Rested-up Giants know how to return to top
Champs two of past four years hope longer offseason helps them bounce back
Save for the Yankees' dynasty of the late-1990s, the Wild Card era has demanded too much of defending champions.
Too many rounds, too many innings, too much mental and emotional currency needed to repeat. In fact, if the Red Sox don't win a second consecutive crown this fall, Major League Baseball will tie its longest drought between back-to-back champs.
The Giants know as well as anybody the pains of trying to repeat, and they have respect for anybody who can endure those pains and still survive, with or without World Series paydirt.
"Look at the Cardinals -- World Series [in 2011], NLCS against us and then World Series again? That's impressive," Giants catcher Buster Posey said. "It's a big grind on your pitchers and everybody, really. You finish up the season and you've got three months until you're back at it, not to mention the hoopla that comes with winning the World Series. It's a challenge, but one you definitely welcome."
The Giants didn't welcome the open October calendar that came with finishing below .500 in 2013. But they did at least welcome the rest it provided.
"It was bittersweet," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "We didn't go to the playoffs, but it gave us a chance to rest, recover and rejuvenate mentally, not just physically."
How the rested-up Giants fare will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the National League West this season.
Since the introduction of Wild Card berths two decades ago, 40 teams have reached the playoffs a year after finishing with a losing record. It has happened at least once every year except for 2005, and it happened with three teams -- the Pirates, Indians and the Red Sox -- in 2013.
The Giants seem perhaps the safest bet to be that type of turnaround team in 2014. For what it's worth, the PECOTA projection system currently pegs San Francisco, which finished 76-86 last season, to go 87-75 and claim the NL's top Wild Card spot.
The reason for the optimism among the numbers-crunchers and analysts is not that the Giants had a particularly aggressive offseason, relative to their division foes. After all, San Francisco's primary moves of significance were the additions of Tim Hudson and Michael Morse, each of whom had a tough 2013, because of a freak ankle injury in Hudson's case and a .651 OPS in Morse's.
No, the optimism rests in the fact that the Giants essentially took every opportunity to keep their championship-caliber club together -- retaining right fielder Hunter Pence, starters Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong and reliever Javier Lopez -- and should, conceivably, be in a better physical position to maximize its potential.
Counting postseason performance, starters Matt Cain (655 1/3), Madison Bumgarner (629 1/3) and Lincecum (618 1/3) all rank among the top 20 in innings pitched over the past three seasons. In that same time period, relievers Santiago Casilla (64), Javier Lopez (61) and Sergio Romo (60) all rank in the top 15 in appearances on no days' rest.
"Those are command guys, for the most part," an NL scout said. "They need that sharpness."
So, yes, the full offseason did, as Affeldt said, have some sweet to offset the bitter, and it gave way to a spring camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., in which the Giants have begun the hunt for another even-year title by getting back to basics.
"It's been a crisp camp," Posey said.
Manager Bruce Bochy and his staff have spent the spring harping on fundamentals, because San Francisco looked tired in areas beyond the uncharacteristically pedestrian 4.00 staff ERA (and that was with Bumgarner posting ace-type numbers). Defensively, the Giants rated as league average, at best (per the defensive-runs-saved metric calculated by Baseball Info Solutions). Offensively, they stranded more runners than all but four other teams and they grounded into the eighth-most double plays in the Major Leagues.
"We loosened up on some stuff," Affeldt said. "Defensively? Eh. Offensively? Eh. Pitching? Eh. Bullpen? Eh -- and I was a big part of the 'eh' there, because I didn't do a good job with inherited runners.
"So we've been more focused on the PFPs [pitchers' fielding practice], the right things, the little things. We've made that a big deal in this camp. That's just what you have to do."
Hudson adds depth and veteran savvy to a starting staff that had the third-highest ERA (4.37) in the NL last year. And as MLB.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby recently explained, returns to form by Cain and Lincecum are essential this season.
The Giants, already known to be a loyal organization with remarkably low turnover on the coaching staff, felt it essential to keep this club together.
The Lincecum contract extension raised eyebrows in the industry because it was a two-year, $35 million investment in a pitcher who ranked 71st out of 81 qualifiers for the ERA title. But to San Francisco, it was an investment in a past great whose peripherals were better than his ERA suggested. The five-year, $90 million extension with Pence was an investment in a hitter who had profiled as 25-percent better than league average over the past three seasons and in a person who displayed a ton of heart and intensity in the 2012 run.
All the decisions -- the retentions that extend not just to Lopez and Vogelsong but also to Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Affeldt a year ago -- are risky endeavors in a game that doesn't always reward past performance. And the Giants face yet another difficult business decision as a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval nears free agency.
But the Giants believe in a culture of consistency, and, considering they are the closest thing we have to a dynasty in recent years, they've earned the benefit of the doubt.
"Winning is fun, no matter what," Posey said. "But having the chance to do it again with the same group of guys makes it a little bit more special. I think, if you're fan of the Giants, it's got to be fun to have a chance to follow the same group of guys."
For the most part, the same group from 2012 returns in 2014, fresh off a season in which they looked, well, not so fresh. The Giants, once again, proved that old axiom that it's hard to win and even harder to repeat.
But this year, they have another chance to prove they know how to bounce back better than anybody, something they did in 2012, two years removed from their 2010 World Series championship. That's meant getting back to basics.
Six months from now, it could mean getting back to October.