WESTERN HOMES: The conventional wisdom holds that there isn't another team in the majors that was recently a playoff contender and now has as bleak a future as the Giants. They've neglected their player development system, especially on the offensive side, for more than a decade as they've tried to win around Barry Bonds. If ever there was a player worth such a strategy, it was Bonds. They very nearly got over and won a World Series that way, but it didn't pan out, and now the Bonds era is over. With it, a lot of NL West fans will tell you, have gone the Giants' chances for another decade. But I don't think that that's completely true. At the very least San Francisco has displayed a knack for developing pitching in their system, and as their BP '08 chapter theorizes combining a pitchers' park with plus defense will allow them to maximize the return they get in trade for all of the pitchers they choose to deal.
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: A lot of people are high on their draft picks from last year, now that they've had some to make. And the upside of all their silly replacement-level veteran contracts is that all of them except for Barry Zito's and Aaron Rowand's expire after 2009. Zito's contract is already looking pretty bad but Rowand's will be at worst mediocre... assuming he stays mostly healthy. That's a big if. But his new contract is flat for the last three years. $12 million in 2012 for a 34-year-old centerfielder won't be that bad.
WH: I like Rowand -- he's a good example of the kind of player who would have been overrated back in the bad old days, underrated in the pure-OBP era of stat analysis, and is rated exactly right now. He's the kind of guy who has a lot of value hidden in stuff like outfield assists and baserunning. As for the rest of the Giants' contracts... anyone who wants to take them to task for continuing to employ guys like Randy Winn and Ray Durham during an obvious rebuilding phase needs to stop and consider the alternatives. There's nothing even resembling a major-league position player in the top three levels of San Francisco's farm system.
RD: They've done a truly awful job finding replacement-level talent. Durham and Winn combined are only making $16 million this year and Winn's only got an extra $8 million in 2009. By that time, you hope, they'll be able to figure something out. They've got their four core starters locked up until a time when they conceivably could be good again, which is a good place to start. Lincecum just came up and they have team options for Lowry and Cain in '10 and '11 respectively.
WH: It is important to remember that if they didn't hang on to all these thirtysomethings who were Bonds' running mates back in the good old days, the team would be looking at 110 losses. The Giants might lead the league in replacement-level veterans with silly contracts, but the alternative would be far, far worse. Their 40-man roster is like a work of folk art -- strange, not constructed according to any coherent logic, and almost entirely useless. But let's stop and consider Barry Zito's situation for a second. By the time they're good again... will he still be worth anything?
RD: He's only 30. If they get some kind of offense in place by 2010, he'll only be 32. He's not going to be great, but he's going to be an effective member of a rotation with only $35 million or so remaining on his contract.
WH: I think it sounds optimistic to say that they're going to be good again in only two years. They only need to fill every position in the field.
RD: Oh sure, but who did the Tigers have on the offensive side when they signed Pudge?Bobby Higginson played 131 games in 2004!
WH: Well, you know how I feel about Bobby Higginson. But Detroit had more than the Giants have now. They had Inge, Granderson, Shelton, Thames... not great players, but all better than replacements. All those guys were in Toledo in '05 except for Inge who was already with the Tigers. Absolutely better than the likes of Kevin Frandsen, Nate Schierholtz, and Rajai Davis.
RD: I'm not sure I see Zito falling off a cliff in the next two or three years. It's always possible with injuries, but if he stays on the field, he'll be a useful player -- forget his salary.
WH: I suppose it depends on how you define "useful." If eating a lot of innings year after year for a non-contending club is a use, then all right. But the Giants are not operating in a vacuum. Arizona, Colorado, and Los Angeles all have a lot more talent right now and a lot more coming. The Giants have no one anywhere in the system who will play for the big-league team in the next two seasons and won't suck offensively.
RD: That's a bigger problem. If all of those teams (and/or San Diego) stay above .500 there's not much the Giants can do.
WH: And unlike some of the other bad teams that we have discussed and will discuss, there are no quick-fix moves they can make. None of their vets have any value at all.
RD: If the Giants are willing to pay for prospects, maybe they do. Vizquel's glove is good enough for a contender to use off the bench. They also have enough guys with not-awful contracts and some talent that if one has a lucky first half, they can flip him. Winn, Durham, Molina, Dave Roberts... all old, all possibly done, but one of the four having a good few months isn't that unlikely.
