Ailene Voisin

Giants found their closer, but open the season knowing age is not kind

Hunter Pence singles against the Oakland A’s at an exhibition game Friday in San Francisco. Pence, coming off two injury-hampered seasons, was hitting below .200 coming into the final preseason weekend.
Hunter Pence singles against the Oakland A’s at an exhibition game Friday in San Francisco. Pence, coming off two injury-hampered seasons, was hitting below .200 coming into the final preseason weekend. The Associated Press

The comparison is blatantly unfair. There are apples and oranges, and Giants and A’s. Brunch for one Bay Area franchise consists of fresh bagels and cream cheese, while the other is a daily ration of burned toast without butter or jam.

For the Giants, home is where the heart is, a jewel of a ballpark with sweeping views and new downtown skyscrapers framing the familiar picture seemingly by the season. For the A’s, life is temporary housing. Though Major League Baseball officials swear a resolution on the stadium situation will be reached by the end of the 2017 season, in the meantime, they share the complex with the departing Warriors and Raiders, and any number of little creatures who make appearances during those occasional clubhouse flooding and sewage spills.

Who knows? By the time the Fishers (a) sell the team or (b) build a modern ballpark on one of the two most likely locations – the Howard Terminal or on their current Coliseum complex site – Sonny Gray, Stephen Vogt, Bob Melvin, the few familiar faces and any emerging stars could be long gone.

As the regular season opens Sunday, the Giants have no such problems. They are so stable, they are probably earthquake-proof. They have been so successful this past decade, conversations about them often include the term “dynasty.” Since the reboot after the Barry Bonds Era, they don’t rebuild, they retain their core players and replenish their talent with a trade here, a free agent signing there. Outstanding starting pitching, future Hall of Fame catcher Buster Posey behind the plate and one of the best infields in baseball – that’s their story and they’re sticking with it.

The Giants have distanced themselves from the trend of the recent past, that even-year World Series title thing (2010, 2012, 2014) and appear eager to rework the numbers for an odd-year run, even after the bad news this spring that left-handed reliever Will Smith needed Tommy John surgery and was declared unavailable until next May.

There are no flak jackets in the training room. Yes, their rotation remains formidable with Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore. But they are neither immune to injury nor the wear and tear of advancing age; those embraceable wunderkinds are grown men now.

“It’s a long season,” general manager Bobby Evans cautioned when asked if the 2017 squad was championship caliber. “Our hope is to be able to compete and win our division. We put together a quality (player) at every possible spot we could. But we will always look for ways to improve, especially as we get into the season, depending upon where we’re at it.”

The Giants philosophy begins with the starters and ends with the closer, specifically, No.5 starter Matt Cain and newcomer Mark Melancon. Once the workhorse of the staff, Cain was named the fifth starter Friday (over Ty Blach) despite an erratic spring. The once-durable right-hander, who is only 32, hasn’t been Cain-like since the Giants last won the World Series. A forearm contusion, lacerated right finger, right elbow surgery, a flexor tendon strain, elbow nerve irritation, hamstring and back strains have limited him to 73 starts in the last four major-league seasons, leading to repeated rehab visits with the Triple-A River Cats.

The fact Bochy waited until the final weekend to announce his fifth starter hints strongly at his own reservations. He also went out of his way to praise Blach, who joins the relievers asked to fill Smith’s void in the seventh and eighth innings and set up Melancon for the ninth. With the departures of Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, both of whom contributed to the bullpen’s 30 blown saves a year ago, Evans made a rare move for the Giants: He paid huge dollars ($62 million over four years) for a coveted closer.

Assuming Eduardo Nunez’s right shoulder injury was minor, and nothing more, the Posey, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik infield remains the envy of pitchers around the league. The same can’t be said of the outfield, though.

All three positions could prove problematic. Popular right fielder Hunter Pence, whose defense, baserunning and power from the right side were factors in the Giants most recent success, is coming off two injury-hampered seasons. Left fielder Jarrett Parker, who won the position partly by default – his main competition, Mac Williamson, has been out with an injury – still strikes out too frequently and tapered off after a robust start to the spring training. Center fielder and leadoff hitter Denard Span, who signed for three years and $31 million prior to last season, responded with a disappointing on-base percentage of .331 and average of .266, factors he attributes to his prolonged recovery from offseason hip surgeries.

“He (Span) has been a different guy,” said Bochy. “Just the energy, running more, playing good defense. He’s throwing a lot better. And, of course, with the at-bats he’s been throwing out there, he’s been outstanding this spring.”

Perhaps the greater concern is Pence, whose energy and emotion fuel the Giants inside and outside the clubhouse. Though he appears to be moving well, he was hitting well below .200 entering the final weekend of preseason. “I was more concerned with how much he didn’t hit,” Evans added. “But again, the real test for all these guys, those who have great springs and those who didn’t, is Opening Day. And go from there.”

So here they come, older, presumably wiser, hopefully healthier, and strengthened by the much-needed addition of an elite closer. But about that older and wiser part. The sports calendar goes in cycles, and seldom is it kind. The Giants should make it a race, surely will make it interesting, but the Dodgers are favorites in the National League West. Start with that.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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