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August 15, 2007

Rebuilding by the Bay

San Francisco's Immediate Future

by John Perrotto

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The San Francisco Giants have been in the baseball spotlight almost continually for more than a decade. They finished either first or second in the National League West from 1997-2004. They began fading from contender status two years ago by finishing third in the division; then they fell to last place last season and almost certainly will do so again this season. But the presence of Barry Bonds and his chase to break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record--along with his assortment of off-field travails--have kept the Giants in the news.

However, Bonds now tops the homer charts after surpassing Aaron's record eight days ago. And the Giants are out of the running with a 50-69 record that puts them 16 games behind first-place Arizona in the NL West, and 10 games behind the fourth-place Los Angeles Dodgers. "Things are going to be a lot more different now," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "All the national media has gone away. The focus is off Barry now."

Instead, the focus is squarely on the fact that the Giants need to be overhauled and rebuilt. In recent years, the Giants have assembled the oldest rosters in baseball history in an attempt to supply Bonds with a supporting cast capable of winning a World Series championship, a goal that has eluded the left fielder throughout his stellar 22-year career. "That's really the only piece of the puzzle that's missing for me," Bonds said. "I'd like to win a ring."

Bonds has come close to that coveted piece of jewelry. He got to the World Series with the Giants in 2002, their first appearance in 39 years, but they blew a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game Six and wound up losing to the Anaheim Angels in seven games. Bonds was also on the losing end of three straight National League Championship Series from 1990-92 with Pittsburgh.

But for Bonds to be able to place a World Series ring on his finger, it is going to have to be in a city other than San Francisco, where he was born and raised, and where his father Bobby was once a star outfielder. As their record indicates, the Giants aren't close to winning a World Series, and the organization is getting ready to begin a seismic shift, only fitting now that Bonds' pursuit of the home run record is in the past.

Owner Peter Magowan made it clear when he signed General Manager Brian Sabean to a two-year contract extension in July that the franchise was headed in a new direction. Magowan believes it's time for the Giants to get young and build around an impressive group of young starting pitchers.

Bochy, understandably, doesn't want to start talking too much about next year, particularly when he still needs to keep his team focused on the final weeks of this season. However, he does admit that his club will have a different look in 2007. "I don't think it's any big secret that there are going to be changes made," Bochy said. "Brian and I have talked a lot in the last few weeks about what we want to do. Neither of us wants to go public with that yet, but it will be a different look next year."

Bonds almost certainly will be gone. The Giants gave serious consideration to not bringing him back this year, but Magowan gave in to the pressure of fans wanting to see Bonds pass Aaron in a Giants uniform and gave the the a one-year, $16.5 million contract, even though no other club was willing to come close to matching that offer.

Once the Giants decided to bring back Bonds, they once again collected veteran parts to surround him with, signing catcher Bengie Molina, first baseman/outfielder Ryan Klesko, infielder Rich Aurilia, and center fielder Dave Roberts as free agents. What they wound up with is a lineup completely reliant on Bonds, where most of the members are barely performing above replacement level; Klesko is second on the club with an 11.0 VORP, well behind Bonds' 50.1 VORP. Most days, the only player younger than 30 in the starting lineup other than the pitcher is rookie center fielder Rajai Davis, acquired from Pittsburgh in a July 31 trade for right-hander Matt Morris.

The problem the Giants are facing in revamping their lineup is three-fold. First, they have Roberts and right fielder Randy Winn signed for two more seasons through 2010, and will have to eat most of their contracts to move them. Second, while many of their other veterans figure to clear waivers and be traded in the next few weeks, teams aren't willing to give up premium prospects for them, so the rebuild is going to have to rely almost exclusively on in-house talent. Third, most of their position-player prospects are considered to have low ceilings, which limits the likelihood of the Giants achieving early or easy success in their rebuilding effort.

The Giants did get help from Pittsburgh as Pirates General Manager Dave Littlefield inexplicably traded for Morris and took on all of the $13.7 million left on his three-year, $27 million contract. And he sent Davis and a player to be named (expected to be a pitcher on the 40-man roster) to San Francisco in the process. Considering that Kevin McClatchy grew up as a big Giants' fan in Sacramento, California, and is stepping down as the Pirates' chief executive office at the end of this season, it almost makes you wonder if this was his going-away present to his favorite team. Certainly, Sabean shouldn't expect other GMs to be as easy of a mark as Littlefield.

While they would never admit it publicly, the Giants have to wish someone would take the final seven years of left-hander Barry Zito's eight-year, $126 million contract. He has been awful in his first season since moving across the Bay from Oakland after signing the most lucrative contract ever given to a pitcher, as he has just a 1.9 SNLVAR. The Giants do have a pair of starters with No. 1 potential in right-handers Matt Cain (4.2 SNLVAR) and Tim Lincecum (3.0), while left-hander Noah Lowry (3.7) is also well above average. Lowry is 26, Lincecum is 23, and Cain is 22. "We have a very talented rotation, and that's why I think we could be set up to win here for a number of years to come," Cain said. "We might be rebuilding or retooling or reloading or whatever you want to call it, but that doesn't mean we still can't win because we have the starting pitching to do so."

That rotation needs help, though, not only with some younger players on offense but with some new faces in the bullpen. The Giants' 24 relief losses are the most in the league. Closer Brad Hennessey has had a decent season, but his 1.807 WXRL isn't what you'd expect out of a top closer. The rest of the relief corps is a mess. "We've let too many games slip away this year," Bochy said. "Our record isn't what we thought it would be and I'm not blaming one area. It's just been a very disappointing year, nowhere near the expectations we had coming into this season."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Giants,  Peter Magowan

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