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The fans wore orange shirts and the little kids sported faux-hawks, and they lined up two deep along the chain-link fence behind the rightfield wall at Scottsdale Stadium, craning their necks for a glimpse of what was happening in the bullpens beneath the bleachers. It was the morning of Feb. 19, the first workout for Giants pitchers and catchers. The catchers were in the midst of a typical drill: They received pitches, then sprang to their feet as if to gun down a base stealer at second. With each pop of the mitt, the fans shouted encouragement and raised their arms to take blurry snaps on their phones. That was because one of the catchers participating in the drill, looking more explosive than anyone else, was 24-year-old Buster Posey.
Posey does not yet have a full regular season's worth of games on his major league résumé—he has played in 160—but he has already accumulated a career's worth of experiences, for better and worse. As a rookie in 2010 he hit .305 with 18 home runs, and was a key player in the Giants' first world championship in 56 years. Then, last May 25, Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins plowed into him on a play at the plate, fracturing Posey's left leg, tearing ligaments in his ankle and ending his season. On that cool morning in Scottsdale, nine months later, Posey's catching—and his powerful batting practice display ("Four-seam coming at 55, it's not tough to square it up," Posey would humbly say)—suggested something of extreme importance for the Giants. As one particularly sonorous fan screamed at Posey, "You're back, baby!"
Manager Bruce Bochy confirmed that sentiment. "He looks like he's over it," Bochy said. "He's healed." So, too, are the Giants, whose dreams of an NL West title repeat were shattered along with their smooth-cheeked leader's leg. San Francisco's 12-deep pitching staff—which ranked second in the majors in both starters' ERA (3.28) and relievers' ERA (3.02)—kept them competitive for a while in 2011. Eventually, though, the absence of Posey—who, according to baseball-reference.com, was worth more than three wins (roughly the value of an All-Star) as a rookie despite playing just 108 games—caught up with them. After being in first place as late as Aug. 9, they finished eight games behind the first-place Diamondbacks. The key for the Giants this season? "It's obvious to everybody, inside or outside the organization," says G.M. Brian Sabean. "Buster needs to return to form."
Posey must recapture the precocious poise he showed in directing a bearded, long-haired, tattooed, excitable pitching staff. Sabean admits the group is "kind of eccentric, individually and collectively," but Posey had already commanded their respect in his rookie season. "He doesn't have a problem talking to me as if I'm just another f------ rookie kid, which is refreshing," says ace—and longhair—Tim Lincecum, the 27-year-old two-time Cy Young winner.
Just as essential will be what Posey does at the plate, not behind it. Without their cleanup hitter for the majority of the season, the Giants ranked last in the NL in runs scored, squeezing out just 3.5 per game. That average fell to 2.7 during an 11--18 August, when they dropped eight games in the standings. Sabean didn't acquire a power bat in the off-season, trading instead for outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan. Bochy describes the pair as "nice players, catalyst-type guys"—in other words, they're not exactly mashers. Sabean's off-season strategy was in part dictated by his desire to return his pitching staff more or less intact, and to save funds in the hope of signing Lincecum (free agent after the 2013 season) and 27-year-old No. 2 starter Matt Cain (free agent after this season)to long-term extensions. It was also dictated by the prospect of Posey's return to the lineup.
While Posey proved to be the NL West's most irreplaceable loss in 2011, he isn't the division's only such player. "There are some guys that you absolutely know make or break a team," says Padres closer Huston Street, who was traded from the Rockies in December. "Whether that's an energy, whether that's their spot in the lineup, whether that's being a catcher, a shortstop, a centerfielder."
The others—Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp and Diamondbacks rightfielder Justin Upton—are all, like Posey, short on years (Kemp is the oldest, at 27) and long on futures. "I think we might have a few in this division that are once in a generation players," says Tulowitzki, not entirely illogically. No other division has been as wide-open in recent years as the NL West, which, unlike the other five, has sent each of its clubs to the playoffs at least once since 2006. And in no other division do teams' fates hinge on the performances of so few. "Those four players really represent the best four players at their positions in the National League," says Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd. Call them the Unexpendables.
This winter the NL West's general managers undertook disparate strategies to build around those players. O'Dowd endeavored to acquire productive players who could also lessen the leadership burden on his shortstop, who for the second consecutive season was an All-Star, an MVP vote-getter, and a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner. That meant adding older pieces, like versatile free agent Michael Cuddyer and righthander Jeremy Guthrie, both 32; second baseman Marco Scutaro, 36, and catcher Ramon Hernandez, 35; third baseman Casey Blake, 38; and even signing 49-year-old southpaw Jamie Moyer out of retirement.
While Tulowitzki is revered in the Rockies' clubhouse, last season even he found the sheriff role beyond him. The Rockies, a preseason favorite, are certain that a discordant clubhouse culture contributed to their disappointing 73--89 record. "We had so many young guys that it became somewhat of a distraction that we didn't have [experienced] guys to go to," Tulowitzki says. "I was still young and I was considered the leader, but I hadn't been through all the ups and downs of a five-year plan."
The Rockies might be merrier, but they might not be a whole lot more successful unless they mine a few surprises from a patchwork rotation that will be without last year's ace (Ubaldo Jimenez, traded to the Indians last July) and, until this July, this year's presumptive one (lefthander Jorge De La Rosa, recovering from Tommy John surgery). "In every approximation I've seen, we're a fourth-place club," a still optimistic O'Dowd says. "And I get that, because of our pitching."