By Manny Randhawa
"It's tough. I'm not gonna sit here and tell you it's not."
Madison Bumgarner isn't accustomed to losing.
"Sometimes guys get caught up into looking for answers. But sometimes you've just gotta accept you might not have the answers."
The Giants are a proud franchise, and for good reason: With three World Series titles in the first five years of this decade, San Francisco became the organizational envy of baseball. But in 2017, things haven't gone according to plan.
At 56-88 (.389), the Giants are on pace for the club's worst winning percentage in a season since 1985 (.383). And it comes on the heels of losing their first playoff series in 13 years when the Cubs defeated them in the National League Division Series last October.
There has been a slew of injuries, including Bumgarner's shoulder sprain from a dirt bike accident that cost him nearly three months, as well as concussions to lineup staples Brandon Belt and Joe Panik. Johnny Cueto also spent time on the disabled list with elbow and blister issues, and closer Mark Melancon was on the DL multiple times for a persistent forearm injury, eventually deciding to undergo surgery this Tuesday.
But regardless of how the Giants ended up here, they're here. And there's one thing they're trying to avoid at all costs: resting on success of the recent past.
"We can't just show up and say, 'OK, we're here, and it's a new year,'" said Buster Posey. "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So there have to be changes made at some level. But what those are, I don't know necessarily."
The Giants have some glaring holes to fill this offseason, including at third base, where former postseason hero Pablo Sandoval set a new San Francisco-era record this week by going hitless in 38 consecutive at-bats. The Giants also need help in the corner outfield spots: They've gotten a mediocre .238/.292/.353 slash line out of their left fielders, and right fielder Hunter Pence, who turns 35 in April, has posted the lowest OPS of his career, at .668.
While on the surface it may look as though the Giants' window for contending has closed, there is reason to believe that San Francisco could keep its even-year postseason streak alive with a playoff return in 2018. Hear us out.
Bumgarner's injury in April dealt a big blow to San Francisco's starting rotation. But in 10 starts since being activated from the disabled list in mid-July, the left-hander has a 3.22 ERA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings. Opponents have a Statcast-projected expected weighted on base average of .304 against him over that span.
"Obviously I would've preferred that [the injury] not happen, but it did, and I had to play the cards that I basically dealt myself," Bumgarner said. "But I feel good physically. At this point I feel like nothing ever happened."
Bumgarner, with his postseason legend already written, is still just entering his prime at age 28. Behind him in San Francisco's projected 2018 rotation are Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore.
Cueto, who could opt out of his contract this offseason, has indicated he wants to stay with San Francisco. And given that his season has been shortened by injury, that's likely what will happen. In two starts since returning from the DL, Cueto has given up three runs in 10 1/3 innings (2.61 ERA). Last season, a healthy Cueto posted a 2.79 ERA with a .290 xwOBA-against.
After a rough start on Saturday, Samardzija's ERA is 4.47, but his fielding independent pitching is nearly a full run lower, at 3.59. Per Statcast™, opponent xwOBA against the right-hander entering Saturday was just .288, 10th-best among all starters (minimum 500 at-bats against). Only Chris Sale has thrown more innings than Samardzija's 189 1/3, and no one has a better walk-per-nine innings ratio than Samardzija's 1.4, to go along with a 9.0 K-per-nine rate.
"I want to cut down on the long balls," Samardzija said. "I think I have to go back and look at the home runs we gave up, and some of them we'd be OK with -- 2-0 homers and solo shots -- but home runs where we were ahead in the count, and in situations where we were in the lead, and what happened with pitch location."
The home run has hurt Samardzija; he's given up 28 of them this season, including four against the White Sox on Saturday alone. Bumgarner has given up 12 just since returning from the disabled list. But home runs are up across the board around baseball, and on a record pace. Pitchers across the Majors will be aiming to make adjustments this offseason.
The Giants' bullpen has been one of their biggest weaknesses over the past two seasons. But with a healthy Melancon back for 2018, there's hope for San Francisco's relief corps.
From 2013-16, Melancon had the fourth-highest FanGraphs WAR of any reliever. His 8.0 fWAR trailed only Aroldis Chapman (9.7), Kenley Jansen (9.4) and Dellin Betances (8.5). Melancon is just a season removed from a 1.64 ERA in 75 appearances split between the Pirates and Nationals.
"That's what's really exciting for next year, is that we're not going to let this thing continue [the way it's going]," Melancon said. "Hopefully guys use this as fuel for next year."
In bridging the gap from the starters to Melancon, however, the Giants may need to make more moves this offseason. They can look forward to the return of Will Smith, who has missed the entire season due to Tommy John surgery but posted a 2.95 ERA in 21 appearances after a trade from the Brewers last season, and has a solid track record.
Other relievers that have performed well include Cory Gearrin (2.19 ERA), Hunter Strickland (2.91 ERA) and Sam Dyson (3.52 ERA since being acquired from the Rangers).
Offensively, the Giants have their work cut out for them. San Francisco has hit 115 home runs so far this season, by far the fewest in baseball. San Francisco has also scored the second-fewest runs in baseball, with 573.
Upgrades are definitely needed, but there are also some encouraging signs, foremost being the bounce-back season Posey is putting together. The former NL MVP had his poorest full season at the plate in 2016, posting a 115 OPS+. But that figure belies his luck: Posey's xwOBA last season was a robust .375, whereas his actual wOBA was .350. Posey has upped his OPS+ in 2017 to 131, more in line with what it was back in '15 (133).
Brandon Belt, who's been limited to 382 at-bats this season, has an xwOBA of .379, which is tied for 17th among Major League hitters with a minimum of 250 at-bats this season. The other two with that figure entering Saturday were Joey Gallo and Khris Davis. A full season for Belt in 2018 could be a big boost for San Francisco.
The Giants have also reportedly expressed serious interest in trading for none other than Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. While trade speculation in August is a far cry from an acquisition in the offseason, and Stanton's remaining $295 million salary is more than your average hurdle, the Giants are healthy financially (though a Cueto opt-in and looming Bumgarner extension could complicate an effort to add Stanton).
Other potential outfield upgrades include free-agents-to-be Jay Bruce or Lorenzo Cain.
As they head into the offseason, the Giants are not in rebuild mode. The question is, will they be back in the postseason mix a year from now in a much-improved NL West?
One thing is made abundantly clear from the Giants that own three World Series rings: Those mean nothing in 2018.
"I'm gonna give you my truthful answer," said Bumgarner. "Confidence only comes from success. You can't fake it. You can fake it, but you're not gonna trick yourself. There's no secret to a championship season: you gotta have some things go your own way. But I also believe you create your own luck."
Manny Randhawa is a reporter and member of the Statcast™ research team at MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MannyOnMLB.