Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Giant Void, A Giant Step Forward

Heading down to spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona this spring, the San Francisco Giants are in a unique situation, and I’m not talking about the monster presence of free agent acquisition Aaron Rowand. There is a certain presence that, for the first time in 15 years, will be missing from the Giants camp, a presence that will leave a void in the organization for the entire season, the Giants 50th by the bay.

There will be no Pedro Gomez this year, no swarms of reporters, both local and national, fighting desperately for any bit of information, even if the Willie Mays statue in front of AT&T Park has just as much to say. There will be no talk of records, or of history, and even if there is talk of steroids, the focus will be on baseball as a whole, not the suspicions regarding one man. Aaron Rowand will play left field. Benji Molina will bat cleanup. There will be no #25. There will be no Barry Bonds.

On the surface, this appears to be a loss for the Giants, and on a short term basis, it is difficult to look at it any other way. In his controversial but illustrious 22 year career, Barry Bonds has been called a lot of things. He has been called a liar, a cheater, selfish and a jerk. One thing that he was never accused of (reasonably, at any rate) was being a detriment to a baseball team.

As I have wrote before, on the field this argument is remarkably easy to make. Anyone with internet access could sight the awards; Bonds is a 7 time MVP, 14 time All-Star, 12 time Silver Slugger, he even has 8 gold gloves. They could list the statistics, a .298 career average, 2935 hits, 514 stolen bases; he also hit a few home runs. You could even make the case by listing only his records and be able to go on for a few minutes. He is the all time leader in home runs (career and single season), walks (career and single season), and he is the only player ever to go 500/500. Suffice to say that even in his 40s, Bonds was an adequate left fielder, a good middle of the order hitter and someone who, even when in a slump, created runs for the Giants by almost constantly getting on base (he lead the majors with a .480 obp last season at 42 years old). Some debate this with his diminishing abilities, but Barry’s contributions far outweigh any off-field distractions he may cause.

As his records, awards and stats show, any team would benefit from having Barry Bonds in their lineup. In the clubhouse Barry was becoming more of a leader for younger players like Barry Zito or Kevin Frandsen. The Barry Bonds of 2007 was much matured from the ego-inflated clubhouse disturbance that feuded with Jeff Kent during his San Francisco days and Andy Van Slyke in the Pittsburgh.

But for the Giants, Bonds’ contribution went beyond the playing field, well beyond the clubhouse. Barry Bonds has been the face of a franchise for fifteen years. He is, in all likelihood, the reason that the Giants still play in San Francisco. In short, the Giants were struggling to attract any attention, playing in dismal Candlestick Park and unable to garner interest from the city to build a new ballpark before Barry came along. Prior to bringing in the Bonds, the Giants were on the verge of a move to Tampa Bay (this and other elements of Bonds’ extremely intriguing life are masterfully chronicled in Jeff Pearlman’s “Love Me Hate Me; Barry Bonds and the Making of an Anti-Hero”). If Yankee Stadium is the “House that Ruth Built,” than AT&T Park is certainly “The House that Barry Built.” Now that Barry is gone, the Giants, lead by GM Brian Sabean, have a massive problem.

Rowand is a good player, in the prime of his career, and he will almost certainly match the production that the Giants saw from the left field position last year, if only because he will play more games than Bonds, but he will never replace what Bonds brought to the city and to the organization. This is in no way Rowand’s fault, the only free agent who could have even come close to representing the Giants as totally as Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, turned out not to be interested in leaving the city in which he can do no right.

The 2008 San Francisco Giants are, by and large, boring. Not only are they boring, they are old, the average age on the San Francisco roster is 33. While in his last few years with the Giants, with a dismal supporting cast, Bonds may not have helped the Giants win very often, he certainly served a purpose.

In 2007, the Giants ranked third in the majors in filling their ballpark. That number will in almost certainly plummet in 2008, and not because of a large alienated fan base for departed third baseman Pedro Feliz. It is impossible to imagine the Giants sinking to the verge of re-location as they were before signing Bonds. The Giants are as entrenched in San Francisco as The Fillmore, The Presidio or Golden Gate Park, but attracting the casual fan will be much more difficult, and forget about the scores of out-of-towners that came to see Barry over the past few years. The 2007 San Francisco Giants may have been largely a sideshow, but the 2008 version is in danger of becoming something much worse, irrelevant.

At this point, one could be excused for thinking that ties should never have been cut with Bonds. One may ask themselves why the Giants don’t simply bring Barry back. After all, Bonds is still a free agent who is looking to sign on with a major league team. While Bonds (through his agent) has expressed that he would prefer to sign as a designated hitter with an American League team, it is inconceivable that Barry would not return to the only town that has fully embraced him, and that he has made his home (especially if the price is right. It must be tempting for GM Brian Sabean, and as long as Bonds remains unsigned, there is a possibility that they could bring him in midseason should this team somehow find a way into the NL playoff race. In the end, though, through all of the reasons and temptations to the contrary, it is time for the Giants to part ways with Barry Bonds.

There are many reasons why the Giants need to start the post-Barry era, and the first is pretty simple. Even with Barry, hell, even with a 36 year old Barry, the 2008 Giants wouldn’t be a contender. Is it inconceivable that with a little bit of health and a little bit of luck, the Giants could sniff .500? No, but having lost two of their most productive hitters from a team that won just 71 games in 2007 (Pedro Feliz, who was second on the team with 20 HRs left for Philadelphia), being an average team is their absolute ceiling. Bonds may have been able to help this team reach that ceiling, but at this point in his career he is not about to push them over the ledge that would make them a contender.

