Sarah's Take: NL West is Giants' to lose

Sarah's Take: NL West is Giants' to lose

The Giants might be the most surprising team in the National League West. Coming off a disappointing 2013 season after winning their second World Series championship in three years, the Giants weren't expected to compete for the division title.

The Giants are a mere game behind the Dodgers in the division standings. In the six games between the arch-rival clubs this season, the Giants have won four times.

What has changed for the Giants between last season and this?

In 2013, for the first time since they started playing in AT&T Park, which opened in 2000, the Giants had pitching problems, especially in the rotation. They had a one-dimensional offense, with several soft spots. After center fielder and leadoff hitter Angel Pagan injured his hamstring and underwent surgery, which caused him to miss more than half the season, the Giants' hopes for the playoffs were dashed.

Unlike the Dodgers, who can't make a move without national media attention, the Giants didn't get much attention this past offseason, but general manager Brian Sabean did make some strategic acquisitions that strengthened the team.

Finally the Giants were out from under the humongous contract given to Barry Zito in 2006. Except for the 2012 postseason, Zito never performed the way the Giants envisioned while limiting their payroll flexibility. To replace him in the rotation, Sabean signed right-handed veteran Tim Hudson, and so far this season, Hudson has been outstanding.

Madison Bumgarner continues to emerge as the ace. Ryan Vogelsong, after breaking his hand last year, is healthy and contributing to the winning effort. Although both Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum haven't pitched up to their past standards, they have improved over 2013.

The bullpen has been fantastic, allowing the team to win many one-run games.

The Giants have a more dramatic offense now than any time since Barry Bonds retired. In the recent past, after an opponent faced Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey, it didn't have to worry about a home-run threat.

With Pagan back, the Giants have a traditional leadoff hitter who sets the table for the rest of the lineup. Although Pagan had a serious hamstring injury, he hasn't lost much speed. The Giants don't steal many bases, but Pagan can swipe one occasionally and knows how to distract a pitcher.

Re-signing Hunter Pence was a great move by Sabean. Despite being a notoriously slow starter, Pence is a great five-tool player. He has a good throwing arm and plays right field expertly, preventing the opposition from taking the extra base, and this helps the pitching staff. Although he is a bad ball hitter and doesn't make hitting look easy, he is a decent veteran hitter with power. He can steal a base and distracts the opposing pitcher with his dancing off the base. The Giants love his attitude, when he thinks nothing is impossible. Despite hitting poorly in the 2012 postseason, he played a vital role in that championship.

During the offseason, Sandoval lost 30 pounds. For years the Giants have worried about his conditioning and weight, even though he has been extremely agile at third base and one of their best hitters. He has been known as an impatient hitter, but this year -- a contract year -- he has exhibited more patience at the plate. It hasn't paid off yet, but it will, and Sandoval should have a hugely productive season.

The Giants signed free agent Michael Morse to play left field. Last year, though the Giants received superior defense in left field from Gregor Blanco, Blanco didn't produce much offensively. Left field has traditionally been an offensive position, so when the Giants didn't have much offensive production, they had problems. Morse isn't a good left fielder, but he can hit with power. Manager Bruce Bochy has been replacing Morse with Blanco in late innings to get better defense, especially when the Giants are ahead.

The maturity of first baseman Brandon Belt as a hitter has helped the Giants have a good beginning to the season. Before last August, Belt had resisted coaching to improve his plate coverage since he had experienced early success. But mired in a prolonged slump and recognizing that he was hurting the team, he began to listen and become the hitter that the Giants envisioned when he was drafted. Though Belt was in a mini-slump last week when the Dodgers visited, his offensive production drastically improved since he accepted changes to his batting stance.

With an improved pitching staff and offense, the Giants are a major factor in the NL West. Unless the Dodgers learn to catch and hit better, the Giants must be considered the favorite in the division.

Sarah D. Morris can be reached at sarahmorris27@gmail.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.