Are the Giants already locked in for 2015?
I have a rule. More of a guideline, really: I don’t talk about a team’s next season until this season’s finished. And even then, there’s a one- or two-day grace period, where we take one last deep breath and let fans enjoy the moment.
But now the moment’s over, for everybody. And now we get to talk about free agents and overachievers and big plans for 2015 and there’s always next year.
A few days ago, Steve Phillips suggested in some detail that the San Francisco Giants will win the 2015 World Series. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Phillips was joking, or at least winking. Somebody (Baseball America?) used to publish a section every spring arguing, for every team, why (however good) it wouldn’t win or (however lousy) it would win. So I thought maybe Phillips was just presenting his best-case, pie-in-the-sky scenario.
But man, he really sells it, plenty of declarative statements without even the hint of a “this is just something I have to do” smile. So I think he’s serious.
Anyway, Phillips’ prediction rests upon five pillars of wisdom:
1. Madison Bumgarner becomes the best pitcher on Earth;
2. Matt Cain returns from his injury and pitches like he used to;
3. Tim Lincecum returns to the rotation and pitches like he used to;
4. Brandon Belt’s going to make more contact, hit 25 homers; and
5. Panda leaves, but is replaced by free agent Aramis Ramirez.
I know, right? Maybe one of those things comes true, maybe even two or three … but all five? What are the odds? Ten to one? Twenty-five to one? More?
Going through those one at a time …
This year, regular season only, Bumgarner was probably one of the 10 best pitchers in the National League. Work a little bit, and you might even be able to get him into the top five. Toss in his 53 postseason innings – and by the way, why wouldn’t you do that, on your way to a 2015 projection? – and you might get him into the neighborhood of Adam Wainwright. And Jordan Zimmermann? He, by at least one measure, was the second-best pitcher in the NL this season. Should we seriously consider him in Bumgarner’s class? Well, Zimmermann was almost exactly as good as Bumgarner from 2011 through ’13, and then even a little better in 2014. Until October, that is. But even including October, Zimmermann has fundamentally pitched just as well as Bumgarner for four years running.
My point being that if Bumgarner does pitch even better than usual next season, he’s got a chance to put some space between him and Wainwright and Zimmermann and whomever else (Stephen Strasburg comes to mind) pitches himself into the mix.
Clayton Kershaw, though? Well, this is a red herring of sorts. What Phillips is really saying isn’t that Bumgarner will become the best pitcher in the league. What he’s really saying is that Bumgarner will pitch significantly better in 2015 than he pitched during the regular season in 2014. And there’s just not much statistical evidence suggesting that’s actually going to happen.
As for Cain, I’ll take a pass. In August, he got his elbow “cleaned up” and later had minor ankle surgery, too. Cain’s now struggled for two straight seasons, so a complete return to his earlier form doesn’t seem particularly likely. Even though he was still throwing hard enough last season, even just before going on the DL for good.
Lincecum, on the other hand … I mean, it’s not at all clear that he’ll win back his spot in the rotation. We know the Giants will give him every chance to do that, because they’re paying him $18 million next season. But we know Bumgarner and Cain are back, and so (barring a trade) is Tim Hudson. Yusmeiro Petit has proved he deserves a spot in the rotation, too. Which leaves one spot for … somebody, and did I mention $18 million? But the best thing you can say about Lincecum’s last three seasons is that his fielding-independent stats (especially his xFIP) suggest that he’s been ridiculously unlucky over his last ~400 innings. Or, if you prefer, that Lincecum breaks fielding-independent pitching statistics. Just like Matt Cain used to, except in the opposite direction.
Hey, anything’s possible. But Lincecum just throws slower and slower every season, and I keep thinking if there’s really some mechanical problem, somebody would have figured that out a long time ago. I won’t be surprised if his luck changes for the better next season. I will be surprised if he’s ever good again.
I agree with Phillips about Brandon Belt, whose strikeout rate was elevated this season, and who missed most of the season with an injury. He’ll turn 27 next spring. Given a healthy season, 25 homers is within his demonstrated abilities.
But then we have Aramis Ramirez. Who turns 37 next summer, and whose recent history is … checkered, at least statistically speaking. He was tremendous in 2012, but his wOBA has fallen in both seasons since. Is this really a trendline you want to be contractually engaged with for two or three years? Anyway, all this became academic Monday morning, when Ramirez exercised his half of a mutual option with the Brewers, who accepted their half last week. He’ll make $14 million next season, which is actually too much, but it’s effectively $10 million for the Brewers, since they would have owed him a $4 million buyout anyway … and $10 million is just about right.
Here’s the biggest reason for skepticism: Until October, when their best pitcher was able to throw a third of the innings, the San Francisco Giants were not a particularly good baseball team, largely because their starting pitching was soft. They were also weak at both first and second base, due to Belt’s injuries and Joe Panik’s late emergence as a good player. I am fairly optimistic about their 2015, though, because they should get more from Belt and Panik, and they should get more from Cain and Petit.
Brian Sabean’s got some work to do, though. Third base is obviously a big question mark, and so are one and maybe two spots in the outfield. The Giants figure to be competitive, but – and I wouldn’t have said this last week, but the moment’s over – if you think they’ll be good in 2015 simply because they won in 2014, I’m happy to provide multiple counter-examples from recent history. Beginning with the San Francisco Giants in 2013.