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State of the Sports Union: April brings it all

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It may be too early to worry about the Giants’ offensive woes, but the front office built a team that can’t afford a slow start. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

We are hitting my favorite spot in the calendar. With the rancid mess of March Madness behind us, April brings not only 70-degree weather but a smorgasbord for the sports world.

Spring has sprung, baseball is underway, the NBA and NHL are headed for their second seasons (“actual” seasons, for the skeptics) and the NFL is wrapping up free agency and preparing for the draft. Throw in the Masters, replete with a potentially competitive Tiger Woods, and it’s a festival of delights for sports fans.

In honor of this unofficial holiday season, today’s column is a State of the Sports Union, a snapshot of all the major teams in the Bay Area and their stations in the 2018 sports landscape.

THE GIANTS ARE HEADED FOR A RECKONING …
In the words of a popular internet meme (and an old Nationwide Insurance ad): Life comes at you fast.

It seems like yesterday that we were living under an Orange and Black dynasty. Partially because, indeed, it was rather recent, but also because the ethos of the Giants has been to grasp tightly to the “mojo” of those days and squeeze it until there’s nothing left.

That mojo balloon is now nearly empty.

The Giants have started the season exactly how fans hoped they wouldn’t: devoid of offense and on shaky ground with pitching. Through 42 innings, the only scoring was Joe Panik solo homers. Through five games, they scored six runs, four of them in the home opener’s doomed comeback attempt. That was good for dead last in baseball and just half of the 12 scored by the 28th- and 29th-place teams, both of which played one fewer game.

On the pitching side, Johnny Cueto notwithstanding, the rotation has looked like it’s missing two guys who management expected to throw 200 innings. Neither Chris Stratton nor Derek Holland made it through six innings, both allowed three earned runs — fine for a fifth starter, rough when it’s your 3-4. Ty Blach has had one good game and one bad, which is understandable for a young guy but leaves something to be desired for an Opening Day starter.

Yes, it’s early, and one might say the sample size is almost negligible. The injuries to principle starters made this somewhat predictable, but the Giants built a team that couldn’t afford a slow start.

Even if newcomers like Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen drag their averages above .100, the margins are incredibly thin. There was never much power in this lineup, the rotation was probably one seasoned pro short and the bullpen has a lot to prove without Mark Melancon. As is, you’ve got a former MVP hitting considerably below the Mendoza line, your new third baseman hitting half of that and we’re not even sure who takes the mound on Tuesday when the fifth starter is finally needed.

The Giants have the tall task of turning this ship around very quickly. Otherwise, we may be talking about selling off parts by the time Madison Bumgarner is ready to return.

The A’s may be mediocre right now, but they’re exactly where they want to be. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

THE A’S ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE …
The A’s are the opposite of the Giants in so many ways, but the most obvious in the early parts of the 2018 season is an extreme lack of urgency.

This squad is bubbling over with youth and potential, which also means it’s full of guys who are short on major league experience but comparatively long on raw ability. They’ve had good first outings from Sean Manaea and Andrew Triggs, with rough ones from alleged ace Kendall Graveman and Daniels Mengden and Gossett. They’ve gotten mixed results from the offense in the early going, but fans should be thrilled that future cornerstones (pun intended) Matt Chapman and Matt Olson started strong.

The specific win-loss results matter significantly less to the A’s than to their cross-Bay rivals. Oakland will likely finish the season under .500, but will also likely finish this season with a better idea of which young guys are part of potential future success. If Chapman continues to hit over .350 with a home run every 11 at-bats, so much the better.

If the organization could have one wish granted, it would likely be that one of their young and inexperienced starters distinguishes himself as a future load-bearer. We won’t know whether that has happened until September, but Manaea’s first start certainly was certainly encouraging, as he allowed little outside of a Mike Trout homer in 7.2 strong innings.

The A’s may be mediocre right now, but they’re exactly where they want to be.

San Francisco has nine picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, including four of the first 74, to provide Jimmy Garoppolo with weapons and protection. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

THE 49ERS AND RAIDERS ARE LAYING IN THE WEEDS …
Both Bay Area football franchises are coming off 6-10 seasons; both have young rosters with centerpiece quarterbacks who they have begun to build around. Maybe more importantly, both are poised to have off-seasons that go a long way to flipping that record around.

The Niners and Raiders are actually in surprisingly similar places, considering where they were at the start of last season. Kyle Shanahan & Co. were short a quarterback, certainly, but also short almost everywhere else. Carlos Hyde may have been the best player on last year’s Week 1 roster. The Raiders, meanwhile, had Super Bowl aspirations that lasted at least through Week 2.

