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12.18.2006

Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty 

Today's bone to chew on: Should we feel betrayed by the Giant front office's promise that the 2007 team would be younger and healthier?

To refresh your memory, here's the quote from Peter Magowan:

"I think we need to go in a new direction," he said. "We have -- for a long time -- had a strategy that has worked well until the last two years, when it hasn't worked so well. The strategy has been one of having a great player, maybe the greatest player in the game, at the centerpiece and filling in with veteran players. For a long time, that worked well; it caught up with us the past couple of years. Now we do need to get younger and healthier.

"The players [we are going to pursue] are going to be -- on the whole -- younger and healthier, and they're not [going to be here] for a year or two filling a role to backup a star player but [rather] to be key parts of the team for a number of years."

Please note the wiggle room. "On the whole" younger and healthier. "Key parts" of the team -- not necessarily an all under-30 starting lineup. And it's hard to spin away from the glaring point that, so far, the '07 lineup is constructed with Barry Bonds as the centerpiece and filled in with veteran players.

But is it a broken promise? The off-season is not quite half over. Pitchers and catchers report in late February. Brian Sabean's work is not done. To consider whether the Giants ultimately stay true to their promise or continue the patchwork, let's break down the organization into hitters and pitchers.

On the pitching side, the team is getting younger and healthier. It could easily start 2007 with four starters 27 or younger: Matt Cain, Noah Lowry, Jonathan Sanchez, and Brad Hennessey. The rotation could get even fresher if Tim Lincecum comes on strong next spring or summer and bumps Hennessey.

The bullpen is also in transition. Armando Benitez isn't particularly old by today's standards (just turned 34), but he's not healthy. Tim Worrell is old and unhealthy. Everyone else is young, cheap, or fungible. The Giants have plenty of young arms to funnel through the bullpen. It may not be pretty, but if you want to hold a team to its promise of younger and healthier, you have to take the lumps if and when young equals not ready for prime time. (I'm looking at you, Brian Wilson and Billy Sadler.)

Safe to say that on the pitching side the Giants are upholding their credo. Even if the team signs Barry Zito to a ridiculous contract or Jeff Suppan to a slightly less ridiculous contract, I see no contradiction. For a true wheatgrass, Ponce-de-Leon, Katie-Couric-for-Dan-Rather type of youth-and-health booster, Sabean could trade Matt Morris for a prospect or two, sign Zito, and go with Barry and four really young guys in the rotation.

On the hitting side, we got problems. The biggest one: there isn't much healthy, youthful talent in the Giant farm system. In '07 Kevin Frandsen and Todd Linden (henceforth "FranLin") will be "key parts," in Magowan-speak, but if they ever become full-timers it will be via the typical slow transition that Rich Aurilia and Pedro Feliz had to suffer through. No one else is even close to ready to take a major-league job. A major step in the new direction would find a younger, healthier first baseman under the Giants' Xmas tree, but at this point many of the rumors (Richie Sexson, Pat Burrell) aren't really that much younger than Lance Niekro or healthier than Rich Aurilia -- though they're certainly more talented and much better paid.

I really feel the New Direction is a two-year process that can't be fully judged, juried and executed in two months of off-season. I'm not 100% convinced Giants brass has the cojones to go through with The Rebuild That Dare Not Speak Its Name, but I don't see anything to make me scream "Liars!" If it's to be fixed at all, it will need at least two years:

Year 1 (2007): solidify the young pitching staff. Turn Matt Cain into an ace. Straighten out Noah Lowry. Figure out which of the young relievers has a future. Weave in FranLin, perhaps Freddie Lewis. Year 2 (2008): Hope at least one of the EME-Schierholtz-Ishikawa class currently treading water in the minors will grab a major-league job. With FranLin more established, the Giants could have three or four homegrown position players in key roles to complement a mostly homegrown pitching staff.

If all breaks the right way, it still may not be enough. The Dodgers, D-Backs, and maybe even the Rockies have long been immersed in the trippy world of position player development to which the Giant braintrust, like a boardroom full of oil executives whose martinis have been spiked with LSD, is just now opening its collective mind.

Groovy.

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