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Complete San Francisco Giants 2014 Season Preview

Dan MoriCorrespondent IMarch 27, 2014

Complete San Francisco Giants 2014 Season Preview

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    Buster Posey hopes to lead the Giants back to the World Series.
    Buster Posey hopes to lead the Giants back to the World Series.Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco Giants have high hopes for the 2014 season. After finishing the 2013 season with a record of 76-86, general manager Brian Sabean had to make some changes.

    He brought in veteran pitcher Tim Hudson, who will be an upgrade to the Giants starting rotation. Hudson should benefit from pitching half of his games at the spacious AT&T Park, which also has a slow infield, ideal for a sinker-ball pitcher.

    In addition, Michael Morse was signed and will open the season as the starting left fielder. If he can stay healthy, Morse's presence will add a powerful bat to the Giants lineup.

    Sabean also signed several Giants players whose contracts were up after the 2013 campaign. Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, Javier Lopez and Ryan Vogelsong remain with the Orange and Black.

    Those four players were integral to the Giants' world championship run in 2012, and the hope is that they can recapture the magic in 2014.

    Let's take a closer look at the Giants and their outlook for the 2014 season.

    All regular-season stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Spring training stats are courtesy of MLB.com. Contract information is courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com.

Spring Training Recap

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    Pablo Sandoval reported to camp in far better shape than he was last year.
    Pablo Sandoval reported to camp in far better shape than he was last year.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Spring training for the Giants has largely been uneventful, and that's the way manager Bruce Bochy likes it. There has been no drama, and almost everything has progressed smoothly.

    When the biggest news of the spring surrounds a one-week visit by Barry Bonds as a guest batting instructor, you know the scribes are hungry for stories.

    Pablo Sandoval lost roughly 30 pounds this winter according to Henry Schulman of SFGate. His improved physical condition should help his bat speed. A big difference will be his improved quickness on defense.

    Sandoval's improved physical condition should also help him avoid the nagging injuries that hampered his legs when he carried the extra weight. 

    Sandoval's contract expires at the end of the season, so look for him to have a big year in order to try to get a lucrative deal. If he gets that big deal, only time will tell if he reverts back to his bad habits and his out-of-control weight issues return..

    The starting pitching staff is set and has looked very good overall. Opening Day starter Madison Bumgarner has not allowed a run in 17 innings. Matt Cain has thrown the ball well, and so has Tim Hudson.

    Hudson also brings a wealth of experience to his new home in San Francisco.

    Tim Lincecum is coming off two poor seasons. His velocity has dropped, so he must learn how to get opposing hitters out by getting them to hit his pitches.

    In recent years, Lincecum's pitch count has soared early in games, as he was always going for the strike out. If he can get batters out earlier in the count and save pitches, he will be able to pitch deeper into games.

    The only starting pitcher to struggle has been Ryan Vogelsong. Opposing batters are hitting .362 off him, and in 15 innings, he has allowed 15 earned runs. The Giants will need a much better performance from Vogelsong, once the season gets underway.

    Buster Posey reported to camp in great shape according to Alex Pavlovic of The Mercury News. He tailed off badly in the second half of the season, so hopefully the added strength and fitness will keep him stronger over the course of the year.

    Marco Scutaro's ailing back has not allowed him to play very much at all. It looks like he will open the season on the DL according to Schulman. Joaquin Arias would likely start at second base.

    The other backup infield job was a battle between Tony Abreu, Ehire Adrianza and Brandon Hicks. This has been a merry-go-round. Abreu was hitting only .179 and the Giants recently cut him.

    Adrianza is the best defensive player, but he has not hit. Adrianza is hitting only .205, and is a career .248 hitter in eight minor league seasons.

    Adrianza is out of minor league options, so if he does not make the Opening Day roster, he could be claimed by another team prior to being sent to the minors. He is only 24 years old, which also factors into his upside potential.

    Hicks has hit the ball with authority. His batting average is .421, and his OPS is 1.373. Of his 16 hits this spring, 10 are for extra bases, including three home runs.

    Hicks is likely to have earned a spot on the roster, but the final cuts have not yet been decided. At this point, one extra roster spot could open up for him or Adrianza if Scutaro opens the season on the DL.

    Young reliever Heath Hembree, who I originally had making the roster, was sent down.

