A 2003 Premortem, of Sorts
by Gregg Pearlman
I'm pretty sure that we, as Giants fans,
will feel the effects of Dusty Baker's departure for at least a few years.
The 2002 San Francisco Giants were a team on the brink of a
World Championship -- before they realized they were the San Francisco Giants.
The 2003 San Francisco Giants, at the moment, are a barnyard
full of headless chickens. The chickens can't squawk; that's what I'm
Somewhere in his mind, preferably in the front somewhere, Brian
Sabean is saying, "Man, those fans... they think I've got no plan in mind, no
direction mapped out for this team. I'm not finished. Wait till they see what
I'm gonna do between now and April. It's gonna knock their socks off."
At least, I hope this is true.
But I know you: you're asking me, "How can you complain?" I
can't hear you, but you press on, undeterred: What more do you want out
of this guy? He's replaced a popular manager with someone who's pretty much
just like him. He's gotten us Alfonzo and Durham! And Grissom! He's even
snapped up Neifi -- a Gold Glover! He's picked up Moss and retained Eyre! Sure,
Kent's gone, but that was a given. I'd say Sabean did awfully damn well,
all things considered."
I still can't hear you. And you talk too much.
But indeed we knew, all hopes aside, that Kent would be taking
a hike. Did he wear out his welcome, or did he just get sick of being here?
Was there any reason to believe Kent's radio protestations to the effect that
he wanted to stay in San Francisco? What was he supposed to say, especially
during the season? Either way, he's gone; how do we replace that bat? Credit
Bonds all you want -- I certainly would -- but Kent drove in runs. Upon
bolting for Houston, Kent himself expressed amazement at the production of the
tandem of himself and Bonds -- and rightly so. From Bonds and Williams, people
might have expected that kind of production; from Bonds and Kent, who could
have? For all the Sabean-bashing I and others in the
Giants newsgroup did after the Giants acquired Kent for the popular Matt
Williams (In the November 1996 article, "The
You-Know What Hits the Fans," I described Kent as "a former top prospect
who has never quite panned out -- kind of the poor man's Todd Zeile"), Sabean
came up smelling like a rose on that
deal -- and not just that deal.
Let's just look at the Sabean era, shall we? From the beginning,
he's played shorthanded. For one thing, the Giants do not have unlimited cash
to spend on players. (Nobody does; it just looks like other teams do,
sometimes.) In itself, that's not exactly a handicap. The Giants are described
as a midlevel team in terms of player salaries, doling out something in the
neighborhood of $75 million (or $75,000,000.00, for those of you who are scoring
at home). A humongous portion of that goes to Barry Bonds; a pretty good chunk
of the remainder has gone, traditionally, to players such as Kent, Shawn Estes,
Russ Ortiz, J.T. Snow, Marvin Benard, and Livan Hernandez. That doesn't leave
much for the rest of the team. However, again, other teams have to deal with
this set of circumstances too.
Now Kent and Ortiz are gone -- the latter in an almost explicitly
stated salary dump -- and Estes and his salary are long gone. Benard,
when healthy and used properly, has been a valuable player, but almost certainly
too expensive. For their contributions, Snow and Hernandez are definitely
too expensive. And the Giants drop a million here and a million there on guys
like Shawon Dunston or Marquis Grissom, and they traditionally overpay for the
services of, say, a Reggie Sanders, a Russ Davis, a Mark Lewis, or a Glenallen
Hill; meanwhile, they can't find a way to keep -- or replace -- an important
piece of the puzzle: an Ellis Burks, say, or a Bill Mueller.
Sabean is also handcuffed somewhat by Pacific Bell Park itself,
as he was by Candlestick Park previously. Both traditionally have favored pitchers,
but that bias is becoming more pronounced as more new ballparks come on the
scene, small yards that favor hitters. The trend is such that we no longer think
of time-honored hitter's yards, such as Wrigley Field, as hitter's yards.
Candlestick was very much a pitcher's park -- sad, that, because
of the organization's established indifference to obtaining or developing quality
pitchers, hoping instead, usually, that a team full of sluggers would bring
rings to San Francisco. Hitters didn't like hitting there because of the wind,
the poor visibility, the arctic temperatures, and the negative effect the place
had on offense, so it couldn't have been too easy to lure outstanding free-agent
hitters to the team. The obvious exception is Bonds; Kent, Burks, Rich Aurilia,
and Kevin Mitchell, for instance, all arrived via trades, and Williams and Will
Clark were home grown. You didn't routinely see a Larry Walker, a Jeff Bagwell,
a Roberto Alomar, even a Moises Alou champing at the bit to come to San Francisco.
On the other hand, you also didn't see Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson,
or Greg Maddux fighting to become Giants, either.
