Giants know they'll have target on back in '11
SAN FRANCISCO -- No matter how the Giants fare next season, it won't be the same as 2010.
Every streak and slump they endure will be magnified. Should they accomplish the daunting task of repeating as World Series winners, their triumph would be regarded at least partially as inevitable, since the baseball world will have tracked their progress since Spring Training. That would contrast with last season, when many observers seemingly ignored them until October. Should the Giants struggle, the cruel word "fluke" will resound, though any professional in any sport might insist that a title won is a title earned.
Yet to a considerable degree, this year will be like any other, with pitching determining the team's success. The Giants thus should feel fortunate, since the leaders of their staff, including Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner and Brian Wilson, still appear to be ascending toward their respective peaks.
Giants management hasn't lapsed into overconfidence. The franchise can't afford that luxury after capturing its first title in 56 years. But the front office is allowing itself to entertain the possibility that the club could be entering a sublime stretch similar to 1997-2004, when San Francisco averaged 92 victories per year. To make that notion a reality, the Giants must answer the following questions effectively:
1. Can Pablo Sandoval work himself into decent physical shape?
If he does, the Giants might feel as if they've acquired a potential All-Star. They thought that highly of Sandoval after he hit .330 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs in 2009. But last season, he couldn't resist his twin temptations -- chasing bad pitches and eating -- which resulted in a drop to .268-13-63. Even if Sandoval reports to Spring Training looking fit, he must remain disciplined through the season as he confronts postgame buffets and the stream of food offered on charter flights. Facing possible demotion to the Minors if he doesn't shape up, Sandoval is said to have been conditioning diligently in Arizona.
2. Will the shortened offseason affect the pitchers?
This is another question that might take all season to answer. Winning the Series trimmed the Giants' offseason by an entire month. Though the team welcomed working overtime in this fashion, the extra activity threatened to create havoc with the pitchers, who strive to strike a balance between exercising and resting their arms during the offseason. Manager Bruce Bochy already has said that he'll monitor his pitchers' workloads carefully. Occasionally mixing a sixth starter into the rotation to provide additional rest could be an option.
3. What will Buster Posey do for an encore?
He'll probably be named MVP of the All-Star Game, surpass Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, find a cure for cancer and lead the Giants to another World Series conquest. Just kidding -- unless you're Posey, who expects nothing less than excellence from himself. Plenty of rookie stars have endured the "sophomore jinx," but Posey's talent and work ethic suggest that he'll be immune to a prolonged slump. Remember, Posey wasn't recalled in 2010 until May 29. The prospect of having him for an entire season excites the Giants.
4. What kind of impact will Brandon Belt make?
It'll be all or nothing at the outset. General manager Brian Sabean has said that Belt, a first baseman/outfielder, won't make the Opening Day roster unless he proves he's good enough to start. Though Belt has been characterized as a left-handed-batting version of Posey, the 22-year-old will be attending his first Major League Spring Training camp. Expecting instant stardom from Belt, despite the hype surrounding him, might be a trifle unfair.
5. What can be expected from Miguel Tejada?
If you're a skeptic, not much. Tejada's coming off one of his least productive seasons in 2010 (.269, 15 homers, 71 RBIs). His .381 slugging percentage represented a 74-point drop from 2009 and his worst since his 1997 rookie season with Oakland. But Tejada always plays with a lot of energy, so joining the reigning World Series champs could motivate him toward one more big season. Just two years ago, he hit .313 with 46 doubles, 86 RBIs and a whopping 199 hits with Houston.
6. Will the Giants add another left-handed hitter?
The apparent inactivity in the Giants' player-acquisition efforts is a mere facade. Sabean knows the market. He realizes that with each passing day, the price for free agents drops a little more. Performers who seemed out of reach financially for the Giants at the Winter Meetings ultimately could become affordable. Hypothetically speaking, what would the Giants do if they suddenly had a chance to sign Johnny Damon? Remember, that's hypothetical. But pay close attention as mid-February approaches.
7. Who will win the left-field job?
That's anybody's guess. What's certain is that there will be no shortage of candidates. Mark DeRosa, last season's Opening Day left fielder, is expected to be recovered from left wrist surgery. Aaron Rowand, who has played exclusively center field, will be asked to try playing the corners. Pat Burrell will join the fray, but he'll most likely occupy a reserve role. Cody Ross, the projected right fielder, might swing around to this side if Nate Schierholtz bids for an everyday spot in right. Schierholtz and perhaps even first baseman Travis Ishikawa might join this competition. If Belt fits best as a first baseman, Aubrey Huff will move to left and most of the aforementioned will scramble for bench spots.
8. Will Freddy Sanchez be ready for Opening Day?
Yes, barring unforeseen setbacks. Sanchez, who underwent his second left shoulder surgery in slightly less than a year on Dec. 7, will still be recovering when Spring Training opens. But the Giants seem confident that the 32-year-old will be playable before the season starts. If he isn't, DeRosa or Mike Fontenot will step in. Sanchez, the 2006 National League batting champion with Pittsburgh, proved valuable down the stretch last season, hitting .330 from Aug. 23 on.
9. How will the Giants avoid complacency?
The left-field competition, which will directly or indirectly affect virtually half of the position players, should sharpen the focus of those involved. Though no apparent openings exist on the pitching staff, every spring, at least one long-shot candidate captures attention and launches a serious bid for a job. The shortened offseason could heighten the risk for injuries. So projected backups had better be ready to play.
10. Can the Giants repeat?
If the pitchers stay healthy and adept, San Francisco will remain a legitimate threat. The offense doesn't have to be overpowering. Just consistent. The Giants were 69-12 in 2010 when scoring at least four runs, and 80-24 when totaling three runs or more. They have every reason to be optimistic if Sandoval approaches his 2009 form, Posey comes close to duplicating last season, Ross remains capable of delivering big hits, DeRosa and Sanchez return strong, Tejada is merely adequate and Andres Torres and Huff remain steady at leadoff and cleanup, respectively.