Tim Lincecum Spring Training SF Giants

On the surface, the 2013 Giants look a lot like the 2012 Giants, or at least the team that was on the field in World Series Game 4. If Pablo Sandoval’s elbow is sufficiently healed by Opening Day, we’ll see the same players around the horn at Dodger Stadium as we saw that cold October night in Detroit — Sandoval, Brandon Crawford, Marco Scutaro, and Brandon Belt. With lefty Clayton Kershaw on the mound, Andres Torres may get the start in left over Gregor Blanco, but Angel Pagan will be in center, with Hunter Pence in right. And Matt Cain will be on the mound, pitching to Buster Posey behind the dish.

But dig beneath the surface, and you will find a 2013 Giants team that looks quite a bit different than the team that kicked off 2012 against the Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Sure, many of the players are the same, but their roles have changed, dictated by their on-field performance, their age, and the length of their contracts. These changes set the stage for the most interesting stories of the 2013 Giants.

The biggest question mark, of course, is Tim Lincecum. The two-time Cy Young Award winner had been the Giants’ rotation ace since 2009, until his slight build and declining fastball velocity threw his mechanics out of whack in 2012. Lincecum showed flashes of brilliance at times last season, but couldn’t maintain that form within games or from start to start. In the postseason, he turned into manager Bruce Bochy’s secret weapon out of the bullpen. Putting aside Game 4 of the League Championship Series against the Cardinals — in which he pitched 4 2/3 innings and gave up six hits and four runs — Lincecum threw 13 innings in relief and yielded just three hits, two walks and one run. He struck out 17.

Lincecum was full of optimism heading into spring training. At Giants Media Day, he talked about his new diet and workout program, his renewed body strength, and his commitment to doing whatever it takes to get back to his old form. Then an early-spring blister threw him off-kilter. In his final spring tune-up on Thursday night, he looked strong in the first three innings, with good fastball velocity and command. But he faded after that, leaving pitches up in the zone that were hit hard and far. It was reminiscent of many 2012 starts.

Many suggest that if Lincecum doesn’t regain at least his 2011 form through the first half of the season, the Giants should look to trade him or move him to the bullpen. It’s difficult to imagine Lincecum having any trade value under those circumstances. There’s also the question of who would replace Lincecum after either a trade or a move to the pen, as the Giants have a startling lack of Major League ready starting pitching depth. Lincecum’s also in the final year of his contract and, presumably, wants every chance to improve his free agent value. A move to the bullpen could seriously undermine Lincecum’s value.

Lincecum’s performance may well affect the fate of another starter, if not this year than next. Barry Zito is in the last year of his 7-year/$126 million contract — unless Zito pitches more than 200 innings this year. If Zito surpasses the 200 inning mark, his $18 million option for 2014 will automatically vest. There’s been lot of preseason chatter about this issue, and most analysts agree that Bruce Bochy will keep a sharp eye on Zito’s innings count from the start of the season. And many point out that Zito hasn’t thrown 200 innings since joining the Giants in 2007. All true, although Zito reached 199 1/3 innings in 2010, when he wasn’t particularly effective.

But what if Lincecum falters and Bochy has to rely on the bullpen more in his starts? Zito is set to pitch after Lincecum in the rotation, so a long bullpen outing in a Lincecum start could force Bochy to leave Zito on the mound the next day — especially if he’s pitching well. In other words, it’s all well and good to say that Bochy will do what he can to keep Zito under 200 innings, but Bochy also has to manage to win day after day in 2013.

There’s a bit of intrigue in the bullpen, too, particularly at closer.  At Media Day, Bochy named Sergio Romo as the closer, but acknowledged that Romo’s slight build, and fluky knee and elbow meant that Romo wouldn’t carry a Brian Wilson-like load for the entire season. That’s no problem for Bochy, who masterfully mixed-and-matched Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, and Javier Lopez in the high-leverage, end-of-game situations last season after Santiago Casilla developed a blister and lost his command. Affeldt is no fan of “closer-by-committee,” as I reported in February. Lopez mimicked Affeldt’s views when I talked to him in March at the SABR Analytics Conference.

