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MLB: The Giants expect to bounce back in 2018

To say things didn’t go as planned for the 2017 San Francisco Giants would be quite the understatement. Largely heralded as a wild-card contender, their season went off the tracks as fast as Madison Bumgarner’s dirt bike.

There were plenty of other injuries and underwhelming performances for sure. Mark Melancon’s elbow and forearm pain limited him to 32 appearances. Thirteen different players started in left field. Hunter Pence, Johnny Cueto, and Buster Posey were among the wounded.

Bumgarner’s injury, though, was the one that really deflated the locker room. San Francisco lost 14 of their next 20 games after their pitching ace went on the disabled list, and they never recovered.

By season’s end, the Giants were near the bottom of the league in almost every batting and pitching category. Only the Detroit Tigers matched their loss total. To add insult to injury, the upstart Rockies and Diamondbacks put three teams from the NL West in the playoffs.

Things looked bleak in San Francisco. With the bulk of their core on the wrong side of 30 and four playoff appearances already under their belt since 2010, it sure looked like time for a rebuild.

Not quite yet…

That’s not how they do things in San Francisco. This team is determined to bounce right back in 2018. Despite a limited budget, the Giants adeptly plugged in pieces to address their biggest weaknesses.

Third basemen on the roster included an aging Pablo Sandoval and youngsters who couldn’t hit the Mendoza Line in 2017. When Tampa Bay made it known they were starting over, the Giants snagged Evan Longoria to play the hot corner.

When Pittsburgh finally decided to pull the trigger on an Andrew McCutcheon trade, the Giants made sure he plays out his contract in San Francisco. Austin Jackson was signed to a relatively inexpensive contract to further bolster the outfield.

Left-handed set-up man, Tony Watson, was brought on board to strengthen the bullpen.

And everywhere else?

San Francisco’s pitching staff is rounding into shape. Bumgarner is back. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are locked in as the second and third starters. Samardzija is sporting a new changeup he hopes will improve his repertoire.

Chris Stratton’s curveball is making grapefruit league headlines. Throwing it more often will keep him in the starting rotation along with Ty Blach.

The bullpen will get better in May with the expected return of Will Smith from the injury list. Josh Osich has been untouchable in spring training.

The Giants have a solid infield with Longoria, first baseman Brandon Belt, second baseman Joe Panik, and shortstop Brandon Crawford. While their outfield appears set with McCutcheon, Jackson, and Pence, there are two other outfielders pushing hard for a role.

Mac Williamson, who looked like he might be pushed off the roster, is batting over .400 and hitting for power after adjusting his hands.

Prospect Steven Duggar is also turning heads in camp. If he doesn’t make the roster, he is at least a call-up option down the road if Hunter Pence doesn’t return to form.

What could go wrong?

San Francisco’s offseason moves have them right up against the luxury cap and their farm system is not full of major-league ready prospects. Any further trades will have to be budget-neutral at least, limiting their hand.

That means health will be an even bigger factor than usual. Unfortunately, there are already concerns.

Perennial All-Star catcher, Buster Posey, is downplaying an ankle injury. He started less games in 2017 than any other season of his career. The Giants need him healthy and behind the plate.

Mark Melancon said his surgically-repaired elbow didn’t feel right after his first appearance. The team says it was normal post-op discomfort, but anyone who is familiar with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Andrew Luck’s shoulder has to be a little worried.

The Giants are counting on Will Smith returning from Tommy John surgery in May. It is no sure thing he will be as effective as expected, either.

What if Austin Jackson is a better fourth outfielder than a starting centerfielder? Early last season, sportswriters wondered if Andrew McCutcheon’s skill set was declining. He recovered nicely, but what if he starts off slowly again?

That’s why they play the games

Sometimes it is hard to decide whether watching baseball or talking about baseball is more enjoyable. We know nothing about how the season will progress, but we can rattle off as many reasons why the Giants will be successful as we can the pitfalls that could have them trading players away come July.

Most early prognostications have the Dodgers and Diamondbacks finishing ahead of the Giants. There are solid arguments for that. I believe the Rockies will be right there again, too. The question is whether the other divisions will take a wild car slot away from the NL West this season.

Divisional previews come out next week, but since you read this far, here is the early word: Every NL West team finishes with 80-90 victories in 2018. San Francisco enjoys good injury fortune and a bounce-back season from Hunter Pence, securing a wild-card slot in the final series of the season.

You read it here first. Check back soon for more details on how the NL West- and the other MLB divisions- will be won.

This article was originally published on @popps