For the second time in three years, the San Francisco Giants will enter spring training with the feeling of being World Series champions.
However, there are still some questions that need to be answered and some concerns about the defending champions.
Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence were among the players who struggled last year, and while they both stepped up in the playoffs to help the Giants win the World Series, both have a lot to prove in 2013. While the Giants didn't make any major offseason moves, they gave out a lot of minor-league deals.
What does that mean? Every player who received one of those miniature contracts has a lot to prove in spring training.
Here are four battles within the team to watch for in 2013.
Casual baseball fans don't know Kensuke Tanaka, and casual baseball fans don't know Wilson Valdez is on the Giants, if they even know who he is at all. However, both have good chances of making the Giants 25-man roster.
Right now, the Giants have Brandon Belt, Marco Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Crawford and Joaquin Arias as infield guarantees, as the first four are infield starters and Arias is a very capable backup. However, the Giants will want another guy on the roster in case of injuries, and they can choose either Tanaka or Valdez.
Conor Gillaspie, Nick Noonan and Tony Abreu are also possibilities, although they are long shots. Abreu has a .252 batting average in almost 500 career at-bats, so he is capable of being on the roster. Gillaspie seems like a career minor leaguer. Noonan has a chance, and he was once compared to Chase Utley (via Baseball America) with more speed and athleticism, when Utley was in his prime years.
Valdez is a guy who often comes in as a defensive fill-in or pinch-runner, and he is a very good defensive player. In the last three years, Valdez hit .306 with RISP (runners in scoring position) and .364 with the bases loaded, both incredible marks. However, he is a career .236 hitter, and he is a limited offensive player who doesn't bring anything to the table that Marco Scutaro doesn't.
Kensuke Tanaka doesn't have those MLB numbers as he hasn't played an MLB game. However, Tanaka hit .303 in 2012 for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan, and while it's unrealistic to expect those numbers in the big leagues, Giants fans can expect Tanaka to play good defense and get some hits. He will be expected to get on base, as he reached 35.6 percent of the time in Japan over his career.
Tanaka is also a left-handed hitter, so he should have an edge to make the team there. However, he'll have to prove himself in spring training, and he will have to show the Giants that he has what it takes to be a capable pinch-hitter and occasional starter, or even a frequent starter against right-handed pitching.
Is that too much of Tanaka to ask? Maybe. It's going to take a good spring training showing first to allow him to be one of the 25 men to play for the World Series champions.
The Giants want to see this face more often in 2013.
2012 was almost like one giant nightmare for Tim Lincecum. How can a two-time Cy Young winner and a guy with a 2-0 World Series record flame out, lose 15 games and post a 5.18 ERA?
It's a puzzling question. However, what isn't puzzling is the fact that Lincecum needs to bounce back or he won't be getting the big bucks after the final year of his contract expires.
Lincecum bulked up in the offseason, gaining eight to 10 pounds, as the San Jose Mercury News states. Many people believe that Lincecum's extra weight will improve his fastball velocity. Lincecum couldn't set up his nasty off-speed stuff because of his lack of velocity, and I believe the extra pounds will help a lot.
Bleacher Report featured columnist Mark Reynolds talked about mechanical issues that were found and corrected, and those should help Lincecum rediscover his touch from his Cy Young years. However, if spring training doesn't go well and Lincecum is stuck at the back of the rotation, it could be bad for his confidence and for him as a pitcher.
The quirky pitcher has to be motivated, as he's heading into free agency with the potential to earn a huge paycheck or a much smaller paycheck. Lincecum has to be eager to get on the field, and he's ready to try out his new techniques.
But will they work?
I expect Lincecum to be ready to go and to bounce back, as he will be throwing new things at unprepared batters with more velocity. A lot of money is on the line, and even though he added another ring to his hardware collection, Lincecum will be more motivated than ever. Considering he still has some of the best stuff in the game, it's hard to see him failing for the second consecutive year.
However, if Lincecum struggles in spring training, it could spell trouble for the Giants.
Ramon Ramirez has a World Series ring with the San Francisco Giants, and after a disappointing season in 2012 with the New York Mets, he's back by the Bay looking for more.
But first, he needs to make the 25-man roster. And that's certainly no easy task.
Chad Gaudin, Mason Tobin and Scott Proctor were all signed by the Giants this offseason, and other relievers were promoted to the 40-man roster. While Gaudin and Proctor seem to be his only big threats, an impressive spring from any player could change that.
Gaudin was a Miami Marlin last year, and he posted a poor 4.54 ERA in 69.1 innings. Gaudin doesn't strike out many batters, and while he doesn't hand out tons of free passes, too many hitters reach base against him. It will take an impressive spring from him to overtake Ramirez, who has Bochy's trust, something that's huge in the Giant organization.
Proctor has postseason and league experience (1.50 career postseason ERA), but he hasn't exactly shined overall. His career ERA is 4.78, and in his last MLB year, 2011, he pitched over 40 innings and posted a horrific 7.14 ERA. Proctor has had some good seasons, and he recorded a 3.65 ERA and 18 holds in 2007, while his career record is 18-16.
Ramirez, on the other hand, is familiar with Bochy and the organization, and owns a decent 3.32 ERA, well over a run lower than the ERAs of Gaudin and Proctor. In the 2010 regular season over two months with the Giants, Ramirez posted a mind-boggling 0.67 ERA. In 2011, also with the Giants, his ERA was 2.62, another very good mark.
Right now, Ramirez is the favorite to make the roster, and while a lot can change before April, it's unlikely for Proctor or Gaudin to make the team. The Giants weren't expecting much from either, and they probably won't get much. Ramirez is an experienced pitcher who has good chemistry with the guys on the team, and that's huge on the Giants.
All of this should lead up to Ramirez making the team. However, in baseball, we never know. This is another big thing to watch for in spring training.
There's no doubt that Marco Scutaro and Barry Zito did tons to help the Giants win the World Series in 2012. However, in 2013, both will receive very good salaries, and in my opinion, both are being overpaid.
After a lot of huge hits and a great 2010 season in which he blasted 26 home runs and drove in 86 runs while hitting near .300, Aubrey Huff was rewarded with $22 million over two years. He rewarded the Giants by hitting .239 over two years with just 13 home runs in 599 at-bats.
I fear the same thing is going to happen with Scutaro, the clutch 37-year-old who is due $20 million over the next three years, a hefty contract for someone at his age. I expect it to be Scutaro's last major league contract, and I don't think it will end up being a good one for the Giants.
Barry Zito is under contract for one more year, the final of his seven-year, $126 million contract. According to fannation.com, Zito wants to be a Giant for life. However, he still needs to prove a lot in 2013, starting with spring training.
Zito made a lot of fans forget about his lucrative contract, which he had never quite lived up to. However, with the season on the line in Game 5 of the NLCS, Zito pitched 7.2 shutout innings. He then beat Justin Verlander by allowing one run in Game 1 of the World Series. Oh, and the Giants won the last 14 games he started.
Scutaro hit .361 in the regular season with San Francisco over two months and .328 in the playoffs, including the game-winning hit in the pivotal World Series game, in which he knocked in Ryan Theriot for the go-ahead run.
However, both still have to prove that they can live up to their contracts, and in Zito's case, that he can get another contract with the Giants. While spring training doesn't count towards the standings, it can increase or decrease confidence for any player, particularly these two. Also, both players need to be confident going into the 2013 season to start, and eventually finish, the season well.
Which makes Spring Training very important for Zito, Scutaro and every older San Francisco Giant.