Never in the 126-year history of the Giants have fans endured five straight losing seasons. But patrons passing through Willie Mays Plaza on their way to the bayside ballpark are faced with that formidable fact in 2009.
Usually, standing at the precipice of history suggests greatness is at hand. But for the Giants—with 2004 the last time a season ended in positive territory—it’s more like an abyss.
Another sub-.500 record would not only stain the legacy of one of baseball’s great franchises, it might also kick-start a series of events that could irrevocably alter the future of the club.
With a new owner, a general manager, and manager in the last years of their contracts, and the ever-present financial tightrope created by the privately financed AT&T Park, nothing is sacred—except, perhaps, the signature garlic fries and the undying affection for retired slugger Barry Bonds.
But there’s reason for optimism as the club prepares to open the season Tuesday afternoon in Milwaukee.
It starts with a group of pitchers that features Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum and lights-out closer Brian Wilson, continues with a revamped offense led by Bengie Molina and Pablo Sandoval, and a well-defined youth movement—a commitment to kids that paid recent dividends for teams such as Tampa Bay (2008 AL Champions) and Colorado (2007 NL Champions).
Make no mistake, the push to return to the postseason for the first time since the World Series campaign of 2002 begins and ends with the pitching staff.
Lincecum is the leader of a rotation that’s arguably the class of the National League, one which boasts three recipients of Cy Young hardware. En route to an 18-5 mark and a 2.62 ERA, he set a San Francisco franchise record with 265 strikeouts in 2008. And the mood in the City by the Bay is that the best is yet to come for the player Sports Illustrated dubbed as "The Freak".
Lefties Barry Zito, 30, who won the Cy Young in 2002 and 45-year-old Randy Johnson (1995, ’99, ‘00, ’01, ’02 Cy Young winner) lend a veteran presence that should pay dividends for youngsters Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.
And while the team desperately needs some return on the $126 million investment made in Zito, the linchpin of the staff is the Cain, who has great stuff but has been victimized by a lack of consistency and poor run support. If the 24-year-old right-hander can pitch deeper into games, and an offense that failed to score 700 runs last year picks it up a notch, Cain could flip his disappointing 8-14 mark from ‘08.
Knowing the reliance on pitching, GM Brian Sabean signed Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry to bolster the relief corps. Last year the club posted a 55-3 mark when it led after seven innings and once the ball gets into Wilson’s hands, good things happen. He tied for second in the NL with 41 saves last year, emerging as en elite closer with a 98 mph fastball and the unflappable outlook that the role requires.
The pitching prowess must be paired with better bats and golden glove-work. The Giants ranked last in the NL in homers a year ago. And despite the departure of the defensively challenged Bonds, they were less than stellar in the field, ranking 23rd in the bigs in defensive efficiency.
The outfield of Aaron Rowand, Fred Lewis, and Randy Winn won’t take many balls out of the yard, but could keep a few in.
Fans and the front office are hoping for a breakout year from Lewis, who possesses the lethal combination of speed and power. At 28, he’s no longer a prospect and must produce out of the gate.
Rowand suffered through a significant statistical dropoff in 2008 (38-point dip in his batting average, 14 less homers than 2007). Fourth outfielder Nate Schierholtz will get his share of time in right, hoping to leverage his strong spring into his first full season in the majors.
The infield is further evidence of the trend toward youth, with the only veteran being free agent acquisition Edgar Renteria at shortstop. Travis Ishikawa—who showed impressive pop in spring training after hitting 16 home runs in 174 at bats for AAA Fresno—won the first base job and slick-fielding Emmanuel Burris beat out Bay Area native and fan fav Kevin Frandsen at second.
Third baseman Sandoval hit .345 in a six-week stint last season. If Renteria can help him cover the left side of the infield, his power will make people forget about his error-prone glove.
Skipper Bruce Bochy—38 games under .500 in San Francisco—is looking to forget about his first two seasons with the Giants. He’s not working under a “win or else” mandate, but the margin for error in a weak division is as thin as a Cable Car ticket.