Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

Sabean's Gamble; A Realistic Look at the Giants' Prospects by Ed Stern

Marty; The season is a bare two weeks from opening day. The free agent frenzy has quieted down. Teams have made their moves, huge sums of money, when available, have been committed. Whether the money has been wisely spent remains to be seen. The Giants have been among the free spenders. Predicting the wisdom of their moves is a hazardous venture. Nevertheless, one might get some small credit for making the attempt.

The Giants have provided an on-going drama for the past five or six years. They have won division titles, been to the playoffs consistently, and, in 2002, came hearbreakenly close to winning it all. This was done while fielding a team of average talent, playing alongside the incomparable Barry Bonds, arguably the greatest hitter the game has known.

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Bonds turns 41 this season. It is not necessary to recite his on-base percentage or his slugging average last year. They have seldom been equaled in the game’s long history. Bonds has been carrying this club on his aging back for more years than Sabean would appreciate being reminded of. It should be past time, in Sabean’s mind, to provide Bonds with that which he deserves, a team which wins the division, the title and the World Series.

In order to accomplish this, he cannot look to a farm system to provide the young, up and coming, position players needed to support his left fielder. One may question whether the Giants policy of refusing to pay for risky high draft choices, which, in turn, leaves their farm system bereft of position players with major league potential, is a smart one. Wise or not, this left Sabean, at the end of 2004 with a team sadly in need of retooling.

Sabean needs to win it all now. He needs to win it while Bonds can still drag his admittedly aching body out to left field for at least 135 or 140 games. Frequently overlooked, although Barry tries to call it to everyone’s attention regularly, particularly as the season draws to a close, is the fact that Bonds keeps getting on base. Two hundred and thirty two walks last year had him running around on first base while lesser lights were enjoying the comfort of the dugout.

There isn’t much time left. Only a very brave man, or a foolhardy one, would assume that Barry will continue hitting, at the pace of his past three years, into the indefinite and uncertain future. At the end of the 2004 season Barry was hurting and making no bones about it. Sabean’s bravery is unknown but we do know that he isn’t foolhardy. Armed with a respectable sum of money. he very early went into the free agent market. He identified the team’s weaknesses, it not needing a rocket scientist to figure that out.

He needed a right fielder who could hit behind Bonds, a shortstop who could cover some ground and a closer who could get a few batters out in the ninth. Pierzynski was not going to be offered a new contract, making the need for a first string catcher apparent.

Four major acquisitions took place. Alou in right field, Benitez as the closer, Vizquel at shortstop and Matheny the regular catcher. Matheny may be the most questionable move. He was signed to a three year contract for ten and a half million dollars, not an outrageous figure these days. However, the Giants already had a catcher, Torrealba, who compares favorably with Matheny. Matheny is a fine defensive catcher. He is an abominable hitter. Torrealba had a bad year hitting in 2004, playing behind Pierzynski. The two previous years, however, as the second string catcher, he hit better than Matheny has ever hit. He is a good defensive catcher. The difference in their catching skills didn’t justify signing Matheny. Torrealba would be of greater help offensively. It is not unlikely that they have a justifiably dissatisfied player on the roster which is never healthy.

The Giants needed a closer badly. Sabean is probably still having sleepless nights reflecting on the Pierzynski-Nathan trade. Benitez was the best one available. The Giants grabbed him quickly, with good reason.

This brings us to Alou. This may be a disaster in the making. Alou will be playing in what is probably the most difficult right field in the majors. He has been playing in left field in recent years since he has a bad throwing arm and has slowed down significantly. There will be a parade of runners, traveling from first to third this year, challenging his arm successfully. It is an enormous right field and it is questionable whether Alou retains the speed necessary to cover it.

Grissom, in center, no longer has the skills he had as a younger player. He has slowed down and while he is hitting with some power these days, he is grounding into more double plays than used to be the case. He is not going to be of much help to Alou, who will be in need of help more often than is desireable.

Add to the above, a left fielder who is playing the outfield these days on instinct. This is a fairly frightening scenario. One of the objectives Sabean announced at the end of 2004
was to improve the team’s defense. This was the reason he was hoping to sign either Finley or Roberts. Unsuccessful in that effort, he went to Alou. Today’s outfield play is going to make for some interesting and exciting times. It is to be hoped that it doesn’t cost them too many games.

Alou’s hitting ability at this stage of his career is also questionable. It is possible that he will hit as well as he did in Chicago last year. There is also the possibility that last year was an aberration and that 2003 is the more likely yardstick. In that case, we may be seeing Snow hitting behind Bonds and Alou hitting in front of Barry.

Vizquel will certainly improve the infield defense but one shouldn’t expect to see a Gold Glove player. He will not hit as well as Cruz but even in his declining years will cover more ground.

