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Exactly one year ago, the San Francisco Giants were crowned National League West champions. The Giants' division victory qualified as one of last season's biggest surprises. Although they hadn't posted a winning record since 2016, and although few folks outside of San Francisco had viewed them as a serious threat to the Los Angeles Dodgers entering the season, they nevertheless won 107 games en route to becoming the first team other than the Dodgers to win the West in nearly a decade. The Giants were fascinating for other, more granular reasons, too. 

They had seemingly discovered a way to help their veteran hitters turn back the clock, and they had proven adept at getting the most from a collection of bargain-bin pitching acquisitions. It reasoned that the Giants may have emerged as scouting and development maestros, a combination that made them a threat to once again overperform everyone's expectations this year.

That did not happen, even though it looked like it might early on. Rather, the Giants followed up a hot 14-7 start with a series of disappointing months. Indeed, the Giants posted winning records in April and in September, the first and last month of the season, and that was that. A combination of injuries and hitters performances that aligned properly with the traditional aging curve put them in a rough spot. Their combined 21-34 stretch in July and August left them outside of the playoff picture.

The Giants will now head into the offseason trying to figure out how to recapture some of that 2021 magic. To do so, they'll have to answer these three big questions.

1. Can they retain Rodón, Pederson?

The Giants' season may not have gone according to plan, but a couple of their offseason additions did their parts. Lefty Carlos Rodón made his second consecutive All-Star Game on the strength of his unhittable fastball, while former Dodgers and Braves outfielder Joc Pederson had the best season of his career, as judged by OPS+.

Both Rodón and Pederson can hit the open market again this winter, prompting us to ask: can and will the Giants retain them?

Rodón triggered an opt-out clause in his contract by clearing the 110-inning threshold earlier in the season. Presuming he does indeed exercise that clause, he'll be looking to beat the one year and $22.5 million remaining on his pact with the Giants. At minimum, Rodón should be in position to land a long-term contract. Teams should be more amenable to the idea this winter than they were last, when he had a lengthier injury history than he did a track record as a top-notch starting pitcher.

Pederson, for his part, made $6 million this season after his stock had slipped in recent years, right alongside his ability to play center field. He rebounded in a major way at the plate, however, and he could be in line for a multi-year deal of his own.

The Giants have expressed interest in bringing each player back next year. They should have the financial flexibility to pull off such deals. 

As it stands, the Giants are projected to have just over $90 million in guaranteed commitments for next season, according to Cot's Contracts. That puts San Francisco well below this year's Opening Day payroll of $155 million. They do have a number of arbitration-eligible players who will eat into that difference, including first-timer Logan Webb. Still, there's nothing else preventing the Giants from making competitive offers, giving them a chance at retaining both beyond the winter.

2. Will Longoria, Belt retire?

Whereas the question with Rodón and Pederson is whether or not they'll play for a different club next season, the question with veteran corner infielders Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt is if they'll play at all.

Longoria technically has one year remaining on his contract, but the Giants can buy him out for $5 million should they desire. By doing so, the Giants would save $8 million they could distribute elsewhere -- not to mention the playing time they would free up for David Villar and Jason Vossler. Longoria, who will celebrate his 37th birthday on Oct. 7, told reporters earlier this year that he intends to return if the Giants exercise his option. Clarity should come shortly after the season ends.

The 34-year-old Belt, meanwhile, has married his retirement decision to his knee's recovery after it greatly limited his availability and effectiveness this season. Belt has classified his decision as being of the "game-time"variety, suggesting that even the Giants might not be sure if he's coming back or not until late in the offseason.

The uncertainty in each case suggests there's at least some possibility that the Giants enter next season with a new starting corner-infield combination. Stay tuned. 

3. Might they pursue Judge?

In the first subhead, we noted the Giants will have financial freedom this winter. In the second, we acknowledged they could be replacing two corner bats. That leads us to our third: will they emerge as a suitor for free-agent outfielder Aaron Judge?

San Francisco has been identified by some evaluators who have spoken to CBS Sports as a dark-horse candidate to sign Judge this winter. It should be noted that others have pushed back on the idea, suggesting it's not a consensus. The Giants have pursued Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper in recent years, indicating that they've had the desire and the willingness to add a big-time slugger to the fold.

Signing Judge would also give the Giants a new face of the franchise. While that's not as important as adding his production to their lineup, it is worth remembering that this Giants franchise is in a period of transition. Buster Posey has retired, Belt and Longoria may follow, and Brandon Crawford likely isn't too far behind. The Bruce Bochy era Giants are, in other words, quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Besides, Giants executive Farhan Zaidi is no stranger to the value a top-notch superstar can bring to a franchise. Prior to taking over the Giants, he was a crucial member of the Dodgers organization. Landing Judge would be the most Dodgers-like move of Zaidi's tenure in San Francisco. That's fine: the Dodgers are where the Giants want to be in a few respects, including once again at the top of the division.