SPORTS BY THE BAY: A semi-preview of the 2011 Giants season

So the offseason is over, spring training is done, and the baseball season has finally begun. What better way for the Giants to start off the season than with a good old shellacking of the Dodgers, right? Well, the Giants ended up losing three out of four against the rivals from down south, but fans got to whet their appetites with a 10-0 win mixed in. Though a 1-3 start would have worried many fans of past Giants teams, this year’s 1-3 start feels just a bit different. That’s because it is.

A team that slid by under the radar for most of the 2010 season before exploding in the postseason and making a run to the World Series title that was equally improbable as it was unstoppable, the Giants now have a giant Bengie Molina-sized set of crosshairs on their backs. Add in the exponentially increasing amount of Giants-related media coverage (Showtime is currently filming a behind-the-scenes documentary about the team while Sundance Award-winning director Chusy Haney-Jardine is also filming a documentary about Andres Torres’ battle with ADHD), and the 2011 season is clearly going to be very different from the past.

Of course the question on everybody’s mind is whether the Giants can repeat as champions. The answer to that is simple: yes. As they proved last season, given the quality of the Giants pitching, anything is possible. By no stretch of the imagination, though, should anybody expect that it will be an easy or smooth ride.

It’s a bit late for this, but here are a few other questions that will be key in the Giants’ attempt to make another run at the title.

Can the pitchers stay healthy?

As everybody knows, young quality pitching is the Giants backbone. Any kind of long-term injuries to Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez or Madison Bumgarner could be disastrous. With Bumgarner having graduated from the minor league system, there are very few options the Giants could turn to in the case of an emergency. While new signings Jeff Suppan and Brian Lawrence provide some insurance, at this point in their careers, they are both underwhelming at best.

Given that the Giants conjured up the unbelievable luck of not having a single starter miss a single game in 2010, I have the sneaky feeling that injuries might catch up to the team this year. It has been much publicized that the Giants four main starters pitched career high innings last year and had the shortest time to prepare for 2011, which could certainly be a factor. Hopefully any injuries will be short-term and the Giants will be able to avoid any repeats of the Noah Lowry injury disaster (RIP).

Will Buster Posey improve upon his Rookie of the Year winning performance?

Simply put, Posey hit like a madman last season. Only 23 years old and playing a position that traditionally doesn’t come with too much power, Buster showed off the skills that scouts had been raving about ever since he was drafted. After putting up some scary-good numbers in the minor leagues (he hit .333/.427/.542 over two and a half seasons), Posey managed to dominate big league pitching while also handling one of the league’s premier pitching staffs. With barely more than 100 major league games under his belt, Posey has already put together a strong case to be the most valuable catcher in the game. At times it crosses my mind that Buster’s production last season might have been too good to be true, but given the magnitude of his physical talents and his mental poise, I can only see Buster improving upon his stellar rookie season.

Will Brandon Belt be the 2011 edition of Buster Posey?

Given that he made the 25-man roster directly out of spring training without starting the season at Triple-A, it is reasonable infer that the front office saw the Belt as more major league-ready than Posey was a year before. The injury to Cody Ross may have accelerated the Belt timetable a bit, but it seems highly unlikely that Belt will be the one to give up his roster spot when Ross returns.

To say it is early in the season would be a laughable understatement. Still, based on the minute sample size we have seen at the major league level, Belt looks to be a patient and polished hitter. Though Belt hit a homerun in the second game of the season, it was his performance in the series finale that caught my eye. Batting with the bases loaded in the eighth inning while trailing by four runs, many rookies would have been dead-set on swinging away to drive in those runs. Instead, Belt worked his way to a full count while waiting patiently for his pitch and, when it never came, took a walk to force in a run. This was in sharp contrast to 14-year veteran Miguel Tejada who grounded out on the subsequent pitch, an ankle high fastball.

Will Pablo Sandoval rebound from last year?

If you had told me last March that the Giants would go on to win the World Series with Sandoval hitting like a double-play machine with no semblance of strike zone discipline, I would have said you were crazy. So much of the Giants’ offensive fate seemed to rest on the portly shoulders of the Kung Fu Panda that it is still somewhat difficult to understand how the Giants managed to win it all without him playing a key role. Sandoval was so mediocre last season that if he is able to bounce back, his impact on the offense could be as big as a major free agent signing.

Much has been made of the Panda’s weight and it seems that Sandoval has taken some of the criticisms to heart. In a highly publicized press conference during the offseason, the Giants proudly presented a trimmer, rejuvenated Pablo Sandoval 2.0. Having lost close to 40 pounds, the Panda is in visibly better shape than last year. This was most evident in his defense during the opening series. Tracking a fly ball in foul territory behind third base, Sandoval made a catch that would only have been possible last year if a jelly donut had been duct taped to the ball. The Panda lost weight and looks hungry for hits. Watch out for a major rebound from his poor 2010 numbers.

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