This is my Sunday column on the Giants. WARNING — this is a baseball column. 49ers’ fans, feel free to skip this.
The Giants are built to dominate the postseason, but they are not built to get there this year.
In the postseason, the Giants can pitch Madison Bumgarner one hundred times and the other starters only three or four innings, and the incredible bullpen can handle the rest.
The regular season doesn’t work that way. The regular season requires teams to have five starting pitchers. The regular season is way more challenging for the Giants, who almost didn’t survive it last year, who won only 88 regular season games, fewer than every other playoff team in the National League. Getting through the upcoming regular season will be even more challenging.
Start with pitching, and remember the Giants are always a pitching-first team. Who are the Giants’ five starting pitchers?
I will ask the question a different way. We know Bumgarner is the Giants’ best pitcher, an ace, one of the best pitchers in the major leagues. But Bumgarner has issues. Although he’s only 25, he pitched 270 innings last season including the playoffs. Human arms aren’t meant to pitch 270 innings in seven months. Who could blame him if he has a down season this year?
Who is the Giants’ second-best starter?
Not Tim Lincecum, one of the worst starters in the majors the past three seasons when he was in the Giants’ rotation. The Giants may use him as a reliever if they use him at all.
Not Ryan Vogelsong, who probably will pitch his final season this year. He turns 37 in July.
Not Tim Hudson, who won just two games after June last season. He turns 39 in July.
Not Matt Cain, who won just two games in 15 starts last season, and then had surgery on his throwing elbow and his ankle. Cain hasn’t pitched well since 2012. Cain has to prove he’s not washed up, has to prove he still is an effective starter.
That means Jake Peavy is the Giants’ No. 2 pitcher by default, although he’s not much of a No. 2 pitcher. He would be the fourth or fifth starter in a good rotation. He turns 34 in May.
Compare Peavy to the No. 2 pitchers on the Giants’ rivals in the NL West. The Dodgers’ No. 2 pitcher is Zach Grienke, an All Star who is 31. The Padres’ No. 2 pitcher is Tyson Ross, an All Star who turns 28 in April. The Dodgers and Padres have better and younger starting rotations than the Giants.
Most of the key Giants are old. Not just the starting pitchers. The position players. Angel Pagan turns 34 in July. He’s falling apart. He has missed about half of the past two seasons with injuries, and he doesn’t seem to want to play unless he’s 100-percent healthy.
Hunter Pence turns 32 in April. He’s in great shape, but 32 is 32, and Pence is Pence because he hustles. He is turbocharged, like Sonic the Hedgehog, a blur darting around the outfield and the base paths.
Pence will slow down at a certain point. It’s inevitable. He stole 22 bases in 2013, but only 13 in 2014. Is he slowing down already?
Nori Aoki is the starting left fielder. He hit one home run last season, but his primary asset is supposed to be speed, not power. He stole 30 bases in 2012, 20 in 2013 and 17 in 2014. He is 33 years old. Is he slowing down, too?
Casey McGehee is the starting third baseman. He hit four home runs last season for the Marlins. He is 32 years old. He replaces Pablo Sandoval, who hit 16 home runs last season and is 28 years old.
Sandoval was the Giants’ cleanup hitter, the second-most feared hitter in the lineup, second to Buster Posey. Sandoval can hit any pitcher, any pitch, any location. Pitchers know it. Pitchers pitch carefully when Sandoval is at the plate. His mere presence in the lineup made life easier for Posey and Pence and the rest of the Giants’ hitters.
McGehee has no lineup presence. Opposing pitchers don’t worry about him. He bats seventh or eighth in a good lineup.
McGehee isn’t a good fielder, either. He’s decent at best. Sandoval was an excellent fielder, one of the best fielding third basemen in the Majors. McGehee is a tremendous downgrade from Sandoval in every way.
Posey, Pence and Brandon Belt must be great for the Giants to overcome an aging roster and the losses of Sandoval and Michael Morse, must be great for the Giants to win just 88 games and squeak into the playoffs again.
Could happen, but 78 wins and no playoffs seems more realistic.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.