SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants are emphasizing youth as they strive for respectability, but they're probably not eliminating free agents from their effort.

Free agency provides the "cleanest" method, to borrow from general manager Brian Sabean's vocabulary, of replenishing a roster. No rushing the development of top Minor Leaguers. No parting with valuable prospects -- or handy incumbents, for that matter.

Although the strategy of purchasing skilled veterans to surround Barry Bonds disappeared with the all-time home run leader, the Giants still have reason to explore free agency. Sabean intends to keep right-hander Matt Cain and promising Minor League pitchers Tim Alderson and Madison Bumgarner, but he'd likely have to part with at least one of them if he were to trade for the potent hitter the Giants need.

That makes free agency a viable alternative. San Francisco needs a hitter, preferably an infielder, to bolster the offense that ranked next to last in the National League in scoring and slugging percentage, 13th in on-base percentage and last in home runs. They also must find a reliever or two to deepen the setup corps in front of All-Star closer Brian Wilson.

That's why Sabean spent a significant portion of his time at last week's General Managers Meetings chatting with player agents about their clients, as he told MLB.com's Hal Bodley.

The Giants' history of free-agent acquisitions is a rich one. They made arguably the best signing by luring Bonds with a six-year, $43.75 million deal before the 1993 season, then re-signed him three times as he marched toward the home run record.

They've acquired at least one significant free agent in each of the last eight offseasons, including Aaron Rowand (before the 2008 season); Rich Aurilia, Bengie Molina, Dave Roberts and Barry Zito (2007); Matt Morris (2006); Armando Benitez, Mike Matheny and Omar Vizquel (2005); Brett Tomko and Michael Tucker (2004); Edgardo Alfonzo, Ray Durham and Marquis Grissom (2003); Reggie Sanders (2002) and Eric Davis and Shawon Dunston (2001).

The Giants, who expect to maintain their payroll of approximately $90 million, have cleared between $12 million and $20 million for free-agent spending, depending on the math you use. The contracts of Durham ($7.5 million), Vizquel ($5.2 million) and Aurilia ($4.5 million) have evaporated. Durham was traded to Milwaukee at midseason; Aurilia and Vizquel have declared free agency. Cutting ties with right-handers Tyler Walker, Brad Hennessey and Kevin Correia, who also became free agents after being outrighted to the Minors, saved another $3 million.

But left-hander Noah Lowry's salary will double to $4.5 million next year, Cain will receive nearly a $2 million raise to $2.65 million and Zito gets a $4 million hike to $18.5 million. And possible Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum will be due some sort of raise, although the Giants conceivably can grossly underpay him since he isn't arbitration-eligible and they can set his salary.

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Flexibility is something the Giants definitely can afford. They could sign an infielder to play either corner, since Pablo Sandoval can be inserted at first or third. Or, since Emmanuel Burriss is capable at second base or shortstop, they can consider a middle infielder to fill one of those two spots. In that event, Kevin Frandsen, projected to be a leading second-base candidate, might move to third.

First baseman Mark Teixeira probably will latch onto a richer, higher-profile club. But the Giants could have a chance at the likes of third baseman Casey Blake, first baseman/outfielder Adam Dunn, shortstop Rafael Furcal, second baseman Orlando Hudson and infielder Juan Uribe.

Dunn is the most powerful of the bunch, and perhaps the biggest gamble, given his poor defense and awful career numbers at AT&T Park, where he has hit .157 (14-for-89) with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 24 games. His .558 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) at San Francisco is his lowest at any ballpark where he has accumulated more than 100 plate appearances.

Yet Dunn's performance at San Diego's PETCO Park, which also favors pitchers, suggests that he could adjust to AT&T. He has compiled a .318 batting average and an 1.133 OPS with seven homers in 66 at-bats at PETCO.

The list of competent relievers who could attract the Giants includes Jeremy Affeldt, Joe Beimel, Juan Cruz, Damaso Marte, Will Ohman, Dennys Reyes and David Weathers.

Sabean already has announced that he won't re-sign Vizquel, the 11-time Gold Glove Award winner who hit .222 in 92 games as he turned 41 this year. The possibility exists of a return for Aurilia, who finished at .283 with 10 homers and 52 RBIs and can play any infield spot, although Sabean has said than any agreement with him probably would be forged late in the offseason.