Commentary

Will Giants decide to finally get younger in '08?

Originally Published: August 30, 2007
By John Shea | Special to ESPN.com

Barry Bonds is not going to retire. He's said it many times. He's 43. He has Hank Aaron's home run record. But he's not going away. He's said he wants to play in 2008, again in front of the supportive mobs in San Francisco.

Whether the Giants allow it to happen for another year is a story that'll play out shortly after this season. It seems doubtful management would let it drag on through the winter, like last year, and hamstring general manager Brian Sabean's attempt to upgrade a blemished roster.

Whether Bonds returns or is cut loose, the Giants are saying they need to go in a newer, younger direction.

Brian Wilson
Brad Mangin/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesBrian Wilson could become the Giants' full-time closer next season.
Giants fans heard this all before at the end of last season, only to watch the front office continue to sign old players who have done little but help deliver a third straight losing season.

Now the call for change is soaring among a fan base that longs for a bona fide contender, which the Giants were for eight straight years through 2004. The home run chase is over, and co-owner Peter Magowan said he wouldn't re-sign Bonds just to let him reach 3,000 hits (he needs 72) in a Giants uniform.

So with or without Bonds, if the Giants are sincere about giving young position players a chance, which would buck recent tradition, they've got a couple of in-house candidates who are worthy of an extended look: outfielder Rajai Davis and converted first baseman Dan Ortmeier.

They also have reliever Brian Wilson, who has a chance to be the Giants' closer next year.

"I'm beyond excited," Davis said. "I'm just looking forward to what lies ahead to next season."

The Giants haven't drafted and developed an everyday position player in more than a decade, since Bill Mueller emerged in 1996 and became a regular in 1997. It's a horrible track record, but the organization preferred drafting pitchers and trading them for established big leaguers.

In recent years, the Giants finally began relying on their drafted pitchers, and the results are seen on the current staff with starters Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Noah Lowry and closer Brad Hennessey.

Lincecum, with his tiny frame and lethal fastball, was a jolt to the franchise when he was promoted from Triple-A Fresno amid nationwide criticism directed at Bonds and the Giants during the pursuit of Aaron.

Likewise, Davis caught fans' attention with his speed, hustle and Willie Mays-like catches in Atlanta, where he stole an Andruw Jones homer to end a game, and Pittsburgh. He's not homegrown, but he was a welcome addition to an elderly lineup.

Davis, 26, was acquired on July 31 in the trade that sent Matt Morris to the Pirates. He hit .364 with nine steals and 12 runs scored in his first 18 games as a Giant. He also showed a youthful exuberance not usually noticeable from this station-to-station outfit that generally is among the slowest in the majors.

"I think fans are very excited, as I am, about me being out in the field, making plays, being aggressive and helping the ballclub win," said Davis, who stole 185 bases in his last four seasons in the minors. "It's been a pleasure, and I'm looking forward to getting better and helping the organization improve."

Davis eventually cooled, going 2-for-22 from Aug. 19 until collecting two hits and scoring twice in Tuesday's 3-1 win over Colorado. He was a 38th-round pick and was traded by the Pirates in his sixth pro season, so he needs to show a lot more before he wins a starting job in 2008, though manager Bruce Bochy said it's possible.

"I think it's fair to say the way he's playing that he could earn the center fielder's job," Bochy said. "He's done everything we've asked. Good defense, getting on base, stealing."

The problem for Davis is outfielders Dave Roberts and Randy Winn remain under contract through next year. Of course, Bonds could return. Sabean, who received a two-year extension in July, could shake things up to clear a spot for Davis -- or not. The Giants hardly ever open a season with a young player in the lineup.

Maybe it's time for a change. Davis and Ortmeier wouldn't mind.

Ortmeier came up as an outfielder but is learning in the big leagues how to play first base, a position that has been there for the taking since J.T. Snow retired in 2005.

The evaluation process is ongoing. Now we're getting toward the end of the season, and we're going to have to make decisions. It's important for these kids to get playing time and show what they can
do.

-- Giants manager Bruce Bochy

A 6-foot-4 switch-hitter with exceptional speed for a big man, Ortmeier will need to compile big numbers in September to get a long look next year because his stats as a run producer aren't overwhelming for a first baseman.

The Giants have discussed sending Davis, who needs work hitting a breaking ball, and Ortmeier, who needs work defensively, to winter or fall ball. Second baseman Kevin Frandsen, 25, is also in the mix as the Giants contemplate the post-Bonds era, though struggling starter Ray Durham has another year on his contract.

Wilson, on the other hand, seems ready now. Hennessey currently is the closer, having converted 13 straight save chances, the most by a Giant since Rod Beck in 1997, but management talks about Wilson -- more of a strikeout pitcher (he throws his fastball in the high 90s) than Hennessey -- becoming the closer next year.

For now, Wilson, 25, is the set-up man and has 10 scoreless appearances since his Aug. 11 recall from Fresno, where 14 of his final 15 outings were scoreless.

"Being a closer is my dream," Wilson said. "I like when the game's on the line. I like going in in that situation. You have to acquire the taste for it. By closing the last two years in the minor leagues, it's something I feel very comfortable doing. But being the set-up man is comparable to being the closer. I'm doing that right now, and it's awesome."

In spring training, Wilson was a candidate to make the Opening Day roster, but only if Armando Benitez was traded. Benitez, however, had a solid spring and stayed. Wilson struggled and was optioned to Fresno. Benitez eventually bombed and was dealt to Florida, opening the door for Hennessey and possibly Wilson.

Davis and Ortmeier, meanwhile, are looking to win jobs, whether or not Bonds will be a Giant in 2008.

"The evaluation process is ongoing," Bochy said. "Now we're getting toward the end of the season, and we're going to have to make decisions. It's important for these kids to get playing time and show what they can do."

John Shea is the national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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