The Giants must have hoped that their Beautiful New Ballpark
would -- especially after 40 years of hell for players and fans alike -- be
something of a draw to free-agent studs. After all, look at those dimensions...
what is it, 237 feet down the right-field line? This place was gonna be a bandbox.
Well, not. Pac Bell has proven to be even more of an extreme
pitcher's park than Candlestick was, and great hitters -- Walker and teammate
Todd Helton, to name two -- have stated for the record that they hate hitting
there. J.T. Snow has expressed a lack of fondness for Pac Bell, and the place
clearly messed with Armando Rios' mind.
All those guys are lefthanded hitters, though, which might
be the key: Three years of statistics show that Pacific Bell Park is murder
on lefthanded hitters. That very fact is what made me shift my fond gaze from
Pittsburgh's Brian Giles to Montreal's Vladimir Guerrero in the category of
Stud Hitter We Need But Will Never Get.
The only lefty hitter Pac Bell doesn't seem to hurt
is Bonds. His critics seem to feel that the Giants play in The House that Bonds
Built, but that would only be true if he hit boatloads of cheap homers down
the right-field line; for whatever reason, he's just plain figured out how to
hit at home. He and nobody else.
So we don't lure the hitters, but we don't seem to lure the
pitchers, either. Granted, one chief reason has to be the knowledge that they
can get more money elsewhere. You ever see the Star Trek episode titled
"Journey to Babel"? All sorts of troubles come about at the hands of an assassin,
whose homies have beefed up their very ordinary ship with incredible weapons
capabilities, the understanding being that it was a suicide mission in which
they'd cause maximal damage. (I suspect we could find some real-life examples
of similar behavior, if we tried real hard.) Well, that's what teams like the
Phillies seem to be doing this year, as did the Marlins in 1997: They're throwing
amazingly bulky stacks of cash at several good players, evidently in the hopes
of winning it all right now, and damn the future. (Then again, that's
what I thought the Diamondbacks were doing in 1999.)
Other reasons the Giants can't bring in bona fide Cy Young
candidates? I don't know. Maybe the pitchers don't like the cold, the wind,
or the visibility either -- all of which are factors at Pac Bell, but not to
the extent of the 'Stick. Maybe the pitchers don't see the Giants as an organization
with a palpable (or palpably positive) direction. I really don't know.
What I'm pretty sure about, though, is that we, as Giants fans,
will feel the effects of Dusty Baker's departure for at least a few years. David
Bell, for instance, signed with the Phillies, claiming that he wanted to play
for Larry Bowa -- and would feel that way even if Baker had stayed, which is
a sentiment routinely dismissed in the press. Jeff Kent, I believe, was looking
for any way out anyway, but Baker's absence, I'm sure, was a contributing factor
to his own departure.
Players used to come to the Giants -- and pay for less
to stay with them -- because of Dusty Baker. Will Felipe Alou have that kind
of drawing power? Granted, the Expos had no money anyway, but I don't remember
a huge influx of great players to Montreal for any reason, much less
just to play for Alou.
It's an understatement to say that the Giants are in a major
transitional period. There was one of these starting in 1993, when Bonds, Baker,
and Peter Magowan were in and Roger Craig, Al Rosen, and Bob Lurie were out.
But that was an almost immediate bad-to-good transition -- the Giants won 31
more games in 1993 than the year before. This time I'm not confident that we'll
see a similar surge, mainly because the outgoing team was already good enough
to win a pennant.
Let's look at this thing, position by position:
- First base: Look, I like J.T. Snow, okay? I don't know him any
better than any other fan sitting in front of a TV, but he seems like a pretty
stand-up guy, and he's a smart player who plays hard. He came through big
in the 2002 postseason, and indeed he hit that gigantic home run in the 2000
Division Series against the Mets. But over the 162-game haul, he's a drag
on this team.
I don't think anybody would argue that he's not a hell of a first baseman.
I've read, for the last several years, that in the more "credible" statistical
categories (i.e., not fielding percentage), Snow is a midpack fielder
at best. It is this statistical conclusion that has led me to my conclusion
that I don't trust fielding stats yet. (I don't know how to make them better,
so don't look here for any solutions.) It's a ball to watch this guy
steal a potential foul ball and turn it into an out. He makes so many outstanding,
critical plays simply by having positioned himself correctly. Solely based
on my observation, having watched this guy play hundreds of games for the
Giants starting in 1997, I would call J.T. Snow a great first baseman.
And, to my delight and astonishment, he actually hit pretty well. In
1997, anyway. Since then... bleah. I sure don't want to discount his injuries
and the loss of his mother as factors over the years -- how good can a player
be when he's not at his best? -- but facts is facts: He just doesn't hit anymore.
