There's only one team in baseball that isn't starting spring training out with a goal to do better this time around, and that's the San Francisco Giants.
After all, it doesn't get any better than a World Series victory, does it?
The Giants may disagree. One championship is good. Two out of three is very good. But two in a row and three out of four? That's even better.
But it's also really hard to pull off.
Thanks to what happened in 2011, the Giants know as well as anyone that it's not easy to repeat as World Series champions. It hasn't been done by anyone since the New York Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000, and the streak is only going to be broken this year if things go right for the Giants.
That involves abiding by the following 10-step plan.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
The team chemistry the Giants had in 2012 played a huge part in their run to the World Series, and it helped them easily overcome a dangerous Detroit Tigers team once they got there.
Giants GM Brian Sabean did everything in his power to keep the club's 2012 chemistry intact this offseason, re-signing Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and Jeremy Affeldt and waving goodbye to bad egg Melky Cabrera.
Meanwhile down south, the Los Angeles Dodgers were more aggressive in their offseason wheelings and dealings, re-signing Brandon League and bringing in Zack Greinke and Ryu Hyun-jin on monster contracts.
Brandon Belt is not impressed, for he thinks the Giants still have one thing the Dodgers don't.
“All I can say is, you can’t buy chemistry," said Belt at the team's fan fest this weekend, via Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com.
Them's fighting words, but them's also words that Belt and the rest of the Giants have to back up. It's been a long offseason, and picking up right where they left off won't exactly be easy seeing as how they left off at an incredibly high high.
Somehow, some way, the Giants have to reestablish the clubhouse atmosphere last season, and the sooner the better.
Once they have that taken care of, they can move on to other pressing matters.
Tim Lincecum had an ERA over 5.00 last season and was reduced to a bullpen role during the postseason. Not exactly par for the course when it comes to two-time Cy Young winners.
The Giants managed to win the World Series despite Lincecum's struggles in 2012, but they don't want to try that again. Their chances of repeating will be much better if Big Time Timmy Jim finds his form.
So far, so good. You have to take spring training testimonies from players for what they're worth, but Lincecum told Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News that he's feeling good.
"I definitely feel ahead of where I was last year," Lincecum said. "Last year coming in, I was trying to lose the weight [about 30 pounds] from where I was [in 2011]. This year I feel like I'm strong."
Increased strength may help Lincecum find some of the velocity he lost last year, which allowed hitters to sit on his fastball more than they'd been able to in the past. But location was also a problem for him, and it doesn't bode well for him that his walk rate has been steadily rising for four years.
Lincecum can't hold on to his velocity forever, so he would do well to actually out-pitch hitters rather than just overpower them.
If he can do both, then he stands to have a huge rebound year that will help both the Giants and his free-agent stock.
The Giants were looking for an offensive upgrade when they acquired Hunter Pence at the trade deadline last year. What they ended up with was a bundle of frustration.
Pence had a nose for the RBI in his time with the Giants down the stretch last year, but his hitting was wildly inconsistent. He had a mere .671 OPS in 59 regular season games, and then a .521 OPS in the postseason.
Pence's struggles had a lot to do with lapses in discipline. He walked in only 7.7 percent of his plate appearances with the Giants, striking out 24.2 percent of the time. Once pitchers got two strikes on him in the postseason, all they had to do was throw him an outside breaking ball and the battle was won.
If the Giants can get Pence's approach squared away, he should return to the form he showed between 2008 and 2011, when an average year for him consisted of an .815 OPS and 24 home runs.
The Giants would love to get that kind of production behind Buster Posey in their batting order, and such production would also set Pence up pretty well for free agency.
In addition, it would stop me from picking out goofy pictures of Pence whenever I write about him, a not insignificant bonus.
The time has come for that ultra-important question: How fluffy is Pablo Sandoval?
For now, the answer would appear to be that he's fluffier than he should be.
"He does need to get in better shape, from the overall sense," Brian Sabean told Nate Stuhlbarg of CSNBayArea.com.
"More than anything now," said manager Bruce Bochy, "It's time to bear down on the conditioning part, get a few pounds off."
So yeah, here we go again.
A clear pattern has developed to this point in Sandoval's career. When he was in shape in 2009, he hit. When he was out of shape in 2010, he didn't. In shape in 2011, hit. Out of shape in 2012, didn't hit.
To be fair, Sandoval was in decent shape by the time the postseason rolled around last year, and it showed. He compiled a 1.098 OPS in the 16 games the Giants played. He slugged six home runs, including three in Game 1 of the World Series.
If he's in shape from the very start this season, the Giants will get 2009/2011 Panda rather than 2010/2012 Panda. That version of him is good for a .900 OPS and roughly 25 homers.
And who doesn't want those things?
Buster Posey was better in 2012 than the Giants probably dared to dream, as he was writhing in pain the last time they saw him on a baseball diamond in May of 2011.
It's astonishing that Posey managed to play 148 games and then a full postseason slate, and even more astonishing that he won a batting title and an MVP.
The Giants would love more where this came from, but they may have to change some things in order to get their wish.
Posey told John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle that he wants to catch, but he also admitted that he sympathized with something Joe Mauer said about regretting catching so much early in his career due to all the nagging injuries he believed it caused.
