On the Muni train over to King Street, I made a private vow: Avoid all mystical references to 2016 being an even-numbered year for a team that won the World Series in 2014, 2012 and 2010. The pattern is more coincidental than cosmic, right? Players and fans realize it just sort of happened, right? It’s not becoming a mantra, right?
Then the train doors opened, and a few fans standing outside the ballpark in Giants gear were chanting, “Even year! Even year!” — as if on cue to haunt me.
Then I walked inside the ballpark and saw Hunter Pence nodding his head to an even-year question, much like the Hunter Pence Solar Bobblebody to be given away in mid-August, whatever that is. “We hear about the even year a lot. And we love it,” he said — as if on cue to haunt me.
So, yes, this is an even year. And in a city that treats the Giants as a spiritual experience and AT&T Park as a place of worship, it means an entire foundation of expectations will be based on a calendar. In truth, it should be based on management’s commitment of a blinding $251 million — which shows that San Francisco Baseball Associates LLC, a collection of money people ranging from phantom multi-billionaire Charles Johnson to the visible and ultra-competitive Larry Baer to a lot of people you’ve never heard of, did pony up after city voters endorsed a Mission Rock real-estate project designed to boost the baseball payroll.
The question: Did they shower that $251 million upon the right three investments?
Even or odd, the Giants aren’t going anywhere this season if the ups and downs of Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span aren’t straightened into rousing success stories. That’s a massive spending haul for a pitcher (Cueto) with a tender elbow who has had colossal postseason meltdowns on the road, a pitcher (Samardzija) who was one of the American League’s worst starters last season and a new center fielder (Span) who played only 61 games last year and has had three surgeries for a hip labrum, sports hernia, core muscle over the last 14 months.
Two hundred and fifty-one million dollars, ladies and gentlemen.
And zero certainties.
But because the Giants have won three championships since the decade turned, they do command the benefit of doubt again … or at least until doubt erodes into disappointment. With Pence healthy, Joe Panik feeling no back pain for months and Brandon Belt over his concussion issues — “They’re all good to go,” declared a delighted Bruce Bochy — the lineup will be among the most potent in baseball. The question is whether the pitching rotation, so maddening and thin last year, can keep pace and turn the Giants into a 90-win team that already is the darling of Las Vegas casinos.
At some point in each of their careers, all five projected starters — Madison Bumgarner, Cueto, Jake Peavy, Samardzija, and Matt Cain — have enjoyed a large sample size of dominance. In February, it’s OK to dream that all could reclaim their magic at once, though highly unlikely. Buster Posey, who will catch a staff of neon names after spending the offseason “catching up with siblings, aunts, uncles, mom, dad and grandparents,” was busy playing a numbers game Friday on the ballpark’s club level, where the players met with local media before the weekend’s fan convention. In his mind, the rotation is comprised of aces who will have friendly competition to establish a pecking order.
“It’s exciting,” Posey said. “I think you can argue that Johnny Cueto is a 1. Samardzija, when he’s on, is a 2 or a 1. Matt, not long ago, was our stud pitcher in the 2012 World Series. If we get him back going as a 4 or 5 starter, then he’s not really a 4 or 5 starter. Then you’re looking at a staff of a 1, a 2, a couple of 3s, a 4. You’ve got to have some high expectations. Hopefully, this staff can have one guy throw eight shutout innings, and the next guy wants to do the same thing.”
There are legitimate reasons to believe Cueto and Samardzija will re-establish their best work within the pitching-friendly canyons on the waterfront, where arm guru Dave Righetti is thrilled to offer his wisdom. “We know what we got. We needed it, and we went out and did the right thing,” the venerable pitching coach said of his two new starters. “To be honest, I don’t know if our bullpen would have held up over the course of the year, not to be a doomsayer. This makes a lot more sense. We didn’t know if we’d get these guys — we didn’t know if they’d want to come. Fortunately, guys want to be here, and the numbers, sizes and body types change before your eyes.”
Cueto is 5-10 and 220 pounds, with a belly that sometimes seems as big as his dreadlocks. Samardzija, a wide receiver back in the day at Notre Dame, weighs about the same except he’s eight inches taller at 6-6. Zack Greinke, a sleek craftsman with little arm wear-and-tear who might pitch into his 40s, still would have been the smarter play at $206.5 million over six years. But I have to get over it, even if he’s in the same National League West with an improved Arizona club.
The problem with Samardzija is that he’s a hot mess of dangling arms and legs. “He’s such a big guy.” Righetti said. “Guys are so big these days, they get into their stretch and its hard to get all these arms and legs in a perfect position. Big guys have problems keeping their arm slots. In spring training, we’ll see where that’s at. I’m real fired up to have him. He’s having a baby right now.”
Actually, his wife is having a baby.
As for Cueto, RIghetti has fewer concerns. “Johnny is a creative guy who reminds me of Livan [Hernandez] with more stuff,” he said. “He’s a great athlete. Johnny can move around, he’s a great fielder, and he can bunt. I don’t know if we beat Cincinnati [in the 2012 playoffs] if he doesn’t pull a rib cage [muscle]. He also brings that fun. He’s a good guy who pays attention and watches games and isn’t one on these guys who hangs out in the clubhouse.”
Cain? Does anyone have an idea where this ongoing project is headed? He’s healthy again, after elbow surgery two offseasons ago, and he’s tired of being a question mark after once pitching a perfect game and landing a huge contract. “I think I’m where I need to be right now,” Cain said. “It’s still just fine-tuning and tweaking my rhythm and my motion and what I need to get done and not getting too frustrated with beginning. It’s still early.
“I probably learned a lot about my body, probably more than I wanted to. It was nice to be a little dumb about it. Some of this is on the mental side, too. You’ve got to learn to work through bad starts and long stretches of them.”
Off to Scottsdale in just days, the Giants lack no confidence after missing the postseason. “With the additions of Cueto, Samardzija and Span and a lot of the young talent that came through last year,” said Pence, “I think the momentum and expectations and potential is at an all-time high, and that’s exciting.”
Not normally one to draw parallels to basketball teams, Posey has become a Warriors fan and sees common characteristics between the Bay Area’s two recent champions. “They’re so fun to watch,” he said, “and I’ve heard several people around the city talk about how it’s a very similar feel to us — the camaraderie. That’s what I see. They’re having so much fun and don’t care who’s getting it done. It seems like such a simple concept on the professional sports level or anywhere, but it’s hard to get a group of people after that common goal. I don’t know if we would have won a couple of those World Series is we didn’t have that attitude.”
Tim Lincecum isn’t around, of course. And for those holding out hope, don’t. He will showcase his rebuilt hip for other teams, but the Giants have moved on, saying he only could re-sign as a reliever.
“He means so much to this organization, this city,” Posey said. “A two-time Cy Young winner goes to the bullpen and saves us. He easily could have said, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ He did it.”
That was in the 2012 postseason.
An even year, I know.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.