He still draws some walks, but he doesn't have the pop one wants to see from
a first baseman, and without the pop, there's really nothing there. But the
Giants gave him a nice long contract through next year, so we're stuck with
him. Who else would take him?
Actually, that's a good question: Who else would take him? My guess
is "nobody," but that's what I would have thought about Danny Darwin in 1997,
when the White Sox managed to peddle him... to the Giants. Clearly it was
a case of, "Yeah, we'll make this deal, but you have to take Darwin." Why
a similar deal can't be worked out involving Snow (or Livan Hernandez), I
Meanwhile, Lance Niekro, a top draft pick and top prospect, apparently has
shown that he can't play third base, so right now he's a first baseman who
doesn't hit for power, doesn't walk much, and might give you a steady .269
average. We already have someone like that, sort of.
So unless Sabean really does have something pretty in the works, we're going
to see another unproductive year of J.T. Snow and Damon "Not The Answer" Minor
anchoring first base for the Giants. Niekro will probably get an emergency
call-up, or get waived.
- Second base: In something of an echo of 1982, the Giants suddenly
are stockpiling second baseman. Back then they traded their All-Star, Ed Whitson,
to the Indians for Duane Kuiper, their regular second baseman, even though
Joe Morgan was pretty firmly ensconced at the position. This time, with Kent
out the door, the Giants have picked up Ray Durham (who DH'ed after the A's
acquired him) and Edgardo Alfonzo (who established himself as an outstanding
offensive second baseman -- before moving to third to accommodate Roberto
Alomar). Oh, and also Neifi Perez, who's won a Gold Glove as a shortstop.
Strangely, they've cut Ramon Martinez loose, evidently preferring to pay more
money to Perez, an inferior hitter (and not a superior-enough fielder to make
up the slack). (Ramon is now a Cub, as is Rod Beck (again). And so's Shawn
Estes. Who's next to rejoin Dusty? After Shawon Dunston, I mean.)
At this writing, we don't know who'll play second. There's talk of Durham
being in center field, which you'd think would open up second base for Alfonzo
but maybe it'd be Neifi instead, with Alfonzo at third. Or maybe it'll be
Alfonzo at second with Pedro Feliz at third. Or maybe Alfonzo at second, Neifi
at short, Aurilia at third, and Durham in center. Or maybe Durham's in right,
with Marquis Grissom in center. Or maybe the other way around. None of these
possibilities are attractive.
I think they'll probably go with Durham at second -- I can't think of anything
much stupider than asking an inexperienced outfielder to man center field
at Pacific Bell Park -- and Alfonzo at third, Aurilia at short, and Grissom/Benard
in either center or right, depending on who else Sabean picks up. (There's
been talk of Jose Cruz Jr., who was nontendered by Toronto, coming to San
Francisco to play right field.)
But unless some weird trade happens, which I don't think it will, the Giants'
second baseman will be either Durham or Alfonzo, both of whom are good players.
Durham, surely, is the guy the Giants are thinking about as their leadoff
hitter (which means that if Dusty were still around, Durham would definitely
play center field), which is probably a good thing: He does get on base more
than a fair amount, and he has decent pop and some speed -- a commodity the
Giants haven't seen for years, except in trace amounts.
Alfonzo, when healthy, is "a pretty good all-around hitter" with good (not
great) power and who can hit for a reasonably high average (which, I expect,
would be the main part of his OBP; I don't think he walks much). However,
he hasn't been healthy for the last couple of years. He's a pretty
big risk, and the Giants are paying him $26 million for four years. That's
way less than the Astros are paying Jeff Kent, but then the Giants have to
be expecting way less from Alfonzo than they would from Kent (who, supposedly,
wants to prove that he's a great hitter all by himself and doesn't need Barry
Bonds around to make him better
so naturally he goes to an extreme hitter's
park and a lineup featuring Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, Richard
I suppose the Giants are hoping they'll get production levels roughly equal
to their second and third basemen of 2002, but with the individual numbers
distributed differently. Even with Kent, however, I felt that the team strongly
needed another major bat. I expect both Durham and Alfonzo to add some speed,
making things fun in that way, and maybe to help the team take advantage of
speed in other areas by providing a bunch of gap hits that you might not expect
from, say, Kent and Bell.
Outlook: Cautiously not necessarily hopelessly pessimistic.
- Shortstop: I've seen plenty of comments in the papers and the
Giants newsgroup to the effect that Aurilia was a "bust" in 2002. I don't
see it that way. He had a terrific, healthy 2001, a year that had to have
far exceeded expectations, but he'd shown very positive signs in years past.
His 2002 wasn't that different from his earlier seasons, except that
he played hurt a lot -- and didn't play, hurt, a lot. I suspect he
felt pretty rotten all year.
I won't say I expect him to bounce back in 2003 -- he ain't gonna give us
another 2001, I'm pretty sure -- but I don't think another 2000 would be unreasonable.
