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Giants' offense still needs big upgrade

It's been a hectic offseason for San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean, what with fortifying the bullpen, signing a shortstop, adding future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson to the rotation and searching for just the right words to put the Manny Ramirez speculation in proper perspective.

On a positive note, Sabean is now free to have the same reaction as 29 other general managers amid reports that Barry Bonds recently underwent hip surgery and hopes to be ready by Opening Day.

Barry who?

The Giants finished fourth in the National League West with a 72-90 record last season, better than expected, yet indicative of the challenges that lie ahead. But a funny thing happened on the way to the team's writing off 2009 as another formative experience: After an improvement here and an upgrade there, the Giants are suddenly dark-horse candidates to make a run in the NL West.

That's as much a commentary on the state of the division as the strength of the San Francisco roster, but nobody in the Bay Area much cares.

"We fully expect to play over .500, and who knows where that is going to lead?" Sabean said.

After years of building their club around Bonds, the Giants have cultivated a more sustainable long-term approach. Starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain give the team a young 1-2 punch worth envying, and the farm system is generating more respect now that the Giants have chosen to spend more money in the draft. The Giants have four monster prospects in first baseman Angel Villalona, catcher Buster Posey and pitchers Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson, and Baseball America rates San Francisco's minor league system as fifth-best in the game, matching the franchise's highest ranking since 1984.

The additions of Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry, combined with the development of closer Brian Wilson and set-up man Sergio Romo, will make for a better bullpen. But the offense is still nondescript. The Giants ranked 29th in the majors with 640 runs scored. And seven years after Bonds hit a record 73 homers, the entire San Francisco team hit 94.

So Sabean has some work to do before spring training if the Giants plan to be legit contenders. Here are five Giants-related developments that merit following:

The Manny watch

It's not really a "watch," per se. It's more a test of whether Scott Boras can drum up a competition between the Giants and Dodgers for Ramirez's services. Given Boras' stellar track record, things still might play out that way. But the Giants sure don't sound as if they're ready to jump off the deep end for Manny.

"It's something we have to monitor because of the bat," Sabean said. "Quite frankly, it would have to be a perfect fit year-wise and financially. It would have to be short-term. But more so, we would have to decide what this means for how we put the ballclub around him for the next year or two."

Quite frankly, it would have to be a perfect fit year-wise and financially. It would have to be short-term.

-- Giants GM Brian Sabean, about signing Manny Ramirez

While money is obviously a factor, the addition of Ramirez would force Sabean to scramble. If Manny comes to San Francisco, that could necessitate moving young Fred Lewis to right field and shopping Randy Winn. And it would block the progress of left fielder Nate Schierholtz, who has hit .310 in 58 games with the big club and is still only 24.

While lots of teams are concerned about Ramirez's defense, the Giants have particular reason to be wary. Consider: Of the 89 big league pitchers who threw 160 or more innings last season, Lincecum had the 49th best groundball-to-flyball ratio. Johnson ranked 62nd, Zito was 80th and Cain finished tied for 86th.

If San Francisco's starters aren't striking hitters out, chances are the ball is going in the air. Factor in the AT&T Park winds and all the ground that must be covered in those spacious NL West outfields and Manny loses some luster as a potential multiyear investment for the Giants.

Adding a bat (non-Manny division)

Since the Giants are relatively satisfied with their outfield, help is more likely to come at a corner infield spot. But all the prime trade possibilities are either injury-prone, too expensive, suspect defensively, relatively unattainable or on the cusp of free agency (and represented by Scott Boras).

That means you, Hank Blalock, Garrett Atkins, Prince Fielder, Jorge Cantu, Adrian Beltre, Nick Johnson and Xavier Nady. While Nick Swisher's name has come up in speculation, you can file the Giants under "minimally interested" because of the $22 million he's owed through 2011.

The free agents all have flaws, too. The Giants are concerned enough about Joe Crede's back that their interest is confined to a one-year deal with a low base salary and lots of incentives. Not surprisingly, Crede and his agent, Boras, are aiming higher.

Adam Dunn? He's believed to be asking for four years and $56 million, and the Giants, like many clubs, regard him as a woeful defensive first baseman.

The biggest obstacle to a trade is the price the Giants would have to pay. Sabean doesn't feel comfortable trading lefty Jonathan Sanchez at the moment and he has no intention to part with Bumgarner or Alderson, so they're all conversation stoppers.

The starting rotation

Manager Bruce Bochy plans to go with Lincecum, Johnson, Cain and Barry Zito, in that order, to keep opposing lineups off balance. Then Noah Lowry and Sanchez are ready to compete for the No. 5 spot.

Lincecum

Lincecum

Don't look for any deals between now and spring training. Although Lowry has made significant strides in his recovery from a forearm injury, he hasn't thrown off a mound yet this winter. The Giants want to see how he fares in spring training before they even consider a move.

If Lowry shows he's healthy in Arizona, he'll probably begin the season in the fifth spot while Sanchez shifts to the bullpen. Sanchez has had a tendency to lose focus and wander in the strike zone as a starter, and a lot of scouts think his repertoire and makeup are better suited to relief.

Whatever happens, the Giants will be better at the back end of the rotation than last season, when their fifth starters posted a combined 8-25 record.

The Giants expect a big season from Cain, whose luck is due to take a turn for the better one of these years. Cain has a 15-30 record over the past two seasons because of anemic run support.

"He's a tough kid, and I think he understands that you can only control certain things," Bochy said. "I give Matty credit for how he's handled it. But at the same time, you don't want him getting used to it and accepting it, either. I think this is one area where Randy [Johnson] can really help him."

Can Renteria still cut it?

While San Francisco's other signings look prudent, the team's decision to give Edgar Renteria two years and $18.5 million seems generous in light of his decline last season. Renteria's offensive numbers slipped across the board, and he ranked 28th among MLB shortstops defensively according to John Dewan's plus/minus system. Although Renteria is proficient up the middle, he's considered a major liability going to his right.

Could the Giants have snagged Orlando Cabrera for a cheaper price had they waited? Probably. But Renteria didn't cost the Giants any draft picks, as Cabrera would have. And the Giants were impressed with the way Renteria salvaged his season by posting an .812 OPS in the second half compared to a .627 mark before the break.

Renteria

Renteria


"I think we did more work than ever with how we scouted people, used video and statistically broke guys down," Sabean said. "He was a much better player in the second half when he was in shape. We know the range is going to be limited. But this guy is too much of a professional player to have his career go down the tubes like some people have said."

Anything would be an improvement over this past season, when San Francisco's five shortstops -- Omar Vizquel, Emmanuel Burriss, Ivan Ochoa, Brian Bocock and Jose Castillo -- ranked 29th in the game at the position with a .576 OPS.

The new bat man?

Pablo Sandoval, 22, busted out in 2008, winning the Giants' Minor League Player of the Year award and hitting .345 in a 41-game look with the big club. Now he's laying waste to the Venezuelan Winter League.

While Sandoval is capable of playing first or catching, the Giants currently have him slotted at third. At 5-foot-11 and 245 pounds, Sandoval is somewhat limited in the field. But he sure is dynamic with a bat in his hands.

"He has that gift of hitting the bad pitch," Bochy said. "He's Yogi Berra. He'll swing at something over his head and whack it, and then he'll take a breaking ball down and away and whack it. He's tough to pitch to."

Sabean's objective in the next month is finding a playmate to slot in somewhere between Sandoval, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina in the middle of the order. His success in filling that mission could help determine whether the Giants begin this season as simply intriguing or downright dangerous.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.