SAN FRANCISCO -- Pitching is the Giants' top priority between the foul lines. So it goes in the executive offices also.As the Giants enter a truly pivotal offseason in which vast personnel turnover is possible, general manager Brian Sabean emphasized Thursday that maintaining the pitching staff tops the club's agenda. Everything else, including improvement of the team's limp offense, will follow. Finding a proven hitter or two is essential and yet, at the same time, secondary. From all indications, top free-agent sluggers such as Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are out of the Giants' range. Though San Francisco scored a National League-low 570 runs, its lowest total in a non-strike-shortened season since it accumulated 556 in 1985, pitching enabled the team to remain a postseason contender. The Giants ranked second in the NL with a 3.20 ERA and compiled a Major League-low .232 opponents' batting average. Madison Bumgarner (13-13), Matt Cain (12-11), Tim Lincecum (13-14) and Ryan Vogelsong (13-7) became San Francisco's first quartet of starters to win at least 12 games apiece since the 2002 NL pennant-winning team had five such pitchers. But maintaining this staff will become considerably more expensive in 2012, following an offseason in which the Giants confront 13 players eligible for salary arbitration and eight potential free agents. "The first model we have to build is how we keep this pitching staff intact. And how many dollars it's going to take against the budget," Sabean said at his annual end-of-season address. Given that plethora of players in contractual limbo, Sabean, manager Bruce Bochy and their staffs plunged into organizational meetings Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after the defending World Series champions completed their 86-76, second-place season. "I don't think we've ever had a [meeting] ... as soon," Sabean said. "Biggest reason is, we've got 13 arbitration-eligible players. Conventional wisdom would tell you we're not going to bring all of them back because of how we have to build a budget. We have eight free agents. ... You've got to be selective with what you want to do in bringing your own guys back." Lincecum is eligible for salary arbitration and will receive a huge increase from his 2011 wage of $13 million -- whether it's through a multi-year deal, a negotiated one-year settlement or an astronomical one-year contract engineered through the arbitration process. "We are going to be open-minded in Timmy's situation," Sabean said. He hinted that the Giants also might explore a contract extension for Cain. Vogelsong and relievers Santiago Casilla and Ramon Ramirez also are arbitration-eligible. So is Jonathan Sanchez, whom the Giants are leaning toward keeping as a fifth-starter candidate despite his inconsistent, injury-plagued season. Relievers Javier Lopez, who's likely to attract many suitors as a left-handed specialist, and Guillermo Mota are free agents. Jeremy Affeldt also will become a free agent if the Giants decline his $5 million option, though Sabean insisted, "I expect him to be in uniform with us next year." Sabean said that upper management has not told him how much more he can expand the next payroll, which he said was "$124 million plus" at the end of this season. Once the pitchers are budgeted, he'll know what he can allocate to free agents and other acquisitions or holdovers. This was evident when Sabean was asked whether he would consider offering any free agent a contract exceeding three years in length -- which the Giants have resisted doing in recent offseasons -- and how that might influence negotiations with right fielder Carlos Beltran, whom San Francisco has interest in retaining. "I hate to be redundant, but until you really can build a budget that can hold a free agent coming in or retaining a free agent of your own, we have to decide how many years out we can go or would go with our pitching staff," Sabean said. " ... Our pitching's going to get expensive. That's the punch line and we have to take care of that first." The Giants' pitching already is expensive, given Barry Zito's salary, which escalates from $18.5 million in 2011 to $19 million next year and $20 million in 2013. There's also the inescapable fact that being arbitration-eligible virtually guarantees Sanchez a raise from his $4.8 million salary despite his 4-7 record and 4.26 ERA. But Sabean and Bochy indicated that both will be at Spring Training to compete for the fifth starter's job. "Jonathan is a viable candidate for that spot, given his track record," Sabean said. "'Z' will be in the mix there," Bochy said. Sabean quashed the notion that the Giants might eat Zito's salary and release him, as they did with Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada. Said Sabean of Zito, who finished 3-4 with a 5.87 ERA in 13 appearances, "He's under contract. He'll be in Spring Training. It's that simple." When the Giants begin focusing on position players, their top priorities will be obvious to anybody who watched them perform this season: finding viable alternatives at the leadoff spot and center field. Ideally, one player would fill both roles. "That's pretty much what we already realized as weaknesses," Sabean said. No realistic options exist within the organization. If Cody Ross and Andres Torres are re-signed, they'll likely have to accept reserve roles. David DeJesus, Grady Sizemore and Coco Crisp are among the more intriguing names on the list of leadoff/center-field free agents. Though shortstop is another position the Giants might consider upgrading -- they've already been linked to Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins, a potential free agent, and the Jose Reyes rumors are as well-worn as they are far-fetched -- they'll closely scrutinize Brandon Crawford's Arizona Fall League performance for evidence that the 24-year-old might be ready to play full time. Crawford has proved to be capable defensively; it's his hitting that concerns the Giants. Sabean stated that the Giants must bolster their offense through a combination of maturing players such as Crawford and Brandon Belt, rebounding veterans such as Aubrey Huff and fresh acquisitions. But the Majors' longest-tenured GM said that factors beyond that will help shape the Giants' fortunes in 2012. "No matter who we have on the field, we have to play better defense. Our defense wasn't as good as it should have been," Sabean said. "That can help our pitching. We also have to run the bases better. We were station-to-station in that regard, and that's something that we can control. That will be a major theme going into next Spring Training. But I hope it's going to be a combination of all that. We're going to have to be resourceful to do that."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.