Cubs set to take on defending champs

Posey

The Giants and 2012 NL MVP Buster Posey rolls into town Thursday. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The defending world champs roll into Wrigley Field having won a second World Series title in just three years. They’ll be gunning for a third with much the same roster they fielded last season. GM Brian Sabean re-signed veteran center fielder Angel Pagan to a four-year deal and rewarded 37-year-old infielder Marco Scutaro with a three-year contract for his stretch-drive and World Series heroics. But the Giants’ activity (or lack thereof) in the hot stove season underscores how this year’s team is different. In 2012, they lost Pablo Sandoval for one-third of the year to injury, and they traded for Scutaro and right fielder Hunter Pence in the second half. Having that trio join NL MVP Buster Posey for all of 2013 should provide an offensive boost. If they get the same consistency from the league’s best rotation and their deep bullpen, they’ll be hard to beat—and a good bet to repeat.

HITTING: 4.2 RS/G (9th in NL)
What the Giants’ lineup lacks in pure slugging it makes up for in versatility. Though they finished last in the league in home runs in 2012, they take a big hit playing their home games in AT&T Park, where they managed just 31 homers all year. But if they get full seasons from Pence and Sandoval, they’ll have plenty of pop in any park. Despite the absence of a big-name burner, the Giants were fourth in the league in steals and swiped bases at an above-average 75 percent clip. With Pagan up front and the Panda-Posey-Pence trio in the heart of the order, the Giants could have a remarkably efficient short-sequence offense. To extend that all the way through the order, they will need first baseman Brandon Belt to finally break through. Left field could be manned by a rotating cast, as manager Bruce Bochy likes to exploit matchups.

2012 BATTING COMPARISON
Cubs                                       Giants
.240 (15)            AVG             .269 (3)
.302 (16)            OBP             .327 (4)
.378 (14)            SLG              .397 (8)
3.78 (14)            RS/G            4.43 (6)

PITCHING: 3.9 RA/G (5th in the NL)
When people talk about the Giants, it’s usually about their deep and stable rotation. But Tim Lincecum’s off year took some of the shine off their vaunted reputation. If the Freak recovers, he could give the Giants the toughest front four in baseball. Madison Bumgarner is coming into his own, and Ryan Vogelsong might be the reclamation project of the decade. The bullpen more than adapted to the absence of closer Brian Wilson, as Bochy effectively mixed a veteran quartet in righties Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla and lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. Bochy is expected to be more conventional this year, leaning heavily on Romo to notch saves. If there’s a cause for concern, it’s the unit’s age—this was one of the oldest staffs in baseball last season, and they’re all one year older now.

2012 PITCHING COMPARISON
Cubs                                     Giants
4.51 (14)            ERA            3.68 (5)
.259 (11)            AVG           .248 (5)
1.39 (14)            WHIP         1.27 (7)
4.69 (14)            RA/G          4.01 (6)

HITTER TO WATCH — BUSTER POSEY
What constitutes an MVP—value, stats, leadership skills? Posey’s case might rest on two equally impressive feats. For starters, he’s the best-hitting catcher in the league. Last season, he was second among NL catchers in home runs and became the first backstop to win the NL batting title since Ernie Lombardi in 1942. More fundamentally, he’s been around for just three seasons, and in the two he managed to stay healthy, the Giants won the World Series. His tremendous strike-zone judgment and excellent plate coverage make him hard to beat. At 26, he’s entering his prime and on the short list for best player in the game.

PITCHER TO WATCH — MATT CAIN
As if the Giants’ 2012 season wasn’t magical enough, let’s not forget Matt Cain, the man who threw the 22nd perfect game in big league history last year. Cain also set career highs in wins, strikeouts and ERA, and has clearly claimed the role of staff ace in a deep rotation. But that isn’t all that’s perfect about Cain. He’s a true four-pitch starter with low-90s velocity, and he has never been on the DL. That’s right—he’s taken the ball every fifth day for seven years running. All that, and he just turned 28. That is what perfection looks like. With Cain manning the No. 1 spot, the Giants’ rotation should be strong again in 2013. It looks like Cain should get the start in Friday afternoon’s game.

—By Christina Kahrl

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