Dickey: Magowan left before Giants bottomed out

Peter Magowan saw this coming.

When Magowan announced he would resign as managing general partner of the Giants after this season, there was speculation about his motives. My guess: He saw lean years looming, both on the field and at the box office, with no guarantee of future success.

The Giants did everything right before they moved into their new park in China Basin, taking some financial hits in their final years at Candlestick to put together a strong team coming into the park, built around the game’s best player and biggest draw, Barry Bonds.

That plan worked very well the first five years, as they won at least 91 games — with a high of 100 — in that stretch. They came very close to winning what would have been the first World Series championship for the San Francisco Giants in 2002.

Record-setting attendances followed, with well over 3 million paying fans per season.

But the bloom is off the rose now. The Giants are headed for their fourth straight losing season, projecting right now to finish near last year’s mark of 71-91. Because their division is the weakest in baseball, more than 40 games under .500 collectively, the Giants have looked better than they are. But the reality is that only four major-league teams have worse records and 25 have better. Crowds already are lower than before and attendance will dip even lower.

Meanwhile, Barry Zito’s contract will be a drag on the Giants’ payroll. Bonds was worth every cent he got, even last year, when he brought excitement to what was otherwise a very drab season. Zito isn’t worth one-tenth of what he’s getting and there’s no way the Giants can trade him.

The dipping attendance and Zito’s contract means that the Giants can’t afford their previous strategy of signing expensive free agents. They will have to build through their farm system, as the divison-leading Arizona Diamondbacks have done and as Colorado did when the Rockies got to the World Series last fall.

Reluctantly, the Giants have realized that, using several younger players this year. Fred Lewis has played well, John Bowker looks like a keeper, Brian Horwitz has looked good in his short time up, Emmanuel Burriss has been sharp defensively (both at shortstop and second) and hit well. The Giants sent Nate Schierholtz to Fresno to play every day; after 71 games, he’s hitting .297 with 11 homers and 48 RBIs.

The Giants had what appears to be a very good draft this month, and their top pick, catcher Buster Posey, looks to be as close to a sure thing as you can get.

Next year, the Giants should cut their ties to Ray Durham and Rich Aurilia to give more playing time to young players. I hope they’ll trade Randy Winn, a good player but not one who should be in their future plans, to make room for Schierholtz or Horwitz to be a regular.

It’s a difficult path for the Giants because it will probably be 2010 before they can reasonably expect to field a contender. It’s easy to see why Magowan, at 68, didn’t want to stick around. But if they stick to this plan, with their young pitching, they could have a team that will be young enough to compete for some time — and the fans will quickly return.

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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