Giants look ahead while honoring past
Youth takes center stage during 50th anniversary season
SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants will undergo transition as they celebrate tradition.The 50th anniversary of the franchise's arrival in San Francisco promises to be unlike most of the preceding seasons. Long a superstar-oriented ballclub, the Giants approach Spring Training poised to rely on pitching, defense and younger, scrappy performers -- a path they settled on last Sept. 21, when owner Peter Magowan announced that all-time home run leader Barry Bonds would not be re-signed for 2008. Bonds, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey helped make the Giants synonymous with the home run. Yet for the first time since 1987, the Giants lack a returning player who hit 20 homers the previous year. While maintaining a "win-now" strategy during much of Bonds' 15-year tenure, the Giants preferred to fill their roster with veterans rather than rookies and unproven youngsters. This year, however, the right side of the infield could be occupied by first baseman Dan Ortmeier, 26, and second baseman Kevin Frandsen, 25 -- who would form San Francisco's youngest combination at those spots since Will Clark and Robby Thompson reached the Major Leagues in 1986. "We know we're part of the new era that's about to happen here," Frandsen said. It's an era that won't include third baseman Pedro Feliz, who spent his entire 14-year professional career with the Giants. Nor will it feature Bonds, who intimidated opponents with his bat and cowed some teammates with his oft-glowering presence.
To a man, the Giants insist that they'll miss Bonds' star power and power, period. But they also welcome the lightened atmosphere that's bound to permeate the clubhouse now that the hordes of out-of-town reporters following Bonds and the oppression of his involvement in baseball's performance-enhancing drug controversy are gone.The Giants could use any change after four consecutive years out of the postseason and three losing seasons in a row, including a last-place finish in the National League West in 2007. "I think this team's going to be more fun," right-hander Brian Wilson said. "When you're comfortable in the clubhouse, you're comfortable on the field." In Bonds' absence, the Giants' closest semblance to a star among position players is center fielder Aaron Rowand, their only significant offseason acquisition. Rowand, who signed a five-year, $60 million contract after hitting .309 with 27 homers and 89 RBIs for Philadelphia last year, believes in the Giants' youth that's spearheaded by its starting rotation. All of the Giants' starters are 27 or younger except Barry Zito, who's only 29. "Everybody's like, if you're all about winning, why did you go to San Francisco? I'm like, take a look! Look closer," Rowand said. "Don't just look at the fact that they were in last place. Look at the pieces they have, the young guys who are going to be here for a long time."
So keen are the Giants on their fresh-faced pitchers that they resisted trading Tim Lincecum during the Winter Meetings for Toronto outfielder Alex Rios, who would have provided much-needed offense. As it stands, the Giants can anticipate a future with Lincecum and Matt Cain, the hard-throwing 23-year-old right-handers who could develop into co-aces.Youth dots the roster elsewhere. Rajai Davis and Fred Lewis, both 28, and Nate Schierholtz, who turns 24 later this month, will push the veteran outfielders. The front office had enough confidence in Wilson, 25, to refrain from acquiring a closer. Gifted with breathtaking speed, Eugenio Velez, 25, could ultimately fit somewhere in the outfield or infield. And part of the next generation of Giants -- infielders Brian Bocock, 22, and Emmanuel Burriss, 23 -- will be in camp as non-roster players. "For years, Bonds has been the institution," right-hander Tyler Walker said. "We have the opportunity right now to have fans get emotionally invested in the younger guys. It's like getting in on an IPO with an investment. You're getting in early, on the ground floor. In a couple of years, when Kevin Frandsen or Dan Ortmeier is an All-Star or at the forefront of Major League news, they can say, 'I knew this guy was going to be good way back then.' I think fans want that." Before fans can get what they want, manager Bruce Bochy must get what he wants -- a team that displays the "warrior spirit" he said was lacking last season. That's not just a bromide; the Giants might have to fight for runs, after losing Bonds and Feliz and their 48 homers from a 2007 club that ranked 14th or worse among NL teams in batting average, runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Hence, Bochy will try to capitalize on the team's speed and "small ball" abilities to maximize offense. He'll work toward this goal in Spring Training, not just by tweaking certain drills, but also by influencing players' attitudes. "You can't reinvent this game, but you can refocus your work in certain areas," Bochy said. "I think the players know that we're not picked to win this division. That's all right. They want to prove that we're going to be a good ballclub. We're going to be a club that plays the game right and hopefully a lot of people are underestimating us."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.