The San Francisco Giants were riding high after their 2010 World Series title. Then it all went south in 2011, as a long list of injuries decimated the team. The Giants look to be healthy to start the 2012 season, and they seem armed with a steely resolve to recapture the NL West.
It all starts with pitching in San Francisco, as the Giants are led by two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum and their second ace, Matt Cain.
Madison Bumgarner and last year's surprise pitcher Ryan Vogelsong hold down the third and fourth spots in the rotation. Bumgarner, who is only 22 years old, looks poised to become a third ace on this pitching-rich team.
These top four starters were all at the top of the NL for best ERA. Vogelsong led the way with an ERA of 2.71, then Lincecum at 2.74, Cain at 2.88 and Bumgarner at 3.21. Playing in pitcher-friendly AT&T Park will also help this vaunted rotation in 2012.
Barry Zito is the fifth starter only because the Giants still owe him $46 million. However, if he again falters, look for Eric Surkamp to replace him by the All-Star break.
The bearded one, Brian Wilson, looks to be healthy after missing much of the second half of 2011 due to elbow problems. If he's healthy, he is one of the top closers in the National League. This also sets up the bullpen with very comfortable roles.
From the right side the Giants will feature Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. They are complemented by left handed relievers Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. This gives the Giants one of the best bullpens in all of baseball.
Last year the problem for the Giants was on offense. They had the worst offense in the National League, actually scoring 23 runs fewer than the next lowest team. The Giants averaged only 3.52 runs per game, yet they were still able to finish 10 games above .500.
The Giants have made some valuable additions to their offense in 2012. Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan arrived via the trade route. The Giants hope that Cabrera will be able to duplicate, or perhaps even improve on his 2011 season, when he hit .305 with 18 home runs, 87 RBI and 20 steals.
Pagan gives the Giants excellent speed at the top of the order, and I look for him to rebound from a sub-par year in 2011.
Pablo Sandoval missed five weeks of the season last year due to a broken bone in his hand. At the tail end of the year, the switch-hitting Panda also couldn't hit right handed, due to a bad left shoulder. Even with these injuries, Sandoval hit .315 with 23 home runs and 70 RBI.
Sandoval appears fully healthy, and I expect him to have a big year, especially with his RBI total. As long as he keeps his weight under control, the Panda is also a very good defensive player. He reported to camp a little heavier than the Giants wanted, but he has been working hard and should be fine.
The Giants have given the shortstop job to defensive whiz Brandon Crawford. He will definitely help the pitching staff with his glove and strong throwing arm.
If Crawford hits at all, it will be a bonus for the Giants. Crawford hit only .204 with an OBP of .288 in 2011, so clearly his bat needs a lot of work. He has looked good with the bat thus far in spring training, and if he can hit even .240, with an OBP in the .320 range, the Giants would take that.
At second base, Freddy Sanchez is still slowed by offseason shoulder surgery. He has yet to play in the field and may not be ready by Opening Day. The Giants signed Ryan Theriot as a utility infielder during the offseason, and if Sanchez can't go, expect Theriot to contribute at second base.
Aubrey Huff and Brandon Belt are competing for the first base job. It appears that Huff will open the season as the starter, and Belt will play some at first base and also in the outfield. Huff had a down year in 2011, but look for him to return to his 2010 form when he hit .290 with 26 home runs and 86 RBI.
Huff was embarrassed by his 2011 performance and is also in a contract year, so look for him to have a solid season. His track record of every other year being good also points to an upswing in 2012.
The most important player for the Giants' offense is catcher Buster Posey. His 2011 season came to an end on May 25th when he was badly injured in a collision at home plate. He has started catching games in spring training and barring any set backs, should open the season as the starting catcher.
Posey will return to the No. 4 spot in the batting order, which will put the entire lineup in much more comfortable spots. The Giants will be careful with Posey, and he will not catch every day. Look for him to get a fair share of time at first base, probably starting 30-40 games there.
The backup catcher will be very important for the Giants, as he will probably start 50-55 games. Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside are defensive-minded catchers, but neither can hit. Hector Sanchez is by far the best hitter and is improving defensively.
The Giants may opt to keep Sanchez in the minors to get more seasoning, but he may be ready now. I would like to see the Giants give him a chance because we know what Stewart and Whiteside can do and it's not enough.
The Giants will have a much more balanced lineup this year, from top to bottom. With their stellar pitching staff, they will again make a run at the division title. If they can stay relatively healthy, they are my pick to win it in 2012.
Projection: 94-78, 1st Place, NL West Division Champions