The San Francisco Giants are full of optimism in 2014 after a season to forget last year.
Little went right for the Giants in 2013. The 2012 World Series champions barely avoided becoming just the second team in the Modern Era (1903-present) to go from World Series champions to last place team, finishing in a third place tie with the San Diego Padres.
The only consolation for the Giants was watching as the rival Los Angeles Dodgers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in six games in the National League Championship Series.
But the Giants have come in to Spring Training hungrier, healthier and fitter. San Francisco is determined to show the baseball world they are a force out west.
Here are five storylines to look out for in 2014.
No. 1: Can the Giants beat the big-money Dodgers?
The Dodgers come in to 2014 with a huge bankroll and as heavy favorites in the NL West.
In 2013, the Giants had to watch their rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have an amazing season. They came out of last place in June to win the National League West, fueled by a historic 46-10 run after starting the year 31-42.
Although the Dodgers' payroll will be in the $250 million range, while the Giants' will be around $150 million, the Giants' brass have a plan in mind to compete with LA.
"Look, we're mindful of the Dodgers," Giants President Larry Baer told Yahoo Sports. "It would be crazy and disingenuous to say that we're not. Maybe it's a little bit like New York and Boston a lot of those years. We're fine with not matching them dollar for dollar because it's an art, not a science."
One way to keep up with a big-money team in your division is to beef up your rotation. Even with the New York Yankees in their division, the Tampa Bay Rays have been to the playoffs four times since 2008 because of strong starting pitching led by 2012 Cy Young Award winner ace David Price.
The Giants are hoping their core young pitching returns to form, along with a little help from veteran Tim Hudson.
No. 2: Will Tim Lincecum and the starting rotation return to form?
As already mentioned, solidifying the rotation is the best shot for the Giants to win the West. All five Giants starting pitchers have been aces or have pitched like aces in the past, so the success of the rotation hinges on four of the five starters returning to form.
Perhaps the most anticipated pitcher coming into 2014 is Tim Lincecum, who beefed up his offseason workout by throwing in a warehouse he rented out. Lincecum, who has not been the sharpest in past Spring Trainings, looked to come out of the gate strong.
“I thought more throwing could be good to get my release and the feel for the ball coming out of my hand as early as I could, instead of finding it as I go,” Lincecum told Andrew Baggarly of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
At least in his first three Cactus League starts, his hard work paid off. He has only given up two runs and two walks in 9.1 innings pitched this spring.
The rest of the rotation has looked good this spring, too.
Madison Bumgarner, who had his best season last year, and Matt Cain have yet to give up a run this spring. After posting a sub-3.00 ERA in 2011 and 2012, Cain was 8-10 last season with a 4.00 ERA, which is disappointing by his standards.
Although Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Hudson have 5.11 and 4.15 Cactus League ERAs respectively, it was one inning that each did them in. Vogelsong gave up five out of his six earned runs in a rough March 8 start against the Seattle Mariners, where errors fueled a couple of rallies.
One thing is for sure--the Giants' starting pitchers have to do better than 13th in the National League, as was the case last year, if they want to recapture their 2012 glory.
No. 3: Will Pablo Sandoval keep his weight off and will it have an impact?
Perhaps the most anticipated player coming into camp was Pablo Sandoval. Would he be able to take his physical shape seriously heading into a contract year?
“He looked good – real good,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy told CSN Bay Area. “He’s moving quicker. The first-step quickness, there’s a significant difference, I think.”
It is no secret what Sandoval has to do to be successful in 2014. In 2011, when Sandoval last had a rigorous offseason workout, he hit .315 with 23 home runs and 70 RBIs.
No. 4: Can the Giants stay healthy?
For more than half the season, the Giants did not have their spark plug at the top of the lineup. Leadoff hitter Angel Pagan suffered a hamstring injury, and so went San Francisco to a 76-86 record.
To illustrate how important Pagan is to the team, the Giants' record with him in the lineup last season was 39-32. But without the speedy center fielder, the Giants were just 37-54.
They had injuries on the pitching side, too.
Vogelsong missed nearly half the season after breaking his finger when a pitch hit him. While Vogelsong pointed to the World Baseball Classic as a reason for his bad 2013 season, the injury did not help his cause.
Injuries to the relievers, like Santiago Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt, decimated the bullpen. The Giants were forced to rely on minor league pitchers Sandy Rosario and Jake Dunning, who did a decent job filling in, but probably needed more seasoning in the minors.
The Giants still do not have the best depth in terms of bench players and the bullpen, so staying healthy will be a huge key in 2014.
No. 5: Will an unsung hero rise to the occasion?
Both World Series Championship teams had their fair share of unlikely heroes who rose to the occasion when it mattered. Nobody could forget the impact Cody Ross and Pat Burrell had on the 2010 championship team.
And in 2012, who would have thought Barry Zito, who struggled with the Giants for most of his seven years with the team, would save their season in Game 5 of the National League Champion Series with 7 2/3 shutout innings. Or that he would outlast Detroit Tigers' ace Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series with 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball.
Who will step up in 2014?
For more stories from The Cove, click here.