The San Francisco Giants are coming off a dream season in 2012. In the offseason, the organization decided to stick with the same winning formula that brought them its second World Series trophy in three years.
However, every new season presents new challenges. While the Giants enjoyed tremendous success in 2012, they have a long, 162-game road ahead of them. How they deal with the potential hurdles over the course of the season will determine their ability to repeat in 2013.
San Francisco's situation in the outfield presents the clearest obstacle.
While successfully re-signing center fielder Angel Pagan to a four-year, $40 million contract in the offseason, thereby solidifying a consistent presence at the position and an optimal leadoff hitter, there are still questions at the corner outfield positions.
Hunter Pence, a former All-Star right fielder, struggled at the plate in 2012, particularly once arriving in San Francisco. His bat will need to return in 2013, especially in his important role as Buster Posey's protector in the five-hole.
Left field is the weakest position at present for the Giants. Gregor Blanco and "newcomer" Andres Torres are sure to platoon in left field at the season's outset. However, both are inconsistent hitters—valuable for their speed and hot streaks at the plate. In 2012, Blanco batted .182 in March/April, .315 in May, .218 in June, .197 in July—and the inconsistency continued.
General manager Brian Sabean chose to go with a platoon strategy as opposed to shopping for a higher-priced free agent outfielder. Hopefully, that stingy spending will work to the Giants' advantage. If not, a trade, Pence-esque in fashion may be necessary as the All-Star break rolls around.
Another question mark going into 2013 is the pitching situation, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen.
Over the past three years, the Giants have succeeded in large part due to their stellar starting rotation. Matt Cain has been a model of consistency, finally rising up in the ranks to Cy Young candidate in 2012.
Madison Bumgarner has thrown with the maturity of a pitcher 10 years his senior since his MLB debut.
Ryan Vogelsong has flourished beyond everyone's expectations, and Tim Lincecum was one of the most feared pitchers in all of baseball—until 2012.
Both Lincecum and Barry Zito are the wild cards in the rotation going into 2013.
Zito's success in 2012 came in large part due to bolstered run support in most of his starts. His ERA last season (4.15) is only marginally better than his career ERA (4.47) while pitching in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Giants averaged 4.69 runs per start for the lefty.
While Zito pitched brilliantly in the postseason, throwing gems in both Game 5 of the NLCS and Game 1 of the World Series, he cannot depend on the same run support in 2013.
Worst case scenario—Lincecum's struggles continue, and the offense sputters with Zito on the mound.
The Giants have faced a similar challenge in the past.
Remember Jonathan Sanchez's struggles in 2009? At the time, the left-hander was designated to the bullpen, and perennial minor leaguer Ryan Sadowski was brought in as his temporary replacement. In 2013, the Giants may be forced to make a similar decision in regards to either Lincecum or Zito.
In the bullpen, Sergio Romo appears to be the closer going into 2013. Sabean silenced many fans still hoping for former closer Brian Wilson's return. In a recent New York Post article written by Anthony Sulla-Heffinger, Sabean stated:
“It's one of those things where it's very difficult trying to change somebody's mind, being [Wilson's], in that the organization owes him, and we do owe him a debt of gratitude, but this is a tough business and we certainly have to be financially responsible.”
Romo baffled ninth-inning hitters throughout the 2012 playoffs, enough so to earn the spot as closer. However, Romo has only averaged 57 innings per season in his career thus far, a number that will increase in 2013. His durability could become a problem next season.
Injuries are a worry for every team throughout a season.
The Giants have felt this pain in the past, especially after losing Posey to a season-ending ankle injury in 2011. Losing the young star proved too big of a hurdle for the 2011 Giants to overcome.
Still, the Giants were not immune to injuries to key players in 2012.
Wilson was out the entire year, eventually requiring a second Tommy John surgery. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval only played 108 games in 2012 after being sidelined by injuries.
In 2012, the Giants were able to fight through these key losses to their lineup.
They replaced Wilson with an effective closer-by-committee strategy, and utility infielder Joaquin Arias was able to provide temporary relief at third base. The rest of the offense picked up the slack.
Going into 2013, the Giants are painfully thin in depth at certain positions, primarily in the middle of the infield. Additionally, they cannot afford to lose a starting pitcher (or two) to injury or poor performance, as they decided against signing a sixth starter in the offseason.
Finally, the Giants will need to prove they did not overachieve in 2012. Second baseman Marco Scutaro must silence critics with the same consistent hitting that earned him the title of "blockbuster trade" last season.
First baseman Brandon Belt needs to build upon his solid second half and continue to develop a comfort level against major league pitching.
Brandon Crawford must exemplify Gold Glove worthy defense at shortstop. If Scutaro starts to show his age, and Belt and Crawford's progress begins to plateau, San Francisco's formidable lineup becomes too dependent on its stars' (Sandoval and Posey) continued success.
Ultimately, the nightmare situation for the Giants in 2013 is to prove the cynics right. If the G-men can overcome potential holes in the outfield, replace question marks in the rotation and bullpen with periods, continue to play well through seemingly devastating injuries and ignore the idea that certain position players overachieved in 2012, they will effectively silence the cynics.