SAN FRANCISCO -- Earlier this offseason, critics saw the Giants' 2007 roster as a rubber stamp of last season, with similar headaches -- older, more fragile players, questionable pitching -- and a club destined to perish, not prosper, in the National League West chase. On the flip side, the believers saw a rejuvenated Barry Bonds as the power cornerstone, a team embracing speed and defense, a better-hitting lineup and young pitchers growing up fast -- a club that will contend, not crash. But the late addition of No. 1 pitcher Barry Zito might have tipped the scales toward success.
Zito's only 28, never missed a start for the Oakland A's in the past six seasons, won 16 games last year and -- presto chango -- suddenly the San Francisco rotation could be one of the division's best. The rainbow-curve artist is among baseball's most durable athletes, and Zito now anchors a solid Big Four staff that inclues Matt Cain, Matt Morris and Noah Lowry. As always, the key for the 2007 season is overall health. From day one at Spring Training, all offensive eyes will be on the 42-year-old Bonds, in theory already better conditioned overall thanks to another year of leg-strengthening exercises, a left elbow free of bone chips and more precise batting work instead of rehab. Bonds played his way into shape last year, showing in the second half he's still a major offensive force, but his aging body will need frequent rest, and right fielder Randy Winn must prove his sub-par 2006 season was a fluke. Lest you think the Giants will play patiently, awaiting Bonds' RBI blows, there's a new game afoot for 2007, a here-one-second, gone-the-next strategy that'll keep opposing pitchers in a snit. It's the Giants' new "secret weapon" -- running. That's where new center fielder Dave Roberts comes in, for if he can keep his valuable legs free from injury -- he's dealt with groin pulls and hamstring problems before -- he'll spark a speed revival that netted him 49 steals last year along with a career-high .293 average and 13 triples. San Francisco stole only 58 bases in 2006 -- led by Omar Vizquel's 24 -- but this new element brings surprise, excitement and extra bases to the forefront. New manager Bruce Bochy knows this game well, and he loves combining great hitting with quickness, saying in big ballparks such as AT&T Park, "you need to find a way to create runs" rather than waiting for the long ball. "I still would like our guys to play their game," he said. "I don't want to change our game because we do have Barry [Bonds] in the cleanup hole. You get to the point of diminishing returns sometimes when you try to force the issue." Other changes? There was the addition of power-hitting first baseman/outfielder Ryan Klesko, who brings more versatility to a club with already a strong mix of interchangeable parts. Remember Todd Linden? The long-time prospect's career seemed frozen in a Triple-A state, but the outfielder hit better than .300 left-handed for the Giants last season and he's been ravaging Winter League pitchers. He, along with Jason Ellison, brings solid defense and a good arm to the outfield as a reserve. Catching has improved with veteran Gold Glover Bengie Molina aboard, replacing second-year backstop Eliezer Alfonzo, who still needs development time and better conditioning.
A renowned offensive player, Molina says his defensive skills -- especially throwing out baserunners -- are solid, saying slow-working pitchers hurt his stats in 2006, yet he must make the adjustment to the National League and the Giants' staffers.
Molina is capable of 20 homers and 60 RBIs. Nice.
Infielder Rich Aurilia, a nine-year San Franciscan before leaving after 2003, returns following a super season with Cincinnati, where he hit .300 with 23 homers and 70 RBIs and played all four infield positions. He'll be the first baseman in 2007 but float to other spots.
He's an intense man whose versatility bodes well, along with third baseman Pedro Feliz, who will also see action elsewhere if necessary, but must hit with consistency.
Second baseman Ray Durham won't necessarily match his fabulous 2006 stats -- .293 average, 26 bops, 93 RBIs -- but just staying off the disabled list will be critical, although sub infielder Kevin Frandsen brings speed and electrifying defense to the club, along with fast-improving offense.
Vizquel rules at short -- he now possesses 11 Gold Gloves -- and ranks as San Francisco's best-ever at the position.
Better speed, improved defense and capable hitting won't be enough, however, if the pitching isn't far better than last season. Losing free agent Jason Schmidt to Los Angeles is a blow, but far less fatal now that the Giants have picked up Zito.
Expect better years from 22-year-old Cain -- he was the "ace" more often than not last season -- and left-hander Lowry, whose oblique strain ruined his rhythm. An injury-free campaign from Morris (broken ribs) and better run support is important, while young Jonathan Sanchez could be the fifth starter after a surprisingly good rookie year.
The bullpen will be bolstered by right-hander Brian Wilson, who could take over the closing role, while lefty Steve Kline anchors the setup role along with Jack Taschner. Rock-steady Kevin Correia will be a key long man, while look for Billy Sadler and Pat Misch to also enter the relief picture.
Offseason report card: The Giants had 11 free agents following 2006 and needed to fill out the roster, much less grab a high-priced slugger plus another starter with the loss of long-time ace Jason Schmidt. They accomplished the latter with Zito's signing, pushing the payroll to around $95 million. The team fell short for added power, but re-signed Bonds to a $16 million-plus deal that leaves the door open for 2008. The club boosted the outfield with veteran Roberts (three years, $18 million) and strengthened the catching by hiring Molina (three years, $15 million). Aurilia (two years, $8 million) adds depth and versatility, and Klesko does the same, along with reputed power. They also refilled the ranks by Durham, Feliz and Kline. The Giants should be incrementally better after two straight third-place finishes. Grade on scale of 1 to 10: 7, and counting.
Arrivals: P Zito (free agent), 1B Aurilia (free agent), CF Roberts (free agent), C Molina (free agent), 1B/OF Klesko (free agent).
Departures: P Schmidt, 1B Shea Hillenbrand, RP Mike Stanton, C Todd Greene, P Jamey Wright, OF Moises Alou, OF Steve Finley.
The road ahead: Barring devastating injuries, the club should be a bit better offensively, with the starting pitching drastically better with Zito's signing and more experienced kids. The outfield is healthier, the depth much improved, yet much -- as usual -- hinges on Bonds' offensive output.
Season in Preview
A lot can change by Opening Day, but as 2006 becomes 2007, this is who is projected to take the field for the Giants:
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.