Giants driven to earn respect in repeat quest
Underdog label follows defending Series champs despite returning talent
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The San Francisco Giants have won everything recently except believers.
The arduous challenge of sustaining postseason success is well-documented. The New York Yankees of 1998-2000 were the last team in either league to win consecutive World Series; no National League club has won back-to-back World Series since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.
Yet outside of their ardent fan base, the Giants rarely are mentioned as Series contenders, despite winning two of the previous three Fall Classics and retaining 21 of 25 players from the roster that produced a four-game sweep of Detroit to end last October.
W: Kershaw L: Kontos
When anointing the class of the NL, pundits prefer to cite the flashy Washington Nationals, with Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg; the Reds, whose All-Star collection of Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Joey Votto complements an impressive pitching staff; or the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have paid handsomely to bolster their roster.
Meanwhile, the Giants remain relatively overlooked, though they possess the young stars, shutdown pitching and proven performers that distinguish the aforementioned teams.
"It's a club that I don't think has gotten the credit that it deserves for the talent that's here," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "Everyone talks about our pitching, but I think this club is loaded with more talent than what's been said about it. We were underdogs last year and in the playoffs, and we're going into the season as underdogs in our division. I understand that, with [the Dodgers] increasing their payroll. But when you look at this club with the [Buster] Poseys, [Hunter] Pences, and [Pablo] Sandovals, it's a team loaded with talent.
"What bothers me sometimes is I hear this word 'lucky' and 'the ball bounced our way,'" Bochy added. "You don't win 94 games and be lucky. You don't do what we did two of the last three years and be lucky. It takes talent, and this team has a lot of talented players."
All evidence suggests that the Giants also have maintained the desire that drove them to a record-tying six consecutive victories in elimination games last postseason.
"I think you can still see it in everybody's eyes, and in the way they talk, that everybody is very goal-oriented," first baseman Brandon Belt said. "We want to get back to the playoffs. Even after we won the World Series, a lot of people aren't picking us to win the division. So I think it's another one of those things where we want to prove people wrong."
Center fielder Angel Pagan reset his priorities immediately upon rejoining the Giants after performing in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico.
"I'm ready for the season," he said. "I'm ready to compete and defend the championship. To me, that's the most important thing right now."
Should the Giants continue to rank among the league's elite, their pitching almost surely will be a factor -- exactly as it has been since 2009, when they began their streak of four consecutive winning seasons.
The rotation of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong remains formidable. Cain is coming off a wondrous season in which he pitched a perfect game, won the All-Star Game and started each postseason series finale. Bumgarner won't turn 24 until Aug. 1 and already has won 36 Major League games. Zito is coming off his best season with the Giants (15-8). Vogelsong is 27-16 in the previous two years, not including his team-best 3-0 mark in the 2012 postseason.
Yet it's fair to wonder whether the law of averages will sneak up on the Giants. Their regular starters pitched in all but two games last year. Asking any staff to duplicate such durability and quality might be a stretch. Cain has thrown 23,959 pitches since the beginning of the 2006 season, fourth most in the Majors. Bumgarner tired in the postseason and needed a 10-day rest before pitching seven shutout innings in Game 2 of the World Series. Zito went 9-0 as the Giants won his last 14 starts, including postseason, but his 3.46 ERA during that span was only slightly above average.
"You have to have some luck involved," Vogelsong acknowledged. "Obviously, little things happen during the season -- you take a ball back off you or something and you can't start the next time. But we have a great training staff. They do a really good job of getting us ready between starts. With that being said, we all work especially hard to get ready from start to start."
San Francisco's most-scrutinized starter, at least at the outset, will be Lincecum, the two-time NL Cy Young Award winner seeking to reverse his career-worst 10-15 finish in 2012. He demonstrated during Spring Training that he had regained velocity, but his inconsistent pitching mechanics resulted in erratic command. Lincecum showed enough to indicate that he can resume being a productive pitcher if he can harness his skills. Because he'll be eligible for free agency after the season, each of his starts will be fraught with meaning. From the team perspective, the Giants will benefit hugely if Lincecum even approaches his All-Star form.
Much attention also will be trained on Sergio Romo, who thrived in the closer's role last October but has never handled it for an entire season. Romo's postseason excellence proved that he possesses the mental toughness to excel as a relief ace. But his history of minor ailments creates doubts about whether he can be a ninth-inning workhorse five or six times per week if necessary. Should Romo need an occasional break, the Giants can call upon Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt or Javier Lopez to get the final outs.
Mustering offense has been an issue for the Giants since the last days of Barry Bonds' career. Much of last year's success can be traced to their increase in runs scored -- nearly one per game, from a total of 570 in 2011 to 718 last year. The Giants probably can't raise their output by another 100 or so runs, but they'll disappoint themselves if they can't at least repeat last year's pace.
Start from the top. Pagan looked primed for a big year while starring for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He recorded personal bests last year with 95 runs, 38 doubles and 15 triples, which set a San Francisco-era franchise record. Marco Scutaro, the Most Valuable Player of the NL Championship Series, won't hit .362 again, as he did in 61 games after San Francisco acquired him from Colorado last July 27. The Giants will settle for a .280-.300 hitter who continues to move runners ahead and drive them in more often than not.
Sandoval, the World Series MVP, should hit proficiently. But his health, particularly after this spring's right elbow flare-up, may always be a concern.
What Posey does for an encore to his MVP season will depend largely on how the teammates surrounding him perform: Sandoval, the projected No. 3 hitter, and Pence, who will likely bat fifth. If Posey has enough baserunners around him, he could exceed last year's 103 RBIs and threaten, if not surpass, the league-high .336 batting average he compiled.
Pence and the Giants would prefer to remember his 45 RBIs in 59 regular-season games last year, rather than his .219 average. Given those production numbers, Pence would contribute mightily if he hit just .250.
The Brandons, Crawford and Belt, looked ready to establish more of an offensive presence. Crawford's slugging percentage exceeded .500 throughout much of March and Belt ranked among the Cactus League leaders in most significant hitting categories.
How Bochy would handle the left-field occupants, who were likely to bat seventh or eighth, had yet to develop. Platooning left-handed-batting Gregor Blanco with switch-hitting Andres Torres, who would face left-handed starters, appeared to be the likeliest option.
This cast enters the 2013 season with the opportunity to win back-to-back World Series for the first time in franchise history since 1921-22. But, said general manager Brian Sabean, that's not the point right now.
"Our goal isn't to defend the world championship," Sabean said. "Our goal is to win the division first. If we get to the playoffs, we think we're formidable. You've got to get in the playoffs. It's not easily done."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.