Standing on the shoulders of Giants

Friday, December 31

Focus must switch to the 'pen

With Neil Mcann

Expectations are running high in the Bay Area, at least on one side of the Bridge. Despite repeatedly stating that they would not splash out on a marquee free agent, San Francisco have ended up spending more than only the richest (Boston, New York, New York, Anaheim) and the most desperate (Arizona, Los Angeles, Seattle). While preaching restraint and the long term, they have instead committed a tidy $67m to players whose ages are 37, 32, 34, 38 and 35. And now, with their decision to release Dustan Mohr, the team has righteously shed itself of half the young blood in its otherwise aging lineup. These guys are winding down, yet the front office have paid up for their services.

However, as every Giants fan knows, there are two sides to the veteran coin. Dated the lineup may be, but obsolete it most certainly is not. Instead, with their veteran additions, it is likely that any decline in individual performance (see Vizquel, Grissom, Snow) will be offset by the collective benefits of leadership and experience that the new arrivals will bring. It's just a shame that there aren't any young position players around to learn from it. Indeed, as few Giants fans know, no Giants non-pitching farmhand has made it to The Show since Bill Mueller in 1996.

Despite the sad fact that they're all hired guns, the infield by all accounts looks very good. The problem is that it's not built to last: the youngest of the quintent is Edgardo Alfonzo, who is 31. Both Ray Durham (34) and J.T.Snow's (37) contracts will be up next year. In lieu of this looming vacuum, the club would do well to ink utility first/third baseman Pedro Feliz (29) to a long term deal.

Compared to the bullpen though of course, the lineup is a relative sea of tranquility. The state of Marquis Grissoms' hamstring pales into insignificance when compared to the state of Matt Herges' fastball. Yet, for all its ineffectual elements, the relief corps curiously contains the best signs of a future after Barry Bonds. Jesse Foppert, David Aardsma, Brad Hennessey, even Matthew Cain and Merkin Valdez should all feature at some stage in 2005. So excited are the Giants with their entourage of young hurlers, it might not be long before the bullpen consists solely of new anchorman Armando Benitez and this band of promising youth.

But that's pretty optimistic. Most of the younger pitchers need at least another season of seasoning in the minors. And, given the organization's preference for experience, it will take a considerable performance to change the overall shape of the Giant's 'pen. The 2005 relief corps, as it presently stands, is unspectacular:

  • Closer: Armando Benitez
  • Set Up: Matt Herges, Scott Eyre
  • Short Relief: Walker, Hennessey
  • Middle Relief: Brower, Correia
  • Long: Foppert, Franklin
  • Lefty specialist: Jason Christiansen

It is patchy at best. Assuming Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry nail down their starting roles -- a dangerous assumption at any rate -- there could be quite a scuffle for action in Dave Righetti's bullpen. Even now, no one's role is cetain. Take Herges. After a dismal 2004, where he suffered the 2nd highest OPS among ML closers, he is a prime candidate for relegation. Lacking as he is both stuff and confidence, should he fail to deliver in the first couple of months in 2005, he could be shown the door. There are no sure candidates to replace him, but any one of the Giants plethora of young arms could step up. Of these, Foppert (24) is perhaps the most intriguing. After spelling brilliantly -- although intermitantly -- two years ago, he has the biggest upside, and will be fresh and eager after missing 16 months through injury. It is Cain, though, that has attracted the most interest from opposing GMs this winter, after a stellar 2004 where he breezed through double-A, aged just 19.

In the meantime though, the bullpen is short on tried and tested arms. Dustan Hermanson could have provided some of that much needed depth that instead leaves Jim Brower, commendably durable in the last campaign (4th among ML relievers in appearances) as the club's most reliable later-inning option. And then, as I have recently protested, possibilities from the left side are, with the possible exception of Scott Eyre, derisory. The bullpen has no man who in 2004 struck out more than 1 hitter per inning; sabermatric balley-hoo to some, but those who dismiss the power of intimidation do so at their own peril. For now at least, these Giants aren't scaring -- let alone fooling -- anyone.

Wednesday, December 29

The Yankee Dollar

It is the season of change. Winter, casting its icy shroud over the land, has confined a thousand gloves to distant cupboards. Yet beneath the glowing embers of the hot stove, baseball burns. Indeed, while it may be snowing in the Big Apple, the grass beneath appears greener than ever. Depending, of course, on which side of the fence you belong.

