Sep 29, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) hits an RBI single against the San Diego Padres during the fourth inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco Giants: Four Things to Watch this Spring


Pitchers and catchers have reported for the San Francisco Giants, so even though we’re still a month and a half away from real games, it’s a good time to start focusing more closely on the 2014 season. While spring training games and stats don’t count, there are still some things worth paying attention to. For the Giants, four things to watch for this spring include the health of players coming off injury, the performance of some of the starters who struggled last year, the battle for open bullpen jobs, and of course, The Panda Watch.

Health is Everything

There’s no better predictor of future injury than prior injury. For the Giants, their only two free-agent acquisitions this winter are both coming off serious injuries. Starting pitcher Tim Hudson is said to be on schedule following a broken ankle suffered last year, and new left fielder Michael Morse is coming off a season plagued by a wrist injury that sapped his effectiveness. The progress of Hudson and Morse this spring bears monitoring.

Marco Scutaro battled a bad back and an injured finger last year, which combined to limit him to 127 games. Angel Pagan was limited to just 71 games in 2013 due to a torn hamstring. The Giants need their one-two punch at the top of lineup to come out of spring training healthy and ready to play at least 140 games in 2014.

Scutaro will turn 39 in October, Hudson will turn 39 in July, Pagan will turn 33 in July, and Morse will be 32 in March. The health and effectiveness of those four veterans will be a huge key in 2014.

Starting Pitching

Hudson has remained an effective starter even as he’s aged, so if he stays healthy in 2014, he should provide a huge boost. Madison Bumgarner already has four seasons of putting up an ERA below 3.40 on his résumé at the age of 24. Matt Cain was shelled during the first half of last season, but that rough stretch appears to be the outlier in an otherwise brilliant career, particularly after a strong second-half performance. If Hudson is healthy and Cain gets back to where he was in 2012, the Giants should be in much better shape in the rotation.

Thus, perhaps the two biggest keys to improving a rotation that finished with the third-worst ERA in 2013 are Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong. The Giants brought both guys back this winter despite some shaky recent performances. Vogelsong was blasted for a 5.73 ERA over 19 starts surrounding a broken finger last year, and Lincecum posted a 4.76 cumulative ERA over the 2012-13 seasons. The performance of both players should be watched closely this spring.

Bullpen Jobs

The Giants bullpen wasn’t as good as its 3.30 ERA indicated last year. They were just average at preventing inherited runners from scoring. Sergio Romo returns as closer with lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt and righty Santiago Casilla setting him up. Barring injury, that leaves three spots up for grabs this spring.

Top relief prospect Heath Hembree impressed during his September debut last season with 7.2 perfect innings. Jean Machi (2.38 ERA), Yusmeiro Petit (3.56), Jake Dunning (2.84), and top prospect Derek Law are leading candidates to watch this spring. George Kontos was outstanding in 2012 before collapsing last year. Can he get back on track and win a job?

The Panda Watch

Pablo Sandoval spent another winter shedding the pounds, but the key will be to keep the weight off, which he was unable to do in 2011. Sandoval is a much better player than he’s shown over the last two seasons in which he’s hit .280/.341/.430 while missing time with various injuries. His true-talent level is much closer to the .315/.357/.552 line he posted in 2011 and the .330/.387/.556 slash line from 2009. At just 27 years old, there’s no reason why Sandoval can’t have another monster year for the Giants in 2014.

The Giants need a lot to go right to surpass the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014. Baseball Prospectus currently projects an 11-game gap between the Dodgers (98 wins) and the Giants (87 wins). The 87-win projection makes sense given that the Giants won 94 in 2012 and 76 last year with extremely similar rosters. This year’s club hasn’t changed much on paper from those squads, so their median projection should be somewhere in the 85-87 range.

If Hudson, Morse, Pagan, and Scutaro stay healthy, the rotation gets back to the top of the NL in ERA, young relievers emerge this spring, and Sandoval has a huge year, the Giants will likely win close to 95 games. If those keys to the spring go the other way in 2014, the Giants win total will likely be back in the 70′s.

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