Giants enter offseason thinking title

Giants enter offseason thinking title

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' respectable late-season performance has them believing they can not only end their streak of four consecutive losing seasons next year, but also challenge for the National League West title.

San Francisco raised hopes and expectations by going 28-27 in the season's final two months. The Giants sustained themselves during that period by receiving contributions from veterans and younger players alike -- a combination they'll again rely upon in 2009.

"These guys should go into next year with the confidence that we can contend," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "With a little more consistency in pitching and the offensive side, we're right there."

The Giants ranked eighth in hitting, but next-to-last in scoring, among NL teams. That partly reflected their lack of timely hitting and power. San Francisco batted a middling .260 with runners in scoring position and ranked last in the Major Leagues with 94 home runs.

Expect the Giants to explore trade possibilities and the free-agent market for a corner infielder, or possibly a corner outfielder, to bolster the offense. Since the depth of talent in free agency is underwhelming, the Giants might have to deal to get the hitter they want. That could mean parting with some of their cherished pitching, although Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito figure to be exempt from any trade proposal.

Little is expected to change under William Neukom, the Giants' new managing general partner who's taking over for Peter Magowan. The Giants' payroll should remain in the $85 million-$90 million range, which would give them some spending power in free agency.

Neukom is likely to encourage the Giants' renewed emphasis on player development. The Giants already have reaped the benefits of this philosophy, with "homegrown" products such as left fielder Fred Lewis, right-hander Sergio Romo, left-hander Alex Hinshaw, catcher-infielder Pablo Sandoval, first baseman-outfielder John Bowker, first baseman Travis Ishikawa and right fielder Nate Schierholtz making an impact.

Recent picks such as catcher Buster Posey, left-hander Madison Bumgarner, right-hander Tim Alderson and infielders Nick Noonan and Angel Villalona could also rise to the Majors within a few seasons. So if 2009 isn't the year for the Giants' resurgence, there's always '10.

CONTRACT ISSUES

Free agents: Rich Aurilia, INF.
Eligible for arbitration: Brad Hennessey, RHP; Jack Taschner, LHP; Tyler Walker, RHP.
Player options: None.
Club options: Omar Vizquel, SS, $5.2 million ($300,000 buyout).
Non-tender possibilities: Kevin Correia, RHP.

CATCHERS

Bengie Molina, .292 BA, 16 HRs, 95 RBIs
Steve Holm, .262 BA, 1 HRs, 6 RBIs

It's Molina's job for the third consecutive year unless he disappears in a blockbuster trade. That's unlikely, given the Giants' trust in him defensively and offensively.

FIRST BASE

Pablo Sandoval, .345 BA, 3 HRs, 24 RBIs
Travis Ishikawa, .274, 3 HRs, 15 RBIs
John Bowker, .255, 10 HRs, 43 RBIs

Sandoval, who also can catch and play third base, has the inside track at the position. General manager Brian Sabean might consider obtaining a player through free agency or a trade to fill this spot, in which case Sandoval might play third.

SECOND BASE

Eugenio Velez, .262 BA, .299 OBP, 15 SBs
Kevin Frandsen .000 BA (out for most of 2008, played one game)

This might be Velez's job if he could establish himself defensively. But he hasn't been able to do so, which leaves wiggle room for Frandsen.

SHORTSTOP

Emmanuel Burriss, .283 BA, .357 OBP, 13 SBs
Ivan Ochoa, .200 BA, .244 OBP, 0 SBs

This is Burriss' job to lose barring an injury or a colossal slump. The Giants are unlikely to retain Vizquel, and Ochoa likely will settle in as a middle-infield backup.

THIRD BASE

Rich Aurilia, .283, 10 HRs, 52 RBIs

Sandoval could fit in here if the Giants obtain a big bat to play first base. If Aurilia returns, it'll be as an infield super-sub.

OUTFIELD

Randy Winn, .306, 10 HRs, 64 RBIs
Aaron Rowand, .271, 13 HRs, 70 RBIs
Fred Lewis, .282, 9 HRs, 40 RBIs
Dave Roberts, .224, .341 OBP, 5 SBs
Nate Schierholtz, .320, 1 HR, 5 RBIs

The Lewis-Rowand-Winn trio appears likely to return. But Lewis' comeback from foot surgery isn't a given, so the Giants probably will hold onto what looks like a glut of outfielders, especially when Bowker and Velez are added.

ROTATION

Tim Lincecum, 18-5, 2.62 ERA
Barry Zito, 10-17, 5.15 ERA
Matt Cain, 8-14, 3.76 ERA
Jonathan Sanchez, 9-12, 5.01 ERA

The Giants will have to find one, or perhaps two, starters before Opening Day 2009. One of the incumbents -- most likely Sanchez -- could get traded for a hitter, and Noah Lowry keeps hitting speed bumps in his recovery from forearm surgery.

BULLPEN

Geno Espineli, 2-0, 5.06 ERA
Alex Hinshaw, 2-1, 3.40 ERA
Osiris Matos, 1-2, 4.79 ERA
Sergio Romo, 3-1, 2.12 ERA
Billy Sadler, 0-1, 4.06 ERA
Jack Taschner, 3-2, 4.88 ERA
Merkin Valdez, 1-0, 1.69 ERA
Tyler Walker, 5-8, 4.56 ERA
Brian Wilson, 3-2, 4.62 ERA, 41 saves
Keiichi Yabu, 3-6, 3.57 ERA

Expect Romo, Hinshaw and Valdez (if healthy) to occupy prominent roles. Wilson could settle in as closer for years to come, but Taschner and Walker could be gone.

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