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San Francisco Giants Season Preview

The Season Begins, with or without Barry

You can be excused if you thought Barry Bonds' only contribution to the San Francisco Giants is his hitting (it's clearly not his fielding or his baserunning). Obviously Barry's hitting is so good that it makes it easier for the Giants to put together a winning team. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez all pull in something in the neighborhood of Barry's $22 million per, but he puts more runs on the board than any of them. The bottom line is that when you've got Barry Bonds in the lineup, it's tough to lose.

Normally it's difficult to have a shot at the playoffs every year, but because Bonds hits so well, the Giants can stock up on average-to-below-average players and still compete in the NL West. Jeff Kent and Jason Schmidt aren't bad as far as second-fiddlers go, but the Giants haven't been contenders without a dominant Bonds: 86-76 in 1999 and an embarrassing 75-87 last year. Even worse, they didn't make the playoffs when he broke the single-season walks record (with 232) or the home run record (with 73). But Bonds usually keeps the Giants in it until the end, and no one notices that they haven't put together the kind of supporting cast they should have.

But that's only the tip of the iceberg. Barry so dominates the Giants media that no one else faces scrutiny. In New York or Boston, one bad inning is enough to get crucified in the press, and heads roll after a 3-game losing streak. But here, Brian Sabean can write off his critics as "the Lunatic Fringe," Felipe Alou can call his "messengers of Satan", and all anyone wants to talk about is Bonds. So, in every respect, as Bonds goes, so do the Giants.

Let's do some quick line-up calculus. Starting with last year's 75-87 record, they'll need to improve by at least 13 wins in order to be credible post-season candidates. The Giants can expect a slight improvement at two positions:

2B: Ray Durham is no longer the player he was during his 1996-2002 peak. His hitting hasn't suffered, but he's lost a step in the field, and during his annual trips to the DL, the Giants fill in for him with such luminaries as Deivi Cruz, Neifi Perez and Cody Ransom. This year there is a bright spot: second baseman of the future Kevin Frandsen is ready to play at the major-league level. If Durham's gone for an extended period of time, we can only hope that the Giants will dispense with their past preference for veterans who hit like minor-leaguers -- Jose Vizcaino is this year's model -- and, like such risk-taking teams as the Yankees, put their trust in a rookie infielder who hits like a major-leaguer. That strategy, simple as it sounds, will be worth one additional win.

CF: Thanks to Randy Winn's late season heroics, Giants centerfielders were right around the league average last year, no thanks to Marquis Grissom or Jason Ellison. But the Winn we saw for the last two months of the season is not the Winn we're going to see in 2006 -- or anytime during the four years of his brand new contract. Even so, expect a one-win improvement in center this year.

Aside from signing Mike Sweeney to platoon at first base, who should be worth half a win, the Giants haven't made any other incremental changes that figure to improve their record. Mike Matheny and Omar Vizquel are a year older, but not a year better. Edgardo Alfonzo was shipped to the Angels, but the bad news is that Pedro Feliz will be doing his Tony Batista impression full-time at third base, offering the most painful 20 home runs in the majors. It's unlikely that Moises Alou will repeat his 918 OPS from last year, but if he can manage to stay in the lineup, his overall production won't decline. Backup outfielder Steve Finley doesn't figure to help much. It's same-old, same-old for the Giants at nearly every position.

What about the pitching staff? Jason Schmidt lost nearly five wins off his peak last year, but should bounce back by at least a couple this year with better injury-management. Matt Morris despite his $27 million price tag won't be substantially better than Brett Tomko, even if the Giants' P.R. machine tries to tell you otherwise. Noah Lowry was the Giants best pitcher last year, but it remains to be seen if he can consolidate his gains and put in a consistent season.

Matt Cain is a huge improvement over Kirk Rueter, but don't expect a 21-year-old pitcher to give the Giants more than 150 innings of league-average pitching from the #4 spot. The fifth starter looks to be re-tread Jamey Wright, who might have finally found a stadium large enough to contain his problems. Wright doesn't get strikeouts, walks a lot of guys and gives up tons of home runs. The more he pitches, the worse off the Giants are, though the alternatives, Brad Hennessey and Kevin Correia, are even worse options.

Losing Armando Benitez for most of the season prevented last year's bullpen from being better than average overall. Solid performances by Scott Eyre and, in limited innings, Jack Taschner, Jeremy Accardo and Scott Munter, were offset by career-ending pitching and whining from Jason Christiansen and Jim Brower. Brower and Christiansen are gone, but so is Eyre, along with Latroy Hawkins and Matt Herges. This year's model features "proven veterans" (some might say "proven veteran headaches") Tim Worrell and Steve Kline which will allow Felipe Alou to stick to his strategy of having each reliever appear in 162 games and face one batter each time.

Things should be better this year, and the pitching staff should be 3-3.5 wins better overall. Adding it all, up we've got 2.5 additional wins in the field and 3.5 on the mound. That brings the Giants up to 81 wins, a .500 record on the season. So why is this team a contender?

Oh yeah, Barry Bonds. It should be obvious by now that Bonds is the key to the Giants winning, the straw that stirs the drink, so to speak. If Bonds can play 120-130 games, he'll add between 7 and 10 wins to the Giants total. Without him, the Giants don't have a hope in hell of making the playoffs, let alone winning a playoff game against Pedro Martinez or Tim Hudson. And that, in a nutshell, is why Barry Bonds is so important to this team. No one notices that on the whole, this team isn't very good despite spending $70 million on players not named Barry. Somehow they weathered a miserable year with him out of the lineup, but there's no way that they can go through two bad years without having the blow up the entire works and start over from scratch. So keep your fingers crossed for Barry, look for the Giants to win between 88 and 91 games, and hope that the Dodgers can't stay healthy.