With the start of spring training less than a month away, the time for prediction has come. After the familiar seasonal flurry of bribes, bullying and negotiation, the free agent crop has thinned to a trickle comprising the unknown, the old and the brittle. $1 billion has changed hands. Led, as ever, by the Yankees and the Mets, the offseason has thrown up innumberable story l
ines and surprises.

And now, with only the T's to cross and the I's to dot on the National's gleaming new shirts shirts -- give or take a stadium that needs building -- the bulk of the work behind the scenes is done. The rich have flexed their financial might, the poor have lamented, and some of those in the middle have taken the plunge. On the face of it, it has been an offseason like any other. Almost. As we have seen, strange things have been afoot -- not least in New York. In the end, Randy Johnson was all the Yankees could afford.

Monday, December 27

Family Value

An old man and his father: a triumph of familial relations

Apparently Moises Alou is taking less money to play for his father. Yet, assuming he doesn't mean compared to the Yankees, it's not really clear what less is supposed to be.

How many dads, after all, give their offspring the best part of $7m per year? Alou’s two-year, $13.5m contract, far from resembling a family discount, bears the mark instead of a team that has run itself dangerously out of escape routes. Felipe himself, not one for missing an opportunity for irony, joked about the unlikelihood of his son playing in San Francisco, chirping “if he were five years younger, I would have brought up his name myself.” Now, less than a week later, Moises has suddenly become the answer to the Giant’s misconstrued offensive woes -- if not their fragility in the outfield. The additional (and inexplicable) loss of the durable Dustan Mohr only adds to the strain that will see Alou switching to right field, where he be forced to contend with all the nooks and crannies that proved the death of lesser predecessors like Jeffrey Hammonds. Yet even in his natural position, left field, Alou has only a .982 career fielding percentage. In the last four seasons he has averaged .974. In 2004, he placed 20th among starting left-fielders with .967 – behind, of all people, Manny Ramirez.

Thus the Giants outfield in 2005 – totaling some 117 years (almost twice the age of the D’Rays, at 65) – will be, quite literally, overstretched. Alas these veterans, for all their wisdom, cannot catch the balls they cannot reach. The off-season intention, made clear by the club, was to add a center fielder to relieve Marquis Grissom of his gruelling patrol of the gaping chasms of SBC Park. The management passed on Scott Posednik, albeit wisely, and vigorously pursued Dave Roberts, but in the end the club's unwillingness to part with any of their younger pitching nixed any potential trades. They spoke to Jeremy Burnitz for the third time in two years before swooping, in a fashion both prodigal and mystifying, for Alou.

As it stands -- no pun intended -- not only does the San Francisco outfield lack mobility, it lacks depth as well. Michael Tucker who is not bad as supporting member of the cast, will spell at all three positions; but he offers little other than a left-handed bat that the starting trio does not possess. Mohr at least represented a defensive upgrade, if not a sizeable injection of hustle -- something every team, especially an aging one, could do with. In 2005, with three members of the Giant’s projected rotation (Jason Schmidt, Brett Tomko and Noah Lowry) being fly-ball pitchers (not to mention most of the bullpen), the leaky outfield is poised to flood with bloop singles and line-gappers.

We all hope that the combination of an infield over laden with gold-gloves and Alou's bat – through its timely potency – will offset the extra runs that opposing teams will score as a result of the Giant’s leaky outfield. For his part, in 2004 Alou’s .919 OPS ranked him fourth among major league left fielders. He was 2nd in RBIs, 3rd in runs and 4th in slugging. With his addition, the Giants will in all likelihood score the 2nd most runs in the league, as they did in 2004. Alou will slide either into the No.5 hole, (in an attempt to offer Bond’s some protection) or, being a fastball hitter, will bat third, where he will live on a steady diet of fastballs. Assuming he stays healthy, he will certainly drive in and score 100 runs, much to the merriment of the fans, who will toast to Sabean's genius -- until the post-season, when a ball at the right-field wall comes crashing down.

Sunday, December 19

Not Much "Left" in the Tank

As we've all heard by now at least sixteen times, the market for pitchers this off-season is pretty thin. Somewhat inevitably then -- faster than you can say "mediocre reliever" -- it is the reasoning behind the Giant's latest blunder: the resigning of Jason Christiansen.

