The giants believe that if they can at least play .500 ball while slugger Barry Bonds languishes on the disabled list, they will awaken as playoff contenders once he's healthy. Unfortunately for this rosy estimation, San Francisco has played significantly worse the last two weeks, and club officials still have no firm date when the seven-time National League MVP will return. Bonds has not played this season while recuperating from three surgeries on his right knee, the most recent, on May 2, to treat a bacterial infection. After splitting a doubleheader with the Mets on Sunday, the Giants (24--31) had lost nine of their last 10 games and fallen nine games behind the Padres in the NL West.
"We are trying to find a way out of a losing situation," manager Felipe Alou said last Friday after a closed-door meeting with his position players during which he stressed fundamentals and reminded them of the organization's success over the last several seasons. (Alou had met with his pitchers a day earlier, before the Giants were swept in a three-game series with the Phillies.) "A losing streak is here, yes, but it is part of a losing situation. It's been a very inconsistent season so far."
Very simply, the Giants are built around the 40-year-old Bonds and are rudderless without him. Embracing a win-now approach, the club assembled the majors' second-oldest roster (average age: 33, with outfielder Jason Ellison the only regular younger than 30), buttressing the lineup last winter with complementary free agents: Outfielder Moises Alou, 38, was to function as a protective bat, while catcher Mike Matheny, 34, and shortstop Omar Vizquel, 38, represented veteran, defensive stalwarts with little power, a tradeoff San Francisco felt comfortable making.
Instead, without Bonds, the Giants have fallen in the power categories, sinking from fifth in 2004 to 10th in total bases, from ninth to 13th in home runs and from fifth to sixth in slugging percentage. "Everytime I see Ellison or Vizquel on base," says San Francisco assistant general manager Ned Colletti, referring to the usual leadoff and number 2 hitters, "I know who should be hitting next."
Alou was batting .286 and leading the team with 10 home runs, but he can often be pitched around. Without the lefthanded Bonds, the lineup has struggled against righthanders, ranking 14th in the league in home runs against them and 16th in slugging percentage. ( San Francisco would like to add a potent lefthanded bat in a trade and is also exploring the acquisition of a starter or another short reliever--on May 28 the Giants acquired setup man LaTroy Hawkins from the Cubs--but finds the current market extremely tight.)
Bonds's rehabilitation proceeds, slowly. On his website, barrybonds.com, he reports that his range of motion has increased, he's begun walking with resistance (held back by an oversized rubber band) and he's started throwing in the outfield at SBC Park. Still, he is effectively on his own program, which mildly rankles the club, and the best guess for his return is sometime after the All-Star break. "It's sad to say, but we are used to it now," Alou says of playing without their slugger. "There were all kinds of questions in spring training, anticipation and possibilities, but not anymore."
In fairness to Bonds, San Francisco has also been saddled with the loss of closer Armando Benitez, who may miss the rest of the season after having surgery on May 3 to repair his torn right hamstring, as well as trips to the DL by Alou (strained right calf muscle) and righthander Jason Schmidt (right shoulder strain). Yet the Giants accept none of those injuries as explanations for their slide. "There's not a team in baseball that wouldn't love to have Barry Bonds in its lineup," says Matheny, "but when you start thinking about what you don't have, you're setting yourself up for failure."