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Giants embrace underdog role as Dodgers, Padres stack talent

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The Giants could stay off social media, mute the clubhouse TVs tuned to MLB Network, flip over the magazines that get left on tables all spring, and limit their breakfast conversations to the offseason work done in the American League. They could do all of that, and they still wouldn't be able to avoid their reality every morning when they begin workouts at Scottsdale Stadium.

A few years ago condominiums went up behind the stadium's walls, and when players visit a half-field set up for infield work and pickoff drills, the reminder is right in front of them. On a second-floor balcony facing the field, a few feet above the top of the wall, there's a San Diego Padres flag hanging on a railing.

It's a reminder of two truths about the 2020-21 offseason. The Giants got better, deeper and more experienced, and generally made under-the-radar moves that impressed rival front offices. They also got even further from competing for an NL West crown. 

The Giants already were trying to catch the reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Now they've also got to deal with the Padres, darlings of the offseason and possibly the second-best team in all of baseball. It's not ideal -- unless you relish the underdog role. 

"Everybody has got us in the dog pound and isn't really thinking of us doing anything," right-hander Kevin Gausman said Thursday, "And I think that's a good position to be in."

 

Gausman speaks from experience. He was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and spent his first six big league seasons in a division dominated by the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry. That taught him to take the optimistic and opportunistic approach. 

"When I was in the AL East the Yankees and Red Sox were stacked," he said. "They would beat up on each other in a three-game, four-game series on the weekend and we would come into town and sneak away and take two out of three from them. Every time (the Dodgers and Padres) play each other it's going to be like a playoff game, so they're going to be exhausted when we come into town."

The Giants, of course, won't count on tired opponents to lead them into a race in September. If last season proves to be no fluke, they can legitimately claim that they have a lineup that can try to win slugfests against the Dodgers and Padres. Their problem will be the other side of the ball. 

The Padres had the second-lowest starters' ERA in the National League last year and swung deals for Yu Darvish and 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell. The Dodgers were the only NL team with a lower ERA from their rotation last year, and they capped the offseason by signing the only player -- Trevor Bauer -- who finished ahead of Darvish in the NL Cy Young race last season. 

"We've definitely noticed what they've done," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said of the Padres last week. "We're going to do everything we can to maintain our position."

Friedman is the man who once brought Farhan Zaidi to Los Angeles, and Zaidi is now in his third year of trying to pull the Giants even. It was and remains a monumental task, but he said the day-to-day goals don't change just because the top of the division is now the talk of the sport. 

"We can't change our plan or direction in a reactionary way," he said. "We just have to kind of keep making good baseball moves and improving the team and aiming to get to the playoffs. That continues to be our goal."

The Giants seemingly did that all winter. They added a little over $40 million to the 2021 roster, completely overhauling the rotation, upgrading the bullpen, and adding an important bat to the infield. But that didn't impact their overall projections much

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system has the Giants at 75-87, fourth in the NL West, with the Dodgers and Padres at 104 and 95 wins, respectively. FanGraphs also has the Dodgers winning the West for a ninth straight year, giving them a 65.1 percent shot, with the Padres at 34.7. The Giants pick up the remaining 0.2 percent and when you throw in their wild card odds, FanGraphs has them with a 5.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. 

 

"We're aware of expectations and we understand how people around the league view the National League West -- it's totally understandable," manager Gabe Kapler said on the first day of camp. "Our job is to set high expectations for ourselves and then do everything we can in our workouts and our practices and our work getting ready for the season to exceed those expectations."

The Giants have done that before, although it's been a while. Nobody expected them to win the title in 2010, but Buster Posey joined a band of misfits and partied on Market Street. The 2012 title run included historic comebacks and then a sweep of the favored Tigers. Two years later, the Giants won it all as a wild card. Posey is five years removed from his last playoff game, but he's also not ready to chalk this up to another rebuilding year. 

"As much as I think the sports world loves to try to predict everything, there's still some parts of it that can't be predicted," he said. "I think you go into it with the attitude of you're going out there trying to finish on top of the division. That's looking way in advance, but I think that has to be the goal. Otherwise I think -- whether you would admit it or don't even really realize it -- the effort level or focus at times might suffer if you don't have that mindset."

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As you would expect, the Giants are keeping it positive. Zaidi pointed out that last season's schedule was division-centric and this time around the Giants will get their usual shot at the rest of the league, potentially allowing them to balance things out. It's also true that the Giants played the Dodgers as tough as anyone last year, although they'll need to do a lot better than their 2-8 record against the Padres, who knocked them out of the playoffs on the season's final day.

There's also the fact that the Giants are building the way the Dodgers and Padres have. Perhaps that's the greatest reason for hope. They're loading up their farm system, with the goal of one day striking in free agency and the trade market to add veteran stars like Bauer and Snell. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, but right now it's probably best to not look around too much. 

"I saw all the moves," Kapler said. "Our goal will be to stay pretty focused on our camp."