San Francisco Giants 2012: 6 Reasons Why They Will Win the NL West

Nathaniel JueSenior Writer IIMarch 6, 2012

San Francisco Giants 2012: 6 Reasons Why They Will Win the NL West

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    Spring is a time of renewed growth, rebirth and rejuvenation. New blooms, new crops and new life are all a part of nature’s cycle.

    Baseball is no different and no exception to the cycle of life, as teams, players and fans all look toward wiping the slate clean from last winter and beginning another season anew. The win-loss records are but replanted crops, ready to sprout; hitters’ batting averages and pitchers’ ERA records are newly sown. Most importantly, teams’ World Series aspirations are reseeded, ready to blossom throughout the summer.

    One team that looks to rediscover itself this spring training is the San Francisco Giants. After surprising most of the baseball world with their 2010 World Series title, the Giants staggered their way to an 86-76 record last season, finishing in second place in the National League West and four games back of the wild-card spot. Much to the dismay of their fans, the Giants were unable to defend their championship, not even reaching postseason.

    Perhaps their World Series hangover lasted longer than expected. Maybe it was the loss of several key players due to injury, free agency and under-performance that kept them from repeating their magical performance from 2010. Whatever the case, the San Francisco heads into the 2012 season looking to prove that in fact their championship achievement two seasons ago was not a fluke and that they are fully capable of contending for  another—that last season was actually the aberration.

    With that in mind, this spring training offers the Giants a fresh start to the year. Players are all healthy, recuperated and anxious to turn the page on a new season. So let’s take a look at six reasons why they will contend for the NL West title in 2012.

Leaner, Meaner Tim Lincecum

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    It’s hard to say that Tim Lincecum had a disappointing season in 2011. After all, he finished fifth in the NL in ERA (2.74), tied for third in strikeouts (220), fourth in opponents’ batting average (.220) and eighth in innings pitched (217.0). Not a bad campaign. Certainly any other pitcher would take those numbers.

    But as we all know, Lincecum is not an ordinary pitcher—he’s on a level that exceeds nearly everyone else in the league. Thus, by his lofty standards, last season was indeed a letdown.

    Just as it’s difficult to pinpoint one sole reason why Lincecum was so dominant in his 2008 and 2009 Cy Young Award-winning seasons, it’s equally hard to identify just one cause for his 2011 regression. What is his mechanics? How was his health? Was he bothered by contract issues? Did he need a haircut?

    There were a number of possibilities that fans and the media suggested contributed to his substandard season. But, basically, Lincecum’s performance last year was a byproduct of several key factors.

    Yes, his health was a concern—or rather, his physical condition was. Lincecum came into 2011 spring training some 25-plus pounds heavier than he was the previous season, hoping the added bulk would improve his endurance. Somehow, the additional weight seemed counterproductive and Lincecum labored through some tortuous starts, more so than he had in previous seasons.

    This spring training, however, Lincecum is back to his slender, slight self, weighing in at a lean 175 pounds. “I learned last season that I don’t play well with extra weight,” Lincecum stated. Confidently, his lithe build will enable him to regain his stamina and provide some zip back on his fastball, which has declined in velocity from his Cy Young campaigns.

    With a new two-year contract worth $40.5 million, signed this past offseason, Lincecum is safe and secure financially, as well. There should be no mental distractions off the field that will interfere with his re-toned physical condition on the field.

    Lincecum on an average day in an average baseball season is already daunting enough. But a leaner and meaner Lincecum? Watch out, National League.

Return of Buster Posey

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    Probably the most devastating injury in baseball last season was the broken ankle that Giants catcher Buster Posey suffered as the result of a home plate collision with the Florida Marlins’ Scott Cousins in late May.

    The sophomore signal caller was sidelined for the remainder of the season. Without the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year slotted in the middle of the Giants’ lineup, the offense was disabled, shattering the team’s playoff chances.

    Prior to his injury, Posey was batting .284, with four home runs and 21 runs batted in, in 45 games. Unfortunately, without him batting cleanup, San Francisco’s already anemic offense became emaciated, and the catcher position was one of the problems.

