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Giants enter even-number year with high hopes

SAN FRANCISCO -- An even-number year is imminent, so mark it down: The Giants will win the 2016 World Series, sustaining a pattern that began in 2010 and has brought the franchise three titles.

Obviously, capturing the Series never will be automatic. That's certainly true for the Giants, who expect formidable competition from their National League West rivals. The Dodgers have won the last three division championships, Arizona promises to be vastly improved by adding right-handers Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, and Colorado and San Diego finished a combined 19-19 against San Francisco last season.

:: 2015 Year in Review | 2016 Outlook ::

Several factors will determine whether the Giants thrive enough to return to the postseason and give themselves a chance to remain on an even (-numbered) keel. Here are five:

1. How will the new guys do?

All eyes will be on right-handers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, the pricey free agents acquired to reinforce the starting rotation. If both perform at or near their best, the Giants should have one of the best rotations in the Majors, assuming Madison Bumgarner continues to pitch at an All-Star level. Consider that Jake Peavy and Matt Cain, who entered Spring Training last year as San Francisco's second and third starters, respectively, could form the back end of this rotation. Should Cueto and Samardzija encounter the struggles that occasionally befell them in recent years, the scene at AT&T Park will recall Barry Zito's unpleasant early years as a Giant. 

2. How's the right side of the infield?

We'll see. The Giants have been waiting for first baseman Brandon Belt to sustain the run production that he has provided in relatively short bursts throughout his career. Though Belt is eligible for salary arbitration again next year, he'd probably prefer a multi-year contract such as the one shortstop Brandon Crawford received. But Belt must deliver offensively to coax the Giants into considering him worthy of this privilege. Second baseman Joe Panik appeared destined for greatness in 2015 when he made the All-Star team in his first full season. Then came the back injury that sidelined him prematurely. Spring Training should indicate whether Panik has overcome this problem or must continue to grapple with it at age 25.

3. Is the outfield whole?

This issue could nag the Giants all season if the health of center fielder Angel Pagan and right fielder Hunter Pence causes concern. If Pagan avoids the knee problems that hampered him last season, the Giants will have the offensive catalyst they need. Pence's lost 2015 began with a freak injury when he was hit by a pitch in a Cactus League game, so there's every reason to believe that he can resume being an everyday performer.

Video: [email protected]: Pence goes 4-for-5, drives in two

4. Are auditions for the closer's role open?

Possibly. Incumbent closer Santiago Casilla, who quietly converted 38 of 44 save opportunities last season, is in the final year of his contract. So is erstwhile closer Sergio Romo. Management hasn't said so, but if the Giants need to economize somewhere next season, they might let Casilla and Romo enter free agency and bestow the closer's duties upon Hunter Strickland, Josh Osich or one of their other promising young relievers -- based on 2016 performance.

5. What can be expected from Buster Posey?

Anything from multifaceted competence to soaring excellence. Right now, Bay Area sports fans are watching Warriors guard Stephen Curry develop into an all-time great before their very eyes. Come baseball season, the same could be said of Posey, who steadily performs at an All-Star level yet probably hasn't yet put together his best season. Reducing or eliminating the disparity between his home and road performance could make a difference. Though Posey has had seasons when his AT&T Park output topped his numbers elsewhere in at least one major offensive category, he has fared better overall on the road (.328/.393/.520 with 63 homers and 245 RBIs, compared with .291/.355/.444, 39 and 202). A year in which Posey's home numbers matched his road statistics could be prodigious.

Chris Haft is a reporter for Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast.
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