With essentially the same roster that captured their second World Series title in the last three years, the San Francisco Giants are optimistic 2013 will be another special year.
The Giants started spring training with 21 of the 25 members from the World Series squad that swept the Detroit Tigers in last year's Fall Classic and brought the fifth NL pennant back to the Bay Area.
Outfielder Hunter Pence was acquired from Philadelphia in a late-season deal and will begin his first full season with San Francisco. Pence proved to be a source of inspiration to his teammates despite not producing eye-popping numbers in the playoffs and is excited to try and make it all work again.
"I'm energized," Pence said. "When you win a World Series, there are high expectations, but at the end of the day, we just know what we're capable of. We're going to do everything we can to give it that same run."
San Francisco, which missed the playoffs in its first title defense, dispatched the Cincinnati Reds in five games in the NLDS, only after falling behind 2-0 in the series. Surprisingly, both losses were at AT&T Park and the Giants were forced to advance on the road.
A subsequent seven-game marathon with the St. Louis Cardinals punched San Francisco's ticket to the World Series, where they met the hard-hitting Tigers. Pitching was key in that series for the Giants, whose rotation will have the same faces in Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito. Lincecum struggled in the regular season, but was the ultimate team player coming out of the bullpen in the playoffs.
Despite one rough outing at St. Louis in the NLCS, Lincecum's long hair flowed and his image as a dominant pitcher was restored. Lincecum will be back in the rotation, but is sporting a new hairstyle. The right-hander's once-popular locks are now gone, as he sports a Clark Kent-type coiffure. Whether the short hairdo will have the same affect on Lincecum as it did with Biblical hero Samson remains to be seen.
The Giants should be pleased to hear that the two-time Cy Young Award winner declared himself ahead of schedule, as opposed to last season when he was trying to lose weight and get his legs back into shape. Lincecum, who struggled to a 10-15 record and a 5.18 earned run average last season, worked on his delivery and believes his follow-through will be imperative to success.
While pitching rose to the occasion in the playoffs, Giants manager Bruce Bochy feels the offense will hit more home runs in 2013 than the MLB-worst 103 homers recorded last season.
"Make no mistake about it: I like home runs. I like power," Bochy said. "I do think we'll hit more home runs this year, to be honest."
Besides a strong case of optimism, Bochy still doesn't exactly pinpoint where the power surge will come from. Glance over the roster and the usual suspects pop put: Pence, Pablo Sandoval, reigning NL MVP Buster Posey, Angel Pagan and Brandon Belt. Posey is coming off his award-winning campaign in which he clubbed a team-best 24 homers and drove in 103 runs. There should be no drop off of power for Posey, while Sandoval entered camp a bit overweight. Sandoval vowed to drop a few pounds before the regular season commences and Bochy basically said he has no choice.
The Giants were flying high with All-Star game MVP Melky Cabrera, who was then busted for performance enhancing drugs and is now with the Toronto Blue Jays. He was having an MVP-type season until a 50-game suspension and finished the year with a .346 batting average, 11 homers and 60 runs batted in. The Giants proved they didn't need Cabrera anyway as evidenced by their title run.
By re-signing a few key pieces to last season's success, a strong rotation and hope for more power at the plate, expectations remain high for the Giants.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2013 edition of the Giants, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
Giants Projected Lineup
(94-68) - First Place (NL West)
Key Offseason additions
OF Andres Torres, INF Tony Abreu, RHP Sandy Rosario
Key Offseason subtractions
1B/OF Aubrey Huff, C Brian Wilson, OF Melky Cabrera, 1B/OF Xavier Nady
HOW MUCH CAN SAN FRANCISCO'S OFFENSE IMPROVE?
The defending champion Giants led the league in runs scored when runners were in scoring position, but then again finished dead last in home runs. Small ball can get the job done, but an occasional run of power can ignite any club.
Optimism will run high only if the Giants can stay healthy. That means Posey, Sandoval, Pence -- the three power hitters in the lineup -- have to play at least 140-150 games. Posey, of course, is the pick of the litter for his youth, size and strength. He appeared in only 45 games in 2011 because of a devastating ankle injury, only to play in 148 last season. He has played in at least 108 games during the World Series runs.
"If you look at what he's done with the pitching staff and in the middle of the order, sure, he can pull a lot of weight," Giants GM Brian Sabean said of Posey. "Baseball's usually not like that. But he's close. There's no doubt he's our franchise player."
Posey, who will grace the cover of Men's Health in April, took over after the All-Star break, batting .385 with 14 homers, 43 runs, 60 RBI and a .456 on- base percentage.
Pagan, Belt, Marco Scutaro and Andres Torres, who's back for another stint with San Francisco, will be valuable assets to the bating order. Belt is a prized prospect in his third season with the Giants, while Pagan re-signed to a four-year deal in the offseason and Scutaro inked a three-year pact. One issue for the Giants will be left field. Gregor Blanco has more power, but Torres is a switch-hitter and can hit left-handers.
