Scouting the NL West: San Francisco

For years, teams in the NL West have been looking up to the San Francisco Giants in the hopes of leapfrogging them to get into the playoffs. Five straight years of 90-plus wins and three of those five years resulting in playoff appearances gets you that distinction. The Padres, Dodgers and Diamondbacks seem poised to make that jump as age creeps into San Fran, but they remain the team to beat until proven otherwise.

San Francisco G.M. Brian Sabean had no problems identifying the culprits that led to the Giants just missing the playoffs. The bullpen and defense were pointed out early and often, and when the offseason began, that area was what the Giants were very clear that they were going to pursue. However, they neglected to mention that they were also apparently going to look for the oldest players on the market, and do it before they got much older.

The Giants signed the first free agent to change teams, shortstop Omar Vizquel to what was widely considered a foolish contract, signing the 38-year old shortstop to a three year, $12.25 million contract. While the wisdom of signing a 38-year old middle infielder for three years has been questioned, the Giants have appeared to have predicted the market price correctly, as Vizquel's money per year is now considered fair in retrospect. Those debates aside, signing the 9-time gold glove winner was a ringing confirmation of the Giants' desire to improve their defense.

The next chip fell a few weeks later, as the Giants picked up the biggest closer on the free agent market, Armando Benitez. The Giants bullpen had very little stability over the 2004 season, and most of that came from having an unproven closer in Matt Herges to start the season and the instability in a search for someone to replace him. The Giants expect that, with Benitez being a fixture as closer, it'll allow Herges, Scott Eyre and Jim Brower to improve their own performances by having stability in their roles.

After that, however, the Giants' plans began to go awry. They had targeted former Dodger and Diamondback centerfielder Steve Finley, and made him a big offer, and thought they had him all wrapped up, but Finley spurned the Giants, leaving everyone (even his own agent) shocked when he took a smaller deal to play for that other team that says they play in L.A. even though they don't, the Angels. The shock over that move just before the Winter Meetings left the Giants scrambling, and though the Giants had several trade offers being discussed while trying to find a centerfielder, nothing materialized.

Most of the negotiations failed because other teams wanted some of the Giants' young starters, particularly Jerome Williams, rookie sensation Noah Lowry, and fast rising prospect Matt Cain. However, the rotation was the one part of the team Sabean was happy with and did not want to change, and he wanted to keep the young prospects, which may be a smart move seeing the contracts very mediocre pitchers have demanded this offseason.

The Giants didn't walk away from the Winter Meetings empty-handed, though, picking up catcher Mike Matheny, a move that began a minor controversy since the Giants still had arbitration rights to A.J. Pierzynski. The Giants ended up waiving him before the arbitration deadline, making A.J. one of a few 2004 Giants who were not destined to return in 2005, along with Dustan Mohr, Dustin Hermanson and Cody Ransom.

The Giants, with no more defensive centerfielder options, finally abandoned the defense first concept, and picked up 38-year old Moises Alou, who gave the Giants a major discount for the chance to finish his career while playing for his father. The pickup of Alou finally gave Giant fans a legitimate slugger to bat behind Bonds, something which management had long cautioned fans that they'd never see. Alou, who will a difficult time playing right field at SBC Park, may very well have less range than the bronze statue of Willie McCovey that sits on the other side of McCovey Cove.

What has this all meant for the Giants? Surprising little turnover, actually. Despite having three new starting position players, only one of their former starters left the team. Former right fielder Michael Tucker is now a 4th outfielder, and will get plenty of time spelling the three starters, all of whom are in their late 30's or older. Meanwhile, Deivi Cruz, who rose to steal the shortstop job from Neifi Perez, re-signed knowing that he would likely become the utility middle infielder. With Vizquel and a recently injury-prone Ray Durham, he'll get his fair share of playing time as well. Meanwhile, the three-way, two-position platoon that is the corner infielders Edgardo Alfonzo, J.T. Snow and Pedro Feliz remains in place for at least one more year.

The Giants are left with a team that is clearly built to win in 2005, but still has a lot of questions to answer or deal with. If this team stays healthy, if #2 starter Brett Tomko pitches like he did in the last two months of 2004, and if the Giants take a team vacation with the legendary Ponce de Lyon as their tour guide, this team not only will be one of the favorites in the division, but they will be one of the most competitive teams in the entire National League.