Fans of baseball everywhere woke up this morning with a tingle of excitement, as we can put Spring Training behind us for another year and concentrate on the proper stuff for the next seven months. Even fans of teams for whom there is little chance of mounting a credible challenge this season there is something special about today, and I was more than a little disappointed to hear of the postponement of the Reds @ Nats game, as I thought there was something a bit special about all MLB teams starting out on the same day for the first time in 50 years.
Disappointment has been a bit of theme in the last week, as we learned first of Jeff Samardzija, and then Madison Bumgarner going down injured. There was something particularly devestating about Bumgarner getting hit by a comebacker, after a string of very strong spring training outings and him looking set for a stellar opening day showdown with Clayton Kershaw. Ty Blach got the nod for his first opening day start instead, and it is really great news for him, even if it reflects more the paucity of the Giants options as it does his recent progress. I’ve tried but I can’t recall a greater Giants opening day pitching mismatch as this one, although I’m sure the headline writers will have a field day with David and Goliath referencs if Blach manages to pull of a shock and outpitch Kershaw tonight.
I’m not hopeful of that happening however, and it really is time to face facts. The Giants won’t compete this year. It was already a case of everything having to go right for them this year just to claim a wildcard sport, and the loss of Samardzija and Bumgarner is close to catastrophic in that context. A grueling early schedule sees the Giants facing the Dodgers ten times before Samardzija returns, and they’ll also line up against the vaunted Nationals and the re-energised Angels. Johnny Cueto, about whom there are still massive question marks, is now the de facto rotation leader, while Stratton, Blach and Holland are now in line to play a much more pivotal role than even they would have expected a week ago. The Mariners, Padres and D-backs might be slightly easier going but it is now not inconceivable that the Giants could be 9-19 by the end of April.
In terms of bringing in arms to shore up the rotation, the Giants seem stuck between a rock and a hard place. Apparently unwilling to break the luxury tax threshold, and unable to offer the kind of prospect package that might entice someone of the calibre required, the spectre of a tear down and rebuild looms on the horizon. As undesirable as it seems against the backdrop of the organisation’s 60th anniversary celebrations and in the aftermath of a successful offseason of smoke and mirrors conjuring which rebuilt hope and confidence in a playing staff that lost a shade off 100 games last time out, if the Giants fall significantly below .500 by the end of May it will be time to hit the rebuild button.
It doesn’t look as if the Giants are going to contend again without some serious improvement in their farm system, and the Giants more than anyone should realise this given their success in very recent history of bringing through a core of young players capable of winning the sport’s biggest prize three times.
It is not all doom and gloom – honest! Shiny new things Longoria and McCutchen bring onfield improvement and intangible qualities that might yield exciting results. I expect better seasons for Belt and Crawford, and I have hope that Chris Shaw and Steven Duggar can break make an impact in the outfield this year. I’m optimistic about Joe Panik leading off, based mainly on his strong end to the season last year. He had the lowest strikeout percentage of any hitter in baseball in September 2017, and has always shown great plate discipline. If he adds a few more walks and ups his OBP he’ll be a fine leadoff for what looks on paper at least to be a strong hitting lineup behind him.
When I’m upbeat I’m hopeful that the Giants can weather this spring storm and stay in a theoretical race for the wildcard spot until August or September, not least because last year was so incredibly deflating for everyone rooting for the team. At other times, though, I shudder with the thought that we might be in line for another 90+ loss season. What makes me smile every time I think of however is this gem of a tweet that surfaced last week in the wake of Bumgarner’s injury.
For the record, I agree with the sentiment that it is tough to see marquee players go down injured (and yes, I’m a pedant!) but just thinking of of Madison Bumgarner and Justin Turner as noble marquises, lording it over their lesser-titled dukes, viscounts and barons that make up the NL West fills me with opening day glee, and it should you too. Lets play ball!