    In Posey’s stead, the Giants played Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart, and Hector Sanchez also saw some playing time. The three of them combined to hit .208 for the season, with seven home runs and 27 RBI. Oh, and they accumulated 12 errors between them. Ghastly numbers all around.

    But with spring training comes a rebirth, and Posey is eager to get back into the swing of things both at the plate and behind it. He can certainly hit in his sleep or in a wheelchair: But how soon can he rediscover his agility on the basepaths?

    How will his mobility behind the plate be? Controversy about whether he should block the plate or not is abound. But the most important thing is for Posey to regain his strength and find his physical form offensively. As of Tuesday, Posey declared himself to be at about 60 to 70 percent full speed.

    So far, Posey looks to be pretty much on schedule in terms of his recovery, though no timetable for his permanent return is set in stone as of yet. It’ll likely take him a few games this spring to reacquaint himself with the speed of the game. But in time, he’ll be back to his old form.

    Ultimately, even if it takes him a couple weeks or months in the season to get back to normal, the Giants will be better off with Posey in the lineup regardless. His mere presence on the roster and in the clubhouse will do wonders for a team that struggled so mightily in his absence.

    Just having him back can only improve their odds at competing for a division title.

A Healthy Brian Wilson

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    One of the strengths is the Giants’ 2010 title run was their devastatingly consistent bullpen, anchored by the bearded one, closer Brian Wilson.

    His 2011 season, however, was curtailed by a nagging right elbow injury, and his absence helped prove how vital he was to the team’s success. Although San Francisco was able to shuffle its relievers to fill his void, it was clear that his mere presence in the lineup was sorely missed.

    Despite his ailments, Wilson still posted 36 saves and six victories in 57 appearances. However, because of his ailments, he logged a 1.47 WHIP and 31 bases on balls. It was truly an up-and-down year for him.

    Now he is prepared and ready to regain his 2010 form. But, as with most serious elbow issues, the Giants’ coaching staff wants to make sure that Wilson is brought to speed at a comfortable rate. So far this spring, his bullpen sessions have been closely monitored. However, he has deemed himself to be pain-free, and he seems to be progressing right on schedule. CSNBayArea.com reports that Wilson will likely make his spring debut this weekend.

    Make no mistake, when he does return, he’ll be rarin’ to go. And a healthy Wilson this season will do wonders for a ballclub that ran out of gas down the stretch last year. With Wilson holding down fort in the ninth innings of games, the Giants are a better team. For a team that finds itself in a ton of close games, Wilson’s lethal fastball and wicked changeup show he can dominate the NL like nobody’s business.

    Otherwise, he’s just a dude with a really crazy beard.

Return of Freddy Sanchez

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    Notice a theme here? Last season, the Giants were not a healthy bunch. And those maladies affected their pitching staff—starters and bullpen—the defense behind them and obviously the offense.

    One injury that was overlooked for much of the season was that of second baseman Freddy Sanchez. His presence in the lineup and in the infield is invaluable to a ballclub that is relatively young.

    The three-time All-Star is a consistent hitter and is a perfect table setter in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. Last season, Sanchez hit .289, with 69 hits in 60 games played, before he succumbed to a dislocated right shoulder in July. The damage to his labrum required surgery in August, and, obviously, he did not return to the lineup for the remainder of the season.

    Although the Giants were able to make a deal midseason and plug in Jeff Keppinger, the lineup did not click as smoothly as it did with Sanchez in the two hole. Sanchez excelled, hitting .301 in 45 games batting second in the order. After he went down, San Francisco was unable to find the same chemistry to generate any significant offense.

    They threw out seven different players to man second base, and it was evident that the team just could not replace Sanchez effectively, both in the lineup and on the field.

    As of Tuesday, Sanchez is making his slow way back to full strength (he suffered a back spasm last week, setting him behind schedule). Although he has yet to appear in a spring training game, his return is imminent, according to Yahoo! Sports. However, because Sanchez has experienced several injuries throughout his San Francisco tenure, the Giants will move him along slowly.

    When he does come back, hopefully at 100 percent come Opening Day, San Francisco will be excited to have him back in the lineup. His is a solid hitter who handles the bat well, executes hit-and-runs and takes pitches for the leadoff hitter to steal bases. To be sure, with Sanchez batting second, the Giants will make a run for first place.

