A lot to cover from this morning’s press conference, which was dominated by Brian Sabean. That was probably a good thing, since we hear Bruce Bochy talk to the assembled media twice a day, and Sabean only comes out of the woodwork like this once every few months or so. You might not agree with a lot of Brian Sabean’s moves or ideas, but you have to hand it to him for this: he says more in this type of Q&A format than most general managers. He provides clues, and there were a lot of them today (the stuff in bold was my emphasis, not necessarily Sabean’s).

1. By and large, Sabean’s pretty happy. Maybe not with how the season went, but how the players battled. 

One can tell when Sabean’s upset, and he seemed more interested in presenting the image of a team that’s in a positive place (which makes sense considering with Bill Neukom’s ouster the Giants don’t want to look like a team in turmoil). He spoke highly of the manager, coaching staff and players for giving their all for the entire season through some challenging circumstances.

“We’ve set the bar pretty high as to what our expectations are, which is how to conduct ourselves, our professionalism. And more so, this culture that we’ve created which when you come through the clubhouse door you’re ready to play. I can’t say enough about our veterans or how our young players responded, what the mantra is in there. And then the fans have been completely … off the wall, as far as the support. Including the last three games. And that’s the atmosphere these guys have created.”

2. Don’t expect the payroll to increase much, if at all.

“We’ve got 13 arbitration-eligible players. Conventional wisdom will tell you we’re not going to bring all of them back because of how we have to build a budget,” Sabean said. “We have eight free agents, and as a result of building a budget with what we can control and who you choose to arbitrate with or go further than that contractually and who you have under contract, you got to be selective with what you want to do in bringing your own guys back.”

“And then once you build that model, let’s say, with what you’re going to spend and specifically, with our pitching staff, then you decide. But that’s our first challenge, to identify who we go into the future with, which is immediately, for 2012, what that means against the budget. And then identify our target, what we need to do.”

“We have to have a specific budget because our relative payroll isn’t going to explode from year to year or go up with one significant acquisition,” Sabean said. Sabean didn’t come out and say it, but I think Henry Schulman’s right: the Giants aren’t going to go after Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

3. Sabean doesn’t know what ownership is willing to spend yet.

Has Sabean been alerted by ownership as to the budgetary constraints? “I have not, other than what Larry (Baer) spoke to publicly, but we know it’s not going down. It’s right around $124 (million)-plus as we ended the season.”

4. It’s still all about the pitching.

“The first model we have to build is how we keep this pitching intact,” said Sabean, who repeated some version of that phrase several times on Thursday morning. “And how many dollars that’s going to take against the budget.”

“Our pitching’s going to get expensive, that’s the punchline.”

5. Buster Posey is going to be eased back into catching.

“We did talk about our catching situation last night. We know that Buster’s going to catch but we can’t overtax him early. So you’re going to have to have a backup plan in terms of a backup, let’s say, not knowing how many games that backup might have to catch,” said Sabean.

I took that last part to mean that it wouldn’t be out of the realm to see the Giants go after a veteran catcher in free agency (like many said they should have done before the 2011 season). That is, unless the team really likes Chris Stewart, because there’s no way they’ll go back with Eli Whiteside (who was terrible) or Hector Sanchez, because…

5. Eric Surkamp, Justin Christian and Hector Sanchez are not considered ready or able to contribute next season. And you can probably wave goodbye to Andres Torres.

Both Sabean and Bochy agreed that Surkamp wasn’t ready yet to contribute at the Major League level, and Sabean referred to Christian as “a callup type of player” who isn’t being realistically considered as an option for the open leadoff spot that Sabean mentioned as a major hole to fill next season.

Don’t expect Torres back, either. “We don’t really have a center field alternative that we necessarily feel comfortable with,” Sabean said.

While Hector impressed the Giants with his ability, “I personally think he has to go back to the Minor Leagues,” Sabean said.

6. Barry Zito will be back.

“He’s under contract. He’ll be in Spring Training. It’s that simple,” Sabean said.

7. So may Jonathan Sanchez.

“Jonathan, as you know, we can control,” Sabean said. “We do know his value when he’s healthy and how he’s pitched at times for us. That’ll be a big decision. But I would say, and I don’t want to speak for the manager or the pitching coach, that our fifth starter situation might come down to the candidates in Spring Training. I personally don’t think Surkamp’s ready. And we know Zito’s had his personal trials and tribulations, especially this year from an injury standpoint. So Jonathan is a viable candidate.”

