Fans of the defending champion San Francisco Giants have a number of things to look forward this spring.
The top five storylines to watch are signs of a bounce back from Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence, the fitness of Pablo Sandoval, the battle for the final bullpen spot and the competition for the final spots on the bench.
Lincecum had a disastrous season in 2012. Only three qualified starters in all of baseball finished with a worse ERA, only one qualified starter delivered a quality start less often and only four qualified starters walked more hitters than Lincecum did last year.
Players have down years all the time, but rarely do they fall from grace as quickly and as far as Lincecum did last season. After winning back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, he was the ace of the staff on the Giants’ first championship team in 2010.
From 2008-2011 his combined ERA was 2.81. Last year, he nearly doubled that figure by putting up a 5.18 ERA, which cost him a spot in the postseason rotation.
This spring, Lincecum will be the key player to watch. Will he bounce back to the ace level he pitched at prior to last year? Will he continue to decline? Or, will he find a happy medium? Those questions will start to be answered in the coming weeks.
Like Lincecum, Pence is a key bounce back candidate to watch this spring. He never quite reached Lincecum’s heights as a player, but he was an All-Star caliber right fielder before the Giants acquired him.
Pence entered last season as a career .292/.343/.485 hitter. After a midseason trade from the Phillies, he hit only .219/.287/.384 over the final two months of the season with the Giants. He was an inspirational leader on the team, but he didn't produce at the plate. His attempted return to prominence will be another fascinating storyline to watch this spring.
Pablo Sandoval's fitness level
Sandoval enters spring training to more goodwill from fans than Pence or Lincecum because he was the World Series MVP last year. He blasted three home runs in Game 1 of the World Series to help propel the Giants to a four-game sweep. Sandoval’s postseason heroics were a godsend, but his regular season was decidedly mediocre by his standards.
He looked noticeably bigger last year after slimming down in 2011, spent time on the disabled list with two different injuries and hit only .283 after hitting .315 the year before. Sandoval’s fitness level this spring will go a long way towards determining what type of year he has in 2013.
He followed up his postseason heroics by winning the LVBP Championship Series MVP in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason, but it doesn’t appear that he’s lost any weight so far this winter.
Bullpen and bench
The Giants don’t have any battles for starting jobs this spring with the starting lineup and rotation just about set in stone. However, the bullpen and bench have openings that will likely be determined by spring performance.
The bullpen appears to have one opening behind incumbents Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, George Kontos, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez and Jose Mijares. The Giants claimed Sandy Rosario off waivers and signed Ramon Ramirez, Scott Proctor and Chad Gaudin to minor league deals to compete for the final bullpen spot. Former closer Brian Wilson remains a free agent, though it remains unlikely he will return to the Giants.
The Giants have three bench players under contract in backup catcher Hector Sanchez, outfielder Andres Torres and infielder Joaquin Arias. That leaves two openings for reserve jobs—assuming they keep five players on the bench as they did for most of last season.
The Giants claimed infielder Tony Abreu off of waivers and agreed to minor league deals with catcher Guillermo Quiroz, infielders Wilson Valdez and Kensuke Tanaka, and outfielders Javier Herrera and Cole Gillespie.
Minor league outfield prospects Francisco Peguero and Roger Kieschnick could also be given opportunities to make the roster this spring. Top prospects Gary Brown and Joe Panik probably won’t be given a shot to make the big league squad, but both players will be exciting to watch during spring training.
One of the many benefits of being a stable organization coming off of another World Series title is that the Giants' roster enters spring training without many question marks. Instead of having roster turnover, the Giants have stability. Thus, only a few spots are open at the back-end of the roster.
The Giants are paying Lincecum and Pence nearly $36 million combined next year, or nearly a quarter of the team’s payroll. Both players are young enough and talented enough to bounce back to the level of performance that earned them those salaries in the first place.
Signs of improvement from Lincecum and Pence, as well as the fitness of last year’s World Series MVP will be the most compelling storylines for Giants fans to watch this spring.