- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- General manager Brian Sabean is fighting a pesky bronchial infection this spring, but that's about it for early drama at the San Francisco Giants' camp.
Tim Lincecum's arm is still intact, Pablo Sandoval arrived in better shape and those Barry Bonds perjury updates aren't generating much buzz in Scottsdale. So unless Aubrey Huff has some startling thong-related revelations to share, the Giants will be content to work up a sweat in the desert heat, watch the Albert Pujols and Michael Young sagas unfold from a distance and bide their time until the Cactus League opener against Arizona on Feb. 25.
Camp Feel-Good got under way at Scottsdale Stadium on Tuesday, and it was all hugs and backslaps for the lovable bunch that confounded the experts and won a world championship in October. Camaraderie can be fleeting, so it's hard to say whether the same bond the Giants shared in 2010 will endure this season. But these guys enjoy being around one another enough to take their chances.
"The chemistry on this team is unlike any other team I've seen," Lincecum said. "It kind of brings you back to your college days where everybody hangs out after the games and during the week. We just did an interview together and Brian Wilson said, 'When I see all these faces here, I can't stop laughing and smiling.' It's awesome to be back."
Some players march to the beat of their own drummers. Then there are Lincecum and Wilson, both of whom sprint in the opposite direction if they catch the slightest whiff of a barber. Wilson's beard -- which developed a personality of its own during the postseason -- is lusher, blacker and steel-woollier than ever this spring. And Sabean acknowledged Tuesday that Lincecum is the first big leaguer he's ever seen throw a bullpen session while sporting a ponytail.
So how would the hard-core, traditionalist New Englander in Sabean feel if the Freak made the ponytail part of his repertoire?
"You'll have to ask me if he pitches with it in a game," Sabean said. "Or tries to."
It's always going to be up to the players, as far as the unity or the chemistry coming around. It's not something you can force. What's important is that they understand the importance of playing together and pulling for each other.
”-- Manager Bruce Bochy
A few interesting things have transpired since the Giants doused one another with champagne on a magical night in Arlington, Texas. Manager Bruce Bochy took his wife to Hawaii to celebrate their 33rd wedding anniversary, and catcher Buster Posey braved the snow and traveled to Bristol, Conn., to appear in a commercial for ESPN. The spot, which has yet to air, features Posey at a desk clad in his catching gear, and there's some interplay with an umpire. Beyond that, Posey declined to share much insight into his acting ability.
"I'm sure there will be some critics," Posey said, acknowledging that the harshest criticism will probably come from within the Giants' clubhouse. "I don't think I have a future in TV."
Wilson's popularity continued to grow, culminating with a bizarre appearance on "Lopez Tonight" in which he dressed like a hybrid of Captain Ahab and Thurston Howell III. And of course, there's the facial hair, which makes him Major League Baseball's answer to Brett Keisel.
"I wanted updates on 'The Beard,' so he sent me random text messages over the winter with the beard speaking in the third person," Giants reliever Javier Lopez said. "He even sent pictures. It was very entertaining. I told him, 'You've really gotten better at this as the offseason has progressed.'"
Now that it's been established that the San Francisco players enjoy sharing the same work space, the obvious question lingers: Can they repeat?
There are a multitude of reasons to believe it will be difficult. No team has won back-to-back titles since the New York Yankees captured three straight from 1998 through 2000. The Giants ranked ninth in the National League in runs scored and were middle-of-the-pack in most major offensive categories last season. And they were fortunate to avoid injuries in the starting rotation, with Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez all recording 33 starts and rookie Madison Bumgarner adding stability once he was summoned from the minors to replace No. 5 starter Todd Wellemeyer. This spring Bumgarner is entrenched in the rotation, and veteran Jeff Suppan is in Giants camp as back-end insurance.
Bochy hasn't sought out any of his managerial counterparts with championship experience for advice on the pitfalls of trying to repeat. But he does expect to bounce a few ideas off Lou Piniella, who managed Cincinnati to a title in 1990 and recently signed on as a consultant with the Giants.
For now, Bochy makes it clear that the Giants don't plan to do anything differently with their starters despite their extended workloads in October. He thinks the offense will be better, and he hopes that his players will be just as hungry to win and supportive of one another as they were last season. That's for them to determine.
"It's always going to be up to the players, as far as the unity or the chemistry coming around. It's not something you can force," Bochy said. "What's important is that they understand the importance of playing together and pulling for each other."
The Giants need the pitchers to do a reasonable approximation of last season, when the San Francisco staff led the majors in team ERA (3.36), strikeouts (1,331) and batting average against (.236), and tied for third with 95 quality starts. They need Miguel Tejada to play a serviceable defensive shortstop as he approaches age 37. And they badly need a return to form by Sandoval, whose OPS dive-bombed from .943 to .732 in the span of one year.
The other big challenge for Bochy is figuring out where all the pieces fit on the field. The Giants could begin the season with Cody Ross in right field, Andres Torres in center and Mark DeRosa in left. But DeRosa could move to third if Sandoval flounders again or shift to second if Freddy Sanchez is slow to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Sandoval is capable of playing third or first, and Huff can bounce from first to right or left.
The big wild card in the equation is top prospect Brandon Belt, who hit 23 homers, drove in 112 runs and slugged .620 in stops with Class A San Jose, Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Fresno last season. Belt has an outstanding eye at the plate and Gold Glove-caliber skills at first base. The Giants took their lumps for dawdling before summoning Posey from the minors in late May. If Belt hits, it appears he won't have to wait very long.
"We're extremely open-minded," Bochy said. "This kid could make some noise. We don't look at age or experience. If we think they're ready, we'll bring them up."
It's considered a rite of passage for all players to struggle at one time or another in their careers. Lincecum seemed immune from cliché until last August, when he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA and received a mandate from the Giants to pick up the pace in his conditioning regimen. At 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, Lincecum knows he's never going to be a monster in the gym. But he's now a stickler for running stairs at the ballpark to keep his legs in shape. And if he ever needs a kick in the rear, he only has to recall how bad it felt to be a drag on his team's ambitions.
"When you see the downs, like I did last year, I was about as low as it got for that month," Lincecum said. "I don't ever want to go through that again -- whether it's people doubting my workouts or my work ethic.
"Sometimes fear can be the best motivation, especially in my case. I was always the smallest one, and whether it was football or baseball, I didn't want to get killed or crushed or stomped on. I grew up thinking, 'Am I going to hang with all these big guys?' I just want to lay all the doubts to rest."
Lincecum reclaimed his rightful place among baseball's elite starters late last season, while Ross, Pat Burrell and their fellow discards found refuge by the Bay. As Javier Lopez wistfully observed, he flamed out with Boston in 2009 and spent last spring training in Pittsburgh's camp. Lopez ultimately reinvented himself in San Francisco, where dreams were realized, careers were jump-started and the story ended with a parade.
The 2011 Giants might not be good enough, but it's not because they got overly self-satisfied or lost their edge. After all these guys have been through together, how could that ever happen?
"It's nice to have that target on your back, because it shows that we have something everybody wants," Lopez said. "We know we're going to get everybody's best. I think that's all the motivation that everybody in here will need."
3hJacob Nitzberg, ESPN Stats & Information
19hRandy Jennings, Special to ESPN.com