There is an interesting aspect to the infield situation. If the Giants felt that they had the option, they would probably prefer playing Feliz at third base. Felipe Alou said recently that it was unusual to have a utility player, Feliz, hitting cleanup, in Bond’s absence. This was said when Alou was commenting on how difficult it was going to be to get Feliz the number of bats he, Alou, would like him to have. Unfortunately, they are paying Alfonzo eight million dollors to play that position. This is the result of Sabean’s regrettable decision to sign Alfonzo to a four year, thirty-two million dollar contract. It would be extremely embarrassing to sit him on the bench. However, the time may come, particularly if Alou doesn’t hit well behind Bonds, when it will be necessary to use Feliz hitting fifth. The thought of Feliz playing in the outfield, as has been expressed on occasion, is too scary to contemplate.

This, finally,brings us to the pitching. If Sabean is to get his wish, if he is to provide Bonds with the support the team needs to win it all, it is the pitching which has to do it. Excluding the pitching, this may be the oldest team ever to take the field. Their continued health has to be suspect. The pitching has young arms with great promise, as well as Schmidt, who, if healthy, is as good a pitcher as there is in the league. Tomko, if he pitches back to the last half of 2004, is a worthy addition to Schmidt.

Lowry may be the left hander the Giants needed. He started the 2004 season in Fresno. He was brought up when the team needed a starter. His records in Fresno and San Francisco were nearly identical. With minor, insignificant differences, he pitched the same number of innings, 89 and 92; his walk and strikeout ratio in Fresno was 28 and 73, in SF,28 and 72; his home runs allowed, in Fresno was 9, in SF 10. This leaves one with the impression that this is a young man who knows how to pitch. He was an accomplished pitcher when he came up from Fresno. He continued pitching against major league hitters with the exact same success he demonstrated in Fresno. There is little reason to suspect he won’t continue along the same path.

Williams is a known quality. He came to training camp last year considerably overweight after a fine rookie season. He had elbow surgery during the year but is apparently healthy now. He has the maturity, as displayed in 2003, to pitch well into the late innings. He appears to have resisted the good Hawaian food which brought him into camp at 260 pounds last year. He is a solid major league pitcher, at an early age.

In addition, they have an outstanding group of youngsters waiting to step in when needed. Merkin Valdez may make the Ortiz trade look good. He is 23 years old with a great fastball. He may be sent down to Fresno since he is yet to pitch at that level but he will probably be returning, in some capacity, this year.

Matt Cain is the pitcher every club was asking the Giants for when a trade was being considered. He has a fast-ball in the mid-nineties, a great curve, and is only 20 years old.

Jesse Foppert had Tommy John surgery last year but came back quickly. He will, in all likelihood, be the first one the Giants go to if they need a replacement in the rotation.

This brings us to the unmentioned Kirk Rueter. This has been an overrated pitcher for some time. His strikeout-walk ratio is pitiful. He has trouble getting through the fifth inning. He needs early bullpen help constantly. He has seen his best days and it would not be surprising to see one of the young ones taking his place early in the year. He is one of the team’s favorites in the clubhouse and also with management. This may not be enough to keep him in the rotation.

The bullpen, other than the closer, still has question marks. Eyre, if not overworked, and he shouldn’t be with this rotation, has performed well in the left hander’s role in the past; Brower has trouble getting left handed hitters out but manages to eat innings; Christiansen hasn’t been much help since the team picked him up but they keep resigning him. Herges didn’t belong in the closer role but he has evidenced the ability to pitch adequately in the 6th or 7th inning.

One or two of these young pitchers are likely to see service in the bullpen, perhaps at the start of the year. Aardsma had a good year at Fresno last year and is a likely candidate. Alou seems to be particularly high on him.

Can the Giants win it for Sabean and Bonds? They could use one or two more outfielders to give the ancient ones a moment or two of rest. Tucker can’t do it alone. The rotation, however, may be the best in the league. If they are going to be as successful as Sabean would like them to be, it is the pitching which will have to make the difference.

See you in a couple of weeks. Those first five games should be a great inaugeration.

Ed S.


1 Anonymous { 03.15.05 at 8:21 am }

Ed terrific analysis as usual, now they just have to play 162 games and see how it comes out. Arizona is noticeably better and San Diego is still a threat. The Dodgers will be weaker than last year, are they still in the league? This NL West might not be a cake walk for the Giants, but they are the favorite.

2 Anonymous { 03.15.05 at 5:43 pm }

Great analysis by Ed. that’s what I’ve been thinking all along, that the age of the team — that outfield!!! — really cries vulnerability to possible injuries.

the other team in the Bay also has been a postseason perennial over the past few years (and much younger) for considerably less money. Having that many rookies in the starting rotation can’t be considered an improvement, but this team will be exciting, and may be on the verge of another 5 year run. Go A’s!!!

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