SAN FRANCISCO -- It has been widely assumed that Jonathan Sanchez will be the pitcher the Giants trade in their quest for a proven hitter if they can't sign a free agent.

Like many assumptions, this one's dangerous to accept as a foregone conclusion.

People throughout baseball are beginning to believe that the Giants will, or should, hold onto Sanchez and trade Noah Lowry instead if the latter proves during Cactus League exhibitions that he has overcome the forearm trouble that sidelined him last year.

During the Dec. 27 conference call to announce the signing of Randy Johnson, Giants general manager Brian Sabean indicated that if both left-handers remained with the club through Spring Training, Lowry likely would claim the fifth starting job over Sanchez due to his seniority. Lowry has nearly four full years of Major League service time, excluding last season, compared with slightly more than two for Sanchez.

The Giants could have traded Sanchez by now, if rumors are to be believed. He has been mentioned in deals involving several corner infielders, including Colorado's Garrett Atkins, Texas' Hank Blalock, Florida's Jorge Cantu and Cincinnati's Edwin Encarnacion. Sabean maintained during the Winter Meetings that given Lowry's uncertain health status, and with Johnson not yet signed, the Giants needed to keep Sanchez to avoid depleting their starting rotation.

Some observers believe that the Giants might prefer to keep Sanchez under any set of circumstances. He's 26, averages a strikeout per inning and remains a year away from qualifying for salary arbitration.

Sanchez is erratic, as he demonstrated during his first full Major League season. He finished 9-12 with a 5.01 ERA in 29 starts last year, despite a remarkable June in which he went 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA. But his potential allows the Giants to dream of having a dominant rotation led by co-aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Lowry actually prompted concern before last year. He walked as many batters (87) as he struck out in 2007. That unfavorable ratio, combined with Lowry's lack of an overpowering fastball, moved skeptics to predict that he would slump. But it was difficult to argue with Lowry's results that year: 14-8 with a 3.92 ERA.

Hot Stove

Still, one National League scout said Tuesday, "I'd move Lowry before Sanchez. I like Sanchez's upside more."

Though conventional wisdom suggests that the Giants could get more for Sanchez, Lowry should attract plenty of suitors if his arm looks healthy during March.

Unlike Sanchez, the 28-year-old Lowry is at or close to full maturity. A contending team or one ready to compete might seize the chance to obtain such a polished pitcher. Lowry owns a 40-31 career record and led the Giants in wins in 2005 and '07.

Lowry's also relatively affordable. He's owed $4.5 million this year, with a club option of $6.25 million in 2010.

Moreover, anybody willing to study Lowry's character will find that he's an outstanding fit for any roster. The confidence he exudes on the mound is no act. Even without a searing fastball, Lowry doesn't resist challenging hitters. Last year, when he was initially injured in Spring Training, he continued to believe that he would pitch by the end of the season until he endured a setback in late September that necessitated a second surgery.

"It becomes risk and reward," another NL scout said. "Is [Lowry] the guy who he has been, or could be? Somebody might be trying to get rid of a [highly paid player's] contract and would be willing to take the risk."