After only one week of managing exhibition games for the Giants, Bruce Bochy made a bold executive decision. He arranged a private meeting with Barry Bonds, who, depending on the headlines of the day, is either the anchor or the millstone of the franchise, and told the slugger he wanted to bat him third in the lineup instead of his customary fourth position.
"I watched him hit too many home runs against us in San Diego," says Bochy, who managed the Padres to NL West titles the past two years yet oddly was let out of his contract to go to a division rival. "I like the idea of seeing him hit in the first inning. But I also told him it could help him get off the field sooner. If we can take him out [after his last at bat] for a defensive replacement and it saves him 40 or 50 innings, it's worth it just for that."
Bonds has hit fourth in all but 32 of his 470 games in the lineup since then manager Dusty Baker moved him to cleanup on June 27, 2002. Bonds grew accustomed to the spot and resisted overtures to move up or down in the order. This time? "He was great about it," Bochy says. "He said he wants to do what's best for the club." Bochy regarded the move as a logical one, but it could also be interpreted as symbolic for a manager wanting to make an immediate impression on his new team. "You can tell he's making everyone accountable," says righthander Matt Morris.
The many moves yet to come for Bochy this season, not to mention the fortunes of the franchise, will depend on the health and production of Bonds, who turns 43 in July and has little help around him, no matter where he hits. Says one AL general manager, "I'm not sure how good they are with Bonds. Without him? Whoa." Last year Bonds stayed off the DL, played in 130 games, hit 26 homers (leaving him 22 short of breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record) and drove in 77 runs -- and the Giants still lost 85 games. San Francisco was a miserable offensive team, finishing 10th in the NL in runs (746) and 15th in on-base percentage (.324). Without a major upgrade (and none seem obvious), the Giants could be looking at a third straight season with 85 or more losses for the first time in the franchise's 125-year history.
Their preferred lineup will have no one under the age of 32 by the end of April -- when third baseman Pedro Feliz (career OBP: .288) hits that mark (if little else) -- and no one other than Bonds who has ever driven in 100 runs in a season. The club is banking on 34-year-old centerfielder Dave Roberts to ignite the offense ("Our first true leadoff hitter since Brett Butler," owner Peter Magowan says), but Roberts doesn't hit lefthanders (.257 career) and has yet to score 100 runs, hit 20 doubles or collect 150 hits in a season.
Moreover, the Giants suddenly view Ray Durham as the cleanup protection behind Bonds -- based almost exclusively on Durham's .327 second half last season -- even though Durham, 35, has batted fourth only 11 times in his career and has missed an average of 35 games a year with injuries in four seasons with San Francisco.
To compete in the NL West, the Giants will need superior starting pitching results from Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Morris and Noah Lowry, but that could prove difficult with all those old legs behind them on defense. San Francisco will employ average-to-below-average defenders at every position except shortstop (Omar Vizquel, 39) and catcher (Bengie Molina, 32). So while the Giants may have a manager with a new outlook, their dependency on a 42-year-old leftfielder with troublesome knees and a supporting cast past its prime reads like the same old story. -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 26, 2007