SAN FRANCISCO -- Next for the Giants comes the part of winning the World Series that's most challenging: defending the title.Fortunately for the Giants, several of their key performers experienced the chore of the 2011 season, which followed the groundbreaking 2010 championship. They remember how their status elicited ceaseless intensity from opponents. They also recall that they finished second in the National League West with a 86-76 record -- respectable, but no match for the 94-68 Arizona Diamondbacks. In fact, several Giants remarked during 2011 that Arizona's joyful zeal reminded them of the attitude they maintained the previous season. So the Giants know that, at the very least, they must sustain their enthusiasm to avoid another letdown. The 2010-11 teams were composed largely of veterans. By contrast, the current Giants have enough younger players -- catcher Buster Posey, first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford, third baseman Pablo Sandoval, outfielder Gregor Blanco and more than half of the pitching staff -- to stoke their competitive fire naturally.
Belt cited the addictiveness of winning during a break in last Wednesday's parade.
"Especially after experiencing all this, and how much fun it is, the desire never leaves," he said.The sooner the Giants can absorb the reality of success, the better. In 2011, some of them didn't fully grasp until they reported to Spring Training that they were part of a championship club. But the experience of capturing the World Series twice in three years should help the Giants maintain the proper perspective. "I think it set in a little more this time now," right-hander Matt Cain said at the parade. "Last time, it set in a little later on. But you know kind of what's going on now." This doesn't mean settling into the same routine. The Giants should know that they'll have to work even harder. Said Posey, a leading NL Most Valuable Player candidate: "I really can't speak on more than a personal level, but you have to be willing to take risks to make adjustments and realize that if you're sitting still and satisfied with what you've done, people are going to be passing you." Avoiding serious injuries such as the ones that sidelined Posey and second baseman Freddy Sanchez for much of the 2011 season would help, too. First, the Giants must confront free agency. They'll try to sign a handful of their own free agents, including second baseman Marco Scutaro, the NL Championship Series MVP; center fielder Angel Pagan, a catalyst at the leadoff spot; and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, an integral part of the bullpen. But the lure of lucrative contracts on the open market makes it unlikely that San Francisco can keep all three. Catcher: Who will catch isn't an issue; the proportion of games the Giants' receivers respectively will work is. Posey started 111 games behind the plate to Hector Sanchez's 48 last year. The disparity very well could shrink if Sanchez continues to improve and the club's decision-makers grow increasingly concerned about preserving Posey's physical condition to maximize his offensive contributions. First base: From July 27 on, Belt hit .328, seventh best in the NL. The Giants believe he can approach that kind of production next season. If Posey continues to spend significant time at first base, Belt could end up playing more left field than anticipated. Second base: Assuming they sign Scutaro, the Giants will need a capable backup to keep the 37-year-old fresh. Though the Giants know that Emmanuel Burriss can handle the role, they may take a hard look at Nick Noonan, a sandwich-pick selection (32nd overall) in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft who batted .296 last season at Triple-A Fresno. Shortstop: By the end of the postseason, Crawford exuded the savvy of a 10-year veteran. And why not? Possessing vast defensive skill and still-developing offensive talent, Crawford could own this position throughout the rest of the decade. Third base: Funny how nobody -- nobody -- ridiculed Sandoval's weight while he was clobbering six home runs during the postseason. Winning the World Series MVP Award could propel Sandoval toward the heights of excellence that long have been predicted for him. Left field: Of the eight left fielders the Giants used in 2012, five probably will be at Spring Training -- Belt, Blanco, Francisco Peguero, Justin Christian and Brett Pill. If the Giants can't obtain a proven hitter to fill this spot (how would Torii Hunter look in a San Francisco uniform?), they might consider a platoon featuring Blanco and a right-handed batter. Though Christian and Pill have more experience, Peguero, a rookie, will receive every opportunity to win a spot on the Opening Day roster. Center field: Blanco will provide insurance at this spot if the Giants can't retain Pagan or sign a viable free-agent alternative (Michael Bourn? Shane Victorino?). The possible lack of depth could create a role for Christian, who started 21 games in the outfield during the previous two seasons. Right field: Entering a year that will propel him into free agency, Hunter Pence has something to prove after batting a career-low .253, though his 104 RBIs represented a career high. As productive as he was for the Giants, driving in 45 runs in 59 games, it's difficult to believe that he hit .213 after the All-Star break. Starting pitching: The contingent of Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum is etched in stone. Because they're either above-average athletes, in top physical condition or both, they should remain injury-free. Still, the lack of Major League-ready reinforcements should concern the Giants, who would be wise to seek a back-of-the-rotation starter via free agency or trade. Relief pitching: Despite Brian Wilson's insistence that he'll be ready for Opening Day, the Giants can't assume that the three-time All-Star closer will have sufficiently recovered from Tommy John surgery by that time. Wilson's uncertain status, Affeldt's entry into free agency and Guillermo Mota's probable departure will force the Giants to find another reliever or two.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.