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MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Underrated Giants remain the team to beat

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MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The National League West title is the Giants to lose. As the defending World Series champs, that much has become clear through Spring Training, which is ending with each of their chief division rivals bruised and shorthanded.

The Dodgers won't have shortstop Hanley Ramirez and the Padres will be without third baseman Chase Headley for protracted periods because of thumb injuries. The D-backs open the season sans outfielders Adam Eaton and Cody Ross. The Rockies, well, there's always a need for more starting pitching as their late signing of Jon Garland illustrates.

"This division is still very strong," Padres manager Bud Black said before his club dropped a 4-2 decision to the Giants on Tuesday in the final Cactus League game this spring at Scottsdale Stadium. "It's a very underrated division. I don't think the injury factor will play a big role in the long term. In the short term it might have some ramifications. We all have our health issues. But I don't think it changes the landscape at all."

The Giants, though, might have made it out of Arizona unscathed. Even though third baseman Pablo Sandoval hasn't played since March 16 because of a sore elbow, manager Bruce Bochy said after the game he may be available for the season opener Monday at Dodger Stadium.

"He's doing better," Bochy said about Sandoval. "There's progress. In fact, he's pain free. He'll do some light work tomorrow and we'll see where we're at with him. I will say we're a lot more optimistic than we were two days ago about him going on Opening Day."

The fact is, the Giants have won the World Series two out of the past three seasons and by any stretch of the imagination they should still be the team to beat.

They go under the radar every season. To be sure, if the Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox or Mets had won two of the past three Fall Classics, the baseball literati would have christened any one of them as the dynasty of this era. The Giants aren't even widely discussed among the best Major League franchises when player development is concerned.

Think about it: Billy Beane and the A's, Andrew Friedman and the Rays, Terry Ryan and the Twins. Those are the pairings usually mentioned when people talk about making the most out of the First-Year Player Draft.

Brian Sabean and his staff should be considered better than the rest. The core of the lineup is Sandoval, first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford and catcher Buster Posey, who all came out of the system. Ditto starters Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner, plus closer Sergio Romo. Even Ryan Vogelsong was a Giants fifth-round Draft choice long before he was re-signed as a free agent.

"We may not get the attention, but we're not a team that brings a lot of attention to ourselves," Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "When the Yankees were winning a lot, every single guy in their lineup was making more than $10 million a year. We don't have that. The way we go about winning it, we play small ball, especially last year. Key hits and good pitching -- that's not very sexy."

Maybe not, but it's definitely a formula that gets the job done. Take the bottom of the third of Tuesday's game. Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro walked and when he casually strolled down to first base, Scutaro caught the entire San Diego infield napping and quickly swiped second base uncontested. While embarrassing to the Padres, it's that kind of play that makes the Giants so successful.

They hit only 103 homers as a team last season, 31 of them at spacious AT&T Park. Comparatively, when former Giants left fielder Barry Bonds set the all-time single-season record with 73 homers in 2001, 37 of them were hit in his home park. To win, the Giants have to make things happen.

Scutaro is that type of player. Like the late-season addition of Ross during the 2010 season, Scutaro came aboard in a trade with the Rockies this past July 27. Both players provided instant energy and went on to be named MVP of the National League Championship Series, Ross against the Phillies in 2010 and Scutaro in San Francisco's come-from-behind seven-game victory this past October over the Cardinals.

The Giants were 8-1 in their World Series victories that includes a five-game win over the Rangers and a sweep last year of the Tigers. When the Yankees went 12-1 by ripping through the Padres, Braves and Mets in the World Series from 1998-2000 they were considered a dynasty. Since then, the Giants are the only team to win the World Series two times in three years, but they don't seem to generate the commensurate amount of respect.

"Why is that?" Black wondered. "Is that based on generations of baseball back east as opposed to only two generations in the west? But I think people in the game realize how good our division and the Giants really are."

Certainly, the Giants realize how hard it is to repeat. When Posey, the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, was knocked out with a devastating leg injury in 2011, the Giants were also through for the season. It was the D-backs who rose up to win 94 games out of nowhere and capture that division title.

For various reasons in 2012, the D-backs slipped to 81-81. With a new group of players they are a work in progress. Although the Dodgers have increased their payroll in excess of $200 million, they can go either way. The Padres had a great second half of the season after an awful start, but Headley, who emerged as their offensive catalyst, will be on the disabled list for at least the first month.

That leaves the door swinging wide open again for the Giants.

"We know the tough road we have ahead of us and we've got to stay healthy," Affeldt said. "If we've learned anything, it's that you can't make promises. With what we have in our division, it's not going to be easy, but we have as good a chance as anybody to repeat."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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{"event":["spring_training" ] }
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