And gone are the days when an average team could sneak through a weak NL West into the playoffs. Last year the D-Backs were a young team with a lot of talent. This year they are a year older and more experienced, meaning players like Young, Drew and Upton will be that much more effective. The addition of Danny Haran to Brandon Webb gives them the best 1-2 punch in baseball and makes them a legitimate World Series contender.

In Colorado, the Rockies stood pat on a team that was good enough to get annihilated by the Red Sox in the World Series. Joe Torre came west to the Dodgers, bringing Andruw Jones to a team with one of the strongest staffs in the league (Jason Schmidt could end up as their 4th starter). The Padres would need steroid-era style resurgances from the likes of Jim Edmonds, Mark Prior and Trevor Hoffman and major production from players like Khalil Green and Kevin Kouzmanoff to have any chance, two things that they are unlikely to get, but overall they are probably a more complete team than San Francisco.

That means that going into the season, the highest that you could reasonably rank the Giants in the west is 4th. So why spend $10 Million and turn your team into a tourist attraction to win 75 games instead of 65 (especially when to say that Bonds’ production will equal 10 wins is farfetched)?

The second reason is the most obvious, certainly the most publicized. With perjury charges hanging over his head, it is debatable whether Bonds will even be able to contribute in 2008. Bonds has played through distractions before, and well. These issues has been debated to death in all imaginable forums, but suffice to say that if signing Bonds is a risk, signing Bonds while he faces perjury charges is an extraordinary risk, say nothing of the distraction it could cause.

The third reason is simultaneously the hardest to accept and the most important. The Giants aren’t going anywhere with Barry, the franchise has centered around him, which has prevented its development. The attraction of having Bonds in the lineup has to end sooner or later. The bottom line is that it is time to move on for the Giants, and it is better to do it sooner rather than later.

So where does that leave the Giants? It is time to enter those two words that fans dread: rebuilding phase. Normally that is a process that is tedious, dragged out and unproductive. Ask any Royals, Rangers or Rays fan (if you can find one), rebuilding often means owners skimping on players and disregarding winning. But it doesn’t need to, especially not for a team with resources like the Giants.

Believe it or not, there is a core in place on this team. It is in their starting pitching. Barry Zito may not prove to be worth the $126 million the Giants gave him last year, but the other Barry still has ace potential, and he is only 29 years old. Much was made of his poor start last year, but less was said when he recovered to have a strong second half. Sure, 11-13 wasn’t exactly what the Giants were looking for, but much of that was due to poor run support.

Behind Zito, the Giants have three more young arms that are capable of keeping the Giants in a pennant race a few years down the line. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Noah Lowry all project as number 1 or 2 starters and are just 23, 23 and 27, respectively. The first priority for the Giants’ front office should be to lock these three up long term. This may not make them a contender this year, or even next year, but it will ensure that they have one of the stronger rotations in the NL for the next 10 years if they can hold on to these three that long.

That should be the easy part for the Giants, fixing their problems in the field will be a little bit harder. The first step is obvious though, the Giants need to get younger. Guys like Dave Roberts (35), Ray Durham (36), Omar Visquel (40), Rich Aurilia (36) and Benji Molina (33, but a catcher with a much shorter “lifespan”) have been the fabric of this team for the last few years, and all of them have at least one more year in them, but they aren’t going to be a part of the Giants long term plans, and as with Barry, it is better to move on sooner rather than later.

It won’t be easy, especially with guys like Visquel, a possible hall of famer and Durham, who has been a part of the organization for a long time, but ties must be cut with these guys, because only through youth can the Giants rebuild.

2008 is going to be a year of transition, but 2009 should see the dawn of the new Giants. They can turn things over to young talent within the organization, but also build from the outside. Guys like Dan Ortmeier, Rajai Davis (who was actually the first piece in the rebuilding puzzle when he was acquired for Matt Morris at the deadline last year) and Kevin Frandsen will take over for Visquel, Roberts and Aurilia. Seventeen year old Angel Miguel Vilalona should make his MLB debut in the next few years, something the Giants are clearly excited about, having given him the largest amateur signing bonus in history.

Once they have figured out what they have in the system, it will be time to build. The A’s will almost certainly be shopping Rich Harden at deadline time, a guy that could give the Giants the best rotation in the league heading into ’09. As far as next winter goes, the Giants will need to sign at least one infielder that can come in and contribute right away. Keeping with the youth movement and finding a free agent will be tough, but Mark Ellis, Orlando Hudson and Cesar Izturis are three 2009 free agents to be that could be a good fit. The one thing that is certain is that the Giants will need to, at some point, be willing to pony up and attract at least one impact free agent (and I don’t mean the guys above). If that means trading Zito’s contract, so be it. This shouldn’t be a priority, though, unless it is critical for attracting free agents.

So what about 2008? The Giants will play their spring training schedule in Arizona, before heading up to San Francisco to take on the NL, just like any other year. But it won’t be like any other year, at least not any of the last 15 by the bay. Even with Rowand or Roberts out there, left field will seem empty. The cleanup spot will (with all do respect to Molina) seem anti-climactic. The beautiful ballpark by the bay may even at times seem empty, with a team that has no clear attraction for casual fans. 2008 will be a tough year for the Giants without Barry Bonds. But it will get better, and besides, it is time to move on.

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