COMMENTARY | Just three years ago, the San Francisco Giants were merely hoping to sneak into the playoffs. They trailed the division-leading San Diego Padres by 7.5 games at the All-Star break, hadn't competed in a World Series since 2002, and more than half a century had gone by since their last October parade.
But slide into the postseason they did -- aided in no small order by the Padres' collapse -- and as is so often the case, a sprinkling of success created a torrent of expectations.
So this April when general manager Brian Sabean trotted out a near replica of last year's title winner, most penciled San Francisco in for another playoff berth.
Unfortunately, for the Giants, pencils have an erase function, and a humbling sweep at the hands of sub-.500 Chicago last weekend has manager Bruce Bochy's club now a full 10 games back of the division lead.
The unraveling has been hard to watch, albeit not altogether unexpected.
The Giants, after all, have long been walking a tightrope. Even while advancing toward the title in 2010, there were those who worried about the fragility of their model. Pitching, yes, was an undeniable strength of the Orange and Black, but many considered their offense too bankrupt to reach the playoffs.
Still, it was a workable blueprint, and with young arms Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and since-departed Jonathan Sanchez taking turns atop the slab, and fast-risers Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner flying up through the minor leagues, management had outlined a clear vision for the future.
Sure, they posted a middling .257 batting average in 2010, pedestrian enough to rank 15th in the majors, but 81 games spent inside pitcher-friendly AT&T Park meant the priorities were understandably elsewhere.
And if the Giants struggled to plate runs, they had little trouble preventing them, pairing stellar defense -- San Francisco surrendered the second-fewest errors in all of baseball in 210 -- with a league-leading 3.36 team-ERA.
But the formula that made 2010's run so gratifying began to erode in 2012 when, seeking to bolster its playoff chances, San Francisco acquired slugger Melky Cabrera over the offseason in exchange for the aforementioned Sanchez. Angel Pagan was signed to a free-agent deal, while Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence were added to the roster during the team's stretch run.
It was a necessary move on Sabean's part, and one that acknowledged baseball's inconvenient truth: It's easier to acquire serviceable bats than arms.
Yet it also nudged the Giants into unfamiliar territory. In hitting .269 as team in 2012, San Francisco boasted the majors' fifth-best batting average -- a marked improvement over previous seasons, but one that didn't come without consequence.
Once the paradigm of old-school, fundamental baseball, Bochy's traditionally stout defense surrendered 115 errors that season, fourth-most in baseball and 42 more than it had given up all of 2010. Among its everyday starters, only shortstop Brandon Crawford shouldered a worse fielding percentage than new additions Cabrera, Pagan, Pence and Scutaro.
It was the team's pitching, though, that began to show the largest cracks. Of the starters, just Cain managed an ERA below 3.00. San Francisco's team-ERA, meanwhile, dropped to seventh in the majors, five spots below its worst finish since 2008 and fourth among 2012's five NL playoff participants.
That's something of a moot point when you consider the 16-game, 2.88 ERA Giants pitchers combined for during last season's run to a second World Series title, but it doesn't erase the reality of their shifting identity. Heading into Tuesday, July 30, San Francisco ranked fourth in National League batting average but was dead last in fielding percentage and 21st among all big league teams in ERA.
Which leaves the Giants -- now effectively out of playoff contention -- tasked with finding personnel better suited to the model it once so masterfully constructed. The real trick, though, will be doing it quickly. With several key players signed to long-term deals and a fan base newly accustomed to winning, this is no time for an identity crisis.
John Foletta is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers Cal Athletics for Rivals.com. A Bay Area native, Foletta is a lifelong San Francisco Giants follower.
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