The San Francisco Giants won their second World Series title in three years last season, and there is plenty of optimism for the 2013 season as well.
The Giants were not without distractions on their way to the title, either. First, they dealt with the news that relief pitcher Guillermo Mota was suspended for 100 games for his second violation of MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.
Then, in mid-August, hot-hitting left fielder Melky Cabrera was also suspended, this time for 50 games for elevated levels of testosterone.
Seemingly undaunted, the Giants marched on, capturing the NL West Division title while riding the hot bats of catcher Buster Posey and second baseman Marco Scutaro. They would storm their way through the playoffs, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NLCS to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals and dispatching the Detroit Tigers in four straight to capture the World Series championship.
Over the offseason, the Giants largely took care of their own, re-signing key contributors from last year and adding a former World Series hero as well.
Here is how the Giants shape up entering the 2013 season.
2012 Record: 94-68
Key Arrivals (Courtesy of MLBDepthCharts.com): IF Tony Abreu - Waivers (KC); OF Andres Torres - Free Agent (NYM); RHP Sandy Rosario - Waivers (CHC).
Key Departures: C Eli Whiteside - Waivers (NYY); 1B/OF Xavier Nady - Free Agent (KC); OF Melky Cabrera - Free Agent (TOR).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
1. Matt Cain (16-5, 2.79 ERA, 1.040 WHIP)
2. Madison Bumgarner (16-11, 3.37, 1.114)
3. Tim Lincecum (10-15, 5.18, 1.468)
4. Ryan Vogelsong (14-9, 3.37, 1.228)
5. Barry Zito (15-8, 4.15, 1.389)
C: Posey (.336/.408/.549)
1B: Brandon Belt (.275/.360/.421)
2B: Scutaro (.362/.385/.473)*
3B: Pablo Sandoval (.283/.342/.447)
SS: Brandon Crawford (.248/.304/.349)
LF: Gregor Blanco (.244/.333/.344)
CF: Angel Pagan (.288/.338/.440)
RF: Hunter Pence (.219/.287/.384)*
*- Numbers with Giants.
Closer: Sergio Romo (R) (4-2, 14 SV, 23 HLD, 1 BLSV, 1.79 ERA, 0.85 WHIP)
Javier Lopez (L) (3-0, 7 SV, 18 HLD, 2 BLSV, 2.50, 1.42)
Jeremy Affeldt (L) (1-2, 2 SV, 16 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.70, 1.26)
Santiago Casilla (R) (7-6, 25 SV, 12 HLD, 6 BLSV, 2.84, 1.22)
Jose Mijares (L) (1-0, 7 HLD, 2.55, 1.25)
George Kontos (R) (2-1, 5 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.47, 1.05)
Shane Loux (R) (1-0, 1 HLD, 4.97, 1.62)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
The Giants sported the fifth-best ERA (3.73) from their starters in the National League last season. Lincecum's sub-par season helped elevate what had been the second-best rotation in 2011.
Cain clearly stepped up and took the reins as the ace, throwing the 22nd perfect game in MLB history along the way. At just 28 years of age there's no reason to think that Cain can't continue as one of the dominant right-handers in the National League.
Bumgarner is also maturing into an elite starter, significantly lowering his H/9 rate and WHIP last year, showing solid command of his secondary pitches and getting increasingly tougher against left-handed hitters (.208 BAA last year).
After a trying 2012 regular season, Lincecum underwent changes with a new haircut and a fresh outlook. Lincecum trained at Impact Performance in Bellevue, WA for much of the offseason, working out five to six days each week.
Lincecum is itching to put last year behind him and move forward in a positive direction.
Via Ann Killion of the San Francisco Chronicle:
"Last year was tough to swallow," he said. "When you're used to things going well and all of a sudden they're not going well, you start questioning yourself and doubting yourself. You start feeding off negatives and that turns into a spiral.
"I didn't want to go through last year again. So changing my work ethic and doing the things to take care of my job and not embarrass myself - that was my mind-set."
Vogelsong simply continues to impress after not notching a victory in the majors for six years. He followed up a stellar 2011 season with another impressive year, along with a 3-0 record and 1.09 ERA in the postseason.
Zito made fans forget his gaudy contract with his outstanding performance in the postseason as well. Zito enters the final year of that bloated contract, but would love to retire in a Giants uniform.
This is a rotation that has done much to impress over the past few seasons. But there are questions, namely with Lincecum. Will the change in offseason conditioning help him get back to the top of the heap? Can he get back to the level of dominance he displayed in 2008 through 2010, winning back-to-back Cy Young awards and leading the league in strikeouts all three seasons?
Can Zito replicate last year's success? His ability to bear down in the postseason and provide inspiration for the Giants in the NLCS has to have been a huge confidence booster.
