Which brings us to the San Francisco Giants...
GM Brian Sabean did a fine job assembling championship teams in 2010 and 2012. But let's not forget that neither of those teams steamrolled the league during the regular season. At their core, the Giants won because their pitching was dominant, their defense was sound, and their hitting was clutch. Heading into the 2013 season, the team appeared to have all three of those ingredients in place and were poised for a strong defense of their title. Instead, the team failed to pitch well, played poor defense, and couldn't muster an extra base hit to save their lives. Ladies and gentlemen, your last place San Francisco Giants...
The Giants' struggles this year have put them in a position to replenish their farm system with young bats that can help the team score runs in the future. The brass has already begun this shift, recognizing the surplus of quality arms in the lower minors and drafting a ton of position players early in the last three years. Ideally, all of this converges in two or three years to make a formidable roster that still features Buster Posey at the center.
At the current rate, the Giants will most likely have a top 10 draft pick next June. They could find themselves picking as high as third or fourth in the first round. The front office did a fine job of parlaying previous top 10 picks (Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and Buster Posey) into two World Championships. Since then, the team has had difficulty finding success with their picks at the back end of the first round. A return to the top 10 might bring them closer to finding a better prospect who can be fast-tracked to the big leagues. With that being said, let's take a look at the Giants' likely 10 Step Plan for success today and tomorrow:
Step 1: Find rotational depth. The Giants will need to secure five quality, reliable starters if they want to win next year. Cain and Bumgarner occupy the top 2 spots. A qualifying offer to Lincecum should increase the chances he re-signs with the Giants, perhaps on a two-year deal. Ryan Vogelsong will most likely be back, and he should be a dependable backend starter. But Barry Zito will be gone. Lincecum is no longer a sure bet. And Vogelsong isn't getting any younger. Hence, the need for depth. Yasmeiro Petit and Chad Gaudin have been fine stories this year, but Petit is best utilized for what he has been - rotational depth stored in Fresno. He shouldn't be a candidate for the 5th starter slot. Gaudin was the perfect long man for the bullpen, and he'll work out well in spot starts if necessary next year. His success this season has taught us that much. But he isn't the answer for the rotation woes. Gaudin is best served playing the role he was signed for at the beginning of this season. So what then? The Giants need proven, reliable rotation depth. Perhaps a nice blend of savvy veterans (Bronson Arroyo?) and young talent - say... of the international variety (Masahiro Tanaka?), will help give the Giants a chance to win behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.
Step 2: Find an OF with extra-base power. The Giants are on pace to hit even less home runs this year than they did last year. I know, I know - this team has (and can) win without the long ball. But 8 singles and 1 or 2 runs - which seems to be an all-too familiar stat line these days - isn't getting it done. Certainly, stranding double digit runners and going 2 for 12 or 3 for 15 with RISP has contributed the the Giants' collapse. But a double with runners on first and second or a three run homer can often make all the difference. The Giants are fifth in the NL with a .259 average, but they're nearly last in the league with an abysmal .374 slugging percentage. They didn't get the power they thought they would from Posey, Pence, and Sandoval. Belt's emergence has helped, but it's not enough. The free agent pool looks shallow in the offseason, so the Giants will likely focus on a hitter like Shin-Soo Choo - a guy with great .OBP and Pence-like .SLG and speed. Speaking of Pence, signing him to a four year deal seems like a good move considering the lack of alternatives on the market.
Step 3: Look overseas. The success of Cuban players like Yasiel Puig and Japanese players like Yu Darvish have proven that teams can find top-notch production from international players. The Giants don't have a good track record of finding success overseas, but they will definitely be involved in negotiations with some of the top players available, like 26 year-old Jose Abreu, Cuba's top offensive player. Plus, they have the marketing team to exploit any international sensation they sign.
Step 4: Draft right-handed power. AT&T Park was not built for left-handed hitters, Barry Bonds being the lone exception. But a good right-handed bat with some power has a chance to post good numbers at home. Currently, the only prospect in the minors who has shown the ability to rake is Mac Williamson, who's hitting .292/.375/.504 with 25 home runs for Single-A San Jose. Williamson projects as a big league regular in the outfield, and he's a big right-handed bat. The Giants need more of those. Christian Arroyo (2013, 1st round pick) hit .326/.388/.511 in 45 games at the Rookie Arizona League, though he doesn't seem to possess much power as his 2 home runs suggest. His .SLG was bolstered by 18 doubles and 5 triples, which the Giants could certainly use more of these days. In that same span, Ryder Jones (2013, 2nd round pick) posted a .400 slugging percentage. Time will tell if these young players can continue to show extra-base power as they advance through the system. In the meantime, the Giants need to continue to add more big bats to the farm.