    Other young players made favorable impressions, although they will most likely open the season in the minors. Those players include pitchers Edwin Escobar, Kyle Crick and Erik Cordier. Young third baseman Chris Dominguez also impressed with a .385 batting average and a .855 OPS. 

    Reliever Derek Law came out of nowhere and has a legitimate chance to make the Opening Day roster. Law has never pitched above the High-A level, but he throws strikes and continues to excel.

    In his last stint in the minors with San Jose, Law struck out 45 and walked only one in 25.2 innings of work. His ERA was 2.10, and his WHIP was 0.818. 

    Law features a quirky delivery in which he turns his back completely to the hitter, much like Gene Garber or Luis Tiant of years past. His pitches are hard to pick up, and when opposing hitters see him for only one at-bat, he is very tough to hit.

    One of the other feel-good stories of the spring is Mark Minicozzi. At the age of 31, the journeyman player got off to a hot start this spring. After toiling in relative obscurity in various minor league towns for the past nine years, Minicozzi hit two early home runs this spring.

    He tailed off as the spring progressed, but he did well enough to earn a spot in Fresno, the Giants' Triple-A affiliate.

    If Minicozzi plays well and something happens to Brandon Belt, Minicozzi has a chance to be called up and make his big league debut after countless bus rides to obscure towns along the minor league circuit.

    The Giants got a lot of good work in this spring and seem poised for a solid 2014 season. 

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Marco Scutaro's bad back is the Giants' biggest health concern.
    Marco Scutaro's bad back is the Giants' biggest health concern.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    In 2013, the Giants' season was derailed by injuries to several key players. If the Giants are to compete for a division title and the postseason in 2014, this team must stay healthy.

    In general, the spring yielded no devastating injuries for the Giants like what transpired with the Braves' Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy or the Diamondbacks' Patrick Corbin. Nevertheless, there are some concerns.  

    Marco Scutaro has been very limited this spring due to an ailing back. At the time of this writing, Scutaro had played in only one spring game.

    Scutaro has had periodic back issues throughout his career. He is 38 years old, and it looks like this could be a chronic problem throughout the season. At best, it appears as though Scutaro could play in two out of three games, giving his back rest and treatment on the off day.

    However, there is also the distinct possibility that Scutaro could spend multiple stints on the DL. 

    The news on Michael Morse and Angel Pagan is more optimistic. Morse, who was battling a right calf strain, is back in the lineup. 

    In a recent post on SFGate, Giants beat writer Henry Schulman provided this update on Morse, Pagan and Scutaro.

    Update: Scutaro just had injection in back. Bochy still hopes he can play by the weekend. Need to make a call soon to protect retroactive DL days. Bochy pegs Opening Day chances 50-50.

    Pagan also returned to action last Thursday and played center field. He was dealing with back tightness, which kept him out for a few days.

    The Giants need Pagan in good shape and producing at the top of their batting order as well as playing good defense in center field. When Pagan missed several months in 2013 due to a hamstring injury, the Giants' offense struggled.

Lineup Preview

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    Hunter Pence played in all 162 games for the Giants in 2013.
    Hunter Pence played in all 162 games for the Giants in 2013.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Giants lineup is fairly well set at this stage of the spring. Barring any unforeseen calamities, here are the eight starting position players:

    C Buster Posey

    1B Brandon Belt

    2B Marco Scutaro or Joaquin Arias  (Scutaro's injury situation has this spot a bit cloudy.)

    3B Pablo Sandoval

    SS Brandon Crawford

    LF Michael Morse

    CF Angel Pagan

    RF Hunter Pence

     

    The Giants are expected to carry 12 pitchers, so that leaves five reserve jobs:

    C Hector Sanchez

    IF Joaquin Arias (unless he is starting and Scutaro is on the DL)

    IF Brandon Hicks

    OF Gregor Blanco

    OF Juan Perez

    If Scutaro opens the season on the DL, that opens one roster spot, which will go to either Ehire Adrianza or Tyler Colvin. The best bet here is that Adrianza will win the job. Being out of minor league options, Adrianza could be claimed by another team.

    Barring injury, this Giants lineup is much stronger than last year's lineup. In left field, Michael Morse is a huge upgrade over the platoon of Blanco and Andres Torres.

    The Giants should also see improved performances from Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, as both are in excellent shapefar better than in 2013.

    Young starters Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford should also be improved. Belt had a big second half of 2013 after making some much-needed adjustments to his stance and swing.

    The Giants signed Belt to a one-year, $2.9 million contract, thus avoiding an arbitration hearing.

