What's The Plan 

With one major off-season question left to answer -- Will He or Won't He? -- the '07 Giants are close to set. Once the Bonds contract is signed and sealed (and, according to the press coverage that follows, notarized by one of Satan's many functionaries), the final opening day roster spots will boil down to 5th starter, 5th outfielder, a few bullpen shenanigans, and whether Ryan Klesko and Mark Sweeney can co-exist in one universe.

Or Bonds and Sweeney, for that matter. Oh, I forgot. There are no hard feelings, it was all a misunderstanding. Mm-kay.

Please note: I'm still skeptical the Bonds contract impasse is but a formality, and I didn't need Murray Chass of the New York Times to convince me.

But today I speak of longer horizons, amigos mios. Today I ask: Do the Giants have a plan, is it good, and are they sticking to it? This is not an uncommon topic round these parts, and as you glimpse the headline that trumpets the return of Russ Ortiz, it's easy to throw back your head and Charlie Brown-like let fly a big "AAAUUUGGGGHH!" (Was Peanuts not simply a kid's version of Munch's Scream and other existential nightmares? Examine navel and discuss.)

Before we stumble away into an eternal gulag of despair, we need a sober assessment of longer-term goals. A quick rewind:

As the 2006 season ground to an unseemly halt, all the big brass buttons told us, OK, no more, the Bondscentric universe with its orbiting satellites of veteran mediocrity has failed. It was a big slobbery confessional. Younger, faster, healthier was the new mantra. The word "Rebuild" was conspicuously absent.

Among positional players, the mantra has proven hollow, though, wait...technically swapping Dave Roberts for Steve Finley is getting younger, right?

Sorry. Signing Roberts, Aurilia, Klesko and Molina and resigning Feliz and Durham is no youth movement. Some of us would have liked to see Todd Linden and Kevin Frandsen plugged in as starters this year. With Bonds missing games due to knee pain, back pain, day-after-night pain, and perhaps the pain of squeezing his neck into a dress shirt for his court appearances -- not to mention Roberts (hopefully) chained to the bench against left-handed pitchers -- Linden should get at least 300 at bats. Four hunded is not a stretch. As for Frandsen, well, we'd all like to see what he can do, but like Linden he's not exactly going to rot on the bench.

So youth movement in '07? Not so much on the offensive side, and let's be honest -- for a few more years this team is beholden to the free agent and trade markets to bring in big bats. There's an outside chance a couple current farmhands will soon swing solid major-league lumber, but one of them, Eddie Martinez-Esteve, seems destined to DH in the American League.

The mantra makes sense on the pitching side, and here I think the Giants not only have a plan but have done quite well to stick to it. But, you say, so upset your voice trembles and your fists shake, R-r-r-r-uss Ort-t-t-tiz! $126 million for a Zito in d-d-d-d-decline!

I'll address those moves in a moment, but here's why at heart the plan is operational: Not one young pitcher was traded away this winter. (Knock on wood.) Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Noah Lowry, and Tim Lincecum all remain. (Lincecum can't technically be traded for one year after the draft, but teams can skirt that rule with the "player to be named later.")

Even lesser lights such as Brian Wilson and Kevin Correia, both expected to be key bullpenners this year, have stayed put. Note that Tim Worrell retired and the Giants did not leap to replace him with a proven veteran. Armando Benitez could be gone as soon as he shows he's healthy.

As for Ortiz, yes, his inclusion on the roster could block the progress of Sanchez, who seems to be the other candidate for 5th starter. If Ortiz surprises, then another year in the bullpen won't hurt Sanchez and might even help him refine his secondary pitches, which could use a lot of refinement. If Ortiz blows, then Sanchez becomes 5th starter -- expect a steep learning curve.

The Zito contract was an overspend. Perhaps even the sign of a desperate general manager, as Keith Law argues. But for at least the first few years it gives the Giants a good (if not great) starter and, with Matt Morris on board for only two more years, it won't block the arrival of Tim Lincecum. In fact a healthy Morris will be a valuable trade chip, seeing how he's "only" making $9 million in each of the next two years. Think the Mets wouldn't be tempted to trade Lastings Milledge for him if he's pitching well and, say, Pedro Martinez doesn't return from shoulder surgery on time this summer?

Despite the handwringing viz-a-viz Zito, there are enough countervailing views out there to make the contract seem like a necessary luxury. It's also possible that by the time his $18 million annual payments kick in ('07:$10M, '08:$14.5M, '09:$18.5M, '10:$18.5M, '11:$18.5M, '12:$19M, '13:$20M), the team's stadium debt service will be low enough and revenues high enough that the contract won't be a budget constraint at all.

On the pitching mound, the Giants have a plan and seem to be executing it well. In the batter's box, they're hamstrung by their own incompetence at raising homegrown hitters, but smart, creative moves could help fill the gap quickly.

This year will be crucial in holding them to their promise. If the team sinks out of contention, trading useful but replaceable veterans (Winn, Feliz, Durham, Vizquel, Morris) for good prospects should be a no-brainer. Drafting the best available hitter or two this summer, players who project to be in the majors by 2009 or 2010, should be a priority.

Finally, the Bonds situation is a mess of the Giants' own making. To some extent it couldn't be helped. The Giants whiffed on other big names and, to avoid an offense that would have advance scouts standing next to one another at the urinals and cackling, "Beware the Connecticut Defenders!", they went crawling back to His Barriness. It's all rather sordid, and whatever your opinion of Bonds and his treatment in the public sphere, it's hard to deny the Giants could have handled it a lot better.

It's possible that information from the ongoing exploration of l'affaire BALCO and baseball's drug habit will circle the heads of Magowan & Co. for a while, perhaps settling to rest there like flies in a stockyard. Perhaps Barry himself, backed finally against the wall, will be the source of that information, which means the Giants' biggest short-term question could become a long-term worry: Will He or Won't He?


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