Ron Agostini

Giants will beat A's in race to bottom

This week's sunshine caused the mind to wander ahead to spring and baseball and the idea of a season without Barry Bonds.

This could be heavenly.

There will be no Bonds or his recliner or his snarl or his cloud that always hovered over him and, as it turned out, his troubled team. The Giants finally cut ties with the game's greatest slugger after wringing the last red cent from his notorious presence. He's gone and the Giants are selling hard-working anonymous guys rallying around good starting pitching.

Maybe not so heavenly, after all.

It would be encouraging to at least see baseball return again to the Bay Area. I don't count the A's and Giants' combining for a 147-177 record in 2007 as a bona fide season. All I remember was Armando Benitez blowing up the Giants by himself and about half the A's roster locked away on the disabled list.

As pitchers and catchers report this week, I'm supposed to wax optimistic about the upcoming season. It's the American way with the national pastime, you know. Everyone is 0-0, even the bottom-feeders think big during spring training, the birds are chirping, etc.

But how can you paint happy colors with this bunch? The A's have missed the playoffs three of the last four years. The Giants haven't thrown a pitch in the postseason since 2003 and they've strung together three straight losing seasons. When 2007 ended, they sat alone in the NL West cellar.

So let's put forth a better question for the times: Which team will be worse this year?

I believe the Giants are the better answer because they've embarked on an entirely new path, while the A's are acting like the A's and appear more comfortable in their skin.

Let me explain.

Billy Beane, the keeper of all things A's, once again is reinventing his team. He's good at it. Though he's absorbed layers of criticism for dealing away the heart of the lineup -- Dan Haren, Nick Swisher and Mark Kotsay -- for pitching and young prospects, he also was aware of two painful truths: 1. The A's formerly potent farm system had slipped, and 2. The A's future wasn't rosy with their existing roster.

The conventional wisdom insists the A's have given up on the season and are planning ahead for better days, perhaps in a new ballyard in Fremont in three or four years. Fact is, nothing is conventional about the way Beane conducts business. He envisions the team rallying around Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby and Rich Harden -- medic alert, please -- while the rest of the roster performs better than expected.

Before you finish laughing, remember: Beane traded Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson and jettisoned Jason Giambi, Barry Zito and Miguel Tejada to free agency, and the A's still buzzed forward with more success than failure since 2000. Beane has fooled us more than once. He's earned a pass on his latest rehab.

Meanwhile, the Giants are taking a different road. Good luck.

General Manager Brian Sabean for many years used short-term solutions (read: acquired veteran talent) to fill in the gaps around Bonds. The Giants nearly won a World Series, but they also looked like your basic slowpitch team at times. They often were old, slow and, aside from the occasional thrill from Bonds, not exciting.

To their credit, the Giants have switched courses and will lean on pitching, defense and a new emphasis on youth. One problem: The Giants own no proven record on developing such a lineup. The idea of marketing scrappy, game-hardened players post-Bonds is nice, but it will depend on the quality of the players.

Put it another way: Do you actually think Dan Ortmeier, Brian Wilson, Kevin Frandsen and Aaron Rowand will carry this team to greatness? No offense, but I preferred Jeff Kent, Benito Santiago, Ellis Burks and J.T. Snow.

So far, Sabean has refused to trade their talented young pitchers for more potent bats. Methinks he still might pull the string if he hears the right names attached to either Noah Lowry or even Tim Lincecum.

As it stands, Matt Cain, Lincecum and Zito possess almost no margin for error. They must throw zeros because it's doubtful the Giants will score more than four runs a game. There is long-term danger here. The Giants are trifling with the confidence of their gifted pitchers if they lead them into another season's worth of 2-1 losses.

So there it is: The Giants will beat the A's to the bottom because they have less ground to cover. If the absence of Bonds serves as a counterbalance, so be it.

Maybe that's all we can offer for 2008.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-3202.

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