    This year's lineup will be better than last year's lineup as long as players stay healthy. There is decent depth with the first set of reserves, but there's precious little in the minor league system in terms of young position players ready to make the jump to the majors. 

    Solid defense will also be important, as second base, left field and center field could be problem areas. The pitching staff is good, but poor defense can unravel even the best pitchers.

    At this point in the spring, the outlook is good, and there is plenty of optimism as the Giants embark on their quest to return to the World Series. It is an even-numbered year, after all.

Rotation Preview

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    Madison Bumgarner will start on Opening Day.
    Madison Bumgarner will start on Opening Day.Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    The starting rotation is healthy and set to open the season. The rotation will look like this:

    1. Madison Bumgarner

    2. Matt Cain

    3. Tim Hudson

    4. Tim Lincecum

    5. Ryan Vogelsong

    Giants' beat writer Henry Schulman reports the following on SFGate about the rotation and lineup.

    Bumgarner, who is still only 24 years old, has ascended to the position of staff ace. He was the Giants' best pitcher in 2013 and has earned this role.

    In 2013, Bumgarner threw 201.1 innings and allowed only 146 hits and 62 walks while striking out 199. His ERA of 2.77 and his WHIP of 1.033 were the best of his career. Bumgarner also made his first All-Star Game last year.

    He has also been amazing this spring. At the time of this writing, Bumgarner had thrown 17 innings and not allowed a run. He had a record of 13-9 last year and should do even better in 2014.

    Matt Cain is the second starter, and he is coming off a mediocre season by his standards. It was really the tale of two halves for Cain last year.

    Prior to the All-Star break, Cain threw 112 innings with an ERA of 5.06. He was plagued by the long ball, allowing 16 home runs in that period. After the break, Cain pitched 72.1 innings with an ERA of 2.36 and allowed only seven home runs.

    If Cain can be the stellar pitcher he has been the past few years, avoiding the stumble he endured in the first half of 2013, he will provide a solid presence for the Giants in that spot of the rotation.

    Tim Hudson was the Giants' biggest free-agent acquisition from outside the organization. He signed a two-year, $23 million deal.

    Hudson is coming off a devastating ankle injury sustained in July of 2013. Although he's still not at full strength, Hudson is ready to open the season and has had no setbacks this spring. 

    A healthy Hudson should thrive at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. Also, his veteran leadership and experience will be valuable to the younger pitchers.

    Tim Lincecum is coming off two poor seasons, but there is reason for optimism. As he learns how to pitch to contact and how to get hitters out earlier in the count, Lincecum will be able to pitch deeper into games.

    Lincecum does not have the velocity he did earlier in his career, so he needs to do a better job spotting his pitches and keeping hitters off balance.

    Lincecum appears, to my own eyes, to be in the best shape of his career. Schulman reports that Lincecum threw much more than in previous winters, and his mechanics are in much better order at this point of the spring. Although he had a shaky outing in his two most recent starts, Lincecum looks poised to have a good year.

    The biggest question mark on the Giants staff is the fifth starter, Ryan Vogelsong.

    After posting excellent seasons for the Giants in 2011 and 2012, Vogelsong had a terrible 2013 campaign. He struggled with his velocity and command early on and then suffered a broken finger when he was hit by a pitch while batting.

    Vogelsong returned late in the year but still did not have the command he needs to be effective. The trend has continued into the spring, as Vogelsong has been very inconsistent.

    In 15 innings of work, Vogelsong has allowed 25 hits and two walks while striking out 10. His ERA has ballooned to 9.00 with a WHIP of 1.80. Opposing batters are hitting .362 off him.

    Vogelsong will need to get off to a strong start this season, or, at the age of 36, could be facing his pitching mortality.

    On paper, the Giants starting rotation is one of the best in the National League. They just need to perform up to their capabilities. If they do that, the Giants will be right in the mix for a postseason berth.

Bullpen Preview

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    Sergio Romo had 38 saves in his first full season as the Giants' closer.
    Sergio Romo had 38 saves in his first full season as the Giants' closer.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Manager Bruce Bochy is one of the best in baseball when it comes to getting the most out of his bullpen. The Giants currently have five of their seven bullpen slots pretty much set, with two remaining jobs available.

