The National League West might be anybody’s to take in the second half, but there’s nothing about the San Francisco Giants that suggests they are ready to do the taken. The franchise that won its second World Series title in three seasons in 2012 is now 39-46 and in fifth place coming into Saturday’s games. The purpose of our MLB coverage here will be to establish whether pessimism is an overreaction to the present moment, or if serious structural flaws in the Giants are being exposed.
Pitching has been the foundation stone of San Francisco’s success, but bit by bit, the starting pitching has been coming undone. Last year it was Tim Lincecum that struggled. He’ s not a whole lot better in 2013, with a 4.66 ERA in 17 starts, and the word on the street is that the Giants would like to stick him in the bullpen.
Doing that, however, would require other good options in the rotation, and those don’t exist. Ryan Vogelsong was enduring a horrific year, before hitting the 60-day disabled list and he’s not expected back until the end of this month at the earliest. Barry Zito, after last October’s heroic wins in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and Game 1 of the World Series, has settled back into a comfortable mediocrity.
Even Matt Cain had his problems, getting off to a terrible start. While the staff ace has been stable for a couple months now, his ERA is still high, at 4.85. The only pitcher who looks anything resembling championship-caliber, is Madison Bumgarner. The lefty has a 3.08 ERA in his seventeen starts.
When you add up the cumulative effects of these problems they equate to a rotation that’s worse than everyone in the National League except Milwaukee.
POSEY CAN’T DO IT ALONE
San Francisco had kept themselves going for much of the first half with an offense that hit beyond what the general perception of this team would suggest. In this, the Giants were similar to the Tampa Bay Rays, in that they were a team built on pitching, but having to rely on the bats to carry struggling arms.
The Giants have reverted to type lately though, and are now down to 11th in the National League in runs scored. It’s not the fault of MVP catcher Buster Posey, who’s having another great year, with a stat line of .389 on-base percentage/.523 slugging percentage. Nor is it the fault of 2012 postseason hero Marco Scutaro, who has a .368 OBP.
But help beyond these two has been hard to find, and the biggest culprit is third baseman Pablo Sandoval, with his pathetic .302/.385 stat line. Beyond Sandoval, Hunter Pence has a nice .467 slugging percentage, but doesn’t get on base consistently. First baseman Brandon Belt is in the groove right now, with a .371/.519 stat line over the past month, but he’s got to show he can have sustained success.
Who else is going to help Posey? Brandon Crawford isn’t a hitter, and I wouldn’t place big expectations on Andres Torres or Gregor Blanco. The Giants have to get a drastic turnaround from Sandoval and at least modest improvement from a few other sources.
NO LEADS TO PROTECT
The San Francisco bullpen is having another stellar year, 4th-best in the National League, and that’s with Santiago Casilla having done a DL stint that will soon be over. The problem, obviously, is that when you can’t hit and your starting pitching is in the tank, that solid bullpen ERA just means more losses end up 5-2 rather than 8-2. But should the rest of the team turn around, the Giants’ relievers can fulfill what’s been a customary role in their recent success.
Manager Bruce Bochy has old reliables in Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and closer Sergio Romo to fall back on, along with Casilla when he returns. Jose Mijares is having a very good year, with a 2.43 ERA. And there are some young pieces on the rise, with 27-year-old Sandy Rosario, with a 2.50 ERA, and 24-year-old Jake Dunning, who’s been great in his eleven innings of work. On a less-stacked pen, Dunning might get more opportunities.
WILL THE FREEL FALL BE REVERSED?
The weakness of the NL West has already offered a new lease on life to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for the Giants. San Francisco is still a manageable 5 ½ games out.
I’m trying not to overreact to the present moment, but I’m finding it hard to see a revival of the rotation coming up in the second half. Sure, Cain can pitch better—a lot better, in fact. But Cain alone isn’t going to take a rotation that’s been this bad and suddenly make them good. San Francisco’s giving some starts to Michael Kickham, but his 12.15 ERA, including a shellacking at Cincinnati this week, tells you that’s something more likely to bear fruit in 2014 or 2015 rather than after the All-Star break.
San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean is known for his wheeling and dealing at this time of year, and if he wants to go for it, a trade for a starting pitcher could be made. But how “all-in” is it really wise to go? And for whom? Do the Giants make a push on a big name like a Cliff Lee or a Matt Garza? Or do they go the path Baltimore did earlier this week with the deal for Scott Feldman, a plug-in sort of trade. The latter type of deal won’t fix what ails Frisco. The former might cost too much.
To me, when it comes to 2013, it boils down to Lincecum starting to resemble the pitcher he used to be. I’m not optimistic about that, and it’s why the only way I see San Francisco winning this division is if it ends up mimicking the NL Central from 1997 or 2006, when 83-84 wins sufficed.
AROUND THE NL WEST
Arizona (45-41): Trevor Cahill hitting the disabled list with a hip contusion is not what the struggling front-runner needs right now, and it gives hope to teams like San Fran, who are hoping mediocrity can get you to October.
Colorado (42-45): Dexter Fowler is another DL casualty, going out with a wrist injury.
LA Dodgers (41-44): Yep, they’re on the move, and into third place.
San Diego (40-47): It’s not surprising the Padres would stumble off the .500 pace they’d been flirting with, but I was kind of hoping Bud Black could keep them around for a while.