In 2016 the San Francisco Giants received a generous gift from Major League Baseball: a relatively lopsided regular season schedule.
As I noted last year, the Giants played an inordinate number of sub-.500 teams in the first half of the 2016 season. They took advantage of those match-ups by arriving at the All Star break with a 57-33 record.
Of course an imbalanced schedule has an inevitable negative side. In their 72 second half games against more above average teams San Francisco went 30-42 and squeaked into the playoffs on a Wild Card ticket.
The Giants’ 2017 schedule is a little more balanced:
> 90 first half games:
games against sub-.500 teams = 53 (59%)
games against above .500 teams = 37 (41%)
> 72 second half games:
games against sub-.500 teams = 47 (65%)
games against above .500 teams = 25 (35%)
So the first half of the upcoming season won’t be the easy ride it was in 2016. But there’s another, more compelling, reason to believe 2017 will be much harder for San Francisco than the previous five years.
From 2012 through 2016 the National League West has been a very comfortable address for the San Francisco Giants. While the Dodgers won the division four of those five seasons, the rest of the competition in the NL West has generally been absent between April and October.
Since 2012 the San Diego Padres have averaged 88 losses a season, the Arizona Diamondbacks averaged 87 losses a season, and the Colorado Rockies have averaged a disheartening 93 losses over the past five seasons.
All of which gave the Giants just enough of a wormhole to make the post season three times: a division win in 2012 and Wild Card berths in 2014 and 2016. (And of course the first two of those appearances ended with World Series victories.)
But 2017 may see the end of the NL West no-competition gravy train for San Francisco, and more challenging inter-Division games for the LA Dodgers. Because this is the year the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks will stop being doormat teams.
For starters, the Rockies’ top-rated offense just got even more dangerous (if that’s possible) with the off-season addition of free agent slugger Ian Desmond, and they also added lefty Mike Dunn to a bullpen that was already better than average.
Colorado also boasts a talented group of young starters who could begin to change the pitching culture in Denver in 2017. Pitchers Chad Bettis (27), Jon Gray (25), Tyler Chatwood (27) and Tyler Anderson (27) will be pushed by German Marquez (21) and Jeff Hoffman (24).
Farther south, the Diamondbacks dismissed their bumbling anti-analytic front office and brought in Red Sox executive Mike Hazen as GM with a mandate to bring the franchise into the 21st century.
As with Colorado, pitching will tell the 2017 tale for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
A rebound by starters Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller is foundational. Also critical will be contributions from their deep pool of talented young starters: Robbie Ray (25), Braden Shipley (24), Patrick Corbin (27), and Taijuan Walker (24, acquired from the Seattle Mariners).
Still at the bottom of the pack, the San Diego Padres are several years away from joining the National League West bust-out party.
Credit the Pad’s extensive investment in the international player market and their six-year $83 million extension of first baseman Wil Myers as a start in the right direction.
But you can carve this on the nearest stone: this season the 38 total games each team will play against Colorado and Arizona in 2017 will be tougher than ever.
Unfortunately San Francisco’s 40 man roster is once again one-dimensional and paper thin, with few quality replacements. The Giants have not been built with the kind of versatile layers found on teams like St. Louis, the Cubs, Cleveland, the Dodgers, Mets, and Astros.
As a result, a serious injury at virtually any starting position this season could be crippling. And the one thing that we can bank on happening every MLB season is key player injuries.
So the Giants’ front office blueprint for 2017 is very familiar: get the fans to buy into the “magic” hype, keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.