Sports

What the season’s start says about the Giants, NL West

By Mark Kreidler

Special to The Examiner

When the Giants swept Colorado at Oracle Park on Wednesday, outscoring the Rockies 24-8 in three games, it propelled San Francisco to a weird little statistical oddity. After 31 games, the Giants actually had produced a better record in 2022 (19-12) than they had the year before (18-13).

You might remember that year: The Gabe Kapler-managed team wound up winning 107 times during the regular season, an earth-shattering experience muted somewhat by the fact that the Daddy Warbucks Dodgers subsequently knocked them out of the playoffs. A beautiful thing ended badly, with the check-swing seen round the world.

Now comes the ’22 campaign, and what does this fast start tell you? Well, if you’re watching closely, it tells you that these two seasons … are almost nothing alike.

And if you’re not watching closely, we’re here to help.

The most striking thing about this first fifth of the season is probably that the Giants ramped up to a 99-win pace without their guys, or at least without a bunch of them. Brandon Belt played in only 20 of the first 31 games. Evan Longoria played once, LaMonte Wade Jr. five times, Tommy La Stella not at all. The best rotational pitcher from last year, Kevin Gausman, works in Toronto now.

Given all that, this start is noteworthy, and it makes you wonder what the Giants might become at full strength (or anything close to it). Kapler and his staff have mixed and matched successful lineups in ways that do recall 2021, and the club is among baseball’s best at scoring runs, which mattered quite a bit during the first month-plus of lousy weather and worse offense around the league. But there are no superstar breakouts here.

Brandon Crawford’s expected offensive regression to his career? Check. The unlikelihood of reliever Jake McGee turning in a third straight brilliant season? Verified. Mass roster churn because of injury and (COVID-related) illness? You betcha: Through 31 games this season, the Giants had used 43 different players. Among MLB teams, only the Cincinnati Reds chewed through that many guys, and they’re not even trying.

So Longoria’s return as the presumed everyday third baseman is huge. Wade’s presence in the outfield is huge, as is Mike Yastrzemski’s return from the COVID shelf. La Stella’s ability to take over second base means that both Thairo Estrada and Mauricio Dubon can be considered on their merits as bench pieces, which feels like a gift. Dominic Leone and Zack Littell are healthy and back in the bullpen.

The Giants, that is, appear primed to play some pretty good ball. That much feels exactly like 2021.

The rest of the picture? Not so much.

The N.L. West is drunk, for one thing. This didn’t happen last season. Last season, the Dodgers were predictably great, but the Padres took an unexpected header and both Colorado and Arizona were just plain bad. (Well, Arizona was terrible, a 110-loss hairball of baseball dysfunction.) Result: Only the Giants and LA posted winning records, albeit both astounding ones.

This season, by contrast, is just goofy-foot. Entering the weekend, every team in the West had a winning record, and even if that doesn’t hold for much longer. It is an indication of how wildly things have changed in one lockout-lengthened winter.

The Diamondbacks, who spit up on themselves for nearly six months straight last year, recently won nine of 12; their starting rotation, anchored by Merrill Kelly, Zac Gallen and Madison you-know-who, is currently among the finest in baseball. The Rockies just lost five of six (including that sweep by San Francisco) to come back down to Earth, but they’re an 11-5 beast at Coors Field. Opponents once again don’t love going there.

San Diego is getting it together, with close observers believing they underachieved their way to a 20-12 start (!). LA was already there, the divisional favorite. There just isn’t a comfortable series to be had in the N.L. West, especially on the road. You almost need to read this twice to be sure you saw it correctly, but right now, top to bottom, it’s the toughest division in baseball.

It may not stay that way, but I could make the same argument about the Giants’ fortunes. Example: Kapler and his staff have gotten wins from nine different pitchers, and none of them are named Anthony DeSclafani. That’s one way to start a season, but it’s probably no way to finish it.

Last year’s Giants are a story already told: Buster Posey’s amazing walkoff season; Crawford’s career offensive year; surprises like Wade Jr. and Darin Ruf; the Kris Bryant trade-deadline addition. It went that way. Gausman was great, and DeSclafani was great, and Logan Webb got ready to become an ace. The team didn’t have a losing month and they were 21-6 in September. It was just a giant wave of wins.

That doesn’t mean too much about 2022. We don’t yet know, really. In part that’s because several of the players who contributed to this 19-12 sprint out of the gate are about to see their playing time cut back, with regulars returning to claim their spots. In part it’s because a guy like Joey Bart, trying to replace the irreplaceable Posey, may wind up sharing more time with Curt Casali than folks originally imagined.

Mostly, though, it’s because nothing ever stays the same in baseball, and teams that used to be dependable pincushions are suddenly threats to derail playoff chances. It’s not about 107 wins; it’s about what the wins ultimately produce. Put it this way: If MadBum somehow manages to have the last laugh, they’ll never forgive themselves.

Mark Kreidler is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. Read more of his columns at https://markkreidler.substack.com

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