Plus, the consensus seems to be that he's going to drop down in the lineup,
possibly even to cleanup, so his role would be somewhat different.
However, I think I'd rather see a lineup beginning with Durham, Aurilia, Alfonzo,
and Bonds. Better yet, I'd like to see Durham, Aurilia, Bonds, Guerrero, and
Alfonzo. I like Bonds batting third, period, but I truly think that batting
just ahead of him is what helped Aurilia break out in 2001. To an extent,
you could support that by pointing out that Jeff Kent really took off when
he and Bonds were flip-flopped in the order, but in fact Kent got hot before
It's also possible that batting Aurilia just after Bonds will do for Richie
what it did for Kent from 1997 until halfway through 2002. However, I don't
see him as a cleanup hitter. He's not really a number-two hitter, either --
he doesn't walk, but to my eyes, he excels at the surprise bunt -- but the
two-hole is what seems to work best for him. I'd be interested to know how
he did before and after the Kent-Bonds switch.
Backing up Aurilia, apparently, is Neifi Perez. I have yet to come across
anybody who thinks this is a good idea. This is someone who wasn't even particularly
intriguing as a Coors hitter, and, of course, he was wretched in Kansas City.
The fact that he won a Gold Glove with the Rockies means little to me. He's
a weak hitter, a bad base stealer, and too expensive (possibly at any price).
I will not offer up any mea culpas either if he hits .320 in 50 at-bats;
nor do I think he should have any more at-bats than that. The more
he plays, the more he's a drag on the offense.
Outlook: Pretty good if Neifi sits a lot; pretty bad if he plays a
- Third base: Okay, look, I liked David Bell -- certainly way
more than I thought I would -- but he's not Mike Schmidt. He did, however,
deliver more than his share of clutch hits throughout the year, or so it seemed
to me. He looked just dandy on defense most of the time, too, and played all
four infield positions when called upon. One at a time, I mean.
I'd rather the Giants had managed to lock him up again, but I think I'd rather
have Alfonzo. The Phillies, in my opinion, have chosen to pay too much for
Bell, and I'd just as soon that be their problem.
Our problem might be too much playing time for Pedro Feliz. If Durham's
in center field -- again, a horrific idea -- Feliz could well be the third
baseman most days. I like Feliz, but probably only because he's a Giant. As
a baseball player, he just doesn't seem too sharp out there. He seems good
for at least one stupid baserunning or defensive mistake a week, even when
he's not playing. When the Giants traded Bill Mueller to the Cubs after
2000, it looked like Feliz would be the third baseman of the future -- and
I'd rather he had been; I never understood the Russ Davis signing.
However, that very signing shows me how little faith Dusty had in Feliz, and,
perhaps, rightly so. I just don't expect much from the guy. Not while he's
in San Francisco, anyway.
Outlook: Not bad if it's Alfonzo; bad if it's Feliz.
- Left field: Every year we all say, "Well, Bonds has to decline
at some point." And at some point we'll be right. I figure it'll be
2003. Still, I don't think he's going to turn into Dale Murphy or Ellis Valentine
or something. However, I do expect teams to walk the guy like crazy until
whoever bats behind him shows us why he's batting behind him. I don't
expect 73 home runs or another batting crown out of Bonds -- who, and I can't
overemphasize this, due to my sheer amazement at all facets of the following
statement, is the only batting champion in San Francisco Giants history, and
he's accomplished amazing things the last two years while playing in an extreme
On defense, though, Bonds is another story. I'd always perceived him as an
outstanding left fielder -- not blessed with a good arm, certainly, but with
plenty of speed, a quick release, and the knack for positioning himself. He
gets a lot of crap for not hustling, and the sports fan in me sees that and
cringes a bit, but I'll still take an apparent lack of hustle along with everything
else Bonds gives a team.
However, in 2002 he started looking like Kevin Mitchell in left field: tentative,
slow, even unwilling. Bonds looked like an old man out there. Now, we know
he's had chronic back problems for some years, and his knees haven't been
great since at least 1999 (when his elbow went bad and he missed a good chunk
of the season). His hamstrings have been iffy, and the Giants, rather than
put him on the DL, chose not to use him at all and play a man short for what
seemed like two months (but wasn't).
I'm not saying he's lost his skills as an outfielder. I'm saying that his
body has betrayed him. As far back as 1999 I've been saying that he ought
to start taking grounders at first base, but I never heard any suggestion
that this might ever be the case until about mid-2002, when he was quoted
as saying that he doesn't want to play first base because he doesn't like
to wear a cup.
Wear a cup, Barry. It's painful to watch you in the outfield anymore.
Outlook: Stay healthy, Barry.
