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Giants counting on their pitching mix

Bauman: Giants count on pitching

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Once you get beyond the notion that Barry Bonds dominates the landscape, the San Francisco Giants become much more like the other 29 baseball operations: The performance of their pitchers will be the single largest factor in determining the direction of their season.

The Giants will be trying to succeed with a delicate blend of promising young pitchers and veteran pitchers who are trying to regain their best form. This is far from a hapless situation, but it is also not a push-button situation.

The one expensive exception to this pattern is Barry Zito, coming on board with the largest pitching contract in recorded history, $126 million over seven years. The overall trend line of Zito's career suggests overpayment, but his track record of indisputable durability, in an era of persistent pitching shortages, could fairly be classified as invaluable.

Beyond that, among the starters, Matt Morris had the worst season of his career in 2006, but he was pitching with broken ribs in the second half of the season.

Russ Ortiz, a possible fifth starter, is an even larger reclamation project. Ortiz was 5-19 over the last two seasons, including 0-8 with an 8.14 earned run average last year. But the Giants like the way he is throwing the ball this spring, and his previous success with this organization creates something of a comfort zone.

On the younger side of it, lefty Noah Lowry, 26, had injury issues himself in 2006, but he has already established his Major League worth. Matt Cain, 22, was a rookie last season, but led the Giants in victories last season with 13, threw a one-hitter and generally demonstrated vast promise. He is a power pitcher, who could fairly be expected to mature into nothing less than a top-of-the-rotation mainstay.

Cain threw four innings with intermittent success against the Colorado Rockies on Friday, giving up two earned runs on five hits, walking one, striking out two. He was not throwing badly, but he was frustrated with a high pitch count of 73. Cain demonstrated a clear understanding of where the next step needs to be taken for him.

"You look at guys like [Curt] Schilling, and [Roger] Clemens, and Nolan Ryan, those big guys who have always been power pitchers, they went deep into games," Cain said. "You see them keep their pitch count down. You see them throwing quality strikes, getting guys to put the ball into play early, and then again, when they've got guys 0-2 or 1-2, they put them away. That's what I'm still wanting to work with.

"I felt like I threw a lot of strikes today [47], I got to pitch in a lot of situations. But the frustrating part is, the very first thing, I get [Willy] Taveras 0-2 and then hit him in the back with a curveball. And then I get [Yorvit] Torrealba 0-2 and give him a fastball right down the middle."

Cain will be one of the best reasons the Giants have for optimism. If Zito is nothing less than he has been, if Cain and Lowry continue to make strides, if Morris and Ortiz return to form, this could be a highly capable rotation and more. If somebody falters, the Giants have Jonathan Sanchez, 24, who will likely begin the season in the bullpen. Tim Lincecum, 22, San Francisco's 2006 first-round draft choice, rated by Baseball America as the Giants' top prospect, will likely start the season in Triple-A, but his eventual presence in this rotation appears to be a question of when, not if.

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The late-innings bullpen roles contain the same sort of mix as the rotation, a veteran coming off a bad season and a promising young pitcher. Armando Benitez is the incumbent closer, but he is coming off a tumultuous, injury-filled, unsuccessful campaign. Brian Wilson, 25, might be a suitable in-house replacement.

"Wilson's got good stuff and he's got a great makeup about him," manager Bruce Bochy says.

But Bochy indicated Friday that Benitez is still his closer.

"This is a new year, a new slate for him," Bochy said. "He feels good, he's healthy, he's on track now."

Benitez on Friday pitched just his third inning of the spring, although he has yet to give up a run. It is his contention that he basically pitched at times last season on one leg.

"I tried to do my best," he said. "It's different now. I'm ready, ready to go -- physically, mentally, everywhere, ready to rumble."

The Giants have to hope that the entire pitching staff not only feels that way, but performs that way. This season, there may be even more attention than ever paid to Bonds, who, if healthy, seems inevitably headed toward breaking Henry Aaron's home run record. But the core question for this team, whether it can come back from a 76-85 record to the status of contender, will revolve around its pitching staff.

This will require further progress from young pitchers, which may be the most reasonable expectation of the bunch. It will also require bounce-back seasons from veterans. And it will require stabilization of the late-innings situation in the bullpen. Having all of this to occur seems like a lot to ask. But the Giants can at least reasonably believe that it is not asking the impossible.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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