MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Cain leaving behind legacy, and a team in flux

Cain leaving behind legacy, and a team in flux

PHOENIX -- Matt Cain's pending retirement puts an exclamation point on the end of this Giants era.

Cain's 13-year career began in 2005. He's the only player left who was there when Barry Bonds passed Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list. Cain teamed in the rotation with Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner to win the World Series three times. He threw to MVP catcher Buster Posey.

"It was quite a run," said Cain, who announced his retirement Wednesday at Chase Field before the Giants blew a two-run, ninth-inning lead to the D-backs and lost, 4-3. "I've enjoyed every minute of it."

Cain announces retirement

Now that run is at an end, and the Giants will try to pick up the pieces after a stunning 97-loss season that absolutely no one saw coming. There have been surprising stories in Major League Baseball this year, the D-backs winning 92 games and the top spot in the National League Wild Card Game here next Wednesday evening high among them.

But the collapse of the Giants after winning the World Series in 2010, '12 and '14, and making the playoffs last year, has to be the most shocking.

"Yeah, that's fair," said general manager Bobby Evans, who helped put this team together. "I think that's very fair. I think every season has its unknowns. But I didn't anticipate a season where we would struggle to have a winning record."

The road season ended just as it began -- with a blown save and a 6-5 ninth-inning loss on Opening Night on April 2 against the D-backs. The Giants could still hit the century loss mark if they're swept by the Padres at AT&T Park in a three-game series this weekend.

Cain is slated to make the last start of his career in a day game Saturday.

Heading into the offseason, the big question is whether 2017 was an anomaly, ripped asunder by injuries to key players, or if a big fix is needed to return to winning form in 2018.

Manager Bruce Bochy, who took over in 2007 -- Bonds' last year -- said he thinks this season was an anomaly. He still has terrific parts: Bumgarner, Posey, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford and Denard Span, to name a few.

Bochy's also been happy enough with the return of a noticeably slimmed down Pablo Sandoval that the third baseman will be brought into camp next spring with a good chance to make the team. Why not? The Panda had two doubles and two RBIs on Wednesday.

Sandoval's RBI double

"You know, he's been playing good baseball," Bochy said about Sandoval, who was a big part of his last two World Series-winning teams before leaving for Boston as a free agent in 2015. "If you look at the last few weeks, it's really picked up with the bat. His approach at the plate has been so much better. He's played pretty good defense. He's been great to have around. He's done well for himself since he's been here."

Evans isn't so sure the season was such an anomaly. The baseball brass under executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean is going to closely scrutinize the problems when the season is over.

With Cain leaving and receiving a $7.5 million club option buyout, Nick Hundley is the only free agent. Johnny Cueto can also opt out of his contract within three days of the end of the World Series. Few expect Cueto to do so coming off an injury-riddled 8-8, 4.43 ERA season in 24 starts.

Even so, Evans said he will have some payroll flexibility to do some things.

"I don't want to take our struggles lightly," Evans said. "We're going to do a deep dive and be clear about how we can make tremendous improvement. So that's going to have to happen in the offseason in different forms. I can't brush off this season without digging deep and trying to figure how to get us back to where we need to be competing in our division much less the league.

"It's going to involve many components. We have to make changes. You can't come back with the same group of guys and expect the same results."

The Giants need a left fielder. They've had a different one on Opening Day in each of the 10 seasons since Bonds played his last in San Francisco. They also need an insurance policy at third base if Sandoval doesn't remotely return to the form that won him MVP honors of the 2012 World Series, which the Giants swept, and which he opened by tying a record with three homers at home in a Game 1 win over the Tigers. He's currently batting .215.

Panda's big game

The players who remain, coupled with the new faces that gather in February at Scottsdale Stadium, need to do some soul searching, Cain said on his way out.

"I just think we need to clean things up, whether it's in the rotation or in the bullpen," he said. "Get those big outs in shutdown innings. And it's the same thing on offense and defense. It can make or break a season, and I feel like we didn't do enough of that.

"We still have more than a few guys who can do amazing things on the field. In Spring Training, maybe everyone can take a look in the mirror and find a way to get better."

The Giants have never been a big hitting team with a lot of power. They've scored 624 runs this year (29th in the Majors), allowing 769 (12th).

Comparatively, in 2012, the Giants allowed 649 runs and scored 718. Therein lies the difference between winning and losing. That year, they hit 103 homers as a team, only 30 more than Bonds hit in 2001 when he set the all-time single-season record of 73. That was offset by a team ERA of 3.68. The team ERA this year is 4.54.

More hitting, more power, more pitching. This is what Evans and his baseball ops people must look at.

"We just need to make strategic changes and figure out what changes will have the most impact," Evans said. "We have to isolate where our opportunities are and where we see the best fits."

As Cain departs, he leaves behind the most fun and successful era in San Francisco Giants history. It remains to be seen how long it will take to get to the next.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.