Because the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West in 2011, the road to the division crown in 2012 technically runs through them. But "technically" is about all the Giants, the D-backs' opponent on Opening Day, will concede.
As they await their season opener Friday at Chase Field, the Giants acknowledge the D-backs' place as NL West favorites by default, but they also know well the division's history as anybody's to win.
"Arizona really was on all cylinders at the end of the year," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said as his team wrapped up spring training. "Based on that, you'd have to say that they're the team to be beat for the division title, but I really think it's going to be a boat race."
Sabean tackled the Giants' offensive deficiencies in the offseason by adding outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, both of whom offer speed on the bases paths. Pagan struggled at the plate this spring, but Cabrera shined and should boost the run support for one of the NL's best starting rotations.
The improved and healthier Giants get first crack at the reigning division champions well aware of how much they -- and the rest of the NL West -- did to improve this winter.
"Well, they got (Jason) Kubel, right?" Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford. "He's a good outfielder and he can hit. But every team in the division is good. There's a lot of depth with every team."
Adding Kubel in left field has indeed padded the D-backs' offensive resume, which was already pretty impressive with Justin Upton, Chris Young and Miguel Montero. As Crawford's comment indicates, opponents know the D-backs can hit. But with the emergence of Ian Kennedy, who will start Friday, and Daniel Hudson, the D-backs have gained full-fledged membership status in the pitching fraternity that is the NL West. A two-time Cy Young Award winner can confirm it.
Tim Lincecum takes the hill opposite Kennedy on Friday in the first of 18 meetings between the two teams this season. After his final start of the spring, Lincecum noted the D-backs' enhanced pitching prowess in recent seasons.
"They're a power-hitting (team), they've got a lot of hitters in their lineup and we know they've got speed," Lincecum said. "And in the last couple years, we've noticed the pitching has been up and coming."
Some have pegged the D-backs' rotation as one of the deepest in the NL. The addition of sinkerballer Trevor Cahill this winter in a trade with Oakland helped, and retaining Joe Saunders put the D-backs in an even better position than expected.
"The history of our division is that every year it's a shotgun start," Sabean said. "I think every team in the division tried to get more competitive, and certainly Arizona wasn't complacent."
With all they accomplished last season and what they did to improve in the offseason, some see the D-backs as favorites to win the National League and reach the World Series. The Giants, of course, are not among that contingent.
"They're a team where there's a lot of buzz around them," Lincecum said. "This year they do have that bull's-eye on their back, and people are going to be going after them different. Outside that, I think we're going to approach them the same way."
The Giants, too, are believed to be serious contenders this season. Even if they fail to recapture the division, there are now two wild-card spots available. With the same pitching staff in place, an improved offense and a healthy Buster Posey, there's a strong case to be made for the Giants putting together a season much like they did in 2010 to win the World Series.
The D-backs may be the popular pick, but the Giants will no doubt be in the hunt. This weekend's opening series might be the first barometer of how the two teams compare and just what kind of challenge the Giants pose to the D-backs' hopes of repeating in the West.
"You want to play the best to kind of find out where you're at to start the season," Sabean said. "Everybody hopes for a good start. It's not an easy series to begin the season with, especially on the road in Arizona."