The Beginning of the End

February 15th. At long last, today pitchers and catchers report to Giants camp in Scottsdale for Spring Training. Today is the end of the offseason and the start of the preseason. But it's also something else. Today is the beginning of the end for the Giants as we have known them for years.

By this time next year, the San Francisco Giants that would be due to appear in Arizona could be drastically different than the team getting ready to report now.

After the 2006 season, the entire outfield, half the infield, the team’s ace in the rotation and several bullpen pitchers and bench players will all expire.  And this is just the biggest step of what will be a quick purge of the San Francisco Giants over two and a half years.  It started last year with the unceremonious release of longtime pitcher Kirk Rueter, and continued with the Giants letting longtime first baseman J.T. Snow leave via free agency and traded hitting pariah Edgardo Alfonzo after he hit two home runs in the first week of the season, and none the rest of the way.  And after the 2007 season, two more position players will have their contracts expire, as well as the team’s closer and more bullpen spots.

It’s even unsure if the team’s manager and general manager will return after their contracts expire after this season.  The significant truth of this team is that after today, only one person is signed past 2007: new pitcher Matt Morris.

Although it’s not guaranteed that the players whose contracts do expire will leave, it’s certainly fair to say that this is the last hurrah for the team of Giants we’ve watch since the World Series team of 2002.  The only reason there’s as many as three players left from that team is that former Giant Tim Worrell returned to the team after playing for the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks the last two seasons.

Of course, the biggest reason this team is ready to turn over is Barry Bonds.  His contract is up, and everyone expects him to leave, whether it be by retirement or a decision to further pursue Hank Aaron as a designated hitter in the American League.  For better or worse, this team has been Barry’s since he joined it in 1993.  Few players in the free agency age, particularly players as good as him, stay with one team for so long.  He played with the Humm Baby era, the Dustiny team, and the new ballpark team.  It’s hard to think of the Giants without him.

The only question remaining is whether this incarnation of the Giants will go out with a bang rather than a whimper.  Expectations are lower than ever, even amongst Giant fans.  No one thinks enough of the Giant players can stay healthy after pretty much every key Giant was hit with injury problems in 2005.  All of baseball has pretty much disregarded the NL West as a whole after the pathetic performance by all of its teams last season.

But one thing this veteran team has is its pride.  Don’t count that out.  For older players like Moises Alou, Steve Finley, Jeff Fassero and even Bonds, this could be the last season at all for them.  And for players like Jason Schmidt, who has been hobbled by injuries the last two years, and Pedro Feliz, who is finally getting a fulltime starting job for the first time, they are in desperate need of classic contract year performances if they want to cash in after this season.

Last season wasn’t just a bitter disappointment, it was pretty much an embarrassment.  None of these players, nor the manager, want to be remembered for the injuries, the poor performances or the off-field controversies that kept the team in turmoil.  They know that the only reason they went into the final week of the season still in playoff position had nothing to do with how well they played, but how poor the rest of the division was.  They don’t want to be remembered by another poor showing.

At the end of the season, this may not be as complete a purge as it sounds.  Randy Winn, the acquisition in G.M. Brian Sabean’s best trade since 2001, is expected to sign a multi-year extension before this season begins.  Feliz will likely test free agency, but the Giants may try to hold onto him, since they have no in-house solutions at third, and the free agent market at the hot corner is poor.  Finley does have an option for 2007.  And Bonds bucked the expectations that he’d leave for a payday or personal agendas once before in 2001, when he agreed to arbitration with the Giants, a move that robbed him of the leverage of negotiating with other teams.  For a man often accused of greed, he’s shown surprising loyalty to a city he’s called home, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if he did that again.  In 2007, San Francisco hosts the All-Star game, and outside of the World Series, there are few honors higher than representing your hometown team in it’s own stadium on such a team.

But for this team, the future will be dealt with when it comes.  It’ll play this season like its last.  Just expect it to go out with the bang, and not the whimper.

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