MLB: Giants finally enter a season with winning ambition
By Andrew Baggarly
San Jose Mercury News
Bruce Bochy didn't have it easy during his first three seasons as the Giants' manager.
In 2007, he inherited a team that served as a sideshow to Barry Bonds' all-consuming trudge to the career home run record.
In 2008, he rubbed his temples and endured the organizational hangover. And last season, he overcame his lame-duck status by leading the Giants to a 16-game improvement in the standings.
But beginning Monday in Houston, Bochy's job gets tougher than ever. Expectations have a way of doing that.
For the first time since Bonds' last MVP season in 2004, the Giants enter the season with authentic ambition. They recaptured fan interest last year while breaking a streak of four losing seasons. They have charismatic draws in Tim Lincecum and Pablo Sandoval. They play in a division with no anointed royalty.
A winning spring raises the bar even further. And while owner Bill Neukom isn't the type to throw down ultimatums, he acknowledged that fans seem to be approaching this season with a sense of urgency.
"We are on the radar screen now in what I think is the most competitive division in baseball," Neukom said. "Improving on last year is going to be just as difficult as getting from 72 to 88 wins. We think we made good offseason moves, but then there's 29 other teams that think they did, too."
Neukom's first offseason move was to re-up Bochy and general manager Brian Sabean through 2011, decisions that weren't universally applauded by fans but were near-automatic after last season's improvement.
Fair or not, Bochy and Sabean have a reputation for favoring veterans and failing to show confidence in young players. And while hitting talent is rising through the system, the Giants will have six players in their 30s in Monday's lineup against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
Unable to acquire the impact hitter their limp lineup needed, the Giants tried for incremental improvement by signing Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa to short-term contracts.
"It's an interesting group," Sabean said. "They know the sense of urgency and I think they know the window of opportunity. It's there for the taking but they certainly have to earn it. They'll have to go over two teams, the Dodgers and the Rockies. But if we're true to form with the pitching, we should be in most games."
With DeRosa's positional flexibility, Bochy should have the personnel to endure an injury or make an adjustment with a slumping player.
"We'll be able to rest guys and we'll be able to keep everybody fresh and involved," Bochy said. "That's also what creates a sense of unity."
But you don't find many playoff teams that lack a set lineup, and in all likelihood, Bochy will be running out a different combination every game. It's often hard for players to remain consistent when they get moved around the order or perceive that a weeklong slump could send them to the bench.
So the key for Bochy will be to react without being reactionary.
He believes the Giants will boost their major-league-worst .308 on-base percentage and score enough runs to contend behind a fearsome pitching staff.
"It is not a lineup with a lot of power, but it is a lineup I believe will have good hitters who will grind out the opposing pitcher a little better," Bochy said. "The phrase I like to use is, 'Keep the line moving.' We've got the depth now, one through eight, to do that. The goal is to score more runs, and I believe we will. But it always comes down to how well you pitch the ball and catch the ball."
Defense won't be easy to manage, either. With questionable gloves at several key positions, Bochy will be compelled to do plenty of late-inning juggling. On some nights, he could remove or reposition five players to get his best defensive club on the field.
Even the division's best rotation won't be an autopilot assignment for Bochy, who must manage Lincecum's workload after two seasons of high pitch counts.
So Bochy's task is tough. There will be plenty of second-guessers. And he'll be expected to make all the right moves.
He has won with this kind of team before. There are a few flags flying in San Diego to prove it.