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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Defending a world title won't be easy

We're all still a bit drunk from last year's magic, and I sense a giddiness among the faithful as the Giants prepare to defend their world championship.

Me? I'm wary of being the hunted. I enter this season with a whole lot of trepidation, if only because last year proved that the intangible (luck, timing, momentum and locker-room chemistry) are just as critical as big-name talent and numbers. Who knows how the team chemistry will play out if hubris and overconfidence creep into the clubhouse after an off-season in the glare of celebrity, not to mention bad luck, bad breaks and a tough early schedule? And, who knows if there are other Brooks Conrads out there, waiting to hold down the cloak of Southern hospitality for the Giants? (If he makes the play at second on Buster Posey's hard-hit ground ball that skipped under his glove in the ALDS, do the Giants even go on to play in the NLCS, never mind the World Series?)

What I like, though, as the season opens, is that some key players are healthier than last year, and promise to add special new dimensions to the offense.

Pablo Sandoval's story is well documented: he worked hard over the winter, lost 38 pounds of fat (gained some in muscle), and has shown more agility and better footwork on defense and has found his lively bat, especially from the right side. If he returns to his '09 form, that's a middle-of-the-order presence that could make the Giants an offensive force.

Add to that a healthy Freddie Sanchez, who played all of 2010 in pain with a surgically repaired shoulder, though he still finished as one of the hottest hitters in the major leagues. Remember, he missed the first month. After making his season debut on May 19, Sanchez hit .343 for the first month but by Aug. 11 sank to .255 after a 47-for-216 slide (.224). He'd gotten into a funk of trying to inside-out everything in shooting for the right side, and forgetting about his other strength: using the gaps that made him a doubles machine in Pittsburgh. He got his swing back in time for a great last two months, hitting .367 from Aug. 11 on (79 for 215). He could be that guy all year in 2011. Maybe another batting title in his sights?

Mark DeRosa's return from wrist injury will be key to the Giants' bench. He will provide spells for LF Pat Burrell, 3B Sandoval, and SS Miguel Tejada, a versatile guy with a veteran presence and professional hitting skills. Watch him.

Still worried about Tejada. Slow springs are apparently his m.o., but it's the slow spiral to his career that concerns me. Though, I have to say, if he can produce 15 HR and a .269 average from the 8-hole, I will take that.

Brandon Belt should make the Giants' opening day roster, but likely won't (financial considerations are unfortunately driving this: the Giants want to push back his service time a couple months so they can hold onto him at cheaper rates for an extra year). I'm fine with that from a baseball standpoint. He didn't have much time in Triple A last year, and 20 or 30 games more won't hurt.

But I like that Boss Bochy is still considering him, saying the other day that it would be nice to have a left-handed bat with pop in Cody Ross's absence.

Aaron Rowand might have a couple weeks to show he still belongs, as Ross heals from his calf strain. Remember, last year Rowand started out hot. He was hitting .304 when he took a Vicente Padilla fastball to the eye, including a 14-for-34 run (.389 avg.) in games 3 through 9. If he can replicate that, then that'll alleviate the pressure on Ross to return too quickly.

That assumes an outfield alignment of Pat Burrell in LF, Aaron Rowand in CF and Andres Torres in RF. I'm more comfortable with Torres in CF and Nate Schierholz in RF. Schierholz is recovered from a shoulder injury that hampered him last year, and I believe he is on the cusp of maturing. This would be a good time to let him show it.

On pitching:

The late-spring breakdown of the starting pitching staff is a concern: you like to have these guys enter the season on a roll. Especially this year, when two-thirds of their first 30 games are on the road.

Brian Wilson's tenuous health -- and the question mark that will loom over the closer role if he's absent for any length of time  -- is an example of why teams don't repeat as world champions. Everything has to go right, starting with healthy bodies. If he goes down for any length of time, and other injuries crop up, all that drunken giddiness will start feeling like a hangover.

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