After entering the offseason on even ground, there have been changes on both sides of the Bay. Oakland, of course, made a major change at head coach, then went out and signed no fewer than 20 contracts during the first month of free agency. The theme of those deals is obvious: Most are one-year deals for $3 million or less; the largest annual value is Jordy Nelson’s $15 million over two seasons. The Raiders used a giant haul of reasonably priced veterans to add depth at offensive skill positions, in the defensive secondary and in a much-depleted linebacking corps.

The Niners, feeling surprisingly settled after the arrival and subsequent success of Jimmy Garoppolo, made fewer moves but arguably more significant ones. For Jimmy GQ, a substantial four-year deal for running back Jerick McKinnon adds some pop to the skill group, plus five years to Weston Richburg and a one-year contract for Jonathan Cooper to bolster the interior offensive line. On the defensive side, a pay-for-what-you-get deal with Richard Sherman and some affordable pass rushing in Jeremiah Attachou.

The Raiders head into the NFL Draft with 11 picks and a burning need to build around quarterback Derek Carr.(Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS)

The consensus among draft analysts is surprising: The Niners seem zeroed in on a defensive back, likely Ohio State’s Denzel Ward or Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick; the Raiders are widely expected to address their front seven, perhaps with Georgia standout Roquan Smith or Washington run-stopper Vita Vea.

As good as those defensive additions might be, the real story of the draft could be about quantity over quality. San Francisco comes in with nine selections, including four of the first 74; the Raiders are even more loaded, with a total of 11 picks. This opens the door for draft-day trades for both teams.

Fundamentally, with the quarterbacks they have in place and at least one or two potential stars in other spots, the sort of focused augmentation that both the 49ers and Raiders are engaged in is the stuff of building real contenders.

Whether these moves pan out remains to be seen. But for the first time in a long while, we are entering a season where almost every football game played in the Bay Area will likely have playoff implications.

New addition Evander Kane has consistently made his impact felt on the Sharks with scoring and physicality. (Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

THE SHARKS ARE PLAYOFF-BOUND AGAIN, BUT SOMETHING FEELS DIFFERENT …
With two games left in the NHL regular season, the Sharks have looked a little lackluster, skating to four straight losses. I am going to forgive them this trespass for what feel like obvious reasons. They have already clinched a playoff spot and have the edge for home-ice advantage in Round 1. Perhaps more importantly, there’s just a different vibe around this team than past iterations.

Perhaps it’s the departure of the polarizing Patrick Marleau, though he has been rather productive in Toronto. Perhaps it’s the late-season addition of Evander Kane, who has consistently made his impact felt with both scoring and physicality. Perhaps it’s about bigger roles for an up-and-coming set of youngsters led by Tomas Hertl, Kevin Labanc and Timo Meier.

Whatever it is, this roster feels feisty, and Joe Thornton is back skating with a playoff return to action potentially in the offing. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are always fun, but with the scoring punch the Sharks have shown late in the season, it feels like this year could provide even more than usual for the rabid fans at the Shark Tank.

The Warriors won’t really be challenged until they get to the Western Conference Finals. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)

THE WARRIORS HAVE THE NBA RIGHT WHERE THEY WANT THEM …
They’ve won three-straight games without arguably their best player and have been locked in as the second seed in the Western Conference for as long as I can remember, but the Warriors are still doubted as much now as they have been at almost any point in the last three seasons.

Good.

If I had told you at the start of this season that the Warriors would be anything less than clear championship favorites heading into the postseason, you might have assumed the entire roster had been stricken with the Black Plague. As is, it’s just a minor knee injury for Stephen Curry and a handful of other insignificant maladies, combined with a somewhat lackluster approach to the regular season schedule.

Here we are, though: The Warriors, who had pundits and opposing fans screaming about foregone conclusions and meaningless basketball at the start of the season, are actually being given bulletin board material on a regular basis. Again, I say — good.

The jumbled Western Conference playoff picture still makes it impossible to scout the postseason path for the Dubs, but short of a major injury, does it really matter? Not a one of the teams in the morass from the fourth to 10th spots looks like it could beat a Curry-free Golden State team. Perhaps the Wolves with a healthy Jimmy Butler or the Spurs with a healthy Kawhi Leonard could muster a six-game challenge, but even then it’s hard to imagine any real concern.

Even in the second round, where the Warriors are likely to face an improving and impressive Portland Trail Blazers squad — and Curry may not be fully healthy — it’s hard to imagine a real threat. This is more or less the same team they swept last year in Round 1. Even with the improvements they’ve made, Damian Lillard on fire and the two-time MVP’s knee feeling sore, that sweep isn’t turning into a series loss.

The Warriors won’t really be challenged until they get to the Western Conference Finals. By that time, they should be much healthier and likely facing a team led by two superstars who they have routinely owned in the past.

So let the haters hate, let the talking heads talk, let people somehow give a roster that should be prohibitively favorited the opportunity to rally in opposition to a growing group of non-believers. It will just make their third title in four seasons that much sweeter.

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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