The San Francisco Giants should remain a contender in 2017, but their window of opportunity may be closing and management needs to strike now.
The San Francisco Giants have been consistent contenders in the National League West Division for much of the last eight years, but the club’s window of opportunity may now be closing.
It’s always a difficult decision when a club such as the Giants begins to hit a crossroads. How do you continue to win while restocking your big league team and your farm system with quality young players?
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Few teams are able to pull off the feat well. Most who undertake the attempt have failed for a couple of seasons before realizing they simply have to cash in as many of their aging, higher priced veterans as possible in exchange for that younger talent.
The Giants have reached that crossroads. Their decisions are especially difficult because they do remain legitimate contenders who have division rivals with significant weaknesses. The window of opportunity to contend remains open, but general manager Bobby Evans needs to be aggressive this offseason.
In 2016, the Giants ended their “even year” streak of World Series victories. The club had won the crown in the 2010, 2012, and 2014 campaigns. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.
San Francisco finished second in the NL West to the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers, four games back in the standings. They were, however, able to secure an NL Wild Card playoff berth.
The Giants then rode a Madison Bumgarner gem to a 3-0 victory over the New York Mets in the NL Wild Card Game before losing a dramatic NLDS in four games to the eventual world champion Chicago Cubs.
But for all the drama in late September and into October, what happened over the second half of the 2016 regular season cannot be ignored.
The Giants led the division by as many as eight games on June 26, when they were 21 games over the .500 mark. They would go to 24 games over at the MLB All-Star break, still with a 6.5 game lead.
But from that point on, the Giants collapsed to a 30-42 finish. The Dodgers drove past them in August and never looked back. Meanwhile, the Giants had to win their last four in a row to finish tied with the Mets and hold off the St. Louis Cardinals by just a game for that Wild Card berth.
So where does San Francisco stand heading into 2017? The club will return its twin pitching aces, some clutch veteran hitters, and perhaps the best defense in the game.
Those pitching aces are Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the best left-right combo in the National League. Cueto will turn 31 as the team reports to Spring Training, and is signed for another five years. There are affordable team options on Bumgarner through 2019. The ace left-hander will pitch all of next season at age 27, and thus is just now entering his prime years.
The clutch veteran hitters would include catcher Buster Posey, who turns 30 at the end of Spring Training. Posey, like Cueto, is signed through 2021.
First baseman Brandon Belt will turn 29 in April, and is also signed through that 2021 season. Right fielder Hunter Pence also has an April birthday. But he hits 34, long in the tooth in today’s game. His deal runs for two more seasons.
Center fielder Denard Span is signed up with a team option that could take him through 2019. He turns 33 as Spring Training gets underway.
The defense should remain locked down thanks to the presence of perhaps the game’s best keystone combo in second baseman Joe Panik and shortstop Brandon Crawford. Both men took home Gold Glove Awards last week, as did Posey.
Crawford was further honored with his second Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award, and the team was honored as the Defensive Team of the Year. The biggest part of that equation is the up-the-middle defense.
The problem moving forward is the aging status of Pence and Span in the outfield, and the fact that there is now a gaping hole in left with the departure of veteran Angel Pagan.
Add that to light production at the third base position, and the looming specter of Bumgarner’s contract, and the fact that the Dodgers have major holes to fill. The Giants have an opportunity in 2017, but need to strike now to take advantage of the situation.
There is talent coming from the minor league system, but that talent does not appear likely to impact the big league roster very much in the 2017 season.
Making a move on a couple of key free agents at left field and third base should make the Giants at least co-favorites with the Dodgers for the 2017 NL West crown, and make them legitimate contenders to push the champion Cubs as well.
While it was a rough final three months by the bay, the Giants showed at the end that they still have the spunk and the talent to make things rough on the most dangerous teams in the game. With a couple of big moves right now, they can return to that status themselves in the 2017 season.