Little kids know the San Francisco Giants always win the World Series in even-numbered years, right? The Giants won in 2010, 2012, and 2014. And look, the calendar says 2016, so let’s start shredding our wastepaper into ticker tape, and dusting off our ponchos for another joyous, rainy parade!
Well, kids might not recall that drought of 56 championship-less seasons, from 1954 (when the Giants called New York’s Harlem home) to 2010. The drought only ended when a group of castoffs and emerging young stars, led by manager Bruce Bochy (the man with the biggest head in the major leagues) bested the Texas Rangers, and brought San Francisco its first World Series trophy. It ain’t so easy. Let’s be realistic, kids!
The good news for 2016 is that this off-season the Giants smashed their huge piggy bank and threw hundreds of millions of dollars at three players. One is excellent, and two are huge question marks.
Johnny Cueto. One of the top pitchers in the major leagues, 30-year-old Cueto is in the prime of his career. He signed a six-year contract for $130 million, but he can declare himself a free agent after the first two years. It’s an odd incentive: If he does well, he departs; if he fails, he stays and collects Barry Zito money; but there’s so much money bubbling around baseball that crazy opt-out contracts are sometimes part of the price of landing a top-tier pitcher.
Cueto slots into the pitching rotation right behind 2014’s World Series hero and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Madison Bumgarner. In his eight seasons of major league ball, Cueto has missed a significant part of only one season, 2013. So Cueto looks like a good bet to make the team significantly better.
Last year, Giants outfielders were torn apart by injuries, most notably to the previously indestructible Hunter Pence and the intense spark plug Angel Pagan. Last year, the Giants tried filling the outfield holes with minor leaguers and a late-season veteran, to sporadic success. Welcome Denard Span, for $31 million and four seasons.
Well, maybe. Like a writing professor of mine who enjoyed the bottle a bit too much, on whose teacher evaluations I was always tempted to begin, “When sober …” (When sober, Professor X is a fantastic teacher; When sober, he has command of the topic; When sober, he is brilliant): When healthy, Span is a .300 leadoff hitter with above-average power and a knack for getting on base. He doesn’t strike out much, doesn’t get caught stealing much. He’s a centerfielder who pushes the injury-prone Angel Pagan to a bit less-demanding left field (and so helps the team). Span is the type of player any team should love; he is a guy who does lots of little things to win.
However, Span’s gone under the knife twice in the past 15 months: sports hernia surgery, and surgery to repair a “core muscle.” He’ll definitely help the team, when healthy. An outfield of Pagan, Span, and Pence will be a treat to behold. Will we get 120 games of that trio? 100? 80? 60? 40?
Jeff Samardzija. The Giants just plunked down the equivalent of 2.5 tons of gold ($90 million, for five seasons) for a pitcher who, last year, had the worst ERA in the American League (4.97 for the White Sox), and who hasn’t had a winning record since 2011 (8-4 for the Cubs). Eight years of statistics paint a picture of a thoroughly mediocre starting pitcher. However, because the Giants’ brain trust has amassed the three World Championships this decade, I’m not going to further disparage this signing; I’m going to don their rosy championship champagne goggles and tell you what they see in Samardzija.
They see a pitcher who’s never been injured in the major leagues, who is going to pitch into the 7th and 8th inning and thereby give the bullpen some rest. They see a pitcher who suffered a lot of homers in the somewhat-tight confines of the White Sox ballpark, and who will benefit from the vast San Francisco outfield, and wonderful Giants infielders Matt Duffy, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Brandon Belt.
Everybody likes Samardzija, even if they can’t spell his name. He was a wide receiver at Notre Dame, and has an intense football mentality when he pitches. But will he be a $90 million third starting pitcher-hero, or a $90 million barely hanging fifth starting pitcher? Or left off of postseason rosters à la Barry Zito?
I’m betting that if two of the Cueto-Span-Samardzija trio pan out, the Giants will be happy; it’s a decent bet. But if only one out of three lives up to expectations, the Giants might mortar the piggy bank closed for the rest of this decade.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have the most money and the most talent in the National League. They’ve won the National League West Division the past three seasons. They scour the world searching for, and purchasing, baseball talent. Their minor league system is brimming. Yet for the past three years the Dodgers have led the major leagues in dysfunction and have choked in the playoffs.
Continuing the trend, this off-season the Dodgers failed to retain their second best pitcher, Zack Greinke, whom signed with the Diamondbacks. But in their favor, they jettisoned manager Don Mattingly, whom I suspect was a spy on the Giants’ payroll (Mattingly is illogical and timid, and managerial decisions doomed many a Dodgers game). Look for the Dodgers to make more sensible field maneuvers under new manager Dave Roberts. But can Roberts be bought?
Yes, the Diamondbacks signed the best pitcher on the market, Zack Greinke, and have a core of excellent players. But in team sports, it’s rare for a historically mediocre organization to suddenly blossom into a contender. The Diamondbacks? Nah. The San Diego Padres? Nope. The Colorado Rockies? Blech.
In the National League West, it will be a two-team race between the Giants and the Dodgers, between Giants ace Bumgarner and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, between three-time champion manager Bruce Bochy and neophyte Dave Roberts, between one of the greatest players of our time, Buster Posey, and the entire Dodgers team.
And quite simply, if very few of their muscles and ligaments twang or pop, if they don’t often pull up lame, and if they get a few good bounces in October, as they have in Octobers past, the Giants will win another World Series.
Ask the kids: 2016 is an even year.