Five things Giants must do to exceed expectations for 2023 MLB season
Five things Giants must do to exceed expectations in 2023 originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
SAN FRANCISCO -- As much as they hate it, the Giants know the 2023 MLB season will be in part about who isn't here.
They will open their season in New York against the Yankees and Aaron Judge, the recipient of the best sales pitch the organization has ever put together for a free agent. While they won't face Carlos Rodón this weekend, their co-ace from last season will be in the other dugout. At the end of May, the Giants will visit the Minnesota Twins and Carlos Correa.
There's no escaping those matchups and the chatter that will surround them, and it certainly won't help that a disgruntled fan base will look down the coast and see competitors with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., Xander Bogaerts and other stars leading the way.
In San Francisco, it's going to be, well, different. But the Giants don't believe that has to be a problem. Before the final game of a long spring, manager Gabe Kapler found plenty of reasons for optimism.
"I think it's the best roster we've started a season with since I've been here," he said. "It's the deepest pitching staff, the most experienced and battle-tested bullpen, and I think it's an improved defense on last year's."
The Giants feel they can make a run. Most on the outside don't feel the same way, but the beauty of baseball is you always get 162 games to try and figure it out.
The 2021 season was a reminder that sometimes everything just goes right, but that's a once-in-a-lifetime situation for most in the game. The Giants don't need everything to go right to get back to the playoffs, but they do need a lot to break their way. Here are five key areas where improvement, or simply living up to expectations, could get a .500 team back into the postseason conversation:
Lead The Way
It's not hyperbole to suggest the Giants currently have the most stable rotation situation in the NL West.
With Walker Buehler rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and Tony Gonsolin sidelined by an ankle injury, the Los Angeles Dodgers have Noah Syndergaard as their No. 4 and rookie Ryan Pepiot filling out the rotation. The San Diego Padres' depth has been tested by a spring injury to Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish's slow buildup because of the World Baseball Classic.
The Giants have six healthy and experienced starters, with Jakob Junis and Sean Hjelle in the 'pen and Kyle Harrison in Triple-A. Then there's this: It was the Giants, not one of the groups with bigger names, who led the majors in rotation FIP last year, and by a pretty healthy margin.
"I mean, we knew we were good," right-hander Alex Cobb said. "We don't get the hype. We don't have all the best names, but we know what we're capable of."
Last year's group included Rodón, but the Giants expect big things from Ross Stripling and Sean Manaea, who has shown a jump in velocity this spring. All of the starters -- but especially Logan Webb and Cobb -- should benefit from the team's improved defense. There's enough depth to avoid the bullpen games that became such a staple last season, and there's the potential for an injection of upside if Harrison makes quick work of Triple-A hitters.
"That's going to be the strength of this team, the starting pitching, the depth and the quality," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said. "These guys have all thrown the ball really well."
Catch The Ball!
So, why did a good 2022 rotation watch the playoffs from home? You can point directly at the defense, which was the worst in the majors.
The Giants chased Judge, Correa, Cody Bellinger and others in the offseason but ultimately ended up focusing on raising the defensive floor. Joc Pederson is a DH after a very rough season in left field, which means the Giants should at least be solid out in left when Michael Conforto, Mike Yastrzemski, Mitch Haniger and Austin Slater are all healthy. On days when they start Bryce Johnson, they could actually be well above-average in center field.
The infield defense won't be good, necessarily, but the Giants expect it to be much more consistent. David Villar and LaMonte Wade Jr. have looked comfortable this spring, and Zaidi used the words "stable" and "steady" to describe his infield. He laughed and admitted that raising the floor isn't the sexiest way to describe things, but the Giants do expect to be much better, and Casey Schmitt could soon give them an elite option at third or an above-average one behind Brandon Crawford at short.
"I think it's a steady group, and that's going to be a big improvement," Zaidi said. "I think that's what our pitching staff really wants. They want steady defense. They'll take spectacular defense and so will we, but I think it's really about raising the bar on our defense. That's been really important."
