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What must go right for Giants to make 2021 playoff run

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When the Giants got together for the first time last month, Gabe Kapler didn't deliver a rousing message about shocking the world. He spoke about transparency. 

Kapler told his players the coaching staff wanted to do away with the tradition of having projected lineups and rosters posted behind closed doors. His office and the coaches' room would be wide open, with depth charts on the wall and lineups posted days in advance. He encouraged players to check them.

"One thing players historically say is they want to know where they stand. The second thing they historically say is they want to be shot straight," Kapler said. "One way to do that is just to open it up."

The players appreciated that, and a few said on Zoom that they checked their status. What they probably didn't see on the walls were projected standings. The Giants had an optimistic and positive camp, but they're still projected to finish well behind the Dodgers and Padres. 

FanGraphs has them going 76-86, 23 games out of first, with just a 5.4 percent shot of making the playoffs. PECOTA has them at 74 wins and in fourth place.

March is a time for optimism, though, so here are five ways the Giants can stay in the race over 162 games, just as they did over 60 last year: 

Good Health

The Giants are deeper than they were a year ago, and much deeper than when Farhan Zaidi took over after the 2018 season. The 40-man decisions are getting tougher and tougher. But ... they're still not at the point that they can easily shake off a couple of major injuries, something that was proven on a small scale last year when Evan Longoria and Brandon Belt started the season on the IL and the infield defense fell apart.  Losing Brandon Crawford for any length of time could be catastrophic. Mauricio Dubon is the only other reasonable option at short, and that would leave a hole in center.

 

The options behind Longoria -- who has plantar fasciitis -- aren't great, and while the lineup is deep, that would change in a hurry if a couple of regulars go on the IL (and some of them have long injury histories). Alex Wood got hurt in the spring and the Giants were lucky to have Logan Webb ready to step in, but the options further down the line aren't great. 

This is an obvious one, but to reach their ceiling, the Giants really need to stay much healthier than their NL West opponents. 

Veterans Repeat 2020

Belt's 2020 OPS+ was his highest by 40 points. Alex Dickerson beat his previous best by 29 points, Donovan Solano by 13, and Wilmer Flores by nine. Kevin Gausman took a big step forward in the rotation, and Mike Yastrzemski went from solid find to MVP candidate. Guys like Crawford and Darin Ruf all hit highs in a lot of categories, too. 

Some of this might be a small sample size, but the veterans really believe the work they put in behind the scenes with the new coaching staff led to huge gains. 

"I think it was a combination of my bat path being a lot better, the drills and the stuff that we worked on with the hitting guys, and then the approach side of it," Crawford said. "We definitely had a more in-depth idea of what the pitcher is trying to do to you, so you have a pretty good idea of what you want to look for and attack."

Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind have gotten a lot of praise for the work they've done with the veteran hitters, and there's a lot of evidence that the Giants are capable of helping guys take meaningful strides at the big league level. But the players -- most of whom are in their thirties -- will need to show they can do it over 162 games, not just 60. 

Youngsters Take a Leap

The Giants might be seeing this already, as Webb had a dominant spring and Dubon appears to be much more dangerous at the plate. If he can stay healthy, Austin Slater looks like a good bet to shoot past projections and have a breakout season, and there are some new-ish guys in the bullpen -- most notably Tyler Rogers and Caleb Baragar -- who could have huge seasons. The Giants will gladly take it all, but they might need more.

Given the talent disparity with the Dodgers and Padres, the Giants will need these younger guys to step up, and it would be really helpful if a prospect came out of nowhere, too. Maybe Heliot Ramos quickly hits his way to the big leagues and adds another right-handed power bat? Maybe it's Joey Bart? Maybe Sean Hjelle or Tristan Beck provide needed rotation innings down the stretch, or a Kervin Castro or Camilo Doval comes up and mimics what Brusdar Graterol gave the Dodgers last year?

 

The Giants have a farm system that should get them back on track eventually, but they could use a few surprises this year. 

Newcomers Give Bullpen a Jolt

The Giants went 6-14 against the Dodgers and Padres last year, but 11 of those games were decided by one or two runs. They have a lineup that can keep games close, and they'll need to really clean up in those coin-flip games. Last year's team was 8-8 in one-run games and 2-3 in extra innings. That's not going to help you exceed expectations by 10-12 wins. 

The good news here is that bullpens are weird, and a dominant group can come out of nowhere and be built with journeymen and young breakout arms. Last year's Giants bullpen basically held open tryouts and will be remembered for the ugly blown saves -- it also had the lowest collective ERA in the Majors after August 19. 

RELATED: Belt, Crawford look back on decade together, what's to come

In Jake McGee, Matt Wisler, Jarlin Garcia and Jose Alvarez, the Giants are starting with a bunch of veterans with strong seasons on their resume. Throw in the Rogers and Baragar we saw in September, a pre-surgery Reyes Moronta, and a surprise (Nick Tropeano? Zack Littell?) or two and you can see the bullpen becoming a strength. On paper, the Dodgers and Padres have better groups, but if the Giants can make their pen a strength and turn a handful of those 5-4 losses into 5-4 wins, they can hang around. 

A Little Help, Please? 

Okay, okay ... let's be honest here. Everything you just read could happen, and then Buster Posey could return and hit .330, Anthony DeSclafani could post a 3.12 ERA, and Scott Kazmir could turn back the clock -- and the Giants still might finish in third by 10 games. That's how good the two rosters ahead of them are. 

But there's a reason preseason predictions columns always look foolish. Things happen that we don't see coming, and the Giants could use a collapse or two around the NL. It doesn't even have to be in their division. It would be very helpful if the Dodgers or Padres underperformed, but the same thing happening with the Braves or Mets could open up a Wild Card spot, paving the way for trade deadline acquisition Joe Panik to hit a walk-off homer against the Cardinals in the NLCS. Stranger things have happened, right?

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