- Center field: Right now we don't have a center fielder. Apparently
Marquis Grissom came aboard with the understanding that he'd be an everyday
player, irrespective of pronounced platoon splits. If the Giants can get themselves
a good hitter who can actually play center field well, I could see Grissom
and Marvin Benard platooning in right field for a year, but failing that,
my fear is that Grissom's our center fielder and Benard's our right fielder.
Add Bonds in left field, and you've got an awful lot of doubles and triples.
As I mentioned, Ray Durham has been mentioned as a possibility in center field,
which tells me that the Giants have learned nothing in the last few years.
Tsuyoshi Shinjo -- now looking for a job -- showed us the value of a good
defensive center fielder, and then some. His annoying little "bunny hop" aside,
the guy showed great instincts, terrific speed, and a wonderful arm in center
field. The Giants hadn't seen a combination like that since... well, it's
probably overstating it to say "Willie Mays," but maybe Garry Maddox.
Tragically, the poor lad couldn't hit. Granted, he was forced into absolutely
the wrong role for him. As a major leaguer, Shinjo is probably a fifth outfielder,
maybe a fourth, but if you have to play him every day, he's a number-six or
-seven hitter. Instead, the Giants tried to turn him into a leadoff hitter,
which only works if you can hit. Once that experiment was shown to be a write-off,
suddenly Shinjo was a number-eight hitter, which apparently he perceived as
an insult. (Just as apparently, nobody ever sat him down and said, "You're
in the major leagues. Shut up and play.")
Then along came Kenny Lofton, and Shinjo was out. Lofton had a fine September,
but mostly he was rotten in August, and while he ran down a few fly balls
in spectacular fashion, he was awfully scary on defense. And yet, in a move
that I felt was almost quintessential Dusty, both Lofton and Shinjo were in
the lineup for Game 1 in the World Series, along with the sore Bonds
and it was Shinjo who was the designated "hitter." Dusty's excuse was that
Lofton was less "comfortable" as a DH. I, however, was less comfortable watching
Lofton in the field. Tom Austin and I discussed the notion that maybe Lofton's
defensive skills simply had eroded, or maybe his eyes are going bad. Certainly
you use your eyes differently for hitting than for fielding, and while Lofton's
offense has been down from his previous, established, good levels, it didn't
seem to deteriorate like his fielding. I wonder if maybe Lofton's eyes have
never been that good in the field, but he was able to make up for that
with his speed in a way that he can't now.
No matter, though: Lofton's gone. So, for that matter, is Tom Goodwin -- not
a great player, but in many ways a helpful one, in his role.
So I don't know who the center fielder is going to be. Current candidates
appear to be Durham and Grissom, neither of whom is a good solution. Oh, maybe
Benard, but ditto. I absolutely have to think that there's something on the
Outlook: Oh, I don't know; I mean, probably you have to have some choices
before you can have an outlook.
- Right field: Same thing, really. Reggie Sanders is gone, which
in itself doesn't faze me. Really, Sanders was no better or worse than could
reasonably be expected, but I got awfully tired of watching him whiff miserably
-- or, when he'd finally deign to make contact, hit into a 1-6-3 double play.
I don't miss him at the moment. However -- and this really has been the key
to many of Sabean's decisions -- if you're going to let someone go, you've
got to replace him. The Giants didn't do this in 2001, for instance, after
letting Burks and Mueller go; and I fear that the same will be true regarding
Kent (or, at least, his bat) and even Sanders in 2003.
Right now the candidates have to be Grissom and Benard, but also Tony Torcato,
who seems sort of like Tony Gwynn Lite to me. However, Torcato was drafted
as a shortstop, moved quickly to third base, then first, then to the outfield.
The Giants don't know what to do with him on defense, and he sure looked
lost in right field during his brief stints with the major league club in
2002. I don't think I want this guy patrolling right field for the Giants
on a regular basis, or perhaps at all. Maybe he needs to be a first baseman.
Maybe the Giants can get Major League Baseball to agree to let them field
a team of eight players and close off right field. Then again, maybe we'll
close off center field, too. And first base. Ghee.
As previously mentioned, rumors have the Giants signing Jose Cruz Jr., but
you know something? He's no great shakes. Maybe ex-Tiger Robert Fick would
be a better choice. Or not.
Outlook: If Vlad, phenomenal; otherwise, hopeless bleak despair.
- Catcher: Benito Santiago was the NLCS MVP. Hey, that's great.
I mean, he certainly came up with some timely hitting in that series, and
he certainly was a feel-good pick. He was also a 2002 All-Star, which was
nice, too. (He's the guy who struck out to end the game, ensuring a tie.)
But you know something? He wasn't that great. Still, I don't really have many
complaints about him.
