Giants look to surprise in loaded division

March 29th, 2021

A confluence of the Giants’ present and future was on full display at Scottsdale Stadium this spring, with the club’s veteran core taking the field alongside a promising crop of young prospects that could form the foundation of the next great San Francisco teams.

Shortstop Marco Luciano, catcher Joey Bart and outfielder Heliot Ramos are generating plenty of excitement among fans, but the Giants are likely a couple of years away from seeing that wave of talent crest at the big league level.

The 2021 Giants appear poised for another transitional year, especially now that Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Johnny Cueto are entering the final guaranteed year of their contracts. Still, the Giants will head into the regular season aiming to exceed modest expectations and build off their success from last year, when they fell only one win shy of their first postseason berth since 2016.

With no expanded playoff format and a loaded National League West that features a pair of behemoths in the Dodgers and Padres, the Giants will be facing an uphill battle to stay relevant in their own division, though several players believe they’ve assembled a roster that could end up surprising in 2021.

“Everybody has got us in the dog pound and isn’t really thinking of us doing anything,” right-hander said last month. “I think that’s a good position to be in.”

What needs to go right? The bats need to produce

After years of struggling to consistently score runs, the Giants enjoyed a remarkable offensive turnaround in 2020, when they ranked sixth in the Majors with a .785 OPS and a 113 wRC+, according to FanGraphs. The offense is expected to once again be the strength of the team this year and should benefit from the arrival of infielder , who joined the Giants on a three-year, $18.75 million deal this offseason. La Stella and should form a potent 1-2 punch atop the Giants’ lineup and serve as key tonesetters for the rest of the offense.

La Stella and Yastrzemski are known for their ability to grind out at-bats and wear out opposing pitchers, which should create plenty of RBI opportunities for middle-of-the-order hitters like Belt, Alex Dickerson and Evan Longoria. The Giants have made a conscious decision to prioritize offense over defense, so there are going to be plenty of nights when they’re going to need their bats to make up for their defensive deficiencies.

Great unknown: How will the starting rotation hold up?

The success of the 2021 Giants will largely hinge on their starting rotation, which was a weak spot for the club last year. Gausman and Cueto will return to anchor the top of the rotation, and the Giants brought in some much-needed depth by adding , and on one-year deals this offseason. , meanwhile, has dazzled this spring and could be ready to take a big step forward and establish himself as a quality Major League starter in 2021.

It’s a talented group, but it also carries some risk, as the Giants will be counting on bounce-back seasons from DeSclafani, Wood and Sanchez, who missed the 2020 campaign while rehabbing from right shoulder surgery. There is reason for optimism, though, as the Giants have established a reputation for rehabilitating pitchers and helping them unlock their full potential in San Francisco. If that trio of newcomers can follow in the footsteps of previous reclamation projects like Drew Pomeranz, Drew Smyly and Gausman, the Giants could have a chance to play meaningful baseball deep into the season.

Team MVP will be ... Mike Yastrzemski

Yastrzemski blossomed into a bonafide star in 2020, batting .297 with a .968 OPS and 10 home runs over 54 games and placing eighth in National League MVP voting. The 30-year-old outfielder is showing no signs of slowing down as he enters his third Major League season and could be even more valuable for the Giants if he proves that he can play a capable center field. The defensive metrics didn’t rate Yastrzemski favorably in center last year, but the Giants believe he’s better than those numbers suggested. Playing Yastrzemski in the middle of the outfield would open up more lineup options for the Giants, who could shift Mauricio Dubón to the infield and start Austin Slater and Darin Ruf -- two right-handed bats -- in the corner outfield against left-handed pitchers.

Team Cy Young will be ... Kevin Gausman

Gausman reportedly received multi-year offers from other teams this offseason, but he turned them down to return to the Giants on a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer. He was named the Giants’ Opening Day starter last week, a sign of the stature he earned after logging a 3.62 ERA with 79 strikeouts over 59 2/3 innings in 2020. Gausman, 30, has some of the most electric stuff on the pitching staff, mixing a mid-90s fastball with a diving splitter that induced a 49 percent whiff rate last year, according to Baseball Savant.

Bold prediction: Logan Webb emerges as a frontline starter

Webb debuted with the Giants in 2019, but he’s logged a 5.36 ERA over his first two Major League seasons and has struggled to pitch deep into games on a consistent basis. Still, the 24-year-old right-hander was nearly untouchable this spring, firing 11 scoreless innings with three hits, 17 strikeouts and one walk over his first four Cactus League starts before giving up one run on four hits and a walk over his six-inning final spring appearance. Along with improved fastball command, Webb has flashed a devastating changeup that has the potential to be an elite secondary weapon moving forward. Everything seems to be coming together for Webb, who is poised to develop into a rotation mainstay for the Giants for years to come.