Planning for the End
Life without Barry Bonds equals futility. At least this has been the case so far, as Bonds' lone organizational exit has yielded thirteen straight losing seasons. Soon, Bonds will be leaving another team for which he has been a mainstay on, this time leaving baseball for good.
The San Francisco Giants have been, for years, a team built around Barry Bonds. The front office's strategy is simple and easily identifiable: win while you have Bonds at all costs. With this approach, Sabean has spent years making short-sighted trades, giving San Francisco a winning baseball team from 1997-2004. Suddenly, however, Sabean's tactics don't appear as genius.
As the cameras follow Bonds so intently this season, the Giants have been plagued with mediocrity, falling to last place in baseball's worst division. Injuries have started to hit many of the thirtysomethings that encompass the starting lineup. The Giants are simply a team trapped between two time periods -- the consistent winnings of the previous decade and the forthcoming retooling of the next.
Can life after Barry Bonds prove more successful than the Pittsburgh Pirates model? Surely, with better management and a sound blueprint, it is almost inevitable. With Bonds likely retiring after the 2007 season, the pressure is now on for Sabean and company to begin planning.
While the farm system will unquestionably be important in the rebuilding process, the Giants have a luxury the Bucs never had: money. Not only will Bonds' exit bring in excess of eight figures off the payroll, but the forthcoming exits of many veteran players will present Brian Sabean with a myriad of options.
Arbitration players notwithstanding, the Giants can see nearly $50 million coming off the books between now and 2008. Come 2008, the only contractually-bounded commitments are with two dependable starters (Matt Morris, Noah Lowry) and two fringe position players (Randy Winn, Mike Matheny). This means that in the next two seasons, Sabean has to find the new core of the Giants.
What spots can Sabean depend upon the San Francisco youth to fill? Offensively, not much. Graciously, we can assert that second base is accounted for, either by Kevin Frandsen or Marcus Sanders. I'm not particularly sold on either player, but given Frandsen's 2006 and Sanders' 2005, it isn't too much of a stretch to think either is the current long-term answer at second base.
The team is light on corner infield players, especially for those that don't believe in Pedro Feliz or Lance Niekro. At this point, it seems Feliz is no more than a bench player, and Niekro nothing more than some 2005 lightning in a bottle. While Travis Ishikawa could make some noise, I am not a believer. The Giants are simply light on infield youth; any depth is reserved for the outfield.
The Giants have few better long-term bets than Eddy Martinez-Esteve, slowly but definitively moving up the minor league ranks. Esteve has some defensive problems, without a doubt, but either at 1B or LF, he will be an everyday player by 2008. I believe the same to be true about Fred Lewis, who probably should be leading off by the bay in 2007. Lewis' full-time position might move Winn to the bench indefinitely, but Fred's minor league success demands a role.
San Francisco has numerous other long-term options in the outfield, most falling under the headings of 'adequate fourth outfield type' or 'too risky to project'. The latter group includes both Nate Schierholtz and Ben Copeland, both with high ceilings and high flame-out potential. And while I really like Dan Ortmeier and Brian Horwitz, neither profiles to be much more than a bench player. Guys like Ortmeier, Horwitz and Jason Ellison are all useful, just not on starting lineups or in the same organization.
So, where does that leave us offensively? I am confident predicting three spots will be filled by youth, with Matheny, Winn, Ellison and Feliz all as potential bench options. Needless to say, the group does not inspire a ton of hope.
The pitching staff offers more upside, however, despite Sabean's best efforts to trade every pitching prospect he can. While Sebean's belief in TINSTAPP has paid off on numerous occasions, Giants fans must wince every time they see Keith Foulke, Joe Nathan or Francisco Liriano near a pitcher's mound. Still, Sabean was unable to trade all San Fran's pitching youth, leaving some room for optimism.
As mentioned, both Matt Morris and Noah Lowry should be in the 2008 rotation, providing 400 innings and sub-average ERAs. The latter is a long-term bet for a rotation spot. And despite some extreme early season struggles, uber-prospect Matt Cain still profiles to be the Giants future ace. This only leaves two rotation spots for Sabean to fill.
One, you can bet, will come via the current farm system. Pat Misch has gained all the early season accolades, using a change-speeds approach to manage a 0.84 ERA in 43 current Eastern League innings. Misch's second run around Fresno, destined to come later in the year, should answer whether or not Misch is made for a rotation spot.
If not the late bloomer, than perhaps the Giants could fill a spot with one of two hard-throwers: Merkin Valdez or Jonathan Sanchez. Valdez has been a prospect for ages, but like Andy Marte across the country, has not yielded enough high-level dominance. Also, Valdez has been stuck in the bullpen in AAA, which seems to be the Giants plans for him. Sanchez is the question mark; the Giants have toyed with him in both the bullpen and rotation. In any role he's used, the hard-throwing southpaw has been great, allowing 13 hits (0 homers) while striking out 39 in 27 AA innings.
Alongside Valdez in the long-term relief plans seems to be Jeremy Accardo, a budding young set-up man that I am high on. The club also has some potential relief talent in the minors -- like LBSU's Brian Anderson -- and even some potential help in the Majors (Kevin Correia), but it seems that only Valdez and Accardo are dependable bets.
Surely, the Giants seem to be better built in their staff than the flipside for the long-term. Lowry, Cain, Sanchez, Valdez and Accardo are all good bets. Matt Morris, Brad Hennessey, Kevin Correia, Craig Whitaker and Pat Misch could all be there. While undoubtedly not set in this area, we definitely know that Sabean should have his eyes on the lineup.
In conclusion, to be blunt, the Giants have a lot of work to do before Barry Bonds retires. Namely, this includes acquiring and developing numerous young position players and a few young pitchers. This can be done in a number of ways: with the millions that the Giants payroll will shed in the next two winters, through trades (Jason Schmidt, Steve Finley, Moises Alou, Omar Vizquel, etc), and through the draft.
While the Giants have been immune from the draft in recent years, choosing to forfeit their first round picks, such will not be the case in 2006. San Francisco will be picking twice in the first round, both in the tenth and 33rd draft spots. The Giants should undoubtedly choose the best player on their board, but in the case of a tie, look for the club to be leaning towards position players. With the tenth pick, both Matt LaPorta and Billy Rowell are potential choices, as well as a list of pitchers too long to mention.
No matter which direction the Giants go in June, the team must begin a new commitment -- towards youth. With each day on his knees, Barry Bonds' days become more numbered, and the onus shifts more and more towards the front office to turn the Giants into a winner.
Life without Barry Bonds will not be easy. But, with any foresight, San Francisco should be able to avoid the disastrous fate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.