Watching the San Francisco Giants grew to be a chore near the end of the 2011 season. Not just for fans, but for the players, manager, coaches and front office as well. There was a sense of fatigue that blanketed the entire organization. Even though there was an outside chance they could make a late charge and steal the Wild Card, it seemed like the Giants had resigned themselves to the fact that they weren’t a playoff team weeks before. The quicksand’s pull was too strong.

Why the malaise? The team seemed to be fighting a World Series hangover for the entire season, to the point where they should’ve considered replacing the sports drink in the dugout with a cooler full of coconut water laced with Ibuprofen.

Larry Baer would probably disagree with this assertion, but filming The Franchise for the better part of the season took its toll. Some players clearly relished the opportunity to tell their stories (Ryan Vogelsong immediately jumps to mind) but others (Aubrey Huff, for instance) saw the cameras as intrusive and distracting. The show itself was a lot like the team. Plenty of promise, some great moments, but unfulfilling in the end.

If the Giants’ offense had been simply average compared to the rest of the National League, 2011 would’ve had a more satisfying conclusion. But even batting practice looked to be a chore for the 2011 squad. They couldn’t hit for power, they couldn’t get on base, and when guys were on base they couldn’t drive them in (especially with two outs, a situation where the Giants were historically bad). Hitting cures all, but it was nowhere to be found, even after trading for Jeff “professional hitter” Keppinger and Carlos Beltran.

Still, last year had Matt Cain. And Madison Bumgarner. And Tim Lincecum. And Vogelsong. All healthy, all game — even though they hopped over the foul line and walked to the mound every day knowing they’d be lucky to receive 3 runs from the guys behind them (they knew they wouldn’t get anything from the guys in front of them, Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart, on the offensive side).

So the Giants enter another season with similar expectations but less in the way of pressure and premium cable attention. Let’s look at the 2012 team’s strengths and weaknesses, followed by an overall analysis/prediction that’ll surely look asinine by May. Since I got the privilege of watching this team nine times this spring, that’ll probably influence my thinking — perhaps more than it should, just to warn you.

Strength: top of the rotation

Cain, fresh off the most lucrative extension ever signed by a right-handed pitcher, looked like he always does this spring, except maybe even better. He was more than prepared for a possible contract year, now he can pitch without stuff like money and future homes in the back of his mind.

Bumgarner is the sleeper choice of many to win the Cy Young. Okay, mostly Giants fans, but they’re correct on this one. Bumgarner grew into a fairly dominant strikeout pitcher as 2011 went on, pretty amazing since so many were worried about the “Verducci Effect” and how Bumgarner would respond to such a huge innings increase in 2010. Nobody’s concerned anymore.

Lincecum, who’s had a love/hate relationship with his slider for a good portion of his career, hates it now. He spent most of the spring throwing 12-to-6 curveballs, with mixed success. When thrown correctly, hitters had no chance. When left in the zone, his curves were hit pretty hard. Still, he’s a veteran (crazy, I know) who knows his body and mechanics as well as anyone. With his intelligence, confidence and tools, he should be fine. He’s still the ace of this staff until proven otherwise.

Vogelsong is the wild card here. He seems to be progressing nicely from his back injury suffered early this spring, but he’s only had one really good year in the bigs. Can he be expected to replicate his 2011 success, or at least come close? The Giants need him to at least be 80% as good as he was last year to have any shot with their starting pitching depth (or lack thereof).

Strength: Buster’s back

Even on a team dominated by powerful pitching personalities, Buster Posey’s the resident badass in the clubhouse. He doesn’t talk a lot, but seeing him do his thing every day fills everyone with a sense of calm confidence. When he went down, the team didn’t exactly go into a tailspin — but when they did falter in August, everyone seemed powerless to stop it. At 25, that’s already Posey’s job: take the feeling generated from the outstanding pitchers and spread it amongst the position players. If he hits .300 with 20 homers, great. If he can’t generate that kind of offense it won’t be a disaster, as long as he’s in uniform and not at a rehab facility in Arizona.

