By Scott Miller, CBS Sports Senior Baseball Columnist
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (CBS Sports) — Thirty-eight degrees and Jack Frost nipping at Tim Lincecum’s newly exposed ears in the morning, but you know what?
Guaranteed, it was still warmer here than anywhere else in the Cactus League.
Let the rest of the country swoon over the nouveau-riche Los Angeles Dodgers. The San Francisco Giants have two World Series titles in the past three seasons. And as they report for 2013, 21 of the 25 members of their latest championship team will roll through those clubhouse doors this week.
Though he’s now getting enough grief over it to wonder why he ever started a Twitter account to begin with, when first baseman Brandon Belt proclaimed last week that money can’t buy chemistry, the kid had a point.
And that’s where this season begins for San Francisco.
“We’re all excited,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “FanFest last week was like a little reunion.”
“We have good chemistry with this group,” outfielder Hunter Pence said. “We had a great run last year. Now it’s a new year and a new league. It’s not the same.”
It never is, although these Giants sure have a familiar feel.
Lincecum is back — with newly shorn hair — along with the other four incredibly consistent (and successful) starters: Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito. Instead of questions about his comeback from ankle surgery, catcher Buster Posey this spring tackles 2013 as the NL MVP.
Crawford, Pence, Belt, Marco Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval, Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan … in modern baseball, encores rarely come so complete.
Yet with Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and a record-setting payroll that will settle somewhere north of $200 million, the Dodgers are viewed by many as the team to beat in the NL West.
“That’s what it sounds like,” Crawford said, noting his team’s recent history of playing better as underdogs, anyway.
Everything is on paper, and it’s a losing-man’s proposition to crown anyone yet. But say one thing for the Dodgers’ throwing around their financial weight before the Giants’ latest World Series rings are delivered: If nothing else, it emphasizes how extraordinarily difficult it is to win each year.
“I think it’s tough to win every year, period,” Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. “They obviously made a decision to step out and overhaul their team. It will be interesting.
“The most humbling thing we’re going to go through is, it’s tough to win your division. If you see how many times our division has changed hands over the years.”
Over the past decade, only two clubs have won back-to-back titles: the Dodgers (2008-09) and the San Diego Padres (2005-06). Three different clubs have won the NL West during the past four years: the Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and Dodgers.
The Dodgers have not won a World Series since 1988, an inconvenient and humiliating piece of trivia that their new, deep-pocketed owners are zealously working to change.
Meantime, the Giants have become a burgeoning dynasty under the brilliant tandem of Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy.
“At the winter meetings [after 2010], a lot of people came up and said, ‘Congratulations.’ After the second time you do it, they’re mad at you,” Bochy quipped, chuckling. “They say, ‘Hey, that’s enough. You’re ball-hogging now.’”
Though the decision to bring back the entire team nearly man-for-man is unusual in these days of free agency, rapidly inflating salaries and incessant change, it makes sense for the Giants.
“You know, what’s funny about it is, it’s not like the group has been together for four or five years,” Sabean said.
Pagan just completed his first year in the organization and this winter signed a four-year, $45-million deal. Pence and Scutaro were acquired in trades last summer. Belt, Crawford, backup catcher Hector Sanchez and reliever George Kontos all are young.
In many ways, Sabean said, it’s “comforting to have the same group you ended with to start” because it’s not as if the group is challenged by a low-reading fuel gauge.
No, if the Giants don’t win again, it won’t be because they’re too old.
Sabean cites the usual concerns, health and depth, as his chief worries this spring.
That will play out over time. Right now, this is an organization at the top of its game and with another blank canvas. The only limitations are in the imagination.
From that perspective, there remains no reason to doubt. What Bochy remains most proud of from last year’s crew is how unselfishly the Giants played the game.
When closer Brian Wilson went down in early April and Bochy deftly managed a committee to close games, no reliever stepped into his office to complain about the way he was being used.
When Lincecum was moved to the bullpen in October after a bitterly disappointing season, he never pouted for a minute.
“They had one goal in mind,” Bochy said.
From there, whether it was Sergio Romo’s ascent into October glory or Hunter Pence’s game-breaking Game 7 single on which his broken bat struck the ball three times(!), they steamrolled everything in their path.
Pence says he’s heard his infamous bat is packed away in a closet somewhere at AT&T Park. He still encounters folks on the street who compliment him on his “triple hit” and he just shrugs.
“I have no idea what to say,” he said. “It only takes one time and I’m already confused.”
He’s not necessarily planning to replicate his unique feat again this year, but he’s a smart guy. He’ll take any type of hit, any day.
“Any way they come,” he said. “There’s always room for a miracle.”
Hasn’t that pretty much been the Giants’ own motto recently?
(Copyright 2013 CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved.)