If the San Francisco Giants are going to win their third World Series title in the last four years this season, they'll want to win the National League West first to avoid the randomness of the one-game Wild Card playoff.
In order to win the NL West, the Giants are going to need to overcome the difficulty of playing every game with a target on their back as the defending champions. Two years ago, after winning the World Series in 2010, that pressure ultimately seemed to wear the team down as the summer went on.
Even if Buster Posey had stayed healthy in 2011, that might not have been enough to overcome the Arizona Diamondbacks—who finished eight games ahead of the Giants in the final standings.
The Diamondbacks regressed by 13 wins last season, but they should be better after an offseason makeover. The Los Angeles Dodgers should also be improved this year as long as they can keep new additions Adrian Gonzalez, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez healthy and effective. A full season of incumbent star Matt Kemp would help as well.
The San Diego Padres won a surprising 76 games last year. They should continue to improve with better health in the rotation and continued growth from their youthful lineup. The Colorado Rockies lost Troy Tulowitzki for the year early last season. Even if they can't be considered a legitimate contender, keeping him on the field would significantly improve that club.
With the rest of the NL West coming hard after the defending champions, the Giants will need a new blueprint for a repeat. That blueprint is getting bounce-back years out of Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence, keeping Pablo Sandoval healthy and getting continued improvement from Brandon Belt.
From 2008-2011, Lincecum went 62-36 with a 2.81 ERA. He won two Cy Young awards and helped propel the team to a championship in 2010. Last year, he went just 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA as his walk, home run and hit rates all shot up.
If Lincecum can get back to where he was in 2011 when his ERA was 2.74, that would go a long way towards making up for any regression amongst the other players on the roster.
While spring training results should be taken with a grain of salt because of the thin air and hard fields down in Arizona, his early results are not encouraging. Lincecum has allowed 11 hits, four walks and eight earned runs over 7.2 innings in the Cactus League while also dealing with a blister issue.
After getting his fastball up to 94 miles per hour in a start last Tuesday, Lincecum pitched between 88-91 MPH in his latest start on Sunday. He also struggled to command his fastball.
Instead of driving the ball down to the knees, he was around the waist or above all game. When his fastball is up in the zone, it seems to lose movement as well. His curveball and changeup were both very good at times, but he'll need to do a better job of setting up those pitches by throwing quality strikes with his fastball.
On the bright side, Pence is tearing up the Cactus League. He's hitting .333/.378/.619 with eight extra-base hits in 42 at-bats thus far.
On Sunday, Pence had three straight opposite field hits. That's a great sign for a player who constantly pulled off the ball during his disappointing second half last season.
After a mid-season trade, Pence hit just .219/.287/.384 with the Giants, though he did manage to drive in 45 runs and deliver key inspirational speeches throughout the miraculous postseason run.
Pence entered last season as a lifetime .292/.343/.485 hitter. Thus, his second half swoon with the Giants is clearly the outlier.
If Pence can replicate his career statistics, that would help offset the offensive drop-off the Giants will endure in left field. Melky Cabrera hit .346/.390/.516 before a mid-August PED suspension ended his Giants' tenure last season.
The platoon of Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres will provide speed and defense, but there's no way those two can combine to hit anywhere near .346. Of course, if Blanco and Torres aren't up to the task, general manager Brian Sabean could swing a deadline deal to upgrade that position. Sabean showed his ability to do just that last season when he acquired Pence to replace the light-hitting Blanco and Nate Schierholtz in right field.
The Giants need Sandoval healthy for a full season in 2013. The Panda played in just 117 games in 2011 as he dealt with a broken right hamate bone and then a sore shoulder. He followed that up by getting on the field for only 108 games last year as he broke his left hamate bone and then pulled a hamstring.
Sandoval was scratched from Sunday's game with a right elbow injury that required further testing on Monday. Luckily, Sandoval and manager Bruce Bochy don't think the injury is serious.
As Sandoval continues to deal with nagging injuries, one can't help but wonder if his weight issues are the culprit. The broken hamate bones were probably due to the overuse associated with swinging a bat, but these other mounting injuries could be the result of his body starting to break down.
The Giants need Sandoval on the field for his production out of the number three spot in the lineup. The 26-year-old Sandoval is a lifetime .303/.353/.490 hitter, and the 26-year-old cleanup-hitting Posey is a lifetime .314/.380/.503 hitter.
Having that young duo healthy and effective for a full season in front of a rejuvenated Pence would give the Giants their most potent middle of the order since the days of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.
Belt appears ready to take another step forward in the sixth spot of the lineup. He's hitting .404 with eight extra-base hits so far in spring training play. The 24-year-old Belt raised his batting average by 50 points over his rookie season last year.
Watching him on Sunday, he looked much more comfortable, confident and fluid at the plate. Last year, he often looked like he was pressing. He would get himself locked up, cut off his power and go into long slumps as a result.
At 6'5" and 220 pounds, he should hit more than the seven home runs he managed last season. Based on his spring performance and outstanding finish to last year, Belt looks poised to improve further in his third big league season.
Posey might not be able to hit .336 again, and the Giants aren't going to get much offense out of left field—barring a trade. However, with improved seasons form Sandoval, Pence and Belt, the offense will be just as good as it was last season.
And if Lincecum bounces back to his pre-2012 levels, it won't matter how much money the Dodgers spend or how much the rest of the NL West improves.
If Lincecum pitches like an ace again, the Giants are going to run away with this division. His spring numbers aren't encouraging, but his track record speaks for itself.
(All statistics cited in this article are from Baseball-Reference.com.)