The sight of Bruce Bochy in a San Francisco Giants‘ uniform is strange. Few managers in recent seasons were more synonymous with their teams than Bochy with the San Diego Padres. Bochy spent 24 seasons with the Padres as a backup catcher, minor league manager, coach, and major league manager.
Yet, Bochy decided to leave the Padres at the end of last season with one year left on his contract. He made the move after management declined to extend his deal, even though he’d led them to consecutive playoff appearances. The Padres instead gave Bochy their blessing when he sought the Giants’ job after Felipe Alou‘s contract expired at the end of last season.
“I had a year left in San Diego and it wasn’t like I was just looking to leave and going to go after just any job,” Bochy said. “The San Francisco job was attractive to me. It’s a great city, a great ballpark, and a franchise that is committed to winning year in and year out. I just thought it was the right situation for me at the right time in my life.”
Rarely does a manager’s job open with a team built to win now. However, the Giants are far from being in rebuilding mode. In fact, the Giants’ every day lineup resembles something out of an old-timers game:
Player Position Age Dave Roberts CF 35 Omar Vizquel SS 40 Rich Aurilia 1B 35 Barry Bonds LF 42 Ray Durham 2B 35 Benjie Molina C 32 Pedro Feliz 3B 32 Randy Winn RF 33
“I know we have some age in our lineup, but I think it’s a very talented lineup that’s capable of scoring a lot of runs and winning a lot of games,” Bochy said. “You have a lot of veteran hitters who have long proven they are capable of being productive major-leaguers. … I don’t see the age as a negative. It’s negated by talent and experience.”
However, Bochy knows he will have to be more flexible in making out his lineup card. He plans to rest his regulars more, although his bench includes a pair of additional graybeards in Mark Sweeney (37) and Ryan Klesko (36). The “kids” aren’t exactly wet behind the ears, either–catcher Eliezer Alfonzo (28), first baseman Lance Niekro (28), and outfielder Todd Linden (27).
“I’m going to have to find ways to rest our regulars more,” Bochy said. “The tough part about that is that the temptation is there to play all of them day after day after day because they are productive. I’m going to have to discipline myself, though, to give them days off, because the last thing you want to do is burn them all out before the season is half over.”
So far, the aging lineup hasn’t produced much. The Giants are off to a 4-8 start and are scoring only 3.25 runs a game with a .253 team Equivalent Average.
However, the Giants aren’t alarmed that an old team has collectively gone over the hill in a hurry. “Every team, regardless of how good they are, has a stretch every season in which they don’t play well for 10-15 games,” Aurilia said. “I think we’ve hit our bad stretch early. I know what people say about the age of this club but we have guys who can still play. We’re going to score runs. We’re going to be fine.”
As usual, the Giants’ offense will go as far as Bonds takes it. After a slow start, his bat came alive last Friday in Pittsburgh. Bonds went 3-for-3 with two home runs and four RBI before being pulled from the game after just 3 ½ innings on an extremely cold night. Bonds is hitting .303/.465/.636 with three home runs, eight RBI, and 10 walks in 11 games.
Knee problems have plagued Bonds in recent seasons, as he was limited to 14 games in 2005, then hit .270/.454/.545 with 26 homers and 77 RBI last year. However, Bonds says he is healthy again, at least as healthy as someone with surgery-ravaged knees can be. “The knee still hurt and that’s something I’m going to have to live with but they’ve improved to the point where I don’t feel they are hindering me nearly as much as they have been,” Bonds said. “It’s bone on bone now and that’s the way it’s always going to be. I’ve adjusted to it.”
Bochy realizes he must be extra careful with Bonds, which is why he took him out in Pittsburgh on a night when he was swinging so well that he appeared on his way to a historic game. “You forget when you watch him play but he is going to be 43 years old in July,” Bochy said. “He’s going to get his rest. It’s going to be hard to resist the temptation of writing his name in the lineup but I know what I need to do to ensure he has the best season possible.”
While one Barry holds the key to the Giants’ offense, another Barry holds the key to the Giants’ pitching staff. That’s left-hander Barry Zito, who received the richest contract ever given a pitcher in baseball history last December when he signed a seven-year, $126-million deal. Zito fronts a rotation that includes a pair of youngsters in right-hander Matt Cain and left-hander Noah Lowry, and a couple of veteran right-handers trying to recapture past glory in Matt Morris and Russ Ortiz.
While Zito went 102-63 with a 3.55 ERA in 102 starts with Oakland over seven seasons, the Giants drew their share of criticism for giving him the big contract. However, Bochy believes Zito will justify the deal. “He is one of the best pitchers in the game, and he is only 28 years old,” Bochy said. “I think a lot of teams would love to have Barry Zito in their rotation. I’m very excited about what he can do for us.”
Zito pitched six shutout innings to win at Colorado on Monday, but lost his first two starts as he gave up 11 runs in 11 innings. Players have been known to press after signing megacontracts as they attempt to justify the money, and Bochy said he and Giants management have talked to Zito about not falling into that trap. “He’s had a fine career and he’s deserving of his contract,” Bochy said. “He doesn’t need to prove anything to us or anyone else. We know how good he is.”
Zito admitted that he has had some difficulty in trying to block out the hype surrounding his contract. “People talk about it all the time and I understand why,” Zito said. “It’s big news when you’re talking that kind of money. When I’m on the mound, though, I can’t be thinking about how much money I make or what other people are thinking. I’ve just got to out and pitch my game like I did in Oakland. If I do that, I should be fine, but it’s hard not to try to do a little more when you’re coming to a new team.”
Zito is coming to a franchise that has been extremely competitive since Brian Sabean took over as general manager in 1997. The Giants have gone 890-730 in Sabean’s 10-plus seasons on the job, winning one NL pennant, three NL West titles, and earning one NL wild-card berth. While analysts have been predicting for the last few years that the Giants would eventually go into rebuilding mode because of their aging lineup, Zito leads a starting rotation that seems primed to help carry the team for the foreseeable future. Cain is 22 years old and has Cy Young stuff, and Lowry is 26 with considerable promise. “The Giants have a great organization and a commitment to winning,” Zito said. “I knew what they were all about because I watched them from across the Bay all those years when I was with Oakland. I wouldn’t have signed here if I didn’t think this organization wouldn’t be competitive on a yearly basis.”