Stability at Shortstop Position

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    The shortstop position was a revolving door for the San Francisco Giants in 2011. San Francisco had signed veteran Miguel Tejada the previous offseason in order to provide some experience and stability. And yet four different players ended up starting more than 30 games at short last year. Yikes.

    Tejada played a bunch of games at shortstop and third base, but he was removed from the starting lineup when the Giants acquired another veteran midseason—Orlando Cabrera.

    That San Francisco had to go rely on these two aging infielders only proved how unconfident the team was in the efforts and progress of rookie Brandon Crawford. Although he had the young legs and springy step, Crawford’s bat was not up to par, as he clocked a .204 batting average last year, with three home runs and 22 runs scored in 66 games played.

    He obviously had to work through some growing pains, and it was to be expected that he fail more often than not. However, like most young hitters, he struggled demonstrating that he was not a platoon player. The left-handed hitting Crawford hit only .133 against lefties, with 12 strikeouts in 30 at-bats. Clearly he needs to work on his hitting in order to solidify a spot as the starting shortstop.

    And yet he was on par with what the other Giants shortstops did last year. Between Tejada, Cabrera, Crawford and Mike Fontenot, San Francisco shortstops batted .209, with seven home runs and a measly 46 runs scored.

    This season, the Giants have veterans Fontenot and Ryan Theriot to provide depth at the middle infield positions. It’s likely that Fontenot and Theriot will battle for the primary backup infielder, but it’s possible that they can come off the bench and start if Crawford is struggling.

    As of now, however, as long as Crawford can show any signs of modest offensive production, he’ll be etched as the Opening Day starter at short. This would provide tremendous amount of consistency to the lineup, which last season suffered stability at several positions in the field and the batting order. Hopefully Crawford can provide that constancy in 2012.

No More World Series Hangover

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    With a clubhouse as loose and full of charismatic and oddball personalities as the Giants have, it wasn’t surprising to suggest that part of the reason they failed last season was because of their collective World Series hangover from 2010.

    It's not that they were caught up in partying or were not serious about playing baseball in 2011. Rather, the team simply could not parlay their postseason success from their championship run into a longstanding dominant regular season.

    It just goes to show how magic can carry a team in October. And it is an example of how difficult it can be to make it to the playoffs at all, let alone repeat as World Series champions.

    Interestingly, according to the Press Democrat, the Giants have a history of World Series hangovers.

    That said, the fact that the clubhouse is so seemingly carefree and harmonious made it appear that the team was more casual than it actually was. The team was hit hard by the injury bug, as two of its best hitters—Buster Posey and Freddie Sanchez—each missed over 100 games due to physical ailments.

    The Giants' closer, Brian Wilson, was injured for much of the seasons, too, and several contributors form the 2010 championship run saw time on the disabled list last year (Cody Ross, Pablo Sandoval, Barry Zito, Nate Schierholtz, Andres Torres and Jonathan Sanchez, to name a few).

    More importantly was the matter-of-fact decline of some of their aging veterans, both offensively and defensively. Ross and Pat Burrell could not to match their surprising performances from the previous season, and the team simply did not meet the levels it had attained when it skipped through the World Series.

    Additionally, the losses of Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria to free agency meant the team had to create new chemistry, and that just did not happen. The offense was putrid all around, and the organization was unable pull enough strings to get them back into the playoff picture.  

    The 2012 season brings a brand-new growth of hope. With healthy bodies and a clean slate—not to mention the MLB’s decision to expand postseason—the Giants will excel again, and attempt to dominate the National League with their dynamic pitching and stellar defense. The only question will be whether the team can add enough punch to a league-worst offense, one that averaged a tick above 3.5 runs per game.

    An improvement will be a certainty, as the presence of Posey and Sanchez in the lineup can push the team to a couple more wins. The questions will be whether they can catch the defending division champions, the Arizona Diamondbacks, who also improved their roster this past offseason.

    All the answers about health and projected 2012 performances will come to light in Giants spring training. Until Opening Day arrives, San Francisco can simply enjoy the renewed sense of optimism for a return to the postseason and beyond.

     

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