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 here for.

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:

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 again.

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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