How the San Francisco Giants will make the playoffs

Analysts and fans alike were skeptical regarding the potential of the San Francisco Giants going into the 2014 season. A disappointing 2013 campaign combined with an ever-increasingly talented and expensive Los Angeles Dodgers roster led many to believe that the Giants were in for another season ending in September. In an ESPN poll, only three out of 45 experts picked the Giants to win the division with a resounding number picking the Dodgers to not only win the division, but the World Series, as well.

However, the Giants made some intriguing, underrated offseason additions that could prove worthy. Michael Morse comes in as a mammoth of a man who, when at his best, provides extra pop in the middle of the lineup capable of a long-ball at any moment. The jury is still out whether his offensive production will overshadow his inability to play left field in AT&T Park, though. The addition of Tim Hudson offers a steadying veteran presence in the rotation that can potentially aid in Tim Lincecum’s transformation from a thrower to a pitcher.

Despite pundits’ stamp of dissatisfaction with the current roster’s abilities heading into the season, the Giants find themselves right where they like to be: with their backs against the wall. In both of their two recent World Series runs, the Giants seemed to thrive on the “us against the world” mindset. In 2010 only two out of 28 experts picked the Giants to win the World Series heading into the postseason. They rode that wave of criticism all the way to their first championship since 1954. In 2012 the sermons of Reverend Hunter Pence seemed to will the Giants back from a 2-0 deficit to the Cincinnati Reds in the NLDS and a 3-1 deficit to the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.

San Francisco Giants

The 2014 Giants hope to regain the resilience and success from their 2012 season (Photo Credit: S.F. Giants)

It’s difficult to say whether their attitude to prove people wrong is the driving force behind the Giants’ early-season performance. Nonetheless, the beloved Bay Area squad is pleasing fans with their surprisingly good start. I say surprising not because I didn’t think they would win ballgames, but, rather, surprising in how they are winning ballgames.

The Giants opened the season by taking three out of four games in Arizona against the Diamondbacks, which was subsequently outshined by winning their second series on the road against the rival Dodgers. What’s strange about the success is that, with the exception of two good starts from Tim Hudson and one from Madison Bumgarner, the rotation has largely carried over their underwhelming performance from 2013. Contrary to the team identity from the past several seasons, the Giants actually rank third in the MLB in runs scored and first in homeruns. The Giants ranked 30th and 29th in home runs in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Many writers and experts have been quick to call this the first offensive-minded Giants squad since Barry Bonds hung up his cleats. While I think this lineup is a vast improvement over years past, I’m not quite sold on it being an offensive juggernaut yet. Regardless of their potential, any team that plays half its games at AT&T Park can’t completely abandon pitching and defense as essential components to success. Both aspects need fine-tuning. Their rotation has made mistakes leading to trips around the bases and the infield has been sloppy with their rundowns.

All that being said, the Giants seem to have their swagger back. Everyone is back healthy and they seem to be playing for each other again. That’s what makes this team tick. No players have any personal agendas and everyone plays with an incredible mental toughness. They act like they’ve been there before, which makes sense considering most of them have indeed been there before.

So, for the pessimists waiting for the Giants to collapse or the small sample size enthusiasts who think the Giants are going to win 150 games, here are my three keys to the Giants making the postseason in the quest for their third ring in five years.

Brandon Belt

No player epitomizes the Giants early success more than Brandon Belt. He is off to a blistering hot start. Through nine games, Belt is hitting .325 with 5 homeruns and 9 RBIs. I wrote back in February that the Giants should have and should still lock up Belt long-term and he’s making me look pretty smart here in the beginning of the season. He’s obviously not going to hit the 90 homers and 162 RBIs that he’s on pace for. Luckily, the Giants don’t need him to. It’s well within reason that Belt could end the season hitting around .300 with 35 HR and 100 RBIs. If they keep Belt in the two-spot during Marco Scutaro’s prolonged absence, that RBI total might be hard to achieve. However, with Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey, Pence and Morse hitting behind him, Belt is going to continue to get pitches to hit and should continue to keep squaring them up into the seats.