    Let's take a look at how the Giants bullpen will most likely look on Opening Day:

    CL: Sergio Romo

    Santiago Casilla

    J.C. Gutierrez

    Javier Lopez

    Yusmeiro Petit

    Jean Machi

    David Huff 

    The Giants bullpen is made up of solid veterans, with potentially only David Law emerging as a rookie on the staff.

    The first key will be for Romo to stay healthy and continue to handle the closer role well. Although his ERA was 2.54 and his WHIP was 1.077 (both the highest in the last four seasons), Romo did account for 38 saves, blowing only five.

    Santiago Casilla will be the primary setup man from the right side. Blister problems sidelined him last season, and his loss was a major strain on the bullpen. Casilla will need to avoid injuries and pitch well in order for the Giants bullpen to be in top form.

    The Giants need a better season out of Jeremy Affeldt, as he struggled with command and injuries in 2013. Affeldt reported to camp in better shape per Chris Haft of MLB.com, but he's allowed seven earned runs in six innings of work.

    Affeldt is a valuable man in the Giants bullpen. When he's right, Bochy can feel confident using him against both left and right-handed hitters.

    Unfortunately for Affeldt and the Giants, he will open the season on the DL with a knee injury. J.C. Gutierrez will get the nod. 

    Romo and Javier Lopez were the Giants' two most effective relievers last year. A left-handed specialist, Lopez is called upon to get the one or two top left-handed batters out in tough situations with the game on the line. He did his job well, allowing only six of 57 inherited runners to score.

    Lopez is one of the best in the game at this role, and he proved it again last year, as opposing left-handed batters hit only .156 against him. If he comes anywhere near his performance of 2013, he will definitely help the Giants win games.

    Petit, who will be the long reliever and spot starter, had some poor outings early in the spring but rebounded in his last start, throwing four innings and allowing only two hits while striking out seven. That, plus a very good showing in 2013, has earned Petit his job for the upcoming season.

    Machi and Huff are still question marks to make the club. They were being pushed by Law and George Kontos. 

    The best guess is that Machi will get the nod over Law based on experience. The Giants will likely send Law down to the Double-A level in Richmond for a little more seasoning. Even if he does not make the Opening Day roster, expect to see Law in San Francisco before the All-Star break.

    Huff earns the final spot because he is a left-hander and can go multiple innings. When Affeldt returns, having three lefties in the bullpen gives Bochy more flexibility to manipulate the lefty-righty matchups. Kontos has since been sent down to Fresno.

Prospects to Watch

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    Kyle Crick is an exciting pitching prospect for the Giants.
    Kyle Crick is an exciting pitching prospect for the Giants.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    The Giants have several young prospects worth keeping an eye on in 2014. Many of these players were in the lower levels of the minor league system but are now moving up the ladder.

    The top position-player prospects are catcher Andrew Susac, third baseman Chris Dominguez, first baseman Adam Duvall and outfielder Mac Williamson. Duvall and Williamson are both powerful young hitters, but they need more plate discipline and to make more consistent contact.

    Trying to resurrect his career is outfielder Gary Brown, a first-round pick in the 2010 draft. Brown was once targeted as the future center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Giants. After a mediocre season in 2013, Brown's star has dimmed. He needs a big year to put himself back on the map.

    Former first-round picks Joe Panik and Christian Arroyo also merit a watchful eye. Both are infielders, with Panik projecting as a second baseman and Arroyo playing either shortstop or third base. Arroyo has shown a good bat with some power, so he could definitely move up quickly.

    The top prospects in the minor league system are pitchers. Kyle Crick leads the group. Crick was the Giants' 2011 Round 1 selection at No. 49 overall. 

    Crick's 2013 season was delayed due to an injury, but when he finally got started, he did well. Playing for the Giants' High-A club in San Jose, Crick worked 68.2 innings and allowed 48 hits and 39 walks while striking out 95. Although Crick needs to cut down on his walks, his ERA of 1.57 was very exciting.

    Look for Crick to play in Richmond at the Double-A level in 2014. 

    The pitcher who appears closest to breaking into the starting rotation is Edwin Escobar. He will turn 22 in April.

    Escobar opened the 2013 season in San Jose and was promoted to Richmond, where he also pitched very well. Escobar is ticketed to open the season with the Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Fresno.

    In 2013, between San Jose and Richmond, Escobar worked 128.2 innings and allowed 112 hits and 30 walks while striking out 146.

    Other starters to keep an eye on include Clayton Blackburn, Chris Stratton, Kendry Flores, Adalberto Mejia and Ty Blach.