Okay, he owns the 5-4-3 double-play ground ball. We know that. We're used
to it. If he hits reasonably well in 2003, I can live with it. What concerns
me, though, is his defense. I don't know if it's his skills, his speed, his
style, or what, but it's no fun to watch him behind the plate. And sometimes
I really wonder what he's thinking in terms of pitch selection. For instance...
well, I can't remember which game it was, which opponent, which batter, or
even which pitcher, but I have a distinct memory of a Giants pitcher throwing
two high fastballs past a feared hitter in a key situation... so from that
point on, Santiago kept calling for offspeed stuff low and away, never going
back to that high fastball, on which the hitter had no prayer of getting even
a sniff. The hitter walked. The Giants lost.
One of my favorite memories of Santiago, though, was the sound of him booting
a Gatorade jug across the field in a home game against the Padres.
Backing him up was Yorvit Torrealba -- I'd be interested to hear from anybody,
not just another ballplayer, who can convince me that there's anybody
else in the world named Yorvit. Torrealba was prone to the occasional bad
fielding decision, but I like his arm, and he looks awfully good on defense
to me. At the plate, well, I'm not sure I'd ever seen a more lost-looking
hitter than Torrealba, until suddenly he started hitting like he meant it.
I don't see him as a regular at any point, really, but I think he could carve
out a decent career as a number-two catcher.
Trey Lunsford got a bit of a look at the end of the season, and he did well,
but I have the feeling his call-up was a reward for a good season and not
a sign that he figures into the Giants' plans.
Outlook: Stop depending on your catchers for offense anyway.
- Starting rotation: The Giants seem to feel that they had arms
to burn, so they shipped off Russ Ortiz to Atlanta for Damian Moss. Moss'
numbers remind me of Shawn Estes -- who is already a lefthanded poor man's
Russ Ortiz. One thing Ortiz has that Estes lacks is poise. Another thing is
the ability to sometimes pitch out of trouble. I'd be delighted if
Moss could make us forget Ortiz, or even Estes -- but I'm not optimistic.
He becomes the second lefty in the rotation, after Kirk Rueter. Now, this
ought to be an interesting story. According to some newsgroup posts, Rueter
was in Felipe Alou's doghouse prior to coming to San Francisco in a trade
for Mark Leiter in 1996. (That, and the trade of Kirt Manwaring to Houston
for Rick Wilkins, made me excited about Brian Sabean becoming the GM in 1997,
as evidently he was the brains behind both deals.) That makes me wonder how
he'll do under Alou again.
Rueter's a funny guy, though. He really had a good 2002, but he seems to have
the smallest margin for error of any pitcher ever. If he gets a plate umpire
who doesn't favor his style of pitching, he'll get rocked. I guess that's
true of a great many pitchers, but Rueter doesn't have the speed or movement
to compensate. He's smart, though, and his pitch selection and location carry
him farther than they'd carry a less intelligent pitcher. Thing is, I can
never entirely bring myself to trust him.
Jason Schmidt, I think, established himself as a legitimate staff ace, after
a very poor start (almost certainly due to an injury that kept him off the
team at the start of the season). He's the only Giants pitcher I can think
of, in recent years, who really can dominate a game, or even a handful of
consecutive starts. I think he has Cy Young stuff -- a pronouncement which,
in itself, has probably turned him into Stephen Mintz.
Livan Hernandez is the guy I've been aching to see moved, really since
early 2001. I know his demeanor plays a large part in this, but he just doesn't
look like he cares out there. Maybe the stupidest, most listless performance
I've ever seen came in a midsummer home game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
-- I'll repeat that: the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- in which he made a bunch
of bad decisions in the field and, when he could find the plate, served up
only meatballs. Needless to say, the Giants got smoked by this awful, awful
team. The crowd booed him roundly, which irked him enough to say, "Don't any
of you ever have a bad day at the office?" It's a good point, but make no
mistake: Livan wasn't being booed for the results; he was being booed for
looking like such a bored, apathetic chump.
I've never seen anybody get hit like this guy. He is touted as being able
to pitch out of jams, but two jams out of 40 (over the course of three starts...)
is nothing to write home about. At least that's how it seems. In 2001, when
criticized for 84-mph fastballs that tended to fly gleefully over distant
fences, he said he didn't intend to change his approach. Granted, he hasn't
been speaking English long, so maybe there's a language barrier, but that
sure made him sound uncoachable. If what you're doing doesn't work, do something
I'm tired of hearing Livan Hernandez being referred to as "a true pro" or
a "thinking man's pitcher," or by other epithets normally reserved for much
older pitchers. People say that only because he pitches like a much
older pitcher, in the sense of already having lost his fastball and having
to depend on location. If he really humps up, he can pop one across at 91,
but he sure can't live on his fastball. Worse, his poor showing in the World
Series pretty much rendered him untradable. So now he's an expensive doorstop.