In addition, depth is a major concern. If any of the Giants starters fall, there is little help on the horizon. Venezuelan-born Yusmeiro Petit made one start last year, but isn't viewed as a long-term solution as a starter.
The Giants have three terrific prospects in Kyle Crick, Chris Stratton and Clayton Blackburn. However, none of them are expected to have impact at the major league level until mid-2014 at the earliest.
Eric Surkamp is lost for most of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in late July.
General manager Brian Sabean will have to keep his cellphone at the ready should any of his starters fail to stay healthy through the entire season.
Given another year of good health, this is a rotation that matches up well with any in the National League.
Scouting the Bullpen
While the Giants bullpen ranked eighth last season with a 3.53 ERA, it's a unit that returns intact with veteran arms who have been through the trenches.
In the postseason, Giants' relievers were particularly stingy, combining for a 2.36 ERA.
Manager Bruce Bochy will have plenty of options. Romo thrived in the closer's role, posting a sterling 0.84 ERA with four saves in the postseason.
When Bochy needs to rest Romo, he can turn to Affeldt or Casilla. Both have experience closing games and can easily be called upon in a pinch. Lopez thrives as a lefty specialist and Mijares held left-handed batters to a .211 average as well.
Kontos showed remarkable consistency in his first full season. Bochy will have no problem in calling on Kontos more often in 2013.
Chad Gaudin, Mason Tobin, Ramon Ramirez and Scott Proctor were all invited to camp to compete for the final bullpen spot. Internal candidates Heath Hembree, Dan Otero, Jean Machi and Brett Bochy could all get shots as well.
It's clear that the Giants have moved on from Brian Wilson—their overall depth and the emergence of Romo saw to that. This unit will have the chance to build on the success seen during the postseason and serve as an outstanding support unit for the rotation.
Scouting the Hitting
Despite finishing dead-last in the majors with 103 home runs, the Giants finished a respectable sixth last year in the National League in runs scored. That's a far cry from their last-place showing in 2011.
Posey and Sandoval provide the pop for sure, and Pence has the capability of providing a 20 HR/100 RBI season as well. How much of an effect AT&T Park has on Pence over a full year remains to be seen.
Torres, a 2010 postseason hero, returns home to platoon with Blanco in left field. It's hard to imagine that Scutaro can replicate his second-half numbers, but the Giants will take any reasonable facsimile.
Posey is the spark that drives the offense. His MVP Award became almost an afterthought after closing with a .385 average, 14 HR and 60 RBI after the All-Star break. Posey's OPS+ of 172 led the majors, and it's clear that his surgically-repaired ankle will pose no threat in the future.
Belt finished strong as well, hitting .293 in the second half and looking much more like the hitter the Giants envisioned when they selected him in the fifth round of the 2009 MLB draft. The Giants would love to see Belt continue his development, providing more protection from the No. 6 hole.
All in all, the Giants' offense and each player's role is much more defined than in recent years. Belt's emergence eliminates the need for a platoon at first and Scutaro provides stability as well. Bochy will use matchups to determine who starts in left field each day, but for the most part he'll have a steady and productive lineup to march out there on a daily basis.
In logging his sixth-straight season with at least 200 innings pitched, Cain has established himself as the go-to guy in the Giants' rotation.
Cain showed remarkable consistency throughout the season, faltering only slightly in the month of July with a 3.86 ERA in four starts.
The key to Cain's dominance is his control. Cain has cut his walk rate almost in half since his first full season, down to just 2.1 per nine innings last year. The development of his two-seam fastball and changeup gives Cain four pitches (four-seamer, slider) that he can use at any time with confidence.
His dominance on June 13 against the Houston Astros was a perfect example. Cain struck out 14 batters on the night of his perfect game, matching a record set by Sandy Koufax in his perfect outing in 1965.
It wasn't just the 14 strikeouts that stood out—it was the fact that Cain could throw any pitch at any time in any count. Trusting your stuff is not always easy to do, but Cain has clearly gotten to that point with his repertoire.
Cain has now totaled over 1,500 innings in his career at just the age of 28. But in Cain's case, there is little concern of a future breakdown. His repeatable delivery was a big attraction when he was originally drafted back in 2002.
It's that clean delivery that will continue to serve Cain well as he progresses into the next decade.
If anyone had any questions about Buster Posey and his return early in the 2012 season, they certainly don't now.
The gruesome injury that Posey suffered in May 2011 at the time threatened his future behind the plate. A broken fibula and surgery to repair three torn ligaments meant a long period of rehab and questions regarding his future effectiveness as a catcher.
Posey answered those questions with a bang.
Posey has now collected a Rookie of the Year Award, a batting title and an MVP Award in his first two full seasons.
Oh yeah, and two World Series titles as well.
In fact, the Giants have had superstars such as Christy Mathewson, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Barry Bonds.