    Relievers Jake Dunning, Heath Hembree, Erik Cordier and Brett Bochy are also worth watching.

    Some of these young players could also be used as trade bait if the Giants need to make any acquisitions before the trade deadline.

    The strength of the farm system is in the pitching. Several good, young arms are present, and the Giants have shown an ability to develop their young pitchers. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner all came up through the Giants system.

    The Giants' success in developing position players in recent years has been less than stellar. Although Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford all came up through the minor league system, there hasn't been a player in the past two years who has broken through and made an impact.

    In the past two seasons, only backup catcher Hector Sanchez has been a mainstay on the 25-man roster. The track record of recent mediocrity among position-player prospects does not appear to be changing in 2014.

Breakout Candidates

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    Brandon Belt had an excellent second half of 2013.
    Brandon Belt had an excellent second half of 2013.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The Giants have three strong candidates for breakout years.

    The first is Brandon Belt. He has always been a good defensive player, and now his offensive game is finally catching up. Last season was a tale of two halves for Belt. 

    In the first half of 2013, Belt hit .260 with an OPS of .784. After making adjustments, he followed that up with a stellar effort after the All-Star break. He hit .326 with an OPS of .915. His overall OPS of .841 led the team.

    His totals for the year were an average of .289 with 17 home runs and 67 RBI.

    Expect to see more of the Belt we saw in the second half of last year in 2014. If he continues to develop, look for Belt to hit over .300 with 20-24 home runs and 80-85 RBI.

    Pablo Sandoval can also be expected to have an excellent year. Sandoval's contract expires after the 2014 season. If he does well, Sandoval would be able to cash in with a big, long-term deal.

    To this end, Sandoval reported to camp in much better shape than in years past. He lost roughly 30 pounds this winter.

    Sandoval's bat speed has increased, as has his mobility on defense. The lighter frame should also help Sandoval avoid the leg problems that dogged him over the past few seasons.

    Expect Sandoval to hit over .300 with 20-25 home runs and 80-90 RBI. Look for Sandoval to ultimately get his deal and stay with the Giants over the next few seasons.

    Our final breakout candidate is Brandon Crawford. Although Crawford's upside is not as high as Belt's or Sandoval's, we should see a modest gain from his 2013 numbers.

    Last year, Crawford hit .248 with nine home runs and 43 RBI in 499 at-bats. Now 27 years of age, Crawford is entering the prime of his career, and we can expect to see him hit closer to .265 with 12-15 home runs and 55-60 RBI. This would be a very realistic growth projection for a player of his caliber.

Top Keys to Success

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    The Giants need Matt Cain to be the pitcher he was in 2012.
    The Giants need Matt Cain to be the pitcher he was in 2012.Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    In 2010 and 2012, when the Giants captured their two World Series titles, it was their pitching that led the way. Then, in the postseason, they got hot at the right time with the bats.

    2014 should be no different. The key to the Giants' success will be pitching, pitching and more pitching.

    The starting rotation is set and looks strong. The emergence of Madison Bumgarner as the ace of the staff eases the pressure on Matt Cain and the rest of the starters.

    Expect Tim Hudson to have a good year and be a valuable mentor to Tim Lincecum. 

    Ryan Vogelsong has to return to good form, but if he struggles, Yusmeiro Petit, David Huff and Edwin Escobar are viable options.

    The relief corps needs to stay healthy and do what's expected. Sergio Romo has established himself as a reliable closer, and the rest of the bullpen falls in right behind him.

    The most important overriding issue for the Giants will be good health. In 2013, the Giants suffered from injuries to Angel Pagan, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Crawford and Marco Scutaro. They did not have the depth to overcome those losses among their starting eight position players.

    Injuries to the pitching staff also wreaked havoc on the 2013 Giants. Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Chad Gaudin all missed time. Although the depth is better this year, no team can overcome the types of losses the Giants sustained in 2013.

    If the Giants do need to make moves to bolster the team at the trade deadline, look for GM Brian Sabean to acquire a second baseman. The way things look at this point, Scutaro's back could be a chronic issue that flares up several times throughout the season.

    If the oft-injured Michael Morse has any problems, Sabean will also consider adding some veteran depth to the outfield.

    Then, we get back to the pitching. As the season unfolds, we will know a lot more about where the Giants may need help, and if they do, Sabean will look to make an upgrade.