DO THE GIANTS HAVE THE BEST ROTATION IN THE NL WEST?
Along with some clutch hitting and a few players getting hot at the right time, the Giants' rotation has helped the club win two of the last three World Series as well. All five starters made at least 30 starts in 2012, with rising ace Matt Cain leading the way in earned run average (2.79) and strikeouts (193). Cain, of course, threw a perfect game along the way. He sustained a bruised right knee in spring training, but that shouldn't have any bearing on his Opening Day start. Cain was asked if he would be able to repeat a season in which he went 16-5 in 32 starts with two shutouts.
"Obviously, you don't get that many opportunities to pitch a perfect game," Cain said at the end of last month. "Then, starting the All-Star Game and winning. A lot of things went really well. To repeat that, it's asking a lot. You can't be mad if you come up short."
While Lincecum is putting a rough regular season behind him -- 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA in 33 starts -- the question is whether veteran left-hander Barry Zito will have an encore campaign. Zito, left for dead after coming up short on a big deal he signed with the Giants, turned it on late in the season and compiled a 15-8 mark and a 4.15 ERA in 32 appearances. He made his paycheck count by going 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in three postseason starts, including a Game 1 victory in the World Series.
Mix in improving youngsters Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, and San Francisco clearly has the best rotation in the NL West. However, if one of those arms were to go down, the Giants will be pulling teeth to find a replacement. If that happens, Sabean will be scrambling to find a deal. The Dodgers' five-man corps isn't too shabby and is highlighted by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett. Vogelsong will get some work in with the United States at the World Baseball Classic.
WILL DEPTH BE AN ISSUE FOR THE DEFENDING CHAMPS?
There's not much to write home about when it comes to those riding the bench alongside Bochy. Joaquin Arias can play both positions on the left side of the infield, but shortstop is occupied by Brandon Crawford and Pablo Sandoval is at the hot corner. A reliable utility man, Arias stayed in shape in the Dominican league and agreed to a one-year deal with San Francisco in the offseason. He began last season as a non-roster invitee to spring training and hit.270 with five home runs and 34 RBI in 110 games.
Catcher Hector Sanchez, who will see time behind the plate when Posey "rests" at first base, showed some pop in 74 games last season, hitting .280 with three homers and 34 RBI. But is this the year Brandon Belt breaks out? Belt, in his second year at the major league level, appeared in 145 games and registered a .275 batting average with seven home runs, 47 runs scored and 56 RBI. Belt was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 MLB draft and hopes his strong second half last season carries over. The sky's the limit for Belt, who can also play the outfield when first base is occupied.
Belt provided some early mudslinging in regards to the Dodgers' spending spree in saying "All I can say is, you can't buy chemistry." Chemistry is what sparked the Giants to the World Series and their bench played a major role. Can it happen again? Will injuries force Bochy to use his reserves on a more constant level? We shall see soon enough. The jury's still out on infielder/outfielder Brett Pill, a highly touted draftee back in 2006.
Andres Torres is another wild card for Bochy and is glad to be back. He became a free agent when the New York Mets declined to tender him a contract on Nov. 30. Torres now has to work behind Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence.
X-FACTOR: BULLPEN: San Francisco's X-factor this season is its bullpen, especially closer Sergio Romo. Romo ran into some trouble in the offseason. He was cited and briefly detained by police on New Year's Day at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas after arguing with authorities. But all that is over with and Romo can go back to doing what he does best: saving games for the Giants.
It's still a possibility the Giants could bring back former closer Brian Wilson, but why waste the time? Romo is younger, throws harder and is coming off a solid campaign. Romo went 4-2 with 14 saves and a 1.79 ERA in 69 relief appearances last season. He also allowed just one earned run in 10 2/3 innings over 10 playoff games, including three saves in San Francisco's four-game sweep of Detroit in the World Series.
Jeremy Affeldt and Santiago Casilla can spell Romo at times in the closer's role, while Javier Lopez, George Kontos and Jose Mijares have earned a spot in the experienced-laden bullpen, which ranked eighth last season with a 3.53 ERA. A handful of others were invited to spring training, but only a few will have the honor in taking over for a talented rotation.
The Giants seem to be the underdog to win the NL West for how much spending the Dodgers have been doing. The defending champions have been counted out in each of their two World Series runs, so this should come as no surprise. With chemistry aplenty for San Francisco, health and consistency are key. Both the rotation and bullpen are solid from top to bottom. Hitting doesn't seem to be an issue either unless injuries rear their ugly head. Posey, Pence, Sandoval and Pagan are the clear-cut leaders of the offense and will be responsible for setting up the starting pitching with runs. Pitching will always be key in keeping up with Los Angeles and it shouldn't be much of a task in 2013. Another postseason appearance is in the works for the gritty Bochy.