From a writer's perspective, it's hard not to be a little aggravated by the Giants. They've been playing the same tune now for years -- acquire whatever veteran talent is necessary to maintain the vestiges of competitiveness around god who walks as man (emphasis on "walks") Barry Bonds. The story's played out, for sure. But if you were in Brian Sabean's place, what would you do different? Bonds certainly isn't the sort to exercise patience during a youth movement, and the fanbase would never forgive letting Mr. 700 drift off to finish his career with the Yankees. So San Francisco edges ever closer to fielding an entire eight-man starting lineup of 40-year-olds while their rivals to the south and east dream warmly of the day when Barry and his 800+ jacks ride off into the sunset leaving the Giants mired in the mother of all rebuilding plans. Teams in Las Vegas and/or Portland may well appear in the World Series before San Francisco returns. By the way, the Giants haven't won it all since 1954. There's been a wave lately of teams breaking long championship droughts, but the Indians and even the Cubs have much better odds of continuing that trend.
The National League got a preview of what the post-Barry Giants will look like last year when his elbow-armoredness spent all but 14 games off the field with knee issues. The 2005 San Francisco team was old, slow, boring, and not very good. They went 75-87 and virtually all of the major stories associated with the team were off the field -- notably, some local radio yahoo stupidly chose to couch a legitimate criticism of the team in racial terms, and of course Bonds's ever-lengthening absence became a circus act, with the Giants' front office, ESPN's personal Bonds reporter, and the man himself all regularly contradicting each other. Like most of the rest of the division, the lack of a real winner in the NL West ended up stunting the team's long-term planning. There wasn't much point in bringing back Bonds in September, but the Giants did anyway. There was opportunity aplenty for the team to somehow figure out its mess of a farm system, but Sabean continued his long-running policy of alternately jerking around young pitchers and trading them for useless baubles. I've been hearing about the Giants' amazing minor-league pitching since 1998; they've yet to develop a single money starter. Maybe this year, Matt Cain will be the guy. Excuse me for being skeptical. Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessey, and Kevin Correia will vie for back-of-the-rotation starts behind the declining Jason Schmidt and new acquisition Matt Morris, who ought to benefit from the deep alleys of Whatever They're Calling It Now Park. Rockies fans should be rooting for minor league free agent signing Jamey Wright to make the rotation, so that Colorado might actually win a few games he starts.
It's easy to rip on San Francisco's offense for being old, but a lot of these guys have held up pretty well for their age. Players in their late thirties are always inherent injury risks, but there are worse bets around than Omar Vizquel, Ray Durham, and Moises Alou. Mike Matheny had a career year at 34 last season, hitting double-digit home runs for the first time in his life. They're a regular bunch of silver foxes, these Giants, and this Bonds guy has held up pretty well too. It's the slightly younger Giants regulars who really let them down last year. San Francisco's top five hitters by VORP last year were the four graybeards (Vizquel, Alou, Matheny, Durham) plus Randy Winn, who conveniently had the best 58 games of his career after coming over in a trade from Seattle. The number six guy was Noah Lowry. Starting pitcher Noah Lowry. Guys who had lower VORPs than Lowry last year and return to the Giants for 2006 include Pedro Feliz, Jason Ellison, Lance "Name Value" Niekro, Todd Linden..and Barry Bonds, although he only had 52 at-bats to Lowry's 75. Point is, it's not all the old guys who are dragging the Giants down, it's the twentysomethings and younger thirtysomethings. And San Francisco has some pretty good-hitting pitchers...Hennessey slugged .410, while we're on the subject.
So who's going to lift the offense this year, besides His Surliness? Steve Finley? No. Todd Greene? No. Mark Sweeney? Well, maybe a little. Their bullpen was middle-of-the-pack last year, but that was before Steve Kline and Tim Worrell came aboard. Woo! Steve Kline and Tim Worrell! Armando Benitez missed nearly as much time as Bonds last year but the enthusiasm over his return has been somewhat more muted. I can't imagine why. Let's face it: you can break down any aspect of their team for as long as you want, but 2006 for the Giants will be no different than any other year. If Barry Bonds has one of his completely absurd Barry Bonds years, has an OBP of like .650 or something, they can win the NL West. I think the Dodgers, who aren't resting all of their hopes upon one guy, are a smarter bet for the division title. However, if I were them I would quietly be encouraging Jeff Kent to challenge Bonds to a ultimate fighting match (to be shown as the undercard for the World Baseball "Classic" final). Even if Barry only plays 120 games, even if he walks 400 times, even if he experiences a mysterious power drain this season, you still have to fear and respect him.