Who'd take him? It especially galls me that Livan remains while Ortiz gets
to go blossom into a star under Leo Mazzone.
Who might be the fifth starter? Well, gee, there's Ryan Jensen, Kurt Ainsworth,
Jesse Foppert, or Jerome Williams, not to mention some spring training invitee
who'll surely come along at some point. Or maybe another Mark Gardner will
come along just before the season. (Or maybe it'll be the actual Mark
Gardner, who's now the bullpen coach -- and will become the pitching coach
once Dave Righetti leaves.)
Jensen, to my mind, is the least desirable of these options. This is not to
say I don't like him -- I do: He strikes me as very gutty. Not necessarily
possessing great talent, though. I think he's a long reliever -- maybe he's
the one who needs to fill the Jay Witasick role -- but I don't see him as
a rotation starter, especially after he hit the wall way too early in 2002.
I'm a little saddened that he didn't see any postseason action, but I'm pretty
sure I understand why.
Ainsworth pitched awfully well in the few opportunities he got, but because
he's a Giants pitching prospect, I'm naturally suspicious. He's been highly
touted for a long time, which also makes me suspicious. Still, he's pretty
young, and if Jensen could be a serviceable member of the rotation, I don't
know why Ainsworth couldn't. In fact, if both these guys were in the rotation
and Livan weren't, I wouldn't lose any sleep.
Foppert and Williams, especially the former lately, have gotten some great
ink. I think the Giants are prepared to move them up more quickly than they
would if Dusty were still around. (Alou, from all accounts, is far more willing
to test a young player than Baker.) There's talk of these guys going into
middle relief, preparatory to starting roles. Is that a good strategy? That
I don't know.
Outlook: Maddux, Glavine, and Kevin Millwood were all available this
offseason. None are Giants. We're not going to see a Bartolo Colon or Javier
Vasquez, either. Just Livan, again and again. Blargh. On the other hand...
all right, maybe it's not so bad. Bleah?
- Late men: Robb Nen's a funny kind of guy. When he's on, nobody's
"onner." When he doesn't have his slider, or his location on the slider, it's
batting practice. In 2002 he seemed to be pitching on guts much of the time,
which is not a good sign for a pitcher who clearly is so capable of dominating
the opposition. He was hurting during the postseason -- which we found out
after the World Series, of course -- so you've got to hope that his offseason
surgery will take. In any case, I've become very tired of hearing about Nen's
mechanics, just like I got tired of hearing about Estes' emotional fragility.
On the other hand, it was very encouraging to see that he sort of got a clue
that if he pulled back just slightly on his slider, the movement would be
Will Tim Worrell be the setup man again? For the most part, he did a great
job in 2002, but is he equipped for that kind of role on a regular basis,
or was he the stopgap while the Giants hoped Felix Rodriguez would turn it
around? Heck, I'm willing to see what happens if he starts the year as the
Outlook: I think Nen will pretty much be Nen, which means plenty of
success but plenty of scary moments. I also have the feeling that Worrell
won't be the setup man all season.
- Righty relievers: For the moment, that'll be Felix Rodriguez
and Joe Nathan (not to mention guys like Ainsworth). I figure Nathan's a dark
horse, but he did very well in a couple innings in September. I'm pulling
for him, but he's been out of the picture for so long that you gotta wonder.
A lot of folks have lost patience with Rodriguez, and I haven't decided yet
whether I'm one of them. They say he has a slider; they say
he has a change; but all I see is a straight 98-mph fastball. (Plus, I don't
know if I'll ever forgive him for not finishing off Scott Spiezio, but that's
another story.) His control isn't good enough, within the strike zone or otherwise,
for him to survive on speed alone. How 'bout some movement? How 'bout actually
having a slider and a change?
Outlook: I have the feeling the Giants would part with Rodriguez. My
hope right now, though, is for the Giants to come up with someone to fill
the John Johnstone/Doug Henry/Jay Witasick role. Maybe that's Nathan.
- Lefty relievers: Aaron Fultz is gone -- he's a Texas Ranger,
which is fine -- so with Jason Christiansen's health still a question mark,
the bullpen lefties appear to be Chad Zerbe and Scott Eyre. I guess Troy Brohawn's
in the picture, and if he stays in the organization, he'll probably be up
and down with the big club.
I like Zerbe, but I don't understand how he gets people out. He doesn't walk
that many people, but he strikes out about the same number. He looks very
hittable, but he seems to have a lot of smarts out there regarding pitch selection
and location. (He should know what he's doing; he's spent parts of three seasons
in the bigs, but at least parts of about 12 seasons in the minors.)
The Giants signed Eyre to a one-year deal in December, but I'm kind of wondering
about that. He got into something like 25 games, but only pitched 11-1/3 innings.
