Cactus League countdown: Giants

Oh what a difference a year can make.

About this time last year, the San Francisco Giants were arriving in Arizona as hunters, seeking to reclaim the title seemingly taken from them in 2011 by a slew of significant injuries.

This year, having collected their second World Series championship in three seasons, the Giants arrive for spring training as the hunted, looking to defend their title and make it three trophies in four seasons.

And why not? All the pieces are still in place. Only four of the 25 players on San Francisco’s World Series roster last season are no longer under contract — Guillermo Mota, Ryan Theriot, Aubrey Huff and Xavier Nady.
The returning cast obviously starts with catcher and reigning NL MVP Buster Posey, who returned last season from surgery on his fractured left fibula and torn ankle ligaments that cost him most of 2011. Posey split time between catcher and first base but clearly hadn’t lost anything at the plate, as he led the National League with a .336 batting average and had an OPS of .957.

Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner top a starting rotation that remains intact with Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito (a surprise hero of the 2012 playoffs) and former ace Tim Lincecum, whose status remains unknown.

The key pieces the Giants seemed in danger of losing to big money elsewhere — outfielder Angel Pagan and 2012 trade deadline steal Marco Scutaro — both chose to stay in the Bay with four- and three-year contracts, respectively. Outfielder Melky Cabrera, who paced the Giants’ offense early in 2012 but missed the second half of the season with a suspension due to performance enhancing drugs was not brought back.

So what’s different about the 2013 Giants than the 2012 champions? Not much. In free agency, the Giants brought back outfielder Andres Torres, who was traded to the Mets for Pagan last offseason, but he might end up being the only new(ish) face in the clubhouse on Opening Day.

Of course, plenty of World Series teams have returned a nearly identical group the year after a title and failed to repeat. There are few guarantees in baseball. And the Giants are not without questions this spring.
Chief among those might be Lincecum’s status. The two-time Cy Young Award winner had his worst professional season in 2012, leading the NL in earned runs and wild pitches before being relegated to the bullpen during the postseason. He proved an asset in relief but isn’t ready to make the move permanently. This spring will be Lincecum’s chance to show the Giants he can thrive as a starter once again.

There are always lingering concerns about All-Star third baseman Pablo Sandoval’s conditioning and Posey’s durability. Same goes for Sergio Romo, a reliever with a history of nagging injuries who became the club’s primary closer when Brian Wilson missed all of last season. The Giants non-tendered Wilson this offseason, meaning Romo enters the season as the likely closer.

The Giants will also look for more offensive production from right fielder Hunter Pence and first baseman Brandon Belt, but all in all, they come to spring training with probably fewer questions and concerns than any team in baseball.

Considering the Giants’ place as reigning champions, that reality ought to let the rest of the league know just which team they have to beat in 2013.

Who’s new:
OF Andres Torres, free agent; RHP Sandy Rosario, claimed off waivers (Cubs); RHP Chad Gaudin, RHP Scott Proctor, C Guillermo Quiroz, RHP Mason Tobin, SS Wilson Valdez, minor-league free agents.

Who’s gone: IF Emmanuel Burris (Reds); OF Melky Cabrera (Blue Jays); IF/OF Xavier Nady (Royals); RHP Clay Hensley, IF/OF Aubrey Huff, RHP Guillermo Mota, RHP Brad Penny, IF Ryan Theriot, RHP Brian Wilson, free agents.

Battle ground: Left field looks to be the most interesting — and perhaps only — position battle of spring training for the Giants, and it might end up being a platoon anyway. Lefty Gregor Blanco provided solid production from the position last season, but free-agent addition and switch hitter Andres Torres fared better against left-handed pitchers last season. … There should be at least one bullpen spot available with Guillermo Mota’s departure.

Health watch: Third baseman Pablo Sandoval was reportedly hospitalized recently with abdominal inflammation. The hospital stay wasn’t long, so it doesn’t appear to be much of an issue, but considering Sandoval is also on Venezuela’s provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic, the Giants will be monitoring his health closely.

Sneak preview: Right-hander Chris Heston might offer a look into the future of the Giants’ rotation. Heston, 24, reached Double-A last season and was a minor-league all-star for the second straight year. He put up a 2.24 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 148 2/3 innings in the California League, and with a strong spring training could move onto the Giants’ radar as a major league option for the near future.
Spring training info: Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 E. Osborn Road, Scottsdale. First workouts Feb. 13 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 16 (full squad). First game: Feb. 23. Tickets: