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These three questions will determine SF Giants’ fate in 2024 – The Mercury News


These three questions will determine SF Giants’ fate in 2024 – The Mercury News

SAN DIEGO — The conversation surrounding the San Francisco Giants has shifted since manager Bob Melvin addressed the group for the first time last month.

On an almost bi-weekly basis since Melvin’s team meeting at the start of spring training, a new player more decorated than the last walked through the clubhouse doors. Any discussion about offseason disappoint has dwindled in favor of the heightened expectations for this season.

With Blake Snell, Matt Chapman and Jorge Soler rounding out a winter spending spree of more than $300 million, there is but one goal in mind: Erase the bad taste of last season’s collapse and return to the playoffs for only the second time in six seasons under Farhan Zaidi.

“It’s (going to take) a combination of everything,” Melvin said. “Do we have a ton of team speed? No. Do we need to run the bases right? For sure. We have to play good defense, and we feel like we’re a much better defensive team now. Our pitching staff could get better as the season goes along. …

“There are going to be spots where guys are going to be a little bit more everyday players. There’s also going to be spots where we create some matchups. I think we have a good mix of that right now. It’s just good, clean baseball all around and everybody being involved.”

That, Melvin said, is what it will take for this team to return to the postseason.

Here are three more questions that will determine their fate this season.

1. Is Jung Hoo Lee a Rookie of the Year candidate?

With the exception of a few missed games with a tight hamstring, there was hardly a day this spring where the Giants’ rookie center fielder didn’t receive raves.

Lee, 25, did everything he could to put to rest any concerns about his transition from Korea to major leagues, finishing spring with a .343 batting average, one screaming home run and more walks (five) than strikeouts (four). The left-handed-hitting leadoff man wears No. 51 and models his game after Ichiro, who won Rookie of the Year and MVP while leading the Mariners to 116 wins as a rookie in 2001.

There has yet to be a position player from Korea who immediately became a successful everyday player, and the Giants are in it for the long haul with Lee, awarding him a seven-year, $113 million contract this winter. But if Lee is able to put himself in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, that would mean he’s overcome his biggest obstacle — the adjustment to big-league pitching — and is already providing value for the Giants.

As for their other newcomers, the Giants had better hope things go better than last year’s crop of free-agent signings. It cost $75 million for the seven players they signed to major-league deals last offseason to produce 2.9 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs, while only three who remain are Michael Conforto, Taylor Rogers and Luke Jackson.

2. What will the starting rotation look like in September?

The Giants will open the season with a rotation of Logan Webb, Kyle Harrison, Jordan Hicks, Keaton Winn and a still-to-be-determined fifth starter. By the time October rolls around, it could feature Webb, Alex Cobb, Blake Snell and Robbie Ray.

That’s a potential playoff rotation that has combined for three Cy Young awards and another second-place finish. It also is counting on three pitchers in their 30s who will all be starting the season late, either because they are recovering from surgery or, in Snell’s case, didn’t sign until last week.

That is asking a lot, especially of Ray, who had the flexor tendon and ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow repaired last May. Cobb, 36, has proven to be well ahead of schedule in his recovery from October hip surgery but also threw his most innings since 2018 last year.

By signing Snell, the Giants bought themselves time to not rush Cobb, and it’s possible Ray’s reinforcements will merely be a luxury rather than a necessity by the time he’s cleared to return, too. Their two best pitchers this spring have been Hicks, overpowering hitters for 28 strikeouts in 17 innings, and Harrison, who appears to have finally harnessed his changeup, giving him a reliable third pitch.

3. Can pitching and defense win in the NL West?

Most observers can agree: the toughest division in baseball runs through either the American League East or National League West.

The Giants know what they’re up against between the Goliaths in Los Angeles that seemingly only get stronger, the upstarts in Arizona who outraced this group for a wild card spot and the superstar-led squad in San Diego that can’t play any worse in close games.

To their credit, they appear to have a clear-eyed strategy.

If their surprise success of 2021 was fueled by winning at the margins, playing the matchups and squeezing every ounce of value out of their 40-man roster, then consider 2024 a return to pitching and defense. Or, in other words, playing to their strengths.

Last season, their pitchers generated ground balls at the highest rate in baseball, but their defense committed the most errors in the majors. Instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, the Giants leaned into the tendencies of their pitching staff — and the natural advantages of Oracle Park — by beefing up their defense.

Between Matt Chapman and Nick Ahmed, the left side of their infield will feature six Gold Glove awards, and the addition of Lee should not only upgrade the defense in center field but the entirety of the outfield, with Mike Yastrzemski shifting back to right field, where he was a Gold Glove finalist in 2021.

But in a division as stacked as this one, is it enough to double down on pitching and defense?

“That’s how the Giants won before, right?” Webb said, before catching himself. “Also, I think our lineup is pretty dang good, too.”

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