None of them have more rings than Posey.
It's the maturity beyond his years that impresses just about everyone. While he's never been named the captain of the Giants, he is clearly their leader.
Back in August 2010, Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wrote an article about the poise of Posey.
According to Kepner:
When Buster Posey was a junior at Florida State, Mike Martin Jr., the assistant coach, told scouts what to expect if they drafted him.
“Mark my words: he’s Jason Varitek behind the plate andas a hitter,” Martin said. “He gets inside the ball like he’s Jeter, and he runs the show like he’s Varitek — and he cares, like both of them do. That’s what you’re getting.”
The Giants have certainly gotten that and a whole lot more.
Pence struggled somewhat at the plate upon his arrival in San Francisco last July. His .219 average with the Giants was 66 points below his .285 career mark.
Pence still delivered, however, collecting 45 RBI in his 59 games.
In his six seasons, Pence has averaged 23 HR and 86 RBI. At pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, the Giants would be thrilled with those numbers in 2013.
Pence will also be playing for a new contract, making $13.8 million this season in his final year of arbitration. Whether or not the Giants can afford him beyond this season is another question entirely, but they should be benefited with Pence playing for a long-term deal regardless.
Pence's raw emotion can't be understated, either. His impassioned postseason speeches fired up his teammates and his pleas to never give up on each other were met with equal excitement and aplomb.
Pence may be too pricey for the Giants beyond this season, but they'll take his talents and run with them in 2013 for sure.
Prospect to Watch
Sometimes, being the manager's son has its perks.
The Giants selected Brett Bochy with their 20th round pick in the 2010 MLB draft. It wasn't just a favor afforded to manager Bruce—young Brett was outstanding at the University of Kansas.
Bochy caught the eyes of scouts after striking out 54 batters in 37.1 innings as a junior in 2009. The following year, Bochy was well on his way to an outstanding senior season, posting a 2-0 record in 12 appearances and holding opposing hitters to a .117 batting average.
However, Bochy's final college season was cut short by elbow pain that required Tommy John surgery. Despite the setback, the Giants saw enough to draft him regardless.
In two seasons in the minor leagues, Bochy has posted a stellar 2.05 ERA in 71 relief appearances, with 24 saves, a 0.834 WHIP and 11.9 K/9 rate.
Bochy is one of 17 pitchers who are non-roster invitees to spring training. The Giants have 37 pitchers in all reporting this spring, largely because more arms are needed with the World Baseball Classic being conducted in March.
However, Bochy has moved quickly through the minor league system already. With the Giants in need of a solid seventh man for their bullpen, he could make his father's decision very difficult come the end of March.
What the Giants Will Do Well
Even with the MVP season from Posey and the exploits of Scutaro during the posteason, the clear strength of the Giants comes from its pitching staff. That shouldn't change in 2013.
Surprisingly, the Giants last year led the league in runs scored when runners were in scoring position. Expect more of the same, especially with a full season from Pence and Scutaro.
The Giants also finished third in the league with a .272 average against left-handed pitchers. With a relative dearth of home run power, any advantage they can gain against southpaws is a plus.
What the Giants Won't Do Well
Bench strength could be a real concern for the Giants in 2013.
Catcher Hector Sanchez certainly proved his worth, hitting .280 in 72 games serving as Posey's backup. Joaquin Arias will likely return as the super-utility infield guy as well.
Kensuke Tanaka, Wilson Valez, Abreu, Conor Gillaspie and Nick Noonan will do battle for a spot as well.
Francisco Peguero will battle for the final outfield spot, but the Giants have indicated that top position-player prospect Gary Brown will get considerable time this spring. While it's more likely that Brown will start the season in Triple-A, a lack of depth and a solid showing could prove otherwise.
While Sanchez and Arias each provide skills important to the Giants, the rest of the bench is lacking.
The Giants started spring training at Scottsdale Stadium returning all but four members of last postseason's roster. Many of the position players arrived well ahead of schedule, eager to get started on the defense of their World Series title.
"This is what you miss the most in the offseason," Javier Lopez told Chris Haft of MLB.com. "You miss the clubhouse; you miss the camaraderie. It's nice to be back and be able to shoot the bull with each other. There are so many familiar faces that are back, we're kind of picking up where we left off. It's nice to see the new haircuts and style trends and see who's driving what."
No doubt the Giants have been reading about their rivals to the South—the Los Angeles Dodgers—and all of their wheeling and dealing and free-spending.
But first baseman Belt responded to the Dodgers' spending spree at the Giants' FanFest last week, telling the crowd, “All I can say is, you can’t buy chemistry.”
While Belt's comment served to fire up the locals and provide a soundbite, there is truth behind his statement. Chemistry can never be understated, and the Giants have that in abundance.
Projected Record: 94-68, first in NL West.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.