Giant upgrades, for Bonds' sake

Barry Bonds' body seems to creak whenever he's not swinging a bat. He chases down fly balls and then gradually eases to a stop, as if slamming on the brakes would pain his knees. He ambles slowly to home plate, and to first base after drawing walks, and you can see how he might move when he is an old man. At 40, Bonds probably has only two or three good sprints in his body per day.

The end of his career is on the horizon, and when Bonds departs, the Giants will lose the greatest offensive force in baseball history. As Mike Schmidt said at the All-Star break: Nobody has impacted the rest of his team's lineup the way Bonds has. Nobody has created RBI opportunities for teammates as much as Bonds. Nobody has affected the way pitchers are thinking and working as much as Bonds.

He could play two more years, maybe more, but even if he stays on to chase 800 homers, his standing as a dominant player will soon end; Bonds sometimes talks about the close of his career with great longing in his voice. The Giants know all this, they know that the Era of Barry is coming to a close, so they are going for it, in 2005.

The Yankees might close the winter with the biggest names on the market, perhaps Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran, and Seattle might have won back the most credibility with the signings of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. Oakland is undoubtedly attempting the greatest restructuring of any club, having dealt away All-Stars Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder for young talent. But the Giants have gotten much better. "There's no doubt they're trying to set up for a championship run next season," said a rival general manager. "They've significantly improved their team."

The Giants' crushing weakness in 2004 was their bullpen, which blew 28 of 74 save chances; only the Cincinnati Reds had more, with 31. San Francisco GM Brian Sabean moved relatively quickly to fill this hole, signing the premier closer on the market, Armando Benitez, to a three-year, $21.5 million contract. They also gave a three-year deal to shortstop Omar Vizquel (at the time, other executives thought the Giants had greatly overpaid, but by the time Orlando Cabrera got four years and $32 million, the numbers made a lot more sense). They signed catcher Mike Matheny, widely regarded as an elite defensive player. Reportedly, the Giants have a tentative two-year agreement to sign outfielder Moises Alou.

Benitez is 32. Vizquel will turn 38 in April, Matheny is 34 and Alou will be 39 next summer. These are not moves made with the big picture in mind, some larger plan of sustained success into the 2010s. The Giants are trying to win now, while they still have Bonds.

"Getting Benitez was huge, because that was probably their biggest problem last year," Padres GM Kevin Towers said. "Vizquel gives them some defense, and Alou will give them some protection behind Bonds."

Alou has been one of the more consistent RBI men of his generation, with seven seasons of 91 or more. He hit 39 home runs for the Cubs last season, with 106 RBI, and his batting average with runners on base was 47 points higher than when the bases were empty; he is still extraordinary at anticipating what the pitcher intends to throw in moments of high pressure.

Vizquel does not have the defensive range that he used to have, but he hit .291 for Cleveland last season with an on-base percentage of .353. With Vizquel hitting second, perhaps, and Alou perhaps batting fifth, the Giants should have more depth in their lineup than they did in '04, when they still managed to finish second in the NL in runs scored. "They always find a way to improve," said an NL scout.

The Giants had preferred to sign Steve Finley before making their deal with Alou, and Finley would've been a better fit in San Francisco's spacious home park. The projected outfield of Bonds and Alou at the corners, and Marquis Grissom again in center field, will probably leave the Giants with woeful defensive range, and three of their five projected starters are fly ball pitchers.

And the Giants need their starting pitching to come together. Jason Schmidt would have won the NL Cy Young Award if not for a late-season injury. Noah Lowry demonstrated great poise down the stretch, but he's still just 16 games and six victories into his major-league career. Brett Tomko thrived for a month after seeing a sports psychiatrist in August, and time will tell if the words he heard will continue to resonate in 2005. Jerome Williams went 10-7 despite missing about a dozen starts because of injury. Veteran Kirk Rueter is limited but competitive and predictable, at age 34. Jesse Foppert, the Giants' most renowned pitching prospect, was hurt in 2003 and limited to one inning in 2004; he will be a wild-card next season.

It's unlikely that anyone will run away with the NL West, anyway. The Padres probably have the best starting pitching but need Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko to hit in the middle of their order, just as they needed more from them in 2004. The Dodgers have built their franchise around J.D. Drew; his talent merits that kind of trust and the $55 million invested in him, but his track record and injury history doesn't. If Drew goes down and the Dodgers' thin starting pitching crumbles, it could get ugly in L.A.

Arizona has improved but will likely trade Randy Johnson sometime soon, and the D-Backs have a long way to go after losing 111 games. Colorado will struggle to contend, as the Rockies have for almost a decade.

The Giants are set to make another run in 2005. They have to take another run, before Bonds slowly ambles away for the last time.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.