Bay Bridge Blues: Cardinals at Giants

"Even without Bonds, the rebuilding Giants still have that old man smell," says columnist Will Horton in his look at the 2008 San Francisco Giants, who entertain the St. Louis Cardinals starting Thursday evening.

San Francisco is one of the most beautiful and diverse cities in the country. It has perhaps the finest new ballpark in the game, and a strong undercurrent of loyal and passionate baseball fans. They enjoy a rivalry with the Dodgers that ranks as one of the game's oldest and fiercest, one that survived and thrived after a cross-country move. Yes, the fans have a lot of things going for them in the city by the bay.

That is, except for their team. The mood at Monday's home opener was well reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"They're going to suck."

"It's going to be the kind of year where a fan is going to have to grin and bear it."

"I think they can fold up the bunting now and put it away…. They won't be needing it for the World Series."

And that was before they lost.

It's hard to blame them. Four teams in the NL West finished above .500 last season, providing a thrilling playoff chase that came down to the season's last day. The Giants were the fifth, finishing 20 games under while having only one memory to celebrate – the day that Barry Bonds took sole possession of the career home run record. For all the vitriol Bonds receives nationwide and across the ether, he single-handedly made the Giants a respectable team for years, even a feared team at times, and the fans there have been fiercely loyal and supportive.

It is, then, a bitter pill for fans here that the only good news coming from Giants HQ is that Bonds is now gone, and that the rebuilding can begin.

Bonds' presence brought fans to the ballpark, and gave Giants GM Brian Sabean the mandate to keep this team in contention. One could almost make a baseball truism out of it: "You can't rebuild around Barry Bonds." However, Sabean took a rather curious route to doing this in recent years, choosing almost exclusively to sign free agents who were "devalued" in today's market by virtue of their advanced age. (Let's ignore the senseless Barry Zito contract for now in this discussion. We'll come back to it.)

Dave Studeman at the Hardball Times wrote about this trend in the offseason prior to 2005, with the curious signing of the 38-year-old Omar Vizquel to a three-year, $12 million dollar contract. The slow parade of oldsters that eventually filled out the lineup of the team included Mike Matheny, Moises Alou, Michael Tucker, and the relatively young Ray Durham (a spritely 33 years old!). 70-year-old manager Felipe Alou was perhaps the only man qualified to lead this creaky procession.

The GM then traded away bench fodder for the youthful energy of 31-year-old Randy Winn, and the core of the lineup was set. Meanwhile, the pitching staff was anchored by another aging lion in Jason Schmidt, whose run of good health and effective pitching was about to end.

In the years since, the lineup grew older and grayer. Free agent defections were replaced by even more aged replacements: Steve Finley, Dave Roberts, Ryan Klesko, Rich Aurilia, and the eldest Molina all arrived on the Senior Tour, to the point that the most common 2007 lineup featured no player younger than 32 years old. They limped to the finish and into this offseason, with Bonds' departure in the wake of Federal investigations an all but foregone conclusion.

So far, though, the "rebuilding" 2008 Giants have not been very successful in replacing oldsters with youngsters in the lineup – only 2006 draftee Brian Bocock and 26-year-old speedster Eugenio Velez are getting regular turns. However, since the GM re-upped the now 41-year-old Vizquel for another two years/$10 million this offseason, and presumably not to coach, one of them will find pine rather soon.

Even though the Giants have thoroughly fumigated Barry Bonds' presence at the ballpark, it will be a while before they get rid of that old man smell.

But say, what about those young pitchers? While Sabean scoured AARP directories for his offense, his scouting staff was uncovering and drafting true blue pitching talent: Noah Lowry was plucked in 2001 and emerged first, leading the team in innings, wins and ERA in 2005 at the age of 24. Matt Cain (right) was drafted out of high school in 2002, and led the Giants with wins in his full-fledged 2006 debut. Tim Lincecum, an '06 collegiate pick, duplicated the feat this past season.

(In an ironic twist, Cain managed to lead the 2007 squad in innings, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and losses! If you think Anthony Reyes' 2-14 record was bad for his confidence, how must Cain feel having earned the #1 spot, putting up a 3.65 ERA, and wind up 7-16?)

Indeed, where the Giants' recent offensive prospects have largely petered out, or achieved mediocrity at the very best, their eye for pitching has been superb. San Francisco might have a staff filled top to bottom with emerging talent but for a now-infamous 2004 trade that brought in a single turbulent year of A.J. Pierzynski's backstopping services in exchange for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. It's a staggeringly bad trade, one that might usurp the Mulder/Haren-Barton-Calero deal and the Victor Zambrano-for-Scott Kazmir deal among the worst of the past decade.

Frankly, between that deal and the backbreaking seven-year, $126 million dollar invitation for Barry Zito to be his team's fourth-best starter, it is amazing that this man is still employed in the capacity of managing baseball decisions. Surely he's more than qualified for a cushy job on ESPN's Baseball Tonight broadcast crew by this point.

So, then, the Cardinals present quite the contrast. We are also in our first year of this unofficial rebuild, and yet we have young position players flying across the field in attempts to earn playing time. We have a lightly regarded pitching staff constructed of scraps that is currently leading the majors in ERA. We are even holding a division lead, as this article goes to the electronic press. This success can be fleeting, and should be treasured while we have it.

Cherry blossoms, to the Japanese a symbol of fleeting joy and the bittersweet brevity of life, are blooming and falling in great beautiful clouds throughout the city. Festivals are being planned and carried out this weekend to celebrate this sacred time. But the Cardinals need not attend. If it is a humbling reminder of mortality they look for, they need only to peer into the opposing dugout.

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