8. Next year is an important one for Nate Schierholtz, to put it mildly.

He’ll go into Spring Training as the team’s starting right fielder according to Bochy, who likes the way Schierholtz was “driving the ball” this year and his defensive ability. However, Bochy also mentioned Schierholtz’s “nagging injuries,” and as Grant Brisbee pointed out about the value Bochy’s vote of confidence, “Just like Bowker won it in ’10! Congrats, Nate!”

9. Brandon Crawford’s in the mix, to an extent.

Crawford’s name was mentioned voluntarily by both Sabean and Bochy on several occasions. “We have to make some decisions on what we think of Crawford specifically,” said Sabean.

“I thought he got better and better,” Bochy said. “I thought he handled himself very well, including the 0-for-4s. And that’s what you look for from a young player, how they’re going to deal with that. I thought Brandon (Belt) had a tougher time cause he’s had more success in the Minor Leagues but that not hitting thing really got to him a little more.”

10. Jeff Keppinger might cost too much (or may have played his way out of town).

Sabean said Keppinger may be a “luxury item at the price point,” thought of as a contingency plan in case Freddy Sanchez isn’t available. However, with the main focus apparently on keeping the pitching staff together and Keppinger looking less impressive as his time with the Giants wore on, he may not be back in 2012 even though he’s under team control (arbitration).

11. Aubrey Huff’s conditioning was called into question.

Huff, who more and more people have labeled as someone who “lives hard” (translation: he stays up late and possibly smokes and drinks more often than what would be expected from a professional athlete), was called out by both Sabean and Bochy for perhaps not working quite as hard as he could last winter.

“He got himself in a funk. And what went on might have been a residual effect of maybe not doing enough during the off-season. And he knows that,” Sabean said. “But it was a touchy thing to have to deal with. Now having said that, next year’s a different year. He’s going to have to come in ready. He’s going to have to come in and pull more weight. And if he can’t, as we’ve shown before, the manager’s hopefully going to be in the position to have other choices. And we’ll put other people in there if need be.”

“He’s got to come in ready, and he’s expected to get back to the form he was before,” Bochy said. “He’s going to get back to what he did the year before. Same workout routine, trainer. Whether he dropped the ball last year and didn’t work out enough over the winter, he’s looking at all those things. The thing that’s important with Aubrey right now: he accepted full accountability for what happened to him this year and maybe not working as hard.”

Which begs the question: how can an athlete who’s set to make $22 million over the next two seasons not work hard during the off-season? The way Huff coasted after winning a World Series seems to be part of his overall makeup, which along with these comments yesterday show why it might not be a coincidence that he was always a part of losing teams before coming to the Giants:

Translation: Waaaahhhh, we had to deal with so much stuff other than playing baseball and depositing paychecks! Winning the World Series is a pain in the ass!!!

12. BREAKING STORY: Sabean likes veteran players.

“I will say this, whether you’re the manager or how you deal with a veteran player that’s struggled, I don’t believe that you should turn your back on somebody when all the sudden, somebody that’s got a track record of hitting, say that he can’t hit or won’t hit,” Sabean said while answering a question on Huff.

“If we really thought that we had a better alternative earlier, we might have made an adjustment and kind of give him less playing time. But we were hoping that he’d come out of it. And that’s got really nothing to do with his salary. I mean, if you look at his baseball card, before last year this guy’s been a run producer.”

13. Jeremy Affeldt will be back.

“I expect him to be in uniform next year,” Sabean said. Nothing was said about Javier Lopez, but one has to assume it’ll be tough to keep Affeldt around and retain Lopez, especially since the soon-to-be free agent LOOGY seemed to fall out of favor at the end of the year.

14. Pablo Sandoval impressed Sabean, but…

After talking about how well Sandoval performed this season, both overall and in coming back from a significant injury, Sabean expressed his feelings that Sandoval didn’t need to play winter ball, but he’d be open to the possibility of Sandoval doing so in his native Venezuela — as long as he kept his conditioning up.

15. About what you’d expect on Carlos Beltran.

Scott Boras is going to take his time finding the right suitor for Beltran, and while he supposedly enjoyed his time here according to Sabean, they don’t know if they can realistically expect him to come back.

Even with the Giants dealing with so many arb-eligible guys and a pitching staff that will only get costlier, they’ll dip into the free agent market. But instead of Pujols/Fielder/Reyes/Beltran, I’d expect the free agent list to look like this in terms of probable targets:

1. Jimmy Rollins
2. Coco Crisp
3. Michael Cuddyer
4. Backup catcher (Barajas/Blanco types)
5. Whoever else is left at a relatively cheap price point (like Cody Ross perhaps, who Sabean noted today can play all three OF positions)