Five Questions:  San Francisco Giants

Coming into 2005, the San Francisco Giants were enjoying a sustained run of success that, while it had failed to include a World Championship, was highly impressive nonetheless: eight consecutive years of first- or second-place finishes, winning between 86 and 100 games. In 2005, the long smooth ride careened into a ditch, as an aged and injury-racked Giants ball club limped in at 75-87.

For 2006, general manager Brian Sabean, entering his tenth season at the helm (and newly without longtime first mate Ned Colletti, who left to take over the GM role for the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers), didn’t thoroughly retool his roster, but he did introduce some significant alterations. Gone are first baseman J.T. Snow, third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, starting pitcher Brett Tomko, and relievers Scott Eyre and LaTroy Hawkins. Newly arrived are starter Matt Morris, relievers Tim Worrell and Steve Kline, first baseman Mark Sweeney, and outfielder Steve Finley. In familiar Sabean fashion, the acquisitions are all veterans, as yet again the Giants gear up to “win now” with an ultra-experienced roster.

So, what are the five most pressing questions the team must answer if it hopes to regain winning form in 2006?

1. What about Barry?

As always, this is the one issue that towers over all others. With a gimpy-kneed Barry Bonds absent for nearly all of 2005, the Giants’ offense dissolved, putting up a feeble OPS+ of 92, 15th in the 16-team National League. While it is the case that the team had other problems in 2005 beyond missing their powerhouse slugger, having him available for just 14 hobbling September games was unquestionably the costliest.

And Bonds, of course, totes a truckload of baggage in addition to the issues of turning 42 in July and attempting to rebound from serious knee injuries. As he verges on surpassing the career home run mark of none other than Babe Ruth, the steroid controversy swirls around Bonds as fiercely as ever, presenting not only chronic sourness and distraction, but the possibility of MLB suspension and perhaps even legal action. In short, the circumstances Bonds faces as he enters the final year of his contract, and very likely the final year of his astounding career, could not conceivably be any worse. The list of quite plausible ways in which Bonds will fail to positively contribute to the Giants’ fortunes in 2006 is very long.

But then again … through his first six spring training games this year, Bonds was 9-for-13 with a double and four home runs. This could turn out to be extremely interesting.

2. How healthy will they be?

This is, of course, the inescapable question for every team every year. But when a team’s roster is as veteran-laden as the 2006 Giants’, the question becomes even more imperative. Bonds’ injury was hardly the only one the team encountered in 2005: slugging ourfielder Moises Alou, hard-hitting second baseman Ray Durham, ace starter Jason Schmidt, and closer Armando Benitez were all dogged with ailments of one sort or another. None of those guys is any younger this year.

Neither shortstop Omar Vizquel nor catcher Mike Matheny were hampered by injuries in 2005, but at 39 and 35, respectively, they must be considered significant injury risks anyway, particularly given the positions they handle. Neither 32-year-old center fielder Randy Winn nor 31-year-old third baseman Pedro Feliz are kids (although they may appear so in this context—even the Giants’ manager, Felipe Alou, is the oldest in baseball at 71), but they would appear to be fairly safe injury risks.

Injuries are an inevitability over the long season, and the heavily gray-bearded Giants will undoubtedly confront this issue again and again. Their depth will likely be strongly tested, and if the likes of Jose Vizcaino wind up garnering a lot of playing time, 2006 will likely be a year to forget for the Giants.

3. Who’s on first?

The Giants’ run of success from 1997-2004 with J.T. Snow as their primary first baseman stands as proof that a top-tier run producer at first base isn’t a must for a winning team. And given Snow’s age and poor 2005 performance, the decision to let him go in 2006 was clearly not a bad one.

But, come on: a platoon of Mark Sweeney and Lance Niekro at first base is really pushing the idea that you can win without getting a lot of offense from your first basemen. Both the 36-year-old left-handed-batting Sweeney and the 27-year-old right-handed-batting Niekro are handy spare parts, but the best the Giants can realistically expect is that they cobble together a level of production that isn’t embarrassing for the first base slot. And neither carries anything resembling Snow’s glove.

For years, I’ve been wishing that the team could somehow persuade the obstinate Bonds to agree to a shift to first base. Such a move would make more sense than ever this year, but of course it won’t happen. Instead, guys who would be better suited to utility work will alternate as starters at first base, and the position will very likely constitute a weakness.