The Giants won't show up on SportsCenter, win Gold Gloves or lead the league in Defensive Runs Saved. But simply by not being awful defensively, they could pick up a lot of wins.
The most shocking part of the 107-win season was the way the Giants got there offensively. They hit a franchise-record 241 homers, leading the National League, and did so without a single player reaching 30. Last year's team only hit 183 homers, but Zaidi thinks power will again be the calling card for the offense.
"I just look at our lineup and you know, pretty much everybody one through nine in our lineup has the ability to hit 20 homers, if they haven't hit 20 homers in the past," he said. "I just think the length of our lineup, having patience and power one through nine -- even though we're going to have a couple of different looks to our lineup -- I just think that's going to be a real strength of ours."
The big additions both bring plenty of power. Conforto totaled 88 homers from 2017-19 in New York and hit four this spring. Haniger will miss a few days at the start of the year, but he's just two seasons removed from hitting 39 homers. Pederson hit 23 in his first year with the Giants and is in much better shape this time around.
On the infield, a bulked-up Thairo Estrada drove the ball all spring. Wilmer Flores had a career-high 19 last year and J.D. Davis hit 22 the last time he played every day. Villar hit 36 across two levels last season, and the Giants believe he can reach 25-plus if he holds the third base job this season.
Add it all up and the potential is there for the Giants to replicate some of that 2021 magic at the plate.
Escape The West
Look, the Giants will run out all of the usual cliches when asked about their division. They'll say that they take every team seriously and compete the same every night. They'll tell you they don't pay attention to the projections. Actually, Kapler did that recently.
"Honestly, I've paid very little attention to the other teams in the division," he said. "I know what they have on their rosters. I think they're well-built teams. I'm just fully focused on our club and feel good about where we are."
The reality is this is a very difficult division. FanGraphs projects the Padres and Dodgers to finish second and fourth in the NL in wins, and it wouldn't shock anybody if they end up as the top two. The young Arizona Diamondbacks could crash the postseason party, too, and Kapler talks often of how much of a challenge they present.
So, let's just say it's helpful that MLB's new balanced schedule means a lot fewer games against the best in the West. After going 4-15 against the Dodgers and 6-13 against the Padres last season, the Giants will face each team just 13 times this year. They'll play 110 games outside of their division, and for the 2022 Giants, that would have been good news.
The Giants went 48-38 outside of the NL West last year and had a winning record against every other division except the AL Central. They'll fly an additional 11,084 miles this year, but if they can repeat that success they'll be in pretty good shape. (It also would be a great idea to not lose eight straight to the Dodgers).
Help From Within
The Giants used a franchise-record 66 players last season, but the only notable move they made in the spring was adding Sergio Romo to their non-roster invitee list. Zaidi believes strongly that the call is finally coming from inside the house.
"We like the internal options we have even with some of the injuries we have," he said. "We're excited about some of the guys who stepped forward in this camp, and it's just kind of a good thing culturally to be able to reward those guys."
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When Haniger and Slater went down, the Giants turned to 25-year-old catcher/outfielder Blake Sabol and Johnson. With an open spot in the bullpen as Luke Jackson rehabs, Hjelle was the one to jump to the front of the line, with Cole Waites not far behind. Johnson, Hjelle and Waites were all drafted by the Giants, and to surprise the rest of the division, a lot more will have to arrive in 2023.
Harrison is expected to join the rotation at some point this season but likely won't be the first from the 2020 draft class to arrive. Schmitt was the breakout star of camp and stayed with the Giants through the final inning of the spring before driving up to Sacramento.
Marco Luciano, Patrick Bailey and Vaun Brown will start in Double-A, putting each in position to potentially reach the big leagues this season. Bailey, in particular, could move quickly. It wouldn't be a surprise if he's part of the catching mix in the second half.
The Giants won three titles behind homegrown stars. The next generation isn't fully ready, but it would be a huge boost if two or three of them broke through this season.
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