Young players give Giants reason to hope

The Giants have had four straight losing seasons and haven't made the playoffs since 2003, but reasons for optimism have emerged. For the first time since the arrivals of Will Clark and Robby Thompson in the late 1980s, the Giants are relying on a youth movement. Two of the new names are corner infielder Pablo Sandoval (a .345 batting average in 145 at-bats in 2008) and middle infielder Emmanuel Burriss (.283 in 240 at-bats).

This past season was the first since 1992 that Barry Bonds wasn't on the roster, and Fred Lewis had 21 steals and 11 triples as his replacement in left field.

Primary needs

GM Brian Sabean will try to acquire a middle-of-the-order hitter and upgrade the bullpen this offseason. The Giants were last in the majors in homers in 2008 and don't want to spend another season with Bengie Molina as the cleanup hitter.

The bullpen will be different next season after the Giants severed ties with setup man Tyler Walker and swingmen Brad Hennessey and Kevin Correia. The only secure job is closer Brian Wilson's.


Free agents

SS Omar Vizquel, INF Rich Aurilia

The Giants won't welcome back Vizquel, 41 -- "zero chance," Sabean said -- but Aurilia, 36, is a possibility if it's a match late in the offseason. Vizquel remains an above-average defender but is an offensive liability. Aurilia was a valuable presence in 2008, hitting .283 and filling in at first and third when younger Giants seemed overmatched.

Trade bait

If Sabean doesn't find a power hitter in free agency, he'll need to make a deal. He has young pitching to dangle and, from the current rotation, is more willing to move lefty Jonathan Sanchez than righty Matt Cain. He also could shop right fielder Randy Winn and Molina, each of whom has one year remaining on his contract.

Farm aid

Madison Bumgarner, one year out of high school, might have been the most impressive pitcher in the minors in 2008, going 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA and 164 strikeouts in 141 2/3 innings for Class A Augusta. Another 2007 first-rounder, Tim Alderson, was 13-4 with a 2.79 ERA for Class A San Jose.

The Giants, whose farm system has strengthened considerably the past two years, also have hitters: catcher Buster Posey (fifth overall pick in 2008), third baseman Conor Gillaspie (the first player from this year's draft to reach the majors) and first baseman Angel Villalona (who was signed out of the Dominican two years ago at age 16 and hit 17 homers this past season at Augusta).


Peter Magowan stepped down after serving as managing general partner for 16 years and was replaced by Bill Neukom, the former leading lawyer at Microsoft, who's talking about the "Giants' way" of doing things. If he doesn't like what he sees, Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy could be in jeopardy -- they are entering the final years of their contracts.

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