    Sabean's track record has been filled with modest midseason additions that reaped huge benefits for the Giants in recent history.

    Those include the 2010 acquisitions of Pat Burrell, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez and Cody Ross. In 2012, Sabean brought in Marco Scutaro, Xavier Nady and Jose Mijares. Both Ross and Scutaro won NLCS MVP honors for the Giants.

    The bottom line for the Giants is that they have the talent to win the NL West as long as they can stay healthy and the pitchers perform up to, or at least close to, their capabilities.

     

Previewing the Giants' Opening Series vs. Arizona

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    Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt leads the Diamondbacks against the Giants.
    Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt leads the Diamondbacks against the Giants.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    The San Francisco Giants will open the 2014 season with a four-game series at Arizona.

    Arizona opened its season in Australia against the Dodgers and lost both games. The Diamondbacks will return home and play five exhibition games before resuming their regular season on March 31.

    With a record of 0-2, the Diamondbacks will be focused and intent on taking the series against the Giants. They will also have the luxury of resetting their pitching staff and will likely start Wade Miley and Andrew Bailey, respectively, in the first two games.  

    Brandon McCarthy will start one of the other games. The fourth starter in the series is uncertain. Bronson Arroyo, who signed as a free agent, is dealing with a bulging disc in his back. It's too early to tell whether he will be ready to make the start against the Giants.

    The ace of the Diamondbacks' pitching staff, Patrick Corbin, sustained an elbow injury. It's possible that he could be lost for the season. 

    Offensively, the Diamondbacks are powerful and score a lot of runs, especially at home. Paul Goldschmidt leads a very potent offense that also features Mark Trumbo, Miguel Montero, Martin Prado, Aaron Hill and Gerardo Parra.

    The Giants will start Madison Bumgarner on Opening Day and follow with Matt Cain, Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum.

    The ball travels very well in Arizona, so the Giants hitters could get off to a good start to the season. The onus will be on the Giants pitchers to contain the vaunted Arizona offense.

    With Arizona undoubtedly hungry for victory, a split of the four games would not be a bad thing. The pitching matchups favor the Giants, but Arizona plays well at home. In 2013, they were 81-81 overall but finished 45-36 at home.

2014 San Francisco Giants' Season Outlook

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    Manager Bruce Bochy is one of the best in the business.
    Manager Bruce Bochy is one of the best in the business.Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

    The San Francisco Giants have improved their roster and appear poised to have a good year.

    The 2013 season was a disappointment, and many players increased their commitments to improved conditioning and strength this winter. That will help them stay stronger over the long grind of a 162-game season and, hopefully, the postseason. 

    Under manager Bruce Bochy, the Giants have typically had excellent team chemistry. That chemistry can help a team hang together and bounce back from adversity. When 25 men are playing for their teammates, they become tough to beat.

    The NL West will be very tough again this year.

    Prior to the injury to Arizona's Patrick Corbin, there were three teams with a legitimate chance to make the postseason. However, it's unlikely Arizona's pitching staff has the quality depth to overcome such a huge loss.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West in 2013 with a record of 92-70. They finished 11 games ahead of Arizona and 16 games ahead of the Giants and Padres.

    The Dodgers feature the highest payroll in baseball at roughly $225 million. The Giants are one of the higher-spending teams also, but they are about $75 million under the Dodgers' level of spending.

    Los Angeles has several stars on the roster, including Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp. Even with Kemp out with an injury at the beginning of the season, the Dodgers have plenty of offensive weapons.

    The Dodgers pitching staff is also loaded. Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren will anchor the starting rotation, with Kenley Jansen handling the closer duties.

    The Dodgers have also shown a willingness to spend whatever is necessary if they want to add players during the course of the season. 

    The Padres and Rockies are improved, but neither team will challenge for a playoff berth.

    On paper, the Dodgers are the team to beat, but, fortunately, this game is not played on paper.

    If things fall right for the Giants and if their key players stay healthy, the Giants could definitely win the division.

    The NL West is likely to go right down to the wire, with the Giants and Dodgers battling it out for the title. The loser has a good chance to earn one of the two wild-card playoff berths. 

    My personal projection is that the Dodgers will finish the season at 94-68, two games ahead of the Giants, who will be 92-70. That will be good enough to make the playoffs as a wild-card team. Once the Giants are in the playoffs, as they proved in 2010 and 2012, anything can happen.

    The only thing left to do now is play ball. 

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