Jonah Freedman
Friday August 7th, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- If you haven't poked around the San Francisco Giants clubhouse at AT&T Park recently, a lot of things might surprise you. For one, the music over the stereo system is played at high volume. You're likely to be greeted by the Black Eyed Peas' Boom Boom Pow turned up to 11.

You might see the Latin core of the team hooting and hollering as closer Brian Wilson's Miniature Pinscher excitedly sprints around the clubhouse to greet newcomers. "Careful," jokes utility infielder Juan Uribe, "he bites."

You might see Wilson giving a handheld video-camera interview to Barry Zito, who apparently has turned to vlogging since shutting down his Twitter account. "Quick," Wilson asks a reporter, at a loss to answer Zito's query, "What's your favorite candy bar?"

"Uh, 100 Grand?" answers the reporter.

"Ooh, 100 Grand," drools Tim Lincecum from the opposite corner. "I totally forgot about those."

It's the kind of banter and frat-boy camaraderie you might find at, well, a frat house. That's not a surprise considering that, for the first time in years, the Giants are leaning heavily on homegrown youth. The roster's average age is 29.3 years, the lowest it has been in 12 years.

"Everybody seems to get along," says Lincecum. "That probably has a lot to do with the fact that we're playing better -- we have better chemistry."

The Giants are on pace for 90 wins, their highest total -- and first winning season -- since 2004. If the season ended today, they'd be the National League wild card and would face the defending World Series champion Phillies in the NLDS. Going young doesn't necessarily translate into wins, but in this case, it's a sign of something more encouraging: San Francisco has turned a big, big corner.

In case you've forgotten -- and really, who can blame you -- the Giants are two years removed from one of their worst finishes of the past 20 years. It was a historic season to be sure: Barry Bonds moon-shot his name into the record book, asterisk and all, as the all-time home run king. But San Francisco also finished dead last in the NL West with a 71-91 record, and a doddering lineup of veterans whom GM Brian Sabean collected in a desperate attempt to build a winner around a 43-year-old Bonds.

But more so, it was Sabean's sense of urgency that put the future on indefinite hold. The Giants' farm system had been largely ignored or dealt away for several years in order to surround Bonds with complementary veterans such as Ray Durham, Omar Vizquel, Ryan Klesko, Kenny Lofton, Benito Santiago and Marquis Grissom, all of whom were on the wrong side of 35 when they wore Giants uniforms.

Since the '04 season, the Giants have paid for those sins. The team compiled a combined 294-353 record over the following four years, stretching fans' patience to no end. But when Bonds left the team after '07, his vise grip on the organization began to fade. With not much further to fall, the team quietly made plans to rebuild for the future through the draft. In the meantime, the few prospects who did survive the geriatric generation were able to develop in key positions without pressure to contribute immediately.

That's why young aces Lincecum (a defending Cy Young winner at age 25) and Matt Cain (a serious Cy Young contender at 24) are fronting the best pitching staff in the majors. It's why 27-year-old Wilson is in the top five in the National League in saves with 27. All three made their debuts during the dark years and were given the time and space to make good on their promise.

"Guys that have come up in the past few years, we've taken our bumps and bruises," says Cain, "Now everyone's playing together and having fun. We're showing that we can play like we've been wanting to play [during] the past couple years."

There are more pieces of the youth puzzle in place, too. Highly touted third baseman Pablo Sandoval, just days away from his 23rd birthday, is smashing the stuffing out of the ball, hitting .334 (second best in the NL) with 17 homers and 67 RBIs in his first full year in the majors. And the Giants have seen flashes of brilliance -- however inconsistent -- from a slew of former draftees, including right fielder Nate Schierholtz (25), Mr. No-Hitter Jonathan Sanchez (26) and setup man Sergio Romo (26).

Even more have been yo-yoing between the majors and Triple-A Fresno, including pitcher Ryan Sadowski, utility man John Bowker and infielders Eugenio Velez, Emmanuel Burriss and Kevin Frandsen. Further down on the farm are guys like Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Angel Villalona, Brandon Crawford and Conor Gillaspie, highly rated prospects whose names alone (probably more so than the actual players themselves) make Giants fans salivate like they're in line for garlic fries.

The change in organization attitude is finally making some of the veterans enjoy the game again, too. "It's a lot more fun in here," says veteran right fielder Randy Winn, who joined in '05, the year San Fran began its plunge into the lower half of the NL West standings. "You play to win, you play to go to the playoffs. Right now, we have that. But it's still a long way to go."

And the changeover is still taking place. Despite the litany of kids in every corner of the clubhouse, there are still aging veterans in prominent roles who hint at the Sabean strategy of old, including Winn (35), shortstop Edgar Renteria (34), catcher Bengie Molina (35), utility infielder Rich Aurilia (37) and, yes, even 45-year-old Randy Johnson, who may not pitch again this season after suffering a partial tear in his rotator cuff. And truth be told, Sabean is still being Sabean in some areas: He gave up two highly rated prospects -- pitchers Tim Alderson and Scott Barnes -- to add veteran bats Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko at the trade deadline last month

But in a way, that also exemplifies the transitional year the Giants are experiencing: trying to bury the recent past while rebuilding themselves into a perennial contender stocked with talented, exciting youngsters. And many of those kids need the time to mature. As Lincecum puts it, "Just because we have this youth movement doesn't mean we're taking over [the veterans'] roles as leaders."

Despite the incredible pitching performances the Giants are putting on display, they're weighed down by two major issues: inexperience and a punchless offense (their .310 on-base percentage is the worst in the majors). Manager Bruce Bochy is hoping the acquisitions of Garko and Sanchez will help in both categories, as those are the types of inadequacies that will derail a push for the playoffs and may well see San Francisco fade down the stretch.

But there's no question a ray of light has cut through the gloomy fog that has sat over AT&T Park for the past few years. If everyone lives up to their potential, it's very likely the Giants have themselves an entire generation of players who can turn them back into a perpetual winner.

"We have some of the pieces in place to compete for a long time," says Winn.

The future is bright, the ghosts of Bonds are being put to bed and the kids are being handed the keys. Boom Boom Pow.

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