The San Francisco Giants entered the 2018 season with a very small margin for error. We mostly all agreed on this. They lost 98 games last season but believed in their injured and underperforming veterans enough to go the augmentation route with the roster, as opposed to ripping it to shreds and starting from scratch.
The wisdom of this approach has been much-debated, though, as I’ve said before, I’m not sure there was much choice. The “tear-down” option, which would have involved trading some of the most beloved players in franchise history, still seemed too painful and emotionally damaging to consider.
Whatever the calculus that led to their organizational philosophy, most people looked at a Giants roster with a host of 30-and-over hitters and a pitching staff depending a lot on unproven youngsters and said, “Boy, everything really needs to go right if this team wants to contend.”
What if I told you that team had everything go wrong over the first month of the season, but somehow still hung around .500 and flirted with potential playoff contention?
The Giants injury report looks like a list of guys from whom many were hoping for big years: Madison Bumgarner, Joe Panik, now Johnny Cueto, even Mac Williamson is out after finally being called up (and looking great in his first few games).
Meanwhile, the healthy veterans expected to anchor the lineup have mostly been bad. Andrew McCutchen’s .221 batting average would be even lower if not for a six-hit game in early April. Evan Longoria spent most of the first month striking out. And Brandon Crawford is an absolute zero at the plate right now, outside of a 2-4 showing Wednesday.
Yet, the Giants finished April with a winning record overall and a confidence-inspiring 6-4 mark against the archrival Dodgers. The question is, as the problems keep piling up, what does this really mean for the future?
Wednesday’s bad news was some of the worst we’ve had this year: Cueto is headed for additional opinions on a sore elbow, including one from Dr. James Andrews, a name no sports organization likes to hear. The Giants starting rotation now likely features Derek Holland, Andrew Suarez, Ty Blach and Chris Stratton at least through May, when the team had hoped only two of those guys would see the mound all year. Panik is also out at least that long.
This 10-car injury pileup comes at a particularly rough time: Friday opens a stretch of 17-straight game days for San Francisco, tied with a June stretch for the longest of the year. Four starts each from Stratton and Blach, three apiece for Suarez, Holland and Jeff Samardzija. The opponents are the Braves, Phillies, Pirates, Reds and Rockies — a slate that looks considerably less fluffy now than it did before the season started.
This could be the most important stretch of the season, and you’re looking at a team missing their top two starters, then choosing between Alen Hanson and Kelby Tomlinson at second, with Gorkys Hernandez, Gregor Blanco and Austin Jackson competing to fill two outfield spots. It’s not ideal.
All of that said, there is a lot of good news. Despite the many problems of the first month, the Giants are right in the Wild Card pack (for whatever that’s worth in early May), and surrounded in large part by teams that are exceeding expectations to a degree that seems unsustainable. In the NL West, they’re six games back from the also over-performing Arizona Diamondbacks, but firmly ahead of the Dodgers and essentially even with Colorado.
Speaking of the division, the injury-and-underperformance virus seems to have infected the Giants’ rivals as well: The much-ballyhooed LA team has lost Justin Turner and now Corey Seager to injury and benched Cody Bellinger for questionable base-running. The D’Backs have lost starters Taijuan Walker (for the year) and Robbie Ray (for now).
The Giants have also gotten remarkably solid pitching from the veritable kitchen sink they’ve been throwing out on the mound. Stratton and Blach have both allowed three earned runs or less in all but one of their starts. Suarez delivered a hope-inspiring outing in his second major league start. The bullpen has been mostly brilliant, with Tony Watson, Reyes Moronta and Hunter Strickland leading the way (Tuesday’s loss notwithstanding). Sam Dyson has allowed three hits and no runs in his last seven appearances.
Given the roster depletion, it’s difficult to imagine the Giants running off a big win streak in the next month or two. But I’m not sure that bothers them terribly. It would make sense if they looked at the next month the same way they looked at the season as a whole, which is a philosophy that won them three World Series championships.
Specifically: Build a solid team around competent pitching and timely hitting. Add a piece or two down the stretch — often a piece that seems a tad smaller than the hole it is supposed to fill — and just get in to the tournament. Once you’re there, get tremendous clutch performances from key players and you can win a title.
In about a month, this team may very well have Panik, Bumgarner and Cueto (fingers crossed) healthy and ready to perform. They’re all capable of all-star level performance. McCutchen and Crawford are bound to hit more than they have at some point. We’ve already started to see what Longoria is capable of.
Perhaps most importantly, the topsy turvy National League has left the door wide open for a team that’s .500 in June or July to ascend to playoff position by September. If the Giants do manage to maintain respectability while they’re decimated by injuries, they’ll feel great if they can head into the home stretch healthy.
Ultimately, if they want to truly compete for their fourth World Series of the decade, the Giants will need the same guys who led them to the first three to be brilliant — there’s no happy ending without magic from MadBum, clutch hits from Panik and Posey and timely bombs from the Brandons.
We’ve seen those guys do it before, though, and if McCutchen and Longoria can pitch in when it counts, suddenly the lineup looks pretty formidable. By a similar token, if Cueto avoids surgery and someone from the Stratton/Blach/Suarez/Samarzija set steps up, the Giants could enter August with a vicious top of the rotation, and an already thriving bullpen with depth potentially bolstered by whatever Will Smith and Mark Melancon can provide.
They likely won’t be the best team in baseball at any point during the season, but you can say that about at least two of the three teams that took home trophies. Somehow, despite everything that has gone horribly wrong so far this season, the Giants remain right about where they want to be with an easily conceivable (if nowhere near certain) path to the postseason.
Perhaps that margin for error was a little bigger than we thought.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.
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