With the new changes to his mechanics, Belt appears to be finally tapping into his potential at the plate that the organization has been hoping for. Depending on where they place Belt in the order will determine the area of emphasis for his performance. If he stays in the two-spot against righties, Belt is going to need to get on base and set the table for the middle of the order. If they drop him to the five-spot the area of emphasis will shift to run production. No matter where they place him in the order, Belt adds another weapon to a lineup full of them. Pitchers can’t relax and take any at-bats off anymore. By continuing to drive in runs, via the long-ball or not, it will balance out Belts high strikeout rate. If the Giants are truly shifting towards an offense-minded team, Belt is the catalyst. Maybe Belt can bring back the myriad of kayaks back to McCovey Cove that haven’t been there since some guy who wore number 25 used to pepper them into the bay like it was tee work.

The Bullpen

It’s clearly too early to make any conclusions, but the starting rotation certainly hasn’t started the year crisp like fans wanted and anticipated. No one should have expected the starters to be in midseason form this early in the season, but only three quality starts in nine games is slightly alarming. If the trend continues, Giants fans might have to accept the unfortunate reality that the days of complete game shutouts are over. Wear and tear from long postseason runs tends to have its effect on pitchers. Their regression doesn’t mean the starters can’t be depended on to keep the Giants in games, though.

In steps the bullpen. If the impressive turnaround of the rotation proves to be a fantasy, I can see manager Bruce Bochy continuing to take the ball from starters early like he has been so far this season. The Giants currently only have seven relievers on the roster, but guys like Yusmeiro Petit and David Huff can chew up innings. Considering Joaquin Arias can play either middle infield position and third, I could easily see the Giants opting to drop Brandon Hicks or Ehire Adrianza in favor of another reliever if the bullpen starts to get fatigued.

With the progression of the lineup and the mediocrity of the starting rotation, games are going to come down to the bullpen. Fangraphs.com projected the Giants to have the worst bullpen in baseball in 2014, but anyone who knows baseball knows that the bullpen might be the most unpredictable aspect of a widely unpredictable sport.

The Giants have three dependable arms in Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo for late game situations. They are also waiting to get Jeremy Affeldt back from a knee strain. Affeldt can be erratic, but when he’s on, he is near impossible to hit. Who knows if the Giants win the World Series in 2010 if Affeldt doesn’t come in to pitch two shutout innings after relieving Jonathon Sanchez with two on and no outs in the bottom of the third.

It sounds obvious, but if the Giants are going to have any chance at making the postseason, the bullpen is going to need to prove the experts wrong and put the nail in the coffin each night.

Gregor Blanco

I’m sure many of you scratched your head when you read that name. For good reason I suppose. The Gregor Blanco experiment was largely a failure last year. I don’t list Blanco as a key to the postseason for what he brings, but rather for what he means.

As long as he’s not starting extended amounts of games, the site of Gregor Blanco on the diamond should be refreshing for Giants fans. It most likely means their team is in the lead as he is inserted into the game as a defensive replacement for Michael Morse. Blanco brings versatility in his ability to play any outfield position. Most fans should remember his diving catch in deep center to save Matt Cain’s perfect game after tracking the ball all the way from right field.

Blanco’s presence in a game could also mean the Giants have an opportunity to win the game as he is inserted as a pinch runner. Bruce Bochy knows how to utilize Blanco’s speed as a weapon. His ability to steal bases and take extra bags gives Bochy flexibility. With Blanco on base, he doesn’t always have to burn an out with a bunt in order to move a runner over.

How much playing time Blanco gets should arguably determine the success of the Giants. Too much Blanco means something is wrong. Either the team has caught the injury bug again or Michael Morse is underperforming. Too little Blanco could mean the Giants consistently find themselves behind late in games and can’t afford to substitute Blanco’s defense for Morse’s offense. So while Giants fans should hope Gregor Blanco doesn’t see starts in left field, they should in no way interpret his limited playing time as diminished value to the team.

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