|The Giants find themselves in last place after their summer meltdown (AP)|
But nobody expected those teams to be good. The San Francisco Giants, winners of two of the past three World Series, were supposed to make another title run. Almost all of the players who hoisted the championship trophy last October returned, and almost all of them have remained healthy. With a stellar starting rotation, deep bullpen, and reigning MVP Buster Posey anchoring their lineup, the Giants were supposed to be one of the National League's most formidable teams.
Instead, they're toiling in last place, 13 games below .500, playing out the string when they should be battling the Dodgers for the division crown. How did that happen?
For starters, the rotation that was the backbone of last season's championship squad has underachieved. Young Madison Bumgarner is quietly putting together a Cy Young-caliber campaign, but the rest of his rotationmates have been massive disappointments. Matt Cain's enduring the worst season of his career. Tim Lincecum has been wildly inconsistent, unhittable at times but brutal at others. Barry Zito's been terrible (surprise). Ryan Vogelsong pitched terribly before getting hurt. Put it all together, and the rotation sports a 4.34 ERA, well above last year's 3.73 mark.
It doesn't matter that the bullpen has been even better than it was last year, because by the time Bruce Bochy deploys his relievers it's usually too late. San Fran's pitchers have a 4.72 ERA in the first three innings and 4.13 ERA in the middle innings. All too often, the Giants find themselves down early in the game. And once they fall behind, they typically stay behind. The punchless Giants lack the offensive firepower needed to slug their way back into ballgames, for they rank second-to-last in the NL in runs scored, runs per game, home runs, total bases, and slugging percentage. One would think San Francisco should compensate by swiping bases to manufacture runs, but they rank fifth from the bottom of the league in steals. This may have something to do with the fact that the Giants field the league's third-oldest starting lineup.
It seems impossible to remember now, but the Giants got off to a good start. In fact, they were leading the NL West as late as Memorial Day weekend and were still in second place four weeks after that. The wheels fell off in late June/early July, when the Giants dropped 14 out of 16 games from 6/23 through 7/10. With the offense sputtering lately, they've continued to lose ground over the past month and let Los Angeles run away with the division. Since May 26th, their last day in first place, they're 24-43 (.358)--the worst team in the Senior Circuit.
It's time for the Giants to start thinking about next year, which means re-signing Hunter Pence, figuring out who's going to play left field and deciding whether Tim Lincecum is worth keeping. As nightmarish as this summer has become for San Francisco, they still have a lot to be optimistic about for 2014. They have one of the game's most indispensable players in Posey and a bona fide ace in Bumgarner. Breakouts Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford could get even better as they enter their prime years. Marco Scutaro is aging well, and I'm confident Pablo Sandoval and Cain will bounce back. There's plenty of talent here, so it shouldn't take much retooling from GM Brian Sabean for the Giants to get back to their winning ways next year.