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Five ways Giants' surprise playoff push could be derailed

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Gabe Kapler, Giants

There isn't a more optimistic time of the year than the end of spring training, and the Giants were fired up and ready to shock the world NL West as they boarded an afternoon flight to Seattle on Tuesday. But sometimes you can be knocked back to reality pretty quickly.

The 2019 Giants hoped to make Bruce Bochy's final season memorable -- and then lost seven of their first 10 out of the gates. Last year, the Giants hoped a shortened season and expanded postseason would lead to a surprising finish, but they had a lot of digging to do after losing 16 of their first 24. 

This season's schedule sets up nicely. The Giants open against the rebuilding Mariners, and aside from three (really tough) series against the San Diego Padres, they don't play a projected playoff team until May 21. They can get off to a fast start, and yesterday I looked at five reasons to think they can hang around. Today, the flip side. Here are five ways the season could go off the rails:

Age Isn't Just a Number

The 2020 Giants got an MLB-leading 980 plate appearances from players who were 31-35 years old. Now they're adding 34-year-old Buster Posey back into the mix, along with big free agent addition Tommy La Stella, who is 32. New backup catcher Curt Casali is also 32. 

Of the 13 projected position players, 10 are in their 30s and another -- Wilmer Flores -- turns 30 during the season. The rotation is a bit younger, but not much. Johnny Cueto is 35 and Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood -- who will start the season on the IL because of a spring back injury -- are all 30. The likely closer, Jake McGee, is 34. 

 

There's nothing wrong with being in your 30s, and a lot of these players are as good or better than they've been, but there's also no doubt that having such an old roster leaves you more susceptible to injuries or drop-offs over a long season. The teenagers and prospects are on the way, but in 2021, the Giants will cross their fingers and hope the league's oldest roster doesn't run out of gas. 

Looking for 900

A couple weeks ago, on our Giants Season Preview Show, I asked president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi what keeps him up at night. 

"It's the math that I think is on every team's mind right now, which is 162 times nine," he said. "Getting through 162 games of nine innings, pitching-wise. Maybe those seven-inning doubleheaders will help a bit. That's really going to be a marathon given the innings base that a lot of guys got in 2020 is pretty short given the 60-game season. That's what's keeping me up at night, and I'm sure front office people around baseball, just making sure you have enough pitching depth to get through the season."

The Giants have done what they can to prepare. Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris kept adding and adding, getting to 43 pitchers in camp at one point. But with some injury histories in their rotation and a farm system lacking upper-minors starters, it's still possible they run out of effective arms and aren't able to cover the 900 innings that are being added from 2020.

The Previous Plan Doesn't Work

Early in the offseason, Zaidi joked that it wasn't a "prerequisite to be injured or coming off a down year for us to sign you." That may be true, but the Giants certainly have a type. They target starting pitchers in need of a second chance, hopeful that their ballpark, coaching staff and analytics department can turn them into contributors or trade chips. Call it the Pomeranz Plan. Or the Smyly System. Or the Gausman ... I mean, you get the idea. 

It has worked. But what if it doesn't? 

DeSclafani was good in 2019 and has looked sharp this spring, but he also gave up 27 runs in 33 2/3 innings last year. Health has been the key for Wood the last two seasons, but when on the mound, he had a 5.96 ERA over that span. Aaron Sanchez led the AL with a 3.00 ERA in 2016, but it's been 5.29 since then. 

The Giants are relying heavily on bounceback years from veterans on one-year deals. But if they don't get them, they don't really have anywhere to turn. 

RELATED: What must go right for Giants to make 2021 playoff run

Faulty Gloves

Manager Gabe Kapler is generally very optimistic in his media sessions, particularly during the spring. But there was one area of the game where he wasn't afraid to let loose after seeing something. Kapler called out the defense a couple of times during the spring. 

 

"We have to do a better job on defense," he said late in March, when the Giants had 22 errors in 22 games, "Both to record outs and to protect our pitchers. We just haven't been good."

The sloppiness was a theme early last season, too. It got better in late August and September, but this is still a roster with subpar defenders at multiple spots and on the bench. They're betting that the bats carry the way, but those defensive issues are going to pop up again at some point. 

The Road is Too Steep

Here's a bit of good news for Giants executives, coaches and young players: It's likely they'll never again face as difficult a path to the postseason. 

Expanding the playoffs would have changed the whole equation, but because MLB and the MLBPA don't see eye-to-eye on anything, the Giants are stuck in a tough spot this year. This current version of the Dodgers is one of the best rosters in MLB history, and they're coming off a title run. On top of that, the Giants have to somehow catch a Padres team that's been waiting half a decade for this moment and also is projected to win 95-or-so games. That's just something you don't see very often.

It's possible that in a few years we look back on 2021 as the peak for this version of the Dodgers and Padres, and the Giants have to play them 38 times. The Diamondbacks won 85 games during the last full MLB season, and while the Rockies will probably be awful, no trip to Coors Field is easy. The Giants might simply be worn down by the NL West. Life would have been a lot easier with expanded playoffs. 

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