, 35, will earn an inflated $1.1m in 2005; a step down nevertheless from the $2.75m he scammed in the past three seasons, during which he logged just 67 innings. That's $132,000 per inning. In the past six campaigns, the ungainly southpaw has posted ERAs of 4.97, 5.40, 3.22, 5.40, 5.19 and 4.50. That may be a mark of consistency for the befuddled, but for Christiansen, like so many players in their mid-30s, it is the mark of men in decline. His command is tenuous at best; In 2004, he walked more batters than he struck out (26/22). His WHIP was 1.67, 474th among NL pitchers. Aside from the fact he's a so-called "lefty specialist", the best thing anyone seems to have to say about Christiansen is that he's another year removed from Tommy John Surgery.

Yet Sabean seems to like him. Given the splashes the Giants have made elsewhere, contuinity seems to have trumped ability in the relief corps. So long as the starting rotation goes deeerp into games in 2005 than in 2004, Scott Eyre should be able to handle any extra load, should Christiansen falter.

Ultimately, Christiansen may not evoke memories of slamming doors (in all likelihood, he's not likely to evoke memories of any kind), but he's not terrible money for a lefty specialist. If he doesn't cut the mustard, the situation will likely be attended to in mid-season when fresh meat is thrown onto the market. For Sabean knows how valuable a bullpen injection can be. He needs little reminding of how the 2004 season ended. Ironically, both Christiansen and the Giant's third leftie, Wayne Franklin , were among the cuplrits, as San Francisco failed to evade the Dodger's threat in the 9th inning. LA scored 7 times in that final, ignominious frame. Franklin too will return in 2005, at a justifiably basement price.

Surely, both the Giant's GM and the fans cannot stomach another season that includes 28 blown saves. Unfortunately, say the critics, with relievers like these, who needs a bullpen? It will be interesting to see how many innings Armando Benitez gets under his belt before he reliquishes pitching duties on the grounds not of exhaustion, but irritation with his quirky compadres.

Monday, December 13

The Winning Catch?

On Monday, Brian Sabean continued his flurry of free-agent spending as the Giants signed long time St. Louis Cardinal, Mike Matheny, to a 3-year, $10.5m deal. Matheny, 34, is a three-time gold glover -- including both this year and the last. Coupled with the recent addition of Omar Vizquel, the Giants infield must now be considered one of the best in the land. At least defensively.

Matheny's arrival also signals the death knell for incumbent catcher, A.J.Pierzynski. And not a moment too soon. In 2004, Pierzynski posted career lows in average and on base percentage (9 walks in 512 plate appearances) while grounding into a franchise-record (and MLB leading) 27 double-plays. His defensive skills are average at best, and his arm is among the weakest the game, throwing out just 18.9% of would-be base-stealers in 2004. More significantly, he was at the center of a dispute in July between himself and the pitching staff, after refusing to discuss the opposing Atlanta lineup with Brett Tomko, he was subsequently described as a "cancer on the team." Matheny, by contrast, is a team leader -- not to mention sublime defensively. He has made just one error in the past two seasons, and threw out over 30% of runners in 2004. He will inspire the younger members of the pitching staff with his stellar glovework and broad wisdom of NL hitters.

The short straw is that Matheny is one of the lightest-hitting players around. His career batting average is a .239, while his career OPS (.693) is 42 points lower than that of Neifi Perez. Indeed, he is very much the catcher that Yorvit Torrealba could have been. Unfortunately for Torrealba, he looks destined for a career back-up role.

What is evidently troubling about the signings of Vizquel and Matheny is that they represent upgrades in areas of relative stability. The Giants already have a short-stop, albeit a mediocre one, in Deivi Cruz. And at $800,000, he's terrific value. Similarly, Torrealba will earn less than $750,000 in 2005. Yet the Giants have lashived almost $23m on their two infield acquisitons. San Francisco offered Matheny $6m more than St. Louis; they offered Vizquel $4m more than the White Sox. So what's the deal? Why not spend the money where it remains most desperately needed?

