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Hot stove forecast: Champion Giants still need to boost offense

2010 Results: 92-70, NL West champs, won World Series

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 697/583

Pythagorean Record: 94-68

Pending Free Agents: 1B Aubrey Huff, IF Juan Uribe, LF Pat Burrell, RF Jose Guillen, RP Jeremy Affeldt, RP Guillermo Mota

Players with Options: SS Edgar Renteria ($10.5/0.5M club)

Prospects on the Verge: 1B Brandon Belt, RP Joe Paterson

Building For: Turning a surprising world champion into a perennial contender.

Strengths: Pitching

Biggest Holes: shortstop, first base

Targets: Huff, Uribe

First, the obvious: The Giants don't have to worry about pitching. Their 2011 rotation is already locked in with righties Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and lefties Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito. Their bullpen is deep and talented. Home-grown lefties Dan Runzler and Joe Paterson can take over for free agent lefty Jeremy Affeldt, who should be allowed to depart along with 37-year-old Guillermo Mota. That should allow the team to focus exclusively on building a better offense around sophomore catching stud Buster Posey, who should settle in as the team's No. 3 hitter. Unfortunately, because of a pair of albatross contracts handed out to Zito and center fielder Aaron Rowand after the 2006 and 2007 seasons, the Giants don't have the payroll flexibility required to make any meaningful upgrades to their lineup.

The Giants' 2010 payroll was roughly $96 million. Team president and CEO Larry Baer said that figure could increase in 2011, but likely by less than $10 million. They already have about $77 million committed to eight players for 2010 including Zito ($18.5 million) and Rowand ($13 million) as well as roughly $10 million in raises due to Lincecum, Cain and closer Brian Wilson, who at least deserve what they have coming to them. That doesn't include arbitration increases due to second baseman Freddy Sanchez, outfielders Cody Ross and Andres Torres, left-handed reliever Javier Lopez, righty reliever Ramon S. Ramirez, and infielder Mike Fontenot, all of whom will be making seven figures in 2011 save perhaps Fontenot, who is the only of those six likely to be non-tendered. Factor in the raises coming to the other five arb-eligible Giants plus mere league minimum salaries for the rest of the roster, and the Giants are already up around their 2010 payroll despite shedding more than $20 million dollars with Huff and company becoming free agents.

Assuming the Giants have to work on a budget, then, they have no other choice than to roll the dice with their in-house options. That means 36-year-old Mark DeRosa in left field coming off a season that ended in early May when he ruptured a tendon sheath in his left wrist; journeyman Torres in center, hoping to repeat his breakout season at the age of 33, with Rowand as his caddy against left-handed pitching; and Ross in right despite a bat that can't really carry the position (though the same was true of DeRosa in left even before the wrist injury). Pablo Sandoval will be returning to third base full-time in the hope of rediscovering his 2009 form at the plate (.330, 25 homers, 90 RBIs) and declining the $10.5 million option of World Series MVP Edgar Renteria would have been a fairly obvious decision for any club, though, given their budget restraints, it's a certainty for the Giants. With Sanchez at second and Posey behind the plate, that leaves the Giants with two open positions that need to be filled as effectively and economically as possible: shortstop and first base.

At shortstop, the Giants could do worse than a repeat engagement with Uribe, who won't get on base very often, but offers solid defense, power at the plate, and who made just $3.25 million in 2010. No matter who plays there, the Giants will need to get an offensive boost from whoever winds up at first base. The Giants not only need someone to play first, they need someone who can hit cleanup behind Posey, or, in the best-case scenario of a full Sandoval rebound, combine with Posey and Sandoval to form a formidable heart of the order. They could also use a lefty in that spot given that Posey, Ross, DeRosa, and Sanchez are all righties, as is Uribe. Lacking the payroll flexibility to go big after Adam Dunn, that likely means a repeat engagement for Huff, who made just $3 million in 2010 but will demand more coming off a strong season and a world championship.

Though Huff has been inconsistent throughout his career and was awful in 2009, two of his best seasons have been 2008 and 2010. He hit .297/.372/.530 in those two seasons combined while averaging 29 homers and 97 RBIs and played solid defense at first and in the outfield corners for the Giants this year. That Huff is also viable in the outfield adds to Bruce Bochy's ability to move his fielders around to produce the best-fit lineup for a given game. DeRosa, Sanchez, Sandoval, and, if he returns, Uribe, all have extensive experience at multiple positions, and Ross, Torres, and Rowand can play center. That gives the Giants the ability to replace a slumping or injured player with the best available minor league, waiver wire, or trade-deadline talent, almost regardless of position.

In 2011, that best available minor leaguer just might be first baseman Brandon Belt, a fifth-round pick in 2009 who hit .352/.455/.620 with 23 homers and 112 RBIs across three levels in 2010, his first professional season. The aptly named Belt finished his season by hitting four homers in 13 Triple-A games and is currently keeping his bat hot in the Arizona Fall League. It may be too early for the Giants to make this call, but if they see Belt as a long-term solution at first base, they may need to keep the length of Huff's deal to a minimum, though Huff could move to the outfield in 2012 to replace DeRosa or Ross, both of whom will be free agents after 2011. Behind Belt, however, the Giants' farm system, having just produced Posey and Bumgarner, is now largely barren at the upper levels.

That's not a particularly inspiring plan, but the 2010 Giants proved that with some careful massaging of their lineup and a flat-out dominating pitching staff, they can contend in the underwhelming NL West. The Rockies were overrated going into this season. The Padres were a fluke. The Dodgers are in limbo. The Diamondbacks are (still) rebuilding. The Giants, meanwhile, are incredibly dangerous if they can scratch their way back into the playoffs, which they just might be able to do even without any major upgrades. They can expect more out of Posey in his sophomore season, and Sandoval might just return start hitting again. Still, the Giants would probably prefer to have the $30.5 million being frittered away on Zito and Rowand next year to spend on some meaningful upgrades at the plate.