OAKLAND -- General manager Brian Sabean knows what a fast start looks like, though he hasn't seen the Giants sustain one for the better part of a decade. Sabean declared Saturday that the Giants must surge rather than stagger from the gate once they begin the season Monday at Houston. It's a sentiment expressed every year by each player, manager and club executive from all 30 teams. But it has extra significance for the Giants, given their opposition and recent history. The National League West is widely considered one of baseball's most balanced divisions. The combined .519 winning percentage of the West's five teams last year was the best among the league's three divisions. Despite a resurgent 88-74 finish, San Francisco essentially spent all season trying to overcome its 0-6 trip to San Diego and Los Angeles from April 10-16.
So Sabean's baseline for a "fast start" is a winning record in each of the season's first two months. The Giants haven't achieved that since 2003, when they opened 13-1 -- a clean break by anybody's standard. They went 19-7 in March/April and 15-13 in May and led the West from wire to wire while finishing 100-61. Since then, the Giants have watched various division rivals get the jump on them. For example, San Diego endured sub-.500 Aprils in 2005-06. But the Padres' then-manager, Bruce Bochy, guided them to a 22-6 May in 2005 and a 14-1 surge in 2006. They vaulted into first place on both occasions and won the division title. Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers went 13-5 at the outset before hiking their division lead to 6 1/2 games with a 21-8 mark. They remained in front despite left fielder Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension. "We're realists," Sabean said before the Giants' 10-6 exhibition victory over the Oakland A's. "We have to get over at least two teams -- the Dodgers and the Rockies for sure, and the rest of the division is going to be tough. I think Arizona's improved and San Diego's quietly putting together a team that's going to be pitching-oriented, but they have some nice young players who are going to give you fits." Sabean believes that the Giants' considerable improvement last year won't require them to make another quantum leap to reach the postseason. "The good thing is, after winning 88 games, I don't see that you're going to have to win 94, 95, 96 games to win the division," Sabean said. "I've seen some predictions as low as 86. I think it'd be more than that. But if it's in the 90-plus range, that's certainly attainable for us." Regaining equilibrium at home accounted for much of the Giants' success last year. They were 52-29 at AT&T Park after posting losing home records in three of the previous four seasons. Now, Sabean said, they must end their streak of five consecutive losing road records, including 36-45 in 2009, to reach a higher level. "We have to play better on the road, if our record's going to get to .500 or above," Sabean said. "I think we've established the winning mode at home. Hopefully there'll be a carryover from last year." Sabean cited a pair of underrated elements, bullpen depth and bench versatility, as reasons for optimism. Both were in evidence against the A's. After a cold limited starter Jonathan Sanchez to four innings, Jeremy Affeldt, Brandon Medders and Dan Runzler contributed shutout innings and Sergio Romo yielded an unearned run. The lineup included substitutes Andres Torres, John Bowker and Eugenio Velez, who were expected to receive plenty of activity late in the exhibition season. But Bochy also moved Mark DeRosa to third base, installed Bowker in left field and put Velez at second base -- the sort of contingent that the Giants might use frequently in day games following night games. San Francisco has seven such matinees in April alone. "It'll keep the veterans rested," Sabean said of the reserve corps, adding that San Francisco's depth will improve once second baseman Freddy Sanchez returns from his injured left shoulder, perhaps by early May.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.