Posey is similarly at risk of nagging injuries, and probably even more so coming off a heavy postseason workload. Giving him extra time at first base this year would be a good idea, and he can also DH regularly now that games at AL ballparks are going to be more routine.
The Giants have little reason to fear putting Posey at first more often. He had a 1.093 OPS when he played first in 2012, and he rated as a halfway decent defender there in the eyes of the advanced metrics (see FanGraphs).
The Giants know Posey is healthy. Now they have to keep him that way.
The Giants are pretty much set all over the diamond, but the one position that looks like a potential headache is left field.
Gregor Blanco is penciled in as the de facto starter on the team's official site, but the Giants brought in Andres Torres for depth purposes and Brandon Belt could also see some time in left.
Taken as whole, it's not a great mix. Blanco is a terrific fielder, but he doesn't bring much besides speed to the table on offense. Torres had a great year in 2010, but his .654 OPS over the last two seasons makes it look like a fluke. Belt can hit, but left field is certainly not his natural habitat.
From the look of things, the Giants may have to deal with a revolving door situation in left field all year long, with Blanco and Torres platooning for the most part and Belt occasionally playing left field when Buster Posey is at first. Offensive production will be hard to come by with Blanco and Torres, and defense will be hard to come by with Belt.
But things could pan out better than expected. Goodness knows that tends to happen with the Giants.
If not, Brian Sabean may choose to do something about it. And I think I know where he'll look...
The last two seasons have seen Brian Sabean make impact trades at the deadline, as he brought in Carlos Beltran in 2011 and Hunter Pence last year.
Neither trade had the desired effect, and you known Sabean would love to have the Beltran-for-Zack Wheeler trade back.
It hasn't been all bad, though. Sabean's smaller moves in 2010 and 2012 paid off in a big way.
Case in point, he grabbed Pat Burrell off the scrapheap in 2010 and watched him compile an .872 OPS and hit 18 home runs. He also acquired Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez for the bullpen, and they turned into big assets down the stretch.
Last year, Sabean got Marco Scutaro for nothing from the Colorado Rockies. He was one of the best clutch hitters in baseball down the stretch, and he was one of the team's best players in the postseason. It was his hit in Game 4, of course, that won the World Series.
The Giants are probably going to be linked to big-name players on the trading block as the season goes along, but pay attention when Sabean makes moves that go largely unnoticed on the national landscape. Odds are those are the ones that will pan out.
The last time the Giants took the field against an American League club, they bludgeoned the Tigers to smithereens and then broke out the champagne.
They made it look easy. In doing so, they made it easy to forget that they didn't play so well against the American League last year.
The Giants went 7-8 in interleague play, compiling a collective 4.95 ERA and a .627 OPS. They'll have to do a lot better than that in 2013 with interleague play set to be a regular occurrence.
The Giants don't exactly have the easiest interleague schedule either. Their list of American League opponents in 2013 includes the Toronto Blue Jays, Oakland A's, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
All five clubs will be looking to make the playoffs in 2013, and the Jays, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees hail from baseball's deepest division. They could give the Giants trouble.
But there's one team in particular the Giants should be worried about, and it's not in the American League.
Do not underestimate the Dodgers.
That means you, Brandon Belt. And (from what I can tell) all of you, Giants fans.
Yes, the Dodgers have an absurdly bloated payroll. And yes, the new ownership group doesn't seem to understand that there's more to winning than writing checks.
But the Dodgers are a talented team all the same, folks. With Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the top of their rotation, the Dodgers have a very strong starting pitching staff. Their offense will be equally strong if Adrian Gonzalez returns to form and good health finds Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp.
If things come together the way the Dodgers are hoping, they'll be a 100-win team in 2013, which would certainly burst the Giants' bubble.
More likely, it's going to be a dogfight between the Giants and Dodgers for the NL West title. Their head-to-head matchups will be crucially important, perhaps to a point where they'll be what decides the division in the end.
The Giants got the edge in 2012, winning 10 of 18 matchups. They'll need to do so again, as the last thing they want is to take their chances with the wild-card race. It's going to be crowded, and we learned in 2012 that the one-game playoff can be treacherous.
The injury bug didn't just take a bite out of the Giants the year after they won the World Series in 2010. It swallowed them whole.
The big blow came relatively early when Buster Posey was lost for the season late in the month of May, but he wasn't the only Giants played to hit the DL in 2011. It was a bloodbath.
Among the Giants who got placed on the DL throughout the course of the year were Santiago Casilla, Barry Zito, Andres Torres, Pablo Sandoval, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeremy Affeldt and Freddy Sanchez.
By the end of the year, the Giants may as well have taken to pulling fans out of the stands. They managed to stay in the NL West race until the bitter end, but they were pretty much out of it as far back as August.
The Giants are an extreme example, but reigning champions do tend to suffer waves of injuries that make life way more difficult than it should be. The Giants will be at risk of suffering the same fate in 2013.
They'll have to stay healthy. Or at least, healthier than they were by the end of 2011.
There's not much they can do about that, of course. All they can do is hope that the baseball gods are on their side.
Based on what's happened in the last three years, they just might be.
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