San Francisco Giants 2017 season preview: Top-heavy contender with depth questions

Last season marked the first time since 2008 that the San Francisco Giants did not win the World Series in an even year. They did, however, make the playoffs again, keeping their every-other-season playoff streak going.

If they had a good closer, they might have ended up winning the World Series. We’ll never know, but they just needed to get three outs in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS to send things back to Chicago against the Cubs with a Johnny Cueto-Madison Bumgarner two-headed monster set to do the bulk of the pitching. 

Alas, the reality is those Giants just weren’t good enough. 

The vitals

A championship-caliber infield

Are these Giants good enough to win it all again? 

It’s actually a pretty similar team to last year and some of the good-to-great parts are mitigated by some below-average parts. 

Buster Posey is again behind the plate with his exceptional framing ability. Should there be concern about his power regression, though? In the final 64 games of the regular season, Posey hit just two home runs with a .368 slugging percentage. That’s fine for an ordinary catcher, but Posey is the anchor of this team. 

Can Buster Posey regain some of his power? USATSI

The Giants return their infield of Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Eduardo Nunez. There’s reason to believe they get more production this year, though. 

Panik was injured last season and regressed from a .312/.378/.455 line to .239/.315/.379 in one season. Even if he just splits the difference there, that’s a notable upgrade -- especially if he stays on the field all season. His issue last season was with a concussion, so that should, hopefully, be safely in the rearview. 

Also, Nunez was only with the Giants for 50 games after being acquired via trade. He hit .288 with a 104 OPS+ and 40 steals last year, so a repeat of that means the Giants get more out of third base than they did in 2016. 

Both Crawford and Belt are coming off very good seasons and remain in their respective primes, so we shouldn’t really expect anything different. Deep an eye on Belt’s extra-base hits, too. He had 41 doubles and eight triples last season in addition to his 17 home runs. 

So catcher and infield are in good shape. 

An outfield full of questions

Once a model of durability, Hunter Pence has only played in 158 games in the past two seasons combined and already has been dealing with an oblique issue in the spring. He turns 34 in April, so the age-related decline phase setting in is also a concern.

Speaking of which, Denard Span turns 33 this season is and is set to man center field after posting negative-7 defensive runs saved there last season. He also hit .266 with a .331 on-base percentage. Those aren’t bad figures, but they aren’t very good for a leadoff man, either. He only went 12 of 19 in stolen bases, too, so it’s clear he’s losing a step here as he approaches his mid-30s. 

How much does Denard Span have left in the tank? USATSI

And then there’s left field, where the Giants did nothing to address what looks to be a gaping hole this offseason. 

Now, they are reportedly too tapped out on salary to have been able to do something like sign Yoenis Cespedes (or Dexter Fowler, which would’ve kicked Span to left) and trade talks with the Tigers about J.D. Martinez reportedly went nowhere, so it’s not like they weren’t trying. 

Still, it looks like the Giants are set to head into the season with the left-field platoon of Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker. Another option in left or center is Gorkys Hernandez

So, to sum it up, there are probably four guys here who shouldn’t be getting regular playing time on a playoff contender (or at least three, if you still believe in Span) and one who might have an issue staying on the field or be in the beginning of his decline. 

Overall, it’s hard to list the outfield as even average right now. 

Best pair of aces in baseball?

In Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, the Giants have one of the elite 1-2 punches in all of baseball. They finished fourth and sixth, respectively, in NL Cy Young voting last season. Both are still of prime age and, if you think this sort of thing matters, will be highly motivated this season. 

Cueto has an opt-out clause on his contract, so it could be considered a contract year, to an extent. Bumgarner is also in a rather odd situation that illustrates how MLB actually kind of does have a salary cap

Bumgarner again fronts the Giants’ strong rotation. USATSI

Behind those two are a pair of pitchers who would be miscast as frontline starters -- and have been before -- but settle very nicely in the three and four slots. 

Jeff Samardzija as a starting pitcher is pretty well established by now. In five full seasons, he has a 3.99 ERA (99 ERA+), but that’s badly skewed thanks to a disaster of a 2015 season. Otherwise he’s been above average. He closed strong last year, posting a 2.45 ERA in his last 10 starts, so maybe that’s where he picks up. Also of note is that Samardzija has pitched in over 200 innings for four straight seasons. Don’t underestimate the value of a mid-rotation workhorse. 

Another season in AT&T Park should benefit Matt Moore, who was 13-12 with a 4.08 ERA (100 ERA+) overall last season. He closed things out by dominating the Cubs (8 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 10 K) in Game 4 of the NLDS. Again, he’s not suited to be judged as a frontline starter at this point in his career -- remember, he was once the top prospect in baseball, ranked ahead of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper -- but he’s still only 27 and slotted fourth here. 

Of course, what’s left of Matt Cain slots fifth, and there’s a whole lot of nothing behind him. 

Shelling out top dollar for an elite closer

The bullpen was a thorn in the side of the Giants last year. Will signing Mark Melancon cure all the ills? 

Mark Melancon will solidify the ninth inning for the Giants. USATSI

There’s something to be said for solidifying the ninth inning. It bumps everyone down a slot and eases the mind of the manager. Melancon is a stud, too. In the past four years, he has a 1.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and just 42 unintentional walks in 290 innings. In the past two seasons, he has 98 saves in 104 chances. 

So the ninth inning should be locked down, but the Giants are counting on the likes of Will Smith, Derek Law and Hunter Strickland to get him the ball.

Depth could be the Giants’ Achilles heel 

As noted in the intro, a lot of the good or great parts here seem to be a bit mitigated. The team looks good, but a lack of depth -- mostly in the rotation and bullpen -- along with a weak outfield hold the team back from being great. 

To me, it looks like a wild-card contender. That’s not horrible. They won the 2014 World Series from the wild card and could well have been a closer away from doing it last year. Now they have a closer. 

And it would be remiss to get through a Giants preview without mentioning that manager Bruce Bochy is among the best in the business. His decision-making could be questioned at times -- just like every manager -- but few have the locker room respect of “Boch.” He’ll get everything out of his team. 

Probable lineup

  1. Denard Span, CF
  2. Brandon Belt, 1B
  3. Buster Posey, C
  4. Hunter Pence, RF
  5. Brandon Crawford, SS
  6. Eduardo Nunez, 3B
  7. Joe Panik, 2B
  8. Jarrett Parker, LF

Bench: C Nick Hundley, IF Conor Gillaspie, IF Jae-gyun Hwang, OF Gorkys Hernandez, OF Mac Williamson

Probable rotation

  1. Madison Bumgarner (L)
  2. Johnny Cueto (R)
  3. Jeff Samardzija (R)
  4. Matt Moore (L)
  5. Matt Cain (R)

ALT: Ty Blach (L)

Probable bullpen

Melancon will be a stellar closer. Strickland and Law are the primary setup men, with Smith being the late-inning lefty. George Kontos will have a prominent role. The rest of the group will be filled from Cory Gearrin, Josh Osich, Steven Okert and Albert Suarez, for the most part. 

SportsLine projection: 91-71, second place in NL West, first NL wild card

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Snyder has been a baseball writer with CBS Sports since 2011. A member of the BBWAA, he's now covered every World Series since 2010. The former Indiana University baseball player now lives on the... Full Bio

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