If recent history holds and big conclusions can be gained from small samples, then the San Francisco Giants have to be your favorites to win the 2014 World Series.
They do tend to capture the crown in alternating years, after all.
Alas, it's not that simple, and the Giants know this all too well. The hangover from their 2012 title proved to be even more wicked than the one following the 2010 triumph. It left them not only with their first losing season since 2008, but with the confirmation that the starting-pitching strength that had sustained them for so long has morphed into an outright concern. And this development was, of course, pitted against the backdrop of the Dodgers making good on their $200 million-plus payroll and asserting themselves as the rulers of the National League West.
I would say it will be fascinating to see how the Giants respond to all this, but, well, we've already seen one significant segment of their strategy in the extensions of Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence and the attempts -- as yet unrewarded -- to nail down lefty reliever Javier Lopez.
The Brian Sabean-led front office has proved it is nothing if not loyal, as we saw in the wake of both World Series wins, when the Giants' primary offseason expenditures went toward their own free agents. And as was the case when the Giants re-upped with the likes of Aubrey Huff, Patt Burrell, Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro, the Lincecum and Pence contracts come with their share of questions. But Sabean will dismiss the doubts about the money doled out to Lincecum and Pence by citing "the costs of doing business," and more costs will come if the Giants wisely decide to buy out Brandon Belt's arbitration years, a la what the Cardinals did with Allen Craig a year ago.
Of utmost importance in the immediate, however, is what the Giants will do above and beyond taking care of their own.
Naturally, they'll search for, at minimum, one more starter, now that the Barry Zito contract has mercifully expired and Ryan Vogelsong's option has been declined.
But to what lengths will they be willing to go?
And would they be better off expending those efforts (and dollars) on one of the market's big bats?
Well, when you consider the principal pitchers available in the starting market are the likes of Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda and Ricky Nolasco, you can see why the Giants might be better off prioritizing a boost to the bats.
Garza is the most attractive of that group, if only because he is not tied to Draft pick compensation, but his career ERA+ of 108 (in other words, eight percent better than league average) doesn't mesh with the No. 1-type money he could command in this weak market. Nolasco is also untied to a comp pick, but his adjusted career ERA is worse than league average and he's reportedly seeking somewhere in the neighborhood of an $80 million deal.
All this serves to up the intrigue surrounding Masahiro Tanaka, who would be an especially strong fit for the Giants from a marketing perspective, and who would find his transition eased by the pitcher-friendly environs of AT&T Park. But while Tanaka might command the kind of posting fee it cost the Rangers to negotiate with Yu Darvish, there are doubts as to whether he ultimately has Darvish's ceiling.
There has been some speculation that the Giants, who do have some attractive options developing in the lowest levels of their farm system, might only be comfortable with short-term deals for starters. If that's the case, the complexities of this particular market do justify the stance. For a club with the Giants' payroll capabilities, there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal, which means they could easily absorb all the accompanying question marks and take a chance on Bartolo Colon. Or Josh Johnson. Or Roy Halladay. In each case, the potential payoff is huge.
Furthermore, Scott Kazmir, Bronson Arroyo, Phil Hughes and Scott Feldman are all guys who have the potential to thrive in AT&T, and none of them will come with the price tags associated with the market's upper-end offerings.
Sabean would be much better off pursuing those less-publicized offerings, because, for all the warts shown by the 2013 rotation, he does still have the makings of a strong unit here.
Remember all the fretting about Madison Bumgarner when he flamed out at the end of '12? He became an ace in '13. In his age-23 season, he threw 201 1/3 innings, compiled a 2.77 ERA and struck out 199. He was a bright spot among the bumbles and stumbles.
Matt Cain was one of those guys who stumbled, and maybe that was inevitable given his 2012 workload and his past propensity for inducing a low batting average on balls in play. But after he was done handing out home runs by the handful in the first half of '13, Cain, quietly, more closely resembled the Cain of old in the second half (2.36 ERA in 72 1/3 innings).
Finally, while we have every right to critique the money involved in Lincecum's two-year, $35 million contract (the Giants arguably could have just made him a one-year qualifying offer and crushed his outside market), the sentiment behind it is understandable. This was the deal that demonstrated how far ERA's stock has fallen in the minds of evaluators. Lincecum's expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) mark over the last two years is, according to FanGraphs, aligned with the likes of Mat Latos, Derek Holland and Jon Lester. Lincecum might never be the Cy Young Award winner he once was, but the peripherals tell us he can still be quite good.
All of which leads me to the conclusion that Sabean is better off working on the fringes of free agency, as it pertains to starting pitching, and expending the bulk of his dollars on an offensive upgrade.
The offense, after all, is still below-average (3.88 runs per game in '13), and the Giants' greatest offensive need -- an outfield bat -- is one that can be satisfied convincingly this winter. If I'm Sabean, I'm thinking long and hard about Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, regardless of the compensation costs attached to them, because of what they could do for an offense that ranked 11th in the 15-team NL this season in on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot (.320). Before arbitration costs are calculated, the Giants already have a 2014 payroll around $110 million, but they've exceeded $130 million each of the last two years, so they've got wiggle room here, particularly if they can work out a backloaded deal.
However the Giants prioritize their needs, there is no question they have their work cut out for them, but we ought to expect an earnest effort.
After all, they've got a reputation for even-year excellence to uphold.