SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- General manager Brian Sabean invoked a comparison that would capture the attention -- as well as the imagination -- of any Giants fan on the eve of the team's first workout for pitchers and catchers. In recent seasons, the Giants began spring as leading candidates, if not favorites, to win the National League West. This year they're widely dismissed as also-rans. But that hasn't dampened Sabean's outlook. "Historically, it reminds me of '96 going into '97," Sabean said Wednesday, citing the 1997 club that surprised onlookers by capturing the West title. "We obviously have to turn this thing around. There were a lot of things said and written about what we did and didn't do. While we have a lot of high expectations internally, we also understand why we wouldn't be picked to be one of the favorites. In some ways, you're energized by that or you're really curious, especially with a new manager, how it's all going to come together."
Although the Giants bolstered their starting rotation by signing left-hander Barry Zito to the most lucrative contract in franchise history, they were unable to add an impact hitter to the group that ranked 10th in the NL in runs last season (746, tied with Washington). They signed free agents Rich Aurilia, Bengie Molina and Dave Roberts -- capable hitters yet unlikely complements to projected cleanup hitter Barry Bonds. "Sometimes you unequivocally know what your strongest points are and what your weakest link might be. I think it's going to have to develop over time, what our identity is," Sabean admitted. "We're hoping like hell we have one of the better starting rotations in the division and we're capable of scoring more runs than we did in the past couple of years." Referring to the unsettled closer's role, Sabean added, "Not surprisingly, we have to straighten out what we're going to do at the end of the game." At least the Giants have some ideas for the front of the game. Echoing offseason chatter, manager Bruce Bochy named Russ Ortiz and Jonathan Sanchez as the top contenders for the No. 5 starting spot. Brad Hennessey, previously an occasional starter, is envisioned as a long reliever, Bochy said. Sabean confirmed that Tim Lincecum, the Giants' top pitching prospect who could begin the season in Triple-A, would be groomed as a starter. Sabean added that Lincecum, the 10th overall pick in last June's First-Year Player Draft, likely will appear in one of the Giants' intrasquad games, scheduled for Feb. 27 and 28, as well as a March 5 "B" exhibition. Wilson ready: Reliever Brian Wilson, who turns 26 on March 16, impressed the Giants by closing well in winter ball in Puerto Rico, and if closer Armando Benitez gets hurt or traded, he's the go-to man.