Strength: youth, speed and (hopefully) durability

It’s pretty easy to see why Brian Sabean traded for Melky Cabrera. He’s only 27 and has averaged 147 games played over the past four years, including 155 games last year with the Royals. The Giants’ position players now have an average age around 27, compared to 31 years of age last season.

Teams want power and speed, the Giants had neither last season. The 2011 Giants tried to run a little bit, with no success (85 steals on 136 attempts, a 62.5% success rate). With Angel Pagan (a better base stealer than Andres Torres), Gregor Blanco and younger middle infielders like Brandon Crawford and Emmanuel Burriss, the Giants will be able to run a bit more — provided they get on base.

The Giants surprised the fans by adding both Brandon Belt and Brett Pill to the Opening Day roster, as most thought that was an either/or choice that would leave Belt in Fresno. Some are quibbling with the idea that it might be a platoon situation between the two at first, but it’s Belt’s job to lose. If he hits, he’ll play 140 games and the Giants will look like a completely different team this year. If Belt doesn’t hit early, we might see a repeat of 2011. That’s how important the 23-year-old is.

With youth hopefully comes some base hits. Hector Sanchez made the roster as the lone backup catcher (unless you count Pablo Sandoval), and he’ll be tasked with keeping the Giants from floundering at the plate when Posey either sits or plays first. Belt is a ticking time bomb the rest of the NL hoped wouldn’t detonate this season, but now it looks like it very well may.

Younger arms and legs SHOULD also mean less time on the disabled list (the Giants made 431 trips to the DL last season, believe it or not), but Posey was 24 last year, so…

Strength: the bullpen

Say what you will about the deals given to Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, but the Giants have a deep, varied, experienced bullpen. Even if Brian Wilson craps out this season (a definite possibility), there are plenty of relievers behind him that can step in: Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla (who was close to a lockdown closer late last season) and Heath Hembree (the future, a guy who would’ve made the Opening Day roster on most teams). Dan Otero made the squad as the guy who’ll get sent down when Vogelsong returns, and he had to win a pretty fierce battle with Jean Machi and Steve Edlefsen to get his first big league paycheck. Since Bruce Bochy’s biggest strength is managing bullpens, this is the one area on this team that should be cause for very little concern.

Weakness: rotation depth

If Vogelsong gets hurt, the Giants are in trouble. If Cain, Lincecum or Bumgarner hit the DL the Giants are, for lack of a better word, totally screwed. Barry “The Falconer” Zito is a high-priced punching bag. If Zito pitches a full season for the Giants, let’s just say it would be surprising. Eric Surkamp, who looked good in Arizona before his elbow got painful enough to get an MRI, was already a question mark in terms of production. Now it’s questionable Surkamp will pitch anytime soon. The minor leagues don’t have much in the way of reinforcements. The bullpen will help keep the Giants afloat, but there’s an awful lot of pressure on Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner to stay healthy and pitch 7 innings nearly every outing.

Weakness: the middle infield

Brandon Crawford’s a very confident guy and the best defensive shortstop the Giants have had in quite some time. But can he hit? Emmanuel Burriss looks like a player, but hasn’t done much in several MLB opportunities. Ryan Theriot’s going to be counted on to play shortstop, and whether he’s even a viable second baseman is questionable. Theriot’s fielding is quite bad, and this spring he suffered the black eye to prove it after taking a throw to the face. If Crawford and Burriss make the leap and Freddy Sanchez can give the Giants anything, they’ll be in good shape. However, those are some pretty big IFs.

Weakness: mix-and-match lineup

Sounds like fun to Bochy, who loves to play with lefty/righty matchups and change things up to spur action. However, the lack of obvious defined roles is troublesome. Who’s the leadoff hitter? Pagan was the early choice, but his spring struggles and lack of success in that role in the past can’t be ignored (well, the former can probably be brushed aside, but the latter not so easily). Gregor Blanco’s a nice story and his .358 career OBP looks pretty, but there’s a reason why he was available this off-season.

The middle of the order also has question marks. Nobody on the team can be counted on to hit 25+ home runs besides perhaps Sandoval. In effect, the Giants have created a group of position players with upside, now they’re throwing them out there and hoping for some career years. Time will tell how well this strategy works.