4. Will the bullpen be any good?

The Giants’ relief pitching had been a complete disaster in 2004, and so Sabean took the step of signing veteran top closer Armando Benitez to a lucrative multi-year deal for 2005. Then Benitez proceeded to shred his right hamstring and miss most of the ’05 season. In his absence, the rest of the Giants’ relief corps managed to be better than terrible, but still, the ‘pen was anything but a strong point.

For 2006, Sabean has replaced LOOGY Scott Eyre and right-handed setup man LaTroy Hawkins with Steve Kline and Tim Worrell, respectively, which would appear to be a wash at best. And Benitez was recently seen getting a cortisone shot in his left knee, which is anything but encouraging news.

The Giants’ starting rotation, of Schmidt, Morris, impressive youngsters Noah Lowry and Matt Cain, and probably Brad Hennessey, will probably be solid and could be outstanding. But their relief pitching shapes up to be no better than average, and possibly a major problem.

Though it may seem that Sabean has traded them all away, it is the case that the Giants still have a few more decent young arms on hand, who might step forward and make a contribution, including Kevin Correia, Jeremy Accardo, and Merkin Valdez. A sleeper is 28-year-old southpaw Jack Taschner, a minor league veteran who threw quite impressively for the Giants late in 2005.

5. How many games do they need to win, really?

So, you’ve got a team with injury-and-age question marks all over it. Everything would have to go just right—Bonds plays 120 games, the rest of the geezers stay reasonably healthy, and neither first base nor the bullpen becomes the disaster it might—for this ball club to win, say, 90 games. The prospect of postseason participation is pretty bleak, right?

But we must remind ourselves of where we are: this is the National League West Division, after all. The Padres leveraged an 82-80 record into a five-game division-championship cushion last year. While it’s unlikely that the NL West will be such a complete laughingstock again in 2006, it remains the case that this is a collection of teams from which a dependable winner is distinctively absent. In 2006, 90 wins might be more than enough to win this division; 85 could very well handle it.

And, while Bonds’ status is obviously critical, with him this ball club could quite conceivably win 85 games. Of course, without him, and if other things go south as well, they could also quite conceivably lose 95. But the point is that even an outcome slightly below the best-case scenario plausibly projects the Giants as a serious contender for the NL West division title in 2006. Such as it is.

So …

Being a Giants’ fan over the past several years has been a mixed blessing. In Barry Bonds, we’ve gotten to witness up close perhaps the most remarkable run of hitting any baseball player has ever performed. Whatever one’s opinions about the propriety of Bonds’s training methods, and the precise degree to which illicit substances might have enhanced his performance, there can be no question about the staggering magnitude of the performance. Bonds had, of course, been the central reason why the Giants had been such a consistently good ball club until 2005.

But they had been a consistently good ball club, and never a great one. We Giants’ fans have regarded each passing year of Bonds’ astounding twilight with a sense of mounting anxiety, even frustration: the window of Bonds’ presence was inexorably closing, and yet the ball club, though utterly drenched in gorgeous new-ballpark turnstile-and-concession revenue, never committed to putting the pedal all the way to the floor in terms of payroll. If ever it would seem that the time was right for a franchise to just say, the hell with it, we’re going to do whatever it possibly takes to win it all just one time, it would seem to be when they had one of the very greatest players in baseball history in his last few seasons, selling out a jewel of a stadium in a very affluent media market. But that never happened: the Giants teased their fan base, putting good-but-hardly-stellar supporting casts around their superduperstar, and were consistently in the postseason hunt but were never (except perhaps in 2000) really a favorite. Their one trip to the World Series, in 2002, was as a Wild Card entry, and then they managed to tease us even more mercilessly by blowing a late-innings Game 6 lead, and with it the Series. The sense of missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity hangs deep in the hearts of Giants’ fans.

So now in 2006, Bonds is entering what will almost certainly be his final season, and whether he can be a major productive force at this age, in this state of health, and under these very agitated circumstances, is extremely unclear. Moreover, the roster surrounding him is simply not as good as Giant rosters have recently been. The indicators are many that the last year of Barry Bonds’ baseball career will be another year of frustration for his team, and could easily be a dismal mess.

But the possibility exists that, despite all the long odds, the season could end satisfyingly, if not triumphantly. And that, as they say, is why they play the games.

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