He did well, for the most part, but I have to think that might be a function
of his role; in other words, maybe he's really good at being a lefty specialist.
If Alou decides to use him in longer relief, the results could be disastrous.
(As precedent, see Jim Poole, 1996-97.)
Outlook: I'm not worried about the Giants' bullpen lefties. That's
probably a good sign that all of their elbows will swell up to the size of
a beach ball.
- On-field brain trust: I've seen several bits and pieces about
Felipe Alou in the weeks since he came aboard, and I don't know that I'm any
more thrilled about him now than I was then. I believe, and newspaper quotes
from Brian Sabean and others pretty much back me up, that "ethnicity" was
at least as important a criterion as "managerial competence," which disturbs
me. On the other hand, there weren't any other candidates out there who knocked
my socks off -- or, probably, the Giants', either. Apparently they simply
wanted Alou -- there wasn't even a formal interview process -- so they went
out and got him. Good. Fine. It had better work.
Again, according to my reading, Alou employs a doghouse. I guess that's not
so unusual -- clearly Roger Craig did, too. Maybe Dusty did, but it wasn't
obvious to me. But I don't like the doghouse mentality. I've suffered through
it as an employee, and it strikes me as a very immature way to manage people.
Also, Alou appears to be the kind of guy who'd put a fast, low-OBP guy into
the leadoff spot (Hello, Marquis!). Indeed, walks don't seem to rank very
highly as an offensive weapon.
Plus, over the years, I've come to wonder about some of his on-field decisions
-- things like pitching to Bonds with first base open with the game on the
line, getting beat, then continuing to do it.
The one positive I know of is that, unlike Dusty, Alou isn't afraid to give
a young player a chance. (I kind of think the Giants lost at least two years
of good production from the shortstop position because Dusty insisted on playing
Shawon Dunston, Jose Vizcaino, and Rey Sanchez ahead of Rich Aurilia.)
The coaching staff consists of holdovers Dave Righetti as pitching coach,
Joe Lefebvre as hitting coach, and Ron Wotus as bench coach; Mark Gardner,
as I said, takes over as bullpen coach; Gene Glynn is the new third base coach,
and Alou protégé Luis Pujols is the new first base coach. As
far as I know, Carlos Alfonso is still around, too. Gone are Gene Clines,
Juan Lopez, and Sonny Jackson -- to the Cubs. (Sonny I won't miss, but it
gripes me that the Cubs are smart enough to keep him off the coaching lines,
while the Giants weren't.
- Outlook: I don't know. Alou, as managers go, is pretty old.
I think he's very well respected, though, and I'm hoping that he, along with
major Giants success, will prove to be a drawing card for some outstanding
players somewhere along the line. I do want to say, though, that -- more so
than in previous years -- I give Dusty Baker a lot of credit for getting this
team as far as he did in 2002.
To be honest, the 2002 Giants weren't that great a team. Yes,
they made the World Series, and yes, they almost won it, but they got that far
with a terrible bench, at least one very iffy starter, and major question marks
in the starting lineup. I know it sounds like sour grapes, but I've really come
to understand that postseason success doesn't have much to do with how good
a team actually is. It's more about who gets hot and who gets lucky. The 2002
Angels deserved their championship, no question -- they took it away from the
Giants -- but I don't know that they were a better team than the Giants. (Well,
yeah, they probably were, especially in their patient approach to hitting.)
However, I would not count either of the 2002 World Series participants among
the top two major league teams. I don't know where I'd rank them, but not way
up there. (Ditto the 1988 Dodgers, as I've said many times: They weren't even
the best team in their division, by about three teams. However, they
got hot, and they played lucky all season.)
As things stand now, I'm convinced that the 2003 Giants are
a worse team than they were last season. I don't know that the rest of the NL
West has exactly moved forward, so I think the Giants could contend, but I'd
like to think that if they "play lucky," they could be successful in the postseason
I'm not confident, though. I think, for instance, that Livan
has to be replaced by a good starter, and that the lineup needs one more
outstanding bat and, probably, another good one. I'm not saying that these would
be the last pieces of the puzzle, though -- just that if they can't be more
fully loaded at the starting gate, they won't go anywhere. Indeed, I think this
team could be terrible.
As a fan, though, I'm not sure what to be afraid of: being
brought to the brink of sports-fan ecstasy again, only to have the rug yanked
out from under me; watching my team fall out of the race by June and play out
the string, horribly; or having the team stay in the race until the last day
or two, with all the expected tension. I do know, though, that since we're talking
about the Giants here, it could be even worse.
Copyright ©2002 by Gregg Pearlman
Last updated 12/30/02
Gregg Pearlman, gregg@EEEEEEgp.com
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