Step 5: Maintain a stingy bullpen. Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, are all slated to return next season. There's a good chance Javier Lopez re-signs. Sandy Rosario has acquitted himself well this year. So has Jean Machi. Heath Hembree developed a nasty slider to accompany his heater, and he should be a power arm in the 'pen and the likely closer of the future for the Giants. The Giants will continue to shop for reliable arms that can help them win games late. This part of the formula helped bring two titles, and you can't win without a solid bullpen.
Step 6: Find experienced depth at second base. The Giants need to spell Marco Scutaro. The Giants hoped they'd get two more productive years out of Scutaro. He's been solid this year, but he has limited range at second base and his health is declining. He's no longer a player the team can rely on all year. Ideally, he shouldn't be playing more than 4 or 5 times a week, which means the Giants will need to find someone who can play up to 50 or 60 games and contribute with the bat. Joe Panik isn't ready, and he may never be given his .260 finish in Double-A this year.
Step 7: Sign cornerstone players to long-term contracts and negotiate team-friendly deals with young talent. The Giants inked Posey and Cain for life. Bumgarner's contract might be the best in baseball from a team standpoint. Belt and Crawford are excellent contributors who continue to get better everyday, and they're signed on the cheap. So is Romo. Only Pagan's deal and Scutaro's contract seem to favor the players, but neither of those are crippling in the way Aaron Rowand's contract and Barry Zito's deal were in year's past. The Giants will have a lot of money coming off the books at the end of this year, and they need to spend it wisely. But if the Dodgers have taught us anything, it's that you need to spend it. The Giants are one of the only teams in baseball that enjoys consistent sell-outs at home, and considering their dismal season and possible last place finish, they owe it to the fans to put a winning roster together.
Step 8: Re-evaluate the coaching staff. This probably happens every year, but the Giants have been stubborn about retaining their coaching staff. This can be justified by the fact that they have won two titles in three years. But a first to worst finish this year should involve a bit of shake-up somewhere. Skipper Bruce Bochy isn't going anywhere, and Dave Righetti and Mark Gardner remain vital to the pitching staff. It's possible that fatigue and gradual age and decline can be attributed to the pitching woes this year. Hensley Muelens should be put on notice though, as the Giants haven't been able to generate the runs they need to win and that needs to change before next year. Their ineptitude with RISP is unacceptable, and they can't win if it continues.
Step 9: Improve the defense. The Giants feature Gold Glove-caliber defenders at first base and shortstop, and solid defense from Posey behind the dish and Sandoval (when he's healthy and slimmer) at third. They need a better glove at second to replace Scutaro in the later innings and whoever they sign in the outfield needs to be competent with the glove. Pagan's defense is passable, but the team will likely keep Gregor Blanco as a speedy defender who can play all 3 outfield positions well, making him a fine fourth outfielder. Nonetheless, team-wide the Giants made too many mistakes in the field this year and they need to tighten up their defense and shore up their fundamentals. That should be a primary focus to end this lost season. No sense in waiting until next year on this one when there are games to be played now.
Step 10: Get a faster, deeper bench. Hunter Pence has 21 stolen bases. The only other player with double-digit stolen bases is Gregor Blanco, and he only has 11. Belt has deceptive speed, and Crawford can leg out a triple. A power-speed combo would be ideal for whichever outfielder the Giants sign this offseason, and they need more productive players on the bench who can fly.The Giants got hit with injuries to Pagan and Scutaro this year, and they didn't have the bench to compensate for it. Good teams have depth everywhere. Joaquin Arias continues to be reliable; Hector Sanchez is shaping up to be a fine backup to Posey, but Tony Abreu, Brett Pill, Roger Kieschnick, Nick Noonan, and Juan Perez have shown that they aren't the answer if a starter goes down for an extended stretch.
So, in 2014 the Giants will enjoy a motivated Pablo Sandoval in a contract year. They will hopefully re-sign Pence to man right field. Pagan will be back again, and if we're lucky, he'll stay healthy. They'll try and sign an impact bat for left field (or center if they move Pagan there first). They will look to seek out and sign depth for the rotation and bench. They'll look at international players and hope to strike gold. They'll have a shot at a blue chip prospect with a top 10 pick in next year's draft. And they'll continue to draft hitters to pair with their stellar lower-level pitching in the minors, while at the same time bringing in fresh, new young arms as well.
With so much to do in order to have a chance to win next year, there won't be a lot of time to dwell on this year's lost season. And looking forward instead of back may be the most important step of them all.