WH: They should not allow shame nor public opinion to sway them, when the time to deal comes. This can be their rock-bottom year right here, or they can have several in a row. How aggressive they are about restocking the farm system with bats will decide it.
RD: Yeah, who cares how bad the offense is this season?
WH: They can't get caught up in Baltimore logic where they figure there's a certain arbitrary standard for how high their payroll should be or how many "name" players they need to have on the roster. They could be in a worse situation because it's not like management made a conscious decision to "blow it up" and has to justify it to the fans; they were held hostage by Bonds the last few seasons and everybody in the Bay Area recognizes that. So if they're ghastly this year they can blame it on Barry... so long as they show some substantial improvement in '09 and '10.
RD: They should still try to sign hitters in free agency if the deals are right. Rowand was a good start. They'll need to extend Lincecum in a couple of years, but other than that they should have $30-40 million in annual salary each year to invest in offense.
WH: That's a good point -- the Giants are not a small-market team. If they have opportunities to add guys whose contracts are going to hold steady in value, or even appreciate, they can make those deals even if the signees aren't necessarily going to stick around long enough to be part of the next playoff-contending San Francisco team. No idea should be off the table when it comes to generating new assets for this roster. Another thing higher-budget teams in rebuilding mode can do is invest in multi-year injury rehabilitation projects, although that's more for pitchers and as such applies less to the Giants.
RD: They should go way over slot in the draft, too, if they have to. Anything to get superstar hitters in the fold.
WH: That's interesting. How did Detroit go from being so bad to so good so quickly? In no small part it was because for a few years they were the worst team in the majors with money. They wouldn't have the first pick in the draft but they would get the best talent year after year because they were the highest-selecting team with the will to spend whatever it took. The Giants could take that spot now.
RD: The slotting system is going to blow up this year anyway. Everyone's going to go over slot now. The system is stupid and everybody hates it, the prisoner's-dilemma math works out in favor of everyone defecting, and this year's draft is going to be the watershed point. The Giants have the fifth overall pick and they should take the best hitter available and pay him whatever it takes. Particularly since they lost their second-rounder signing Rowand and they need hitting everywhere.
WH: They have to find a star somewhere. This would also be an excellent time to redouble their efforts in international scouting. Don't you think San Francisco ought to be as big a destination for star Japanese players as Seattle is? And all they've really tried is a cameo from Tsuyoshi Shinjo. I can understand why they were never big overseas players signing with the Giants while Barry was still around -- there simply wouldn't have been enough room for a Japanese media contingent in the locker room what with Barry's entourage, his famed enormous recliner, his personal flatscreens, his special extra locker full of flaxseed ointment, Pedro Gomez, and whatever else.
RD: And his enormous head. The Giants have some downside risk, believe it or not... Lowry and Cain are not guaranteed to stay healthy (although Lincecum, everybody says, is a genetic freak). If they can't find any hitters, the team could completely tank in a few years.
WH: They are young pitchers, and therefore injury risks. People think that San Francisco is a good baseball town these days, but before the new ballpark and before Barry they had lousy attendance for years. You'd hate to see that lovely ballpark half-full all the time.
RD: Unless you're a Rockies, Padres, Dodgers, or D-Backs fan.
WH: Well, as a Rockies fan, I like seeing AT&T Park or whatever it's called these days full on TV in high-def. It's very beautiful.
RD: But you want them to lose.
WH: I don't mind so much that the Giants have no offense to back up a rotation that could be scary, no. Can they maybe lose but the fans will still go in high numbers? Perhaps if they grow some ivy in the outfield. Back to the product on the field... there's not much point in spending money on relief pitching when you have no plans to contend. But that said, the Giants' bullpen could be very, very bad. If that combines with their lack of offense and one or two starter injuries it could mean a really ugly year. A Tigers-like ugly year.
RD: At least the bullpen will be cheap. No one's making even $2 million this season.
WH: It's also got some Dickensian names. Erick Threets! Merkin Valdez! Vinnie Chulk!
RD: And Steve Kline's filthy, filthy cap!
WH: The Vegas over/under is 73. I think that's high.
RD: A bit, but the pitching is good enough that they won't be completely awful. They won 71 last year. I'm going with 70.
WH: I think they're going to be brutal, particularly with the other four teams in the division all above-average. 66 wins.