The baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint, but the Giants are reaching the point where there’s only a few miles left to make up ground.
The steepest portion of the course may lie directly in front of them, as they’ll battle three contenders – the A’s, Mariners and Brewers – in their first nine games past the water station known as the All-Star break.
If the next 10 days produce wear and tear they can’t overcome, the Giants may be forced to bow out of the race and turn into trade deadline sellers. But if they climb the hill with a steady approach, Bruce Bochy’s team should have a chance to track down the leaders and race for the finish line in the lead pack.
What must the Giants do to surge past their competitors? We examine the five most important keys to a strong second half.
Play the hot hand
The Giants have already made several difficult decisions in recent weeks, shipping free-agent signee Austin Jackson and veteran reliever Cory Gearrin to the Texas Rangers as well as sending Derek Holland to the bullpen and fellow starter Chris Stratton to Triple-A.
The choices Bochy, general manager Bobby Evans and vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean must make over the next two months will not be any easier.
The Giants are paying right-hander Jeff Samardzija nearly $20 million, but if he’s not one of the top five starters on the roster, they can’t send him to the mound every fifth day in a playoff chase. Outfielder Hunter Pence is making $18 million, but he’s destined for a fifth outfielder role the rest of the season and can’t be penciled into the starting lineup regularly.
San Francisco cannot afford to play favorites based on a player’s salary, as rookies Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez clearly belong in the rotation while utility player Alen Hanson, who is also making the major-league minimum, should be in the lineup against right-handed pitchers. Perhaps Joe Panik or Evan Longoria will be required to take more days off when they return from injuries, but the Giants need to send their best nine players out to the field each day regardless of what each player earns.
Maximize Madison Bumgarner
From 2011-2016, Bumgarner recorded six straight seasons with at least 200 innings. He’s been a workhorse in the playoffs and when healthy, a near-lock to pitch deep into games while giving the Giants a chance to win.
Part of playing the hot hand is pitching Bumgarner whenever possible, which will require a different approach from the Giants in the second half. With three off days in August and four in September, the Giants have the luxury of building in extra days of rest for their starters, which is important for young arms like Suarez and Rodriguez who will be pushed to their limits.
It’s not important for Bumgarner.
With 49 2/3 innings under his belt at the All-Star break, the Giants should send him to the mound every fifth day regardless of the way it will shake up their rotation. Johnny Cueto could use the extra rest and the team’s fifth starter, whether it’s Samardzija, Holland or Stratton, would benefit as well.
If the Giants allow a calendar loaded with off days, especially in September, to dictate Bumgarner’s schedule, they could be costing themselves more chances to win.
Be creative at the deadline
Creativity and shrewd calculations helped the Giants sign reliever Tony Watson this offseason, a move that added depth to the bullpen while keeping the club under the luxury tax threshold.
After trading Jackson and Gearrin, the Giants might have a little room to add at the deadline and Evans and Sabean should pursue all possible avenues to help the club improve. With several tanking clubs looking to sell off assets, the Giants may find a team willing to part with a starter, right-handed reliever or power-hitting outfielder if San Francisco attaches better prospects in a trade.
The Mets’ Jacob deGrom could be out of the Giants’ reach, but they might be able to take a player off the hands of a team like the White Sox, Tigers or Royals while asking the trade partner to eat a reasonable amount of a player’s contract.
The Giants are intent on staying under the tax threshold, but if they’re in contention at the deadline and have an opportunity to add a marquee piece, the franchise’s decision-makers may strike a deal that requires them to part with more rising talent in exchange for taking on less money.
Stay off the disabled list
The Giants have had a seemingly interminable run of misfortune as far as injuries go, and it’s not all the result of fielding an older club.
Bumgarner (little finger), Panik (thumb) and Longoria (little finger) all suffered injuries that were part of freak incidents on the field, while Hunter Strickland’s (little finger) fracture was a self-inflicted wound. It’s fair to chalk Cueto, Samardzija, Buster Posey and Mark Melancon’s injury issues up to the natural challenges veterans face, but the Giants understood the risk factors for all four players entering the season.
While the Giants overcame adversity to post a winning record through their first 98 games, they won’t engineer a second half surge if more key players miss extended periods of time. The Dodgers are poised to take off and the Diamondbacks have enough pieces to fend off the Giants as is, so San Francisco will need its best players to stay on the field throughout August and September.
Win against lefties and on the road
The two areas that gave the Giants the most trouble during the first three-plus months of the season were defeating left-handers and winning away from AT&T Park. And in the weeks ahead, the Giants can look forward to likely second-half matchups with Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, Patrick Corbin in Arizona and Kyle Freeland in Colorado.
The Giants ended the first half dropping five of their last six and 13 of their last 19 against lefties, a trend that can’t continue once Longoria’s powerful right-handed bat returns to the order. They also finished the first half 10 games under .500 on the road, a mark that must improve if the Giants want to keep their hopes of a playoff berth alive.
With five road games in San Diego and road series (Cincinnati, New York) against two other last-place clubs left to go, the Giants do have a handful of favorable opportunities on the horizon.