Dickey: Giants failing at halfway approach

The Giants are trapped halfway between opposite ends, rebuilding with younger players or trying to put together a contending team. They’ve done neither of them well this year.

Spring training is usually a time for optimism. When the Giants opened camp, there was much talk about how harmonious the Giants’ clubhouse would be without Barry Bonds, how they had a collection of “gamers” who would keep hustling. It sounded like a tryout for a high school team.

But since then, reality has sunk in. Even the usually upbeat manager, Bruce Bochy, has admitted that the hitting isn’t there, though hitters usually excel in the spring.

The starting pitching, expected to be the centerpiece for the team, has also taken a hit. Noah Lowry has an arm problem that has never happened before in baseball, so his return from surgery is uncertain. Barry Zito has been rocked in a couple of outings. Of course, Zito gives it the “What, me worry?” approach, but the fact is he’s on a downhill slope. Zito hasn’t been a top-tier pitcher since umpires stopped calling his 12-to-6 curveball a strike. Hitters lay off that pitch and sit on his 83-84 mph fastball.

But Giants management didn’t accurately assess Zito before they gave him that outlandish contract last year and they still don’t understand what’s happening. When I talked to Giants owner Peter Magowan last month, he was confident that Zito would “bounce back” from his disappointing 2007 season. Not likely.

The Giants have two young pitchers (Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum) who are potentially great, but even they need runs, as Cain can certainly attest. They won’t get many from this lineup.

The Giants have been linked with two third basemen, Joe Crede of the Chicago White Sox and Brandon Inge of the Detroit Tigers. Either would upgrade the offense, but not enough for the Giants to be contenders and they certainly won’t be around when — or if — the Giants get good again.

And they’re both symbols of the Giants’ main problem: They keep trying to patch up their lineup instead of replacing it.

In the offseason, for instance, they signed free-agent center fielder Aaron Rowand, a good player who is coming off his best offensive year — because he was playing in a powerful lineup where he was an afterthought for opposing pitchers and playing half his games in Philly’s bandbox park. He won’t come close to his 2007 numbers playing in a weak Giants lineup with home games at AT&T Park.

Worse, his signing was another setback for the Giants’ young outfielders. Nate Schierholtz is potentially a good hitter on this level, Rajai Davis and Fred Lewis are superb outfielders and excellent base stealers. But with Randy Winn set in right field and Dave Roberts — another marginal player for whom the Giants overpaid — probably the starter in left, the young outfielders won’t get much chance to either show what they can do or develop.

There is a faint ray of hope for the Giants: They changed their approach to the 2007 draft. Five of their six first-round picks were high school players and four of the six were position players. The consensus is that they were good picks.

Now, the Giants have to improve their minor-league coaching and give these players a legitimate shot when they get to the majors. This halfway approach isn’t working.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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