Giants' ideal 2017 season depends on starters

With aces Bumgarner and Cueto at top, rotation looks strong

Giants' ideal 2017 season depends on starters

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Giants squad each day this week. Today's topic: The perfect season.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Winning three recent World Series and posting the Major Leagues' best first-half record last season taught the Giants how an ideal season would unfold.

To achieve that nirvana, the Giants must sustain plenty of effective pitching to take advantage of their spacious surroundings at AT&T Park. Their home field also diminishes the need for power hitting, since that's often not possible. But the offense must compensate for its lack of slugging with consistency and intelligence.

As is the case with any ballclub, it all starts with the starters. This is especially true for the Giants, since their rotation is potentially strong enough to give them a distinct advantage over almost any other club.

Across the Majors, goals set for 2017

The Giants are fortunate to possess not one, but two ace-quality pitchers in Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. The pair of All-Stars probably wouldn't admit it, but they'll be fueled by additional incentive. Cueto can opt out of his contract after this season and could command even more than the $21.83 million that the Giants tentatively owe him for each of the next four years. All it would take is another performance like last year's (18-5, 2.79 ERA).

As for Bumgarner, the Giants someday must do the sensible thing and offer him a contract extension. An average year from him -- about 15 wins, a 3.00 ERA and 200 or so strikeouts -- could be enough to spur management to act. Thus, Cueto and Bumgarner can continue to focus on team goals while serving their own interests.

Top Ten Right Now: Bumgarner

Combine the best seasons of the next three projected starters, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore and Matt Cain, and the sum is a 45-20 record. Of course, expecting a career-best performance from each of them is foolish. Nevertheless, it reflects the rotation's considerable potential.

As maligned as San Francisco's bullpen was last year, the returnees demonstrated aptitude that manager Bruce Bochy can maximize as Mark Melancon's mere presence helps solidify setup roles. No longer must Bochy scramble on the fly to find an adequate reliever to protect a ninth-inning lead.

Hunter Strickland (.197 opponents' batting average) and George Kontos (.203) were particularly effective against right-handers. Will Smith (.125), Josh Osich (.156) and Derek Law (.188) throttled lefties. Their combination of skills should provide the basis for a capable bullpen.

And, of course, the Giants hope that Melancon can sustain the dominance that coaxed them to give him a four-year, $62 million deal.

Melancon fills hole for Giants

Offensively, the Giants will bank on the resilience of their personnel. They also would benefit from a repeat of 2012 and 2014, when they mastered situational hitting en route to winning it all. During the 2014 postseason, for example, they scored 20 of their 71 runs without benefit of a hit.

Center fielder Denard Span, the likely leadoff hitter, should be fully recovered from the injuries that bothered him through the 2015 season. They need more from him than the .712 OPS that he recorded last year.

Second baseman Joe Panik, the odds-on choice to bat second, was the Majors' toughest player to strike out last season. But as his 73-point drop in batting average indicates, the Giants will want more authoritative contact from him.

Right fielder Hunter Pence and catcher Buster Posey have done so much for the Giants that they almost seem beyond reproach. Yet Pence, who played in 106 games last year, must stay healthy to remain influential. Posey has raised expectations to the degree that his 2016 output (.288, 14 homers, 80 RBIs), which most catchers would embrace, seemed disappointing for him. But it's an unavoidable fact that his batting average and home run total represented career lows for a full season. The Giants dread the thought of further statistical slippage.

Posey named star for Giants

Shortstop Brandon Crawford continues to establish himself as one of baseball's top all-around performers. A two-time Gold Glove winner, Crawford has progressed offensively to the point where Bochy can install him almost anywhere in the batting order.

First baseman Brandon Belt's 2016 numbers (.275/.394/.474, with 17 homers and 82 RBIs) looked acceptable. However, the Giants wonder how well Belt might fare if he reduced his strikeouts (148 last year) and maintained more consistency. His first-half slash line was .302/.407/.521, compared with .241/.378/.414 after the All-Star break.

The Giants again stand before the window of opportunity. However, it'll take several pairs of hands to pry it open.

Pitchers and catchers have their first workout Tuesday and the first full-squad workout at Scottsdale Stadium is Feb. 17.

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.