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Giants Opening Day outlook

Giants Opening Day outlook

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Reasons for optimism in 2006 abounded in Spring Training, with the starting pitching and bullpen looking strong, a passel of youngsters filling in admirably while veterans played in the World Baseball Classic, and the offense showing increased reliability.

One caveat -- Barry Bonds' left elbow strain was a disheartening factor, but isn't considered serious. Still, he's the man to watch.

No. 1 pitcher Jason Schmidt proved he's back after a sub-par season, armed with a stronger body to avoid nagging injuries and with a better mental outlook, while newly acquired right-hander Matt Morris is likewise eyeing another double-figure victory total after a solid Cactus League campaign.

The Giants' newfound depth in all areas was obvious, with probable fifth outfielder Jason Ellison among National League hit leaders and veteran Steve Finley still showing speed and plate power.

This team has contender written all over it.

BATTING ORDER
1. Randy Winn, CF:
He proved to be an offensive catalyst at leadoff in the second half of last season after coming over in a trade from Seattle, winning National League Player of the Month for September. Winn solidifies center field and will play corner outfield positions at times.

2. Omar Vizquel, SS:
He won his 10th Gold Glove Award last season with best-in-Majors defense at shortstop, and Vizquel should provide steady hitting and move-'em-over bunting skills. His upbeat attitude and high energy rubs off on others.

3. Ray Durham, 2B:
In his final contract season, Durham hopes to avoid the disabled list for the second straight year and duplicate his .290 average and in-the-clutch hitting. His defense looks sharper than ever.

4. Barry Bonds, LF:
The big man is always a key element, and the Giants are hoping the elbow strain will prove to be just a minor setback. His absence would put a strain on the offense, but at least newcomer Steve Finley still gives San Francisco a potent bat.

5. Moises Alou, RF:
The veteran played well in the Classic without leg problems -- a bugaboo last season -- and he remains a strong defensive player and long-ball hitter. Alou could be in his final Major League season.

6. Lance Niekro, 1B:
If he can stay injury-free, the bigger, stronger Niekro will be a force. He's much improved on defense, and this spring showed he can hit lefties and righties with equal power. His potential is enormous.

7. Pedro Feliz, 3B:
He played sparingly in the Classic, which could set him back early in the season, but his defense is excellent and he's been in the 20-homer, 80-RBI range the past two seasons. It should be another good year for Feliz.

8. Mike Matheny, C:
No question, one of the best defensive catchers in the game, but he was outstanding at the plate in 2005, especially in the clutch. He has unwavering devotion to guiding pitchers and is a team leader.

ROTATION
1. Jason Schmidt, RHP:
His leg strength and overall conditioning is vastly improved, and Schmidt should be among National League pitching leaders. He's a smarter, stronger hurler after struggling in 2005.

2. Matt Morris, RHP:
The Giants' key acquisition in the winter, Morris is a proven winner -- he is the 10th-winningest active hurler in baseball and adds much-needed experience to the Giants staff.

3. Noah Lowry, LHP:
Lowry was superb the last half of 2005, and while he still relying on a world-class changeup, the lefty also boasts a 90-plus mph fastball, slider and curve. Being consistent with all pitches is his key.

4. Matt Cain, RHP:
Still a rookie, Cain wowed late last year with a potent fastball and unflappable mound presence. Still learning his craft, Cain may have a few bad moments, but he could vie for Rookie of the Year honors.

5. Jamey Wright, RHP:
The seven-year veteran's stats haven't equaled his promise, but being on a winning team will boost his confidence. Wright has great stuff -- this could be his best season.

BULLPEN
Closer Armando Benitez lost 3 1/2 months after tearing his right hamstring last April, and he had left knee inflammation in the spring, so the Giants are keeping their fingers crossed he'll stay healthy. He still saved 23 games last year but rarely has clean innings.

Fortunately, two setup men -- veteran Tim Worrell and Tyler Walker -- have closing experience, with Worrell saving 38 games for Giants in 2003 and Walker coming to the rescue after Benitez was hurt last year.

Durable lefty Steve Kline, 33, who leads the Majors with 650 appearances over the last eight years, takes the place of the departed Scott Eyre. Kline sported a 2.83 ERA in the second half of 2005.

Sinkerballer Scott Munter is pain-free after elbow surgery last September, and he is adding other pitches to his repertoire. The ground-ball specialist is big and dangerous.

Also returning is left-hander Jack Taschner, who had a great 1.59 ERA over 24 games with the Giants last year, along with 42-year-old southpaw Jeff Fassero, invaluable as a spot starter in 2005.

Brad Hennessey and Kevin Correia could also be in the bullpen mix, perhaps in long relief.

OPENING DELAYED
There are no major injuries so far.

BURNING QUESTION
With an older team -- four 40-plus players by the All-Star break -- health is the biggest concern, and trainers will be focused on Bonds in particular, thanks to bone-on-bone knees and his aging body.

Fortunately, the outfield is deep -- Finley will be a frequent starter to give Alou and Bonds rests -- while Ellison will also see considerable playing time and Todd Linden remains in the wings.

Schmidt, on the disabled list three of the last four seasons, appears much stronger, and a lighter-weighing Benitez will hopefully get healthy and improve over his rocky spring.

Niekro must also stay healthy to reach his power potential. He's been saddled with frequent injuries in the Minors and lost playing time with nagging problems with the Giants last year.

Durham stayed off the disabled list in 2005 and hopes to stay strong this season. He's learned not to go all-out all the time.

ON THE RECORD
"The key, the big thing, is to get closer Armando Benitez healthy and throw the ball better because he had nagging pain. We need to get Benitez going." -- manager Felipe Alou, on the early season outlook

Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["opening_day" ] }
{"content":["opening_day" ] }
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