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Giants shouldn't be overlooked again

We're still seven weeks from the start of Spring Training, and I want to be the first in the neighborhood to say I'm not going to be fooled by the San Francisco Giants again.

They got me once, got me twice. This time, I'm all in. Even after all the moving and shaking around them, the Giants will begin 2013 as the National League's best team. That's a close call, especially considering the Nationals had baseball's best record in 2012 and got better with the additions of Denard Span and Dan Haren.

The Reds are right there, too; a solid team that filled its No. 1 need by getting Shin-Soo Choo to hit at the top of the lineup. The Phillies will be good enough to win a championship if Chase Utley, Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard have big years, and the Cardinals and Braves are really good teams with very few question marks.

Almost no one in the game would be surprised by any of those five teams winning the World Series, and we haven't even gotten to the Dodgers, who are easily the NL's most interesting team.

How far they go will depend in large part on the new guys -- Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Zack Greinke -- being productive as individuals while helping manager Don Mattingly create a cohesive team.

If Beckett is at his best, if Chad Billingsley is healthy, the Dodgers could be scary good. But as the Angels learned last year, there's a peculiar pressure that comes with all those expectations. Good teams are both relaxed and aggressive, and it'll be fascinating to see how the Dodgers evolve during the season.

There are virtually no questions about the Giants. If they stay reasonably healthy and if they get a productive year from World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, any analysis of the NL begins here.

The Giants are a hard team for some to love because they truly are a team. They've got guys who understand their roles and are focused on the bottom line. If this sounds like I'm dismissing their talent, I'm not.

The Giants have:

• One of baseball's two or three best rotations.

• A lineup built around NL Most Valuable Player Award winner Buster Posey.

• Baseball's best manager, Bruce Bochy.

The Giants also have one of the great general managers of his time in Brian Sabean, who understands that roster building is more an art than a science. He's knee deep in the science stuff, too, but he understands how to make the various pieces fit better than almost anyone.

San Francisco was transformed from a solid team to a great one last summer after Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro settled in at the top of the lineup. Raise your hand if you thought last winter's most significant acquisition would end up being Pagan. Or if you thought the most important non-waiver Trade Deadline pickup would be Scutaro.

In fact, the 2013 Giants have a chance to be better than the '12 Giants, and let's count the ways:

1. Tim Lincecum will be great again. Whatever happened last season won't happen again. He had a nice postseason run out of the bullpen, and he'll show up in Spring Training with a chip on his shoulder. When the great ones have been doubted or challenged, look out.

So pencil Timmy in for 220 innings, 244 strikeouts and a 2.81 ERA. Those were his average numbers the previous four seasons, and can you imagine a rotation with Lincecum at his best slotted in with Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong?

2. Barry Zito's long strange trip became a happy one in 2012. Beginning in the second week of September, he went 7-0 with a 2.12 ERA. Zito's 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series might have been the most important performance the Giants had in their entire championship run. He was tremendous again in Game 1 of the World Series, and so San Francisco will begin the season with some optimism he'll be the best fifth starter on the planet.

3. Shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Brandon Belt are getting better.

4. Hunter Pence will be more comfortable -- and arguably more productive -- in his first full season with the Giants.

The Giants changed significantly in 2012 as players came and went, and once the World Series celebration ended, Sabean's goal was to keep the band together for a full run. At last count, 21 of the 25 World Series players had been locked up for 2013.

There's a confidence that comes with having done it all before, having come from behind in the postseason series against the Reds and Cards, and in the end, having celebrated together.

Plenty of people will not pick them. The Nationals probably will be the consensus favorite on Opening Day, and the Reds will be right behind them. The Dodgers will get more attention than the Giants, Nats and Reds combined.

Still, some of us aren't overlooking the Giants again. This time, we'll be ready.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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