Left field, setup roles wild cards for 2017 Giants

Returns to form by Cain, Pence would help San Francisco's outlook

Left field, setup roles wild cards for 2017 Giants

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants accomplished their primary offseason goal earlier this month by signing closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million contract.

Next comes an unavoidable challenge: generating enough leads for Melancon to protect.

The Giants have mostly lined up the cast of characters who will strive to get the ball to Melancon with a victory on the line. Left field is their lone vacant position as the opening of Spring Training looms in February. On the pitching staff, though the fifth starter's spot and the various bullpen setup roles have yet to be assigned, the Giants basically know who the primary contenders will be for those jobs.

It all seems so simple. However, competition for the few job openings will enliven the spring as well as Cactus League play. There's always intrigue somewhere.

Here are five questions the Giants must address between now and Opening Day to relieve regular-season anxiety:

1. What's happening with left field?

Competition at this spot promises to be the most entertaining aspect of Spring Training. Holdovers Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson will vie for playing time with 34-year-olds Michael Morse and Justin Ruggiano, who recently agreed to Minor League contracts with invitations to big league Spring Training. Gorkys Hernandez is also expected to join the mix. This can be viewed as a potential tug-of-war of the relatively young and unproven (Parker, Williamson) against tested veterans (Morse, Ruggiano). Parker is the only left-handed batter in the bunch, which might help him. Morse hit 16 homers for the Giants in 2014 and excelled in the postseason but since has been cast aside by Miami and Pittsburgh. Likewise, Ruggiano has performed for five teams since amassing 18 homers for Miami in 2013.

Parker's two-run triple

The Giants have no payroll room to add a proven outfielder, even one who makes a modest wage, unless they relieve themselves of a similar salary or do something contractually creative. But with less than two months left before camps open, many remaining free agents will grow impatient to find a team. The Giants might be able to bargain-hunt late in the offseason -- though except for Michael Saunders and designated-hitter types such as Jose Bautista or Mark Trumbo, the free-agent list is bereft of true upgrades.

2. Should a veteran be added to the bullpen?

A right-handed version of Will Smith would provide welcome depth, though incumbent righties George Kontos, Hunter Strickland, Derek Law and Cory Gearrin probably would take offense to this notion. However, injuries nagged Kontos, Law and Gearrin at various times last season. Manager Bruce Bochy might breathe easier if he had another competent righty at his disposal. Re-signing free agent Sergio Romo, who has spent his entire 12-year professional career with the Giants, is unlikely yet not completely out of the realm of possibility. Free agent Santiago Casilla still has a lively arm, but the stigma of his 2016 shortcomings almost surely will prevent him from returning to the Giants.

Law strikes out Myers

3. Is participating in the World Baseball Classic a physical risk for Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford or Johnny Cueto?

You'd like to say no -- flat-out, unqualified, no strings attached. All three keep themselves in excellent condition (don't be fooled by Cueto's thick tummy -- he'd scale Mt. Everest if it weren't for the snow and ice). Thus, working overtime to get in game shape earlier than usual shouldn't be a problem for them. However, a handful of Giants endured injury or ineffectiveness after playing in the 2013 Classic. In most cases, the ailments or slumps couldn't be directly traced to the Classic. Nevertheless, whether the extra toil left the afflicted players vulnerable to mishaps is at least debatable. Casilla missed 47 games with a bone cyst beginning in late May, Pagan strained his left hamstring in late May and was limited to 71 games, Pablo Sandoval developed elbow problems, Jeremy Affeldt made only 39 appearances due to oblique and groin injuries and Ryan Vogelsong went 1-4 with an 8.06 ERA in his first eight regular-season starts. Coincidence? Or correlation? Imagine how the Giants would fare with Posey, Crawford or Cueto sidelined for a significant amount of time. The images aren't pretty.

Bochy on Posey in Classic

4. Can Matt Cain regain a semblance of the skills that once made him the staff ace?

Cain, who'll enter Spring Training as a candidate for the fifth starter's spot, must stay healthy to fend off challengers such as Ty Blach, Chris Stratton and Clayton Blackburn. Since 2013, Cain has weathered hamstring, forearm, back and elbow injuries, as well as surgeries to fix his right elbow and right ankle. In that span, he compiled a 16-29 record with a 4.64 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP in 79 games (73 starts). By contrast, Cain went 85-78 with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.173 WHIP in 236 games (235 starts) before 2013. He made three All-Star teams and started the clinching games of all three of San Francisco's postseason series in 2012. At 32, he's young enough to perform a successful second act.

Cain's scoreless start

5. Can right fielder Hunter Pence resume being an everyday force?

Like Cain, Pence has sustained multiple frustrating injuries in recent years. Forearm, wrist and oblique ailments ruined Pence's 2015 season, limiting him to 52 games. Last season he missed 48 games with a strained right hamstring that required surgery. Skeptics might claim this fits the description of an athlete who's breaking down physically. However, Pence has increased his OPS, albeit incrementally, in each of the last two years: from .777 in 2014 to .806 in 2015 and then to .808 in 2016. Pence remains an asset when he's on the field. He apparently needs a little more luck to stay there.

Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.