an out while coughing up a 4-run lead vs. the Cubs, leading to San Francisco’s first playoff series loss since 2003.
Let’s take a moment to admire the team’s run, though. Leading up to the 2016 NLDS, the Giants had defeated a whopping 11 consecutive playoff opponents since the start of the 2010 postseason, which ties a record set by the 1998-2001 New York Yankees, one of baseball’s greatest dynasties.
Now, as they look ahead to Opening Day 2017, it’s out with the old and in with the new. The final three members of the Giants’ “Core Four” bullpen - Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez, and Santiago Casilla - have either moved on or retired (Romo to the Dodgers, keep an eye on that one).
Filling their shoes will be difficult, but the Giants have several guys ready and willing to be promoted to the later innings, including Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, and Steven Okert, all with big league experience and intermittent success, primed for their careers to advance.
The Giants’ front office did their best work of the offseason when they courted and eventually signed Mark Melancon away from the Pirates to anchor the bullpen staff. Melancon brings instant stability to the role with 147 saves since the start of 2013 (3rd in the league), and although his contract is large, the Giants were very clear that they were not willing to take any shortcuts at that position in 2017.
Along with a newly solidified ‘pen, the Giants continue to bolster an All-Star caliber infield, both offensively and defensively. Amazingly, all five starting Giants infielders - Posey, Belt, Panik, Crawford, and Nunez - have All-Star selections to their names. And equally as incredible, the home-grown group of Posey, Panik, and Crawford have all won Gold Glove Awards.
The outfield, however, remains the Giants’ undisputed question mark. Hunter Pence is their biggest asset and emotional leader, however his health has been a huge question mark these past few seasons, as he’s fought oblique, wrist, and leg injuries. If the Giants plan to return to the World Series, they’ll need Pence to regain his .280 BA, 20 HR, 80 RBI form, and play upwards of 140 games in right field.
Denard Span is also a question mark, as he’s proven to be less of a prototypical leadoff hitter, despite Bruce Bochy’s insistence that he remain in that spot. If he can get on base at a good clip ahead of the heart of the lineup, the Giants will be fine. If not, then it poses a problem, and might warrant a change in the lineup order.
That leaves left field open, which is entirely up for grabs. Management made it clear that they have faith in their young outfield talent by not even pursuing a LF replacement in free agency, and at this point in spring training, it looks as if lefty Jarrett Parker will win the job...but it’s almost a certainty that both he and righty Mac Williamson will split the duties in platoon roles, depending on the day’s starting pitcher.
It would behoove Bochy to go with the hot hand, however, and avoid stubbornly sticking to the platoon definitions, as both guys have huge power and can get streaky over stretches of games. Let’s not forget that Parker has a 3 HR game on his big league resume.
Finally, the starting pitching. Unlike last offseason, the Giants went into the winter break confident in 4 out of 5 of their starting spots. In rotation order: Bumgarner, Cueto, Moore, and Samardzija. The 5th spot is there for the taking, and the Giants may well give it to Matt Cain, but he has done nothing to earn their trust this spring, and guys like Ty Blach and Tyler Beede are chomping at the bit to get their chance.
Still, having two All-Stars at the top and two solid starters at 3 and 4 is much more than almost any team can say, and the Giants certainly count their starting pitching as an advantage over most opponents.
Now that the even year magic is over, the Giants look healthy and ready as ever to challenge for the NL pennant in 2017, led by solid starting pitching, an All-Star infield, and a fresh-faced bullpen with a game-changing closer. Stay tuned, 2017 may have some magic up its sleeve.