It’s been a relatively quiet January for the Giants. While the Yankees are making waves by signing Masahiro Tanaka and the Commissioner’s Office is dealing with various Alex Rodriguez-related worries, the Giants have made only a handful of minor moves (unless you consider the team’s acquisition of David Huff to be earth-shattering). It’s probably safe to say that, barring perhaps a minor move or two to bolster the bullpen or bench, the Giants’ roster is pretty much set.
The team will be bringing back almost exactly the same lineup as last year (with one big exception, of course, which I’ll get to in a sec). Fans might initially see that as a bad thing, considering the Giants lost 86 games last season and didn’t feature a whole heck of a lot of power. On the contrary, though, the lineup wasn’t really the problem; the Giants, despite finishing next-to-last in the National League in home runs, put up a 103 OPS+ as a team. That was good for (amazingly) third in the NL. They were also fifth among all NL teams in runs scored on the road, so once again AT&T Park masked their actual effectiveness offensively.
Of course, we all know the major problem with the Giants last year was the pitching, which was just awful. The team took steps to remedy that problem (sort of), but that’s a topic for another day. The Giants have reason to be optimistic about their lineup for a few reasons, but before we go into them, here is the projected Opening Day lineup for 2014. The Giants will open the season in Arizona, and the Diamondbacks will probably open with either Patrick Corbin or Wade Miley, both lefties. For the sake of simplicity, and since the Giants will face mostly right-handed pitchers this year, this projected lineup is assumes they’re facing a right-handed starter. Honestly, it probably wouldn’t change much either way.
CF Angel Pagan
2B Marco Scutaro
1B Brandon Belt
C Buster Posey
RF Hunter Pence
3B Pablo Sandoval
LF Michael Morse
SS Brandon Crawford
Not half bad, if I must say so myself. Once again, this is basically the same lineup that the team ended the 2013 season with. The major change, obviously, is in left field, where Michael Morse was signed to take over for Gregor Blanco. The Giants made it clear early on this offseason that they were intent on adding power to left field (they got five, count ‘em, five home runs from the position in 2013). Whatever you think of Morse, he fills that need, at least in theory. From 2010 to 2012 with the Washington Nationals, he slugged .516.
The only question is his health; he’s missed a ton of time over the past two years with various maladies, and a wrist injury contributed to a horrible second half last year. The Giants are hoping (praying?) for 20 or so home runs from Morse. His addition also moves Gregor Blanco into a fourth outfielder role, which he’s perfectly suited for.
The other major change here is that the Giants will have Angel Pagan back and (presumably) healthy all year. Pagan missed three months with a hamstring injury, and whether it was causation or correlation, the Giants’ season was torpedoed the instant he went on the disabled list. Pagan’s absence touched off a sick domino effect that forced the team to shift Blanco to center field and introduced a revolving door of gag-worthy left field options. This all culminated in the ultimate doomsday scenario: a desperation signing of Jeff Francoeur. That went exactly as well as you would expect.
Pagan’s injury was directly responsible for the feeble production in left field. Blanco is no great shakes with the bat, but he at least got on base at a .341 clip. When Blanco had to start in center, every other player the Giants tried in left field (whether it was Andres Torres, Roger Kieschnick, or Kensuke Tanaka) was a complete disaster. To wit: when Pagan was playing, the team was 39-32. When he was hurt, they were 37-54. In the month of September, when Pagan came back, the Giants were third in the NL in runs. In June and July, when he was out, they were dead last both months. Pagan isn’t your prototypical high-OBP leadoff guy, but it’s clear his presence in the everyday lineup was sorely missed.
Fans should be thrilled at the prospect of Brandon Belt hitting third. Belt famously altered his grip on the bat halfway through the 2013 season, and it resulted in a scorching-hot second half where he hit .326/.390/.525. Whereas Sandoval and Posey had previously held a death grip on the third spot in the lineup, Bruce Bochy has stated this offseason that Belt is the team’s number three hitter. His skill set at the plate (good batting eye, line drive power) would seem to make him the ideal fit there, too. Not for nothing, in 198 plate appearances hitting in the number three spot last year, Belt hit .320/.371/.508.
Sandoval will be bumped down to the sixth slot in the order, as Pence was the team’s best hitter all season out of the five spot, so why mess with a good thing? Perhaps the “demotion” will light a fire under the Panda and he’ll have a big year. As much as fans love the Panda, the fact is that he’s slugged under .450 in three of the past four seasons. That’s probably less than what the Giants are asking from him out of the middle of the order. Depending on who you ask (not Sandoval, apparently), he’s allegedly lost a ton of weight getting in shape for the season. Plus, he’s in a contract year, so if he’s ever going to reach his 2009 or 2011 levels of offensive brilliance again, it’s likely going to be now.
Lastly, we all enjoyed Brandon Crawford’s month-long impersonation of a power hitter last April, but to the surprise of no one, it didn’t last. Crawford hit five home runs in the first month of 2013, then didn’t hit any in either May or June, and finished with nine on the season. Crawford’s overall batting line was more or less equivalent to his 2012 output, and that’s perfectly fine. He’s in there for his glove, and as long as he’s pulling his weight on defense, his bat will work out of the eighth spot. There are still fans (though they are dwindling) who still hold out hope that there’s All-Star potential in his bat. To those fans, I say this: he’s an eight-hitter, and what you see is what you get. Deal with it.
The Giants scored 629 runs as a team last season, good for only tenth in the NL. They play in a park that is very tough on hitters and, especially, on home runs. However, a full season from Pagan and a healthy season from Morse (fingers crossed) should help matters considerably. Buster Posey tanked in the second half of last year, perhaps due to fatigue, so if the team can get him back rested and on his MVP track and get a full season of the second-half version of Belt, they should score some runs. In a complete 180 from, say, three seasons ago, if the Giants’ season goes down the drain, their hitting almost certainly won’t be what caused it.