Their views notwithstanding, Bochy is likely to call on his experienced lefties to put out late-game fires. But there’s a righty who may also see late-inning action: George Kontos. Kontos debuted with the Giants last June and pitched mostly in the 6th and 7th innings, in games where the outcome wasn’t seriously in doubt. His 9.07 strikeout rate  and 3.67 strikeout-to-walk-ratio were second-highest among Giants relievers, behind only Romo. Those numbers put Kontos in the top 40 in the majors in both categories among relievers with 40+ innings pitched. Look for Bochy to use Kontos and his Romo-like slider in more high-leverage situations.

On the field and at the plate, the biggest uncertainty is in left field. Blanco filled in admirably after Melky Cabrera’s suspension last August, but it was Marco Scutaro who replaced Cabrera’s offense with his .362/.385/.473 line after coming over from Colorado. Neither Blanco nor Torres can produce enough to be a full-time starter. Bochy plans to platoon them, with Torres going largely against left-handed pitching and Blanco seeing mostly righties. But even that platoon advantage won’t produce much. FanGraphs ranked the Giants’ left fielders at 23rd in the league.

But the weakness in left could be ameliorated if Brandon Belt has the breakout season many expect. Belt made discernible adjustments in the second half of 2012 when he stopped trying to hit the ball out of AT&T Park, and started whacking line drives in the outfield gaps for doubles and triples. Those adjustments seemed to carry over to spring, when Belt hit everything thrown at him. Maybe Belt is just more comfortable in the majors after nearly two years under his — ahem — belt. Maybe he’s more confident. Maybe he’s relieved that he’s no longer fighting to be the everyday first baseman. Whatever it is, a consistent .285/.365/.460 from Belt this season would go a long way toward replacing the production the Giants got from Cabrera last season.

The final two most intriguing story lines involve Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval. And they’re more related than you might think. Posey, of course, just inked an eight-year contract extension worth $159 million that will make him a Giant at least through 2021.  With Posey cemented as the cornerstone of the franchise, the questions have already arisen: how long the Giants will keep Posey behind the dish? His bat is too important, the thinking goes, to put his body through the catching grind or to risk injury. The obvious move is for Posey to transition to first base, as he’s played 482 innings there since his 2010 debut, and will likely see more action there this season.

But remember that Posey was a shortstop — and a good one at that — most of the way through college, until a dearth of catching at Florida State led his coach to try Posey behind the plate. There were mumblings last season suggesting the Giants would eventually move Posey to third base. And those mumblings took on new life on Friday when the Chronicle’s Henry Schulman tweeted (through Sulia, ugh) that Posey could follow the lead of Joe Torre and move to third base, and then first.

This is where the story intersects with Pablo. We know the Giants have been concerned for years about Pablo’s weight and fitness levels. Last month, I wrote about how unique — if not unprecedented — it is for Pablo to be an everyday third baseman at his height and weight. But Pablo doesn’t share the same concerns yet. He told Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan that he’ll worry about his weight in a year or two. “I’ve got this year and next year to change all the things,” Sandoval told Passan. “It’s going to take me a while, but I can do it. I know I can do it.”

Pablo will be a free agent after the 2014 season unless the Giants sign him to a contract extension beforehand. By next August, he’ll be 28 year old, just at the peak of offensive production for players with a similar build. If he doesn’t “change all the things” by next season, will the Giants decide to let him walk? Is 2015 too early to think about moving Posey to third base? Posey will turn 28 just before the 2015 season, and presumably will have enough life in his legs to still be the Giants’ everyday catcher.

Sandoval will start the season nursing an elbow injury, after hamate injuries in 2011 and 2012 and hamstring injuries last season, as well. None of these injuries appear to be related to his weight, yet he’ll only become more injury-prone as his body ages. If he’s not in peak fitness, the risk of injury is greater. All of this makes 2013 a very important season for Pablo. However it plays out, it will undoubtedly have a big impact on the Giants fortunes this year and for years to come.

Every player will write a story this season, the next chapter in their baseball careers and in the history of the Giants. To me, these are the most intriguing stories of the 2013 Giants — the stories about fear and failure and change and redemption. I can’t wait to see how they are written.