Giants will focus on upgrading offense in 2012
Club could seek external options to go with crucial returnees
SAN FRANCISCO -- As the Giants' celebration ends, their transition begins.Their 2011 Opening Day roster bore a strong resemblance to the 2010 squad that won the World Series. Infielders Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe were the only significant players to depart, while shortstop Miguel Tejada and rookie first baseman-outfielder Brandon Belt were this year's key newcomers. But Giants management, not to mention the team's fans that packed AT&T Park for all 81 home games this year, won't stand for standing pat again. San Francisco's second-half slide from first place in the National League West exposed multiple weaknesses. Some, like the limp offense, will be at least partially addressed when valuable performers such as catcher Buster Posey and second baseman Freddy Sanchez return from the injuries that sidelined them for most of the season. But the Giants will enter the offseason with relatively few positions or roles assured for 2012. Posey, Sanchez, starting pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, third baseman Pablo Sandoval, closer Brian Wilson and possibly right fielder Nate Schierholtz are the only Giants who can feel confident about what they'll be doing next year. This is partly due to underperformance. First baseman Aubrey Huff and outfielder Andres Torres, both integral to San Francisco's surge to the Fall Classic, struggled all season. Rookie shortstop Brandon Crawford excelled defensively but was challenged to bat .200. The Giants also must solve an intricate economic puzzle involving player contracts. They have a whopping 13 players eligible for salary arbitration and eight potential free agents. The first group includes performers who will receive significant raises, such as Lincecum, Sandoval, Vogelsong and Sergio Romo. The latter group features right fielder Carlos Beltran, outfielder Cody Ross and left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez. CEO-to-be Larry Baer already has said that he can't foresee the club's $120 million payroll shrinking. That's fortunate for the Giants, since keeping their most productive players -- besides adding a free agent or two -- will be an expensive process. The Giants have finished with winning records for three consecutive seasons, and they can legitimately anticipate extending that streak to four. Barring a surprise, the starting rotation will return virtually intact. Expect the offense to improve, because general manager Brian Sabean simply doesn't rest until he meets his chief objective. But Sabean will have to get creative financially, unless he's allowed to escalate the payroll to the Yankee-Red Sox level. Here's a position-by-position look at how the Giants stack up entering the offseason: Catcher: This position belongs to Posey, assuming he recovers smoothly from his mangled left leg. Manager Bruce Bochy hinted that Posey could move to first base after next season, but that's not expected to be an issue in the immediate future. Chris Stewart impressed the Giants, particularly on defense, and might be the tentative favorite to claim the backup role which Eli Whiteside has held since 2009. Whiteside is arbitration-eligible and, for that reason, is in danger of not being tendered a contract. The Giants like prospect Hector Sanchez, but the switch-hitter probably needs more seasoning. First base: Huff? Belt? Brett Pill? An offensively proven free agent? This is among the positions that could be wide open when Spring Training begins. The Giants might explore the feasibility of bidding for free-agent sluggers Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, but Sabean typically refuses to be used to drive a free agent's asking price upward. He won't launch an effort for Pujols or Fielder unless either wants to be a Giant. Signed for 2012 at $10 million, Huff would be an expensive reserve if he can't win the job. But he won no admirers with his performance this year, and Giants management demonstrated that it's willing to eat salaries by releasing Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada on Aug. 31. Second base: All Freddy Sanchez has to do to reclaim this spot is remain healthy. But that has been difficult for the 33-year-old, who was sidelined June 10 with a dislocated right shoulder. Last year, for instance, Sanchez appeared in only 111 games. The Giants would be wise to hold onto Jeff Keppinger, whose offensive attributes are similar to Sanchez's. Shortstop: Crawford probably will receive a chance to win a regular job. The Giants will closely monitor his progress at the plate in the Arizona Fall League in an effort to determine his readiness. However, his path will be blocked in the unlikely event that the Giants acquire a more polished shortstop, such as free agent Jose Reyes from the Mets. Third base: Unless Sandoval again encounters weight problems, this will remain his job for the foreseeable future. Since this is a spot where a utility infielder is likely to receive some activity, players such as Mike Fontenot and Emannuel Burriss would be well-advised to prove they can handle third base as they strive to win reserve roles. Outfield: Finding a leadoff/center-field type, either through trade or free agency, will be a priority. The Giants also will look for a corner outfielder and might try to re-sign Beltran, though they won't break the bank to do so. Left field could become a home for the budding Belt, who played there more frequently in the final few weeks. Schierholtz, who Bochy called the team's most productive outfielder before he broke his right foot in mid-August, deserves another opportunity to win an everyday job. The Giants probably will seek an upgrade over Ross and Torres, though one of them could be re-signed to provide depth. Starting pitching: This is by far the most stable area on the team and perhaps in the league. The only intrigue involves the fifth starter's job. As of now, the competition will involve Eric Surkamp, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito. However, the arbitration-eligible Sanchez could be non-tendered or traded to save money. Speculation persists that Zito, who lost his spot in the rotation during an injury-marred year, might be released despite being owed $46 million after this year (including a $7 million buyout for 2014). Relief pitching: Wilson, who missed 31 late-season games with a strained right elbow, must prove that he can still handle the rigors of closing. His per-inning ratios for walks, which rose, and strikeouts, which declined, were ominous. The Giants can keep the rest of their bullpen intact, but that will be costly. Lopez and Guillermo Mota are eligible for free agency, Affeldt will become a free agent if the Giants decline his $5 million option and Santiago Casilla, Ramon Ramirez and Romo are arbitration-eligible. San Francisco can economize by turning to the likes of Dan Runzler, Steve Edlefsen and Waldis Joaquin.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.