In short, Sabean loves veterans. He loves nipping the competition in the bud. He targets players outside the limelight, or jumps in before the race has even begun (see Armando Benitez). He has avoided the bidding wars that look set to make shortstops Edgar Renteria and Orlando Carbrera (a personal favorite of his) earn upwards of $9m. For now, provided Sabean can find an outfielder and a couple of arms in the bullpen, the Giants are in good shape. Indeed the candidates for these roles might come from within the organization: Dustan Mohr could be a legimate middle of the order hitter and has great instincts in the outfield. The bullpen in 2004 was mediocre, and has now lost Dustin Hermanson. Unless Matt Herges can rebound in 2005, the ballclub needs both a durable right and left-hander in their relief corps. So thin are available options, the ballclub is considering bringing back Jason Christiansen. Unless they can get him for $500,000, it's a terrible mistake. But that's not a priority. The acquisition of Benitez, on the other hand, was a nothing short of a coup, and vital recognition that the bullpen is one. At $7m, Benitez is not cheap -- and he's not fared well in the post-season -- but last year his numbers were better than
Eric Gagne.

At this juncture, with the addition of two good and one very good players to the roster, the Giant's GM should at least be praised for his clarity and ambition -- no less his patience. For despite the temptations of uprgrading at the trade deadline in July Sabean, realizing his team was several pieces short of contending, refused to part with his brightest prospects. When the smoke cleared, only Felix Rodriguez had gone. Five months down the line, his bargaining chips intact, Sabean has moved swiftly and with the Giant's manifesto firmly in mind: It's 2005, or bust.

Saturday, November 27

The Aard Stuff

With the Giants coffers otherwise kerbed by overpaid overage veterans, young arms could well spring to the fore in 2005. One of the first in line should be David Aardsma, who made his debut for San Francisco on opening day 2004 in Houston, and picked up the win.

In the Arizona Fall League, the former first-round pick led the Grand Canyon Rafters with a 2.93 ERA and struck out 17 in just 15 innings. He has struggled with his command at every level, but he has great stuff, with a fastball that can touch the upper 90s.

Despite this lack of control, as well as a consistent off-speed pitch (he has recently added a knucklecurve), Aardsma remains one of the most highly touted prospects in the game. He projects as a closer down the road, the role he fulfilled with exceptional ease for the College World-Series winning Rice Owls. In the meantime, the Giants will look for an interim closer while they groom Aardsma for a permanent role at the back of their bullpen.

Wednesday, November 24


The bullpen, the bullpen, a bat. The Giants, it seems, are fooling no one except themselves. Desperate to capitalize on the inclusion of Barry Bonds in their ranks, the team needs to make moves to bolster their areas of weakness.

Instead, San Francisco have confounded even their sternest advocates, offering a 3-year, $12m contract to quasi-legendary short-stop Omar Vizquel. Just when you thought the Giants had to get -- are were about to get -- younger, they add 37 years to an infield that already includes J.T.Snow (38), Ray Durham (34) and Edgardo Alfonzo (32). The twist is that two days before securing Vizquel, the ballclub had inked incumbent short-stop Deivi Cruz an $800,000 one-year deal. Not exactly what most of us were hoping for.

Strange though this clear misallocation of funds is, the team is poised to do well in the free agent market. This could be the saving grace for GM Brian Sabean, who like to pounce before the field has even taken shape. Critics will say that the number of premium short-stops on the market this year, including Nomar Garciaparra, Orlanda Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and until recently Christian Guzman, would likely have driven down the price on veterans such as Barry Larkin and Vizquel. In short, there is a glut of options at short for any team who wants it; that's why the Vizquel deal seems more hasty than timely. The irony is that, in recent months, Sabean made no attempt to disguise his penchant for Cabrera. This tells us two things:

1) The Giants can ill-afford a bidding war -- except with themselves, and
2) After two years of idle dabbling in the free agent market, they believe they can win now -- or, at the very least, they should damn well die trying.

It may be too early to tell, but the free agent market seems plump with promise. Moreover, San Francisco is fortunate to have needs in areas where competition will be less fierce. Carlos Beltran is too much for an $80m payroll that includes Bonds, Durham, Rueter and Alfonso at $47m, but at least his contract will take out a significant chunk of George Steinbrenner's proverbial wallet. Starting Pitching the Giants thankfully do not need with Noah Lowry hoping to join Jerome Williams to form a formidable trio with Jason Schmidt. Jesse Foppert waits in the wings. Brett Tomko is a horse. Meanwhile, Carl Pavano, Pedro Martinez, Brad Radke et al should preoccupy the opposition while Sabean can search more carefully for a diamond in the rough. Unless, that is, he decides to make another pre-emptive strike.