Bonds exit would create Giant hole

The Giants without Barry Bonds?

It's not exactly the Yankees without Mickey Mantle, or the Orioles without Cal Ripken. After all, Barry Bonds has been a Giant for only 11 seasons. He does hold the San Francisco Giants' franchise record with 478 home runs, but remains comfortably behind Willie Mays and Willie McCovey in most of the important batting categories (and with 249 steals, Barry's still 14 behind his father for the No. 1 spot on that list).

On the other hand, when Mantle and Ripken retired, they were but shadows of their former selves, and their teams were barely competitive.

And that's not Barry Bonds or his Giants. Even at 39, Bonds remains at very nearly the height of his powers, and the Giants are heading to the postseason for the third time in four seasons.

Which is to say, if Barry Bonds isn't a Giant in 2004, they're going to feel it.

On a positive note, if Bonds were to quit -- and not many think that he actually will -- the Giants would save somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million: $16 million in salary, and the remaining $4 million of a $10 million signing bonus.

Can you think of a general manager who wouldn't like to have $20 million to play with? I can't.

Can you think of a general manager who wouldn't shudder at the thought of losing a player like Barry Bonds? I can't.

But if you have to replace the greatest player of his time, that $20 million gives you a pretty good head start.

Here's how the Giants' lineup looks for next season, without Bonds. For each position at which a current player is under conract for 2004, I'll list the final year of his contract. For each position at which the Giants don't have a projected everyday player under contract, I'll list the incumbent in parentheses so we know who they have to replace.

Got all that?

Of course, it's never quite so simple as that. J.T. Snow's contract actually includes a club option for 2004; they can bring him back next season, but they'll have to pay him $6.5 million (and he's actually been outplayed this season by Andres Galarraga). Jose Cruz and the Giants have a "mutual option" for 2004, which means that if they're both happy he'll probably be back.

Considering that GM Brian Sabean generally likes the players that he has -- that's why he got them in the first place -- there's a good chance that both Cruz and Snow (and probably even Galarraga, who turns 43 next June) will return.

That leaves three holes in the lineup: catcher, shortstop, and (of course) left field.

But wait, again it's not that simple, because the Giants have a couple of key pitchers in the last years of their contracts, too; Sidney Ponson and Tim Worrell both have the right to play elsewhere in 2004. Ponson's going to get a big contract wherever he goes, and Worrell, after ably filling in as the Giants' closer, might be able to get closer money when he signs his next deal.

By my count, the Giants have approximately $55 million committed to contracts in 2004, assuming that 1) Bonds retires, 2) the Giants pick up their option on Snow's contract, and 3) the Giants and Cruz still like each other this winter.

This season, the Giants spent approximately $90 million on their players. So even assuming the Giants don't increase their payroll for next season by a penny, Sabean will have roughly $35 million to spend on new players.

Could you take $35 million and fill the holes the Giants have to fill? More important, could Sabean?

I think that he could ... but it won't be easy, because you're talking about some big holes.

Barry Bonds has been the best hitter in the major leagues this season, by a hefty margin. According to Clay Davenport's Equivalent Average, Bonds has been 100 runs better than a replacement-level left fielder. That's a lot of runs. For the sake of comparison, consider that Chipper Jones -- a pretty good hitter -- has been roughly 40 runs better than replacement level. And (roughly) 40 runs is good: 17th best in the National League.

Rich Aurilia isn't the hitter he once was, but he's a lot better than Neifi Perez -- who could take over at shortstop next year -- and the Giants would miss him. Benito Santiago continues to play well, even at his advanced age, and it's likely the Giants will bring him back next year. But even if they don't, Yorvit Torrealba won't represent a big downgrade at the position.

That basically leaves left field, and one starter slot. Will the Giants have enough money to sign quality players for those positions? Yeah, they should. Would they be as good next season, without Bonds, as they've been this year? No, probably not.

See, Bonds gives the Giants a significant margin for error. Just as Rick Peterson's pitchers give the A's a significant margin for error, and George Steinbrenner's wallet gives the Yankees a significant margin for error. Without Bonds, the Giants' deficiencies in power and youth are going to show up.

Aside from Bonds, no Giant has hit even 20 home runs (granted, that's due partly to Pac Bell Park).

The Giants have a number of old players in key roles, and they don't have even one minor leaguer ready to step into the lineup. They do have a minor-league pitcher (the improbably named Boof Bonser) with major-league ability, but this season the Giants saw just how unreliable young pitchers can be, as just one of their three top prospects thrived in the majors.

Bottom line, the Giants should remain competitive next year even if Barry Bonds quits. But it's no sure thing, and Brian Sabean would have to scramble.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.