Overall analysis, plus a sure-to-be-wrong prediction

Why did the Giants win the World Series in 2010? They brought up Posey, picked up Pat Burrell and the San Diego Padres crumbled. Then in the playoffs each of the four starting pitchers had at least one fantastic performance, and everyone other than Jonathan Sanchez had more than one. The Giants’ defense was great, they learned how to survive and then thrive during close games, and by the end they were unstoppable to the point where they made the Texas Rangers look like the Pittsburgh Pirates.

After putting together a very different group of position players from last year (no Aaron Rowand, Miguel Tejada, Andres Torres, Cody Ross, Mike Fontenot and Pat Burrell, among others), we have no idea how this team will gel … but the pieces seem to be there (although they might be looking for both a No. 5 starter and another bat at the trade deadline). Last season was about confidence in their lightning-in-a-bottle 2010 past. In going young pretty much across the board when it came to end-of-spring roster moves, they’ve shown a confidence in the future that wasn’t there last season.

If they hold onto that feeling, and avoid the temptation to scrap their plans if guys like Belt or Hector Sanchez start slowly, the Giants have enough talent to hold their own with the rest of the NL West. But what about the D-Backs, you ask … well, their fans are pretty confident right now. Here’s AZ Snake Pit (the same site that brought you the “Buster Posey and Schadenfreude” monstrosity) with their prediction for the 2012 D-Backs’ regular season:

Conclusion
99 wins. And to save you the bother, here’s your reaction. But, breaking it down, we have a team that was pretty good last year – likely a legit 90-win time or so. They dumped the dead wood that cost them a significant number of victories, and added pieces that should make them better. Finally, they’re a sufficiently young team, that age and experience will lead to some additional improvement. When you put it like that… There’s a reason a significant chunk of ESPN pundits predict Arizona will win the National League pennant [though I'm still amazed there are people picking the Giants].

ESPN pundits = bulletproof argument.

Giants fans feel much the same way as D-Backs fans, only with a lot more caution. A lot of the dead wood is gone (not all, but no Rowand makes for a happier AT&T Park). With younger players hopefully will come some improvement on the Giants’ side, too.

The NL West is tougher than it was in 2010, certainly. The Dodgers, Rockies and Padres should prove as annoying as ever in the 57 times they face the Giants. The D-Backs bring back a division champion roster — one which I highly doubt will win 99 games. First, the infield is ripe for a regression. Ryan Roberts, Willie Bloomquist, Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt could either be very solid or an absolute mess. I’m not sure why they signed Jason Kubel. Trevor Cahill is nowhere near as good as his 2010 win/loss record. And like the 2011 Giants, the 2012 D-Backs can’t sneak up on the National League (Arizona was dismissed by the majority until August last season).

But who cares about Arizona, a state which loses its usefulness once the Cactus League ends. It’s time to pretend like I know what I’m talking about!

Conclusion (Giants, not D-Backs)
91 wins. One of the things I see for this team is a lack of streakiness that marked the past two seasons. Losing Cody Ross will do that to a team. The hitting should be better than last season. Five games better? That’s actually misleading, because the Giants’ 2011 run differential was that of an 80-win team. So yes, I’m predicting an 11-game improvement from last year. In the WAR sense, I’m giving the team a couple wins for a healthy Posey, a win from an even better Bumgarner, a couple wins from Belt getting regular playing time, and … ah hell, I don’t know.

The team isn’t tight and tired like they were. They were a little too satisfied last season (a million-person or so parade will do that), now they seem hungry (especially Lincecum whenever you mention Clayton Kershaw). They’ve admitted some mistakes (no Tejada/O-Cab this year, for instance). Besides the fifth starter and Theriot’s defense, nothing about this team is too worrisome. Most of all, I see the Giants making this year the time they truly transition to their future: horribly expensive pitching supported by a group of confident, young, homegrown hitters who erase the need for Brian Sabean to sign terrible free agent hitters. What a vision that is.

Oh, and the Giants win the NL West.

Also, check out my MLB Preview: Giants vs. Athletics Statistical Battles post at SB Nation Bay Area. Which player will be the butt of more fat jokes? You decide!