Because the San Francisco Giants are coming off of their second World Series title in three years, they will be targeted around the league and will not be overlooked by any team.
So, it's safe to say that the defending champions have their work cut out for them in 2013, and it's also safe to say that the Giants have tons to do if they want to repeat as champions.
The Giants were in the midst of a heated battle for the NL West last year, and the Los Angeles Dodgers succumbed to them despite a flurry of big-name acquisitions at the trade deadline and the waiver trade deadline. The chemistry wasn't there, and while the Dodgers clicked at the very end of the season, it was too late.
In 2013, however, the Dodgers have much-improved team chemistry and games under their belt. Obviously, games aren't won on paper, but the Giants definitely have to be thinking about the Dodgers and how they can beat L.A. to win the NL West.
Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke head a talented pitching staff, and Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez lead a powerful, talented batting order bound to pile on the runs. The Dodgers are stacked, and if the team jells well, it could spell trouble for the Giants.
Even if the Giants get by the Dodgers and win the NL West, they have lots of work to do before reaching the World Series. The National League is chock full of great teams, such as the Reds, Nationals and Cardinals.
Cincinnati almost beat San Francisco in the NLDS last year, and it managed to outscore the Giants by four runs in five NLDS games. The Reds have lots of talent, and they acquired Shin-Soo Choo to add to their outfield, which will now consist of Choo, Jay Bruce and Ryan Ludwick, all great players.
As for the Nationals, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Dan Haren headline arguably the best pitching staff in baseball. Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche headline a very deep batting order, which also includes talented players such as Denard Span, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki.
St. Louis was pummeled by the Giants in the last three games of the NLCS, and during the seven-games series, San Francisco scored 35 runs, while the Cardinals managed a mere 18. Still, the fact remains that the 2011 World Series champions have Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, David Freese and Adam Wainwright and are still legitimate contenders.
At the moment, the best teams in the National League appear to be the Reds, Nationals, Giants, Cardinals and Dodgers. Last year, the Nationals obliterated the Giants, going 5-1 in the season series. That mark was highlighted by a 14-2 win in August, in which Ryan Vogelsong surrendered eight runs.
Washington is stacked as a team, and their No. 5 pitcher, Ross Detwiler, is still a very good pitcher who could easily be a No. 2 starter in other rotations. Detwiler works the corners and forces weak contact, which is why he posted a 3.40 ERA and a 10-8 record in 2012. The Nationals had a 3.33 team ERA, second in MLB.
Cincinnati had the fourth-best ERA, largely because of Johnny Cueto, its ace. Bronson Arroyo also often went deep into games, Homer Bailey broke out and Mat Latos continued to pitch well. In fact, all four of those players had an ERA less than 3.75, and Cincinnati's new fifth starter, Aroldis Chapman, posted a 1.51 ERA in the bullpen. He was also worth about 3.3 wins, according to wins over replacement (WAR).
Joey Votto was injured for a large chunk of the season, so the Reds offense didn't post huge numbers (.251 team batting average). However, with Brandon Phillips, Choo, Votto, Bruce, Ludwick, Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier and Ryan Hanigan starting for the Reds, Cincinnati's offense is sure to put up some good numbers.
Both the Reds and Nationals are stacked, and the same appears to be so with the Dodgers. However, Zack Greinke's career ERA is near 4.00, so he might not be a great pitcher for the Dodgers. Los Angeles has some question marks as well, such as at third base and second base. Currently, Luis Cruz and Mark Ellis hold down those positions. Cruz has an appalling .305 OBP (for his career), while Ellis hit just .258 in 2012 and is turning 36 on June 6.
San Francisco has to watch out for the Dodgers, but I think it will take time for the Dodgers to get going, and I also see the Giants being able to fend off the Dodgers with more collective experience. If the Giants win the NL West, it should surprise nobody.
However, I do envision the Giants having lots of trouble in the playoffs. The Reds and Nationals are much better on paper, and in the real games, both have dominated the Giants. San Francisco comes together and plays hard as a team every time the playoffs roll around, but that's not all it takes.
After both teams fell so close, the Nationals and Reds crave revenge. I believe they will get it, because both teams have some playoff experience under their belt and just have incredible teams. It's incredibly difficult to win three out of four championships, especially with such tough competition.
So, while the Giants will contend in 2013, they are going to fall short before the World Series.