Barry, Brian, and a waterfront ballpark: a winning trio -- but for how long?
On December 8, 1992, Toronto traded Kelly Gruber to the California Angels for Luis Sojo. That same day, the Blue Jays also signed Danny Cox and Dave Stewart, the Tigers granted Jamie Moyer free agency, the Yankees nabbed Steve Howe, and the A's picked up Storm Davis. In other news, the San Francisco Giants signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.75 million deal, making Bonds the game's highest-paid player. With new skipper Dusty Baker writing "Bonds, LF" onto the lineup card every day, the Giants soared, going from 72 wins in 1992 to 103 in 1993 -- which sounds impressive until you place it next to these unpleasant facts: there was no Wild Card yet, and the Braves, in the NL West then, won 104 games. Yes, Virginia, there is life, and it sucks.
Three down years immediately followed, however, and, after a 68-94 1996 season, rather than making Baker a scapegoat, the Giants promoted to GM Brian Sabean, who had emigrated from the Yankees in 1993. Not afraid to make omelets, Sabean, as part of a larger deal, immediately traded Matt Williams, a more popular Giant than Bonds, to the Indians for Jeff Kent. Fans and the press were aghast, cats and dogs started living together, and hippies in Marin County traded in their Volvos for SUVs and voted Republican, so much did this trade sever the Bay Area's equanimity. But not even these grim events could refute the eventual truth: Sabean knew what he was doing. Kent turned into the game's best second baseman, Williams dodged injuries and ineffectiveness, and Baker earned a reputation as one of the game's best managers. The net result? Since Sabean became GM, the Giants have won more games than any other National League team but the Atlanta Braves.
How, other than having Bonds, have they done it? They play superior defense, for one thing, and the players they've surrounded Bonds with, in addition to legitimate hitters like Kent and Ellis Burks, have been just good enough to put the Giants in the upper tier offensively. Perhaps it's not so much how the Giants have done it, though, it's who they've done it with. Under Sabean's command, the Giants undeniably have valued experience more than anything. One gets the feeling that if Bonds was a second-year player and as good as he is now that he would still lose at-bats to Proven Veterans. The farm system, save for some power pitching prospects, is a moonscape. It's true the Giants have traded some of their best young arms -- Boof Bonser and Kurt Ainsworth, among others -- but they are nearly devoid of hitting talent, with the possible exception of switch-hitting Todd Linden.
This is not a new trend. The last two Giants' position players to become every day players were Chris Singleton and Bill Mueller, products of the 1993 draft. (Rich Aurilia grew up in SF's system, but he came over from the Rangers in the John Burkett trade.) And while last season Mueller turned into a switch-hitting Wade Boggs with a bit more power, in his career he has been a complementary player rather than an impact one. Singleton, who never made it as a Giant, is a fourth outfielder at best. Their young pitchers have fared marginally better; while there are always plenty of live arms "on the way," Russ Ortiz and Jerome Williams are the only two consistent pitchers to emerge.
Primarily this is because the Giants, even more than their enemies across the water, trade their prospects for veteran help. The Giants do not have the luxury of developing their own players; they need to win now, while Bonds is still productive. They have a sharp GM, and, since they own their ballpark, they have a huge revenue stream. But they have yet to locate a Barry Bonds stream -- and with a sterile collection of minor leaguers, a Bonds-less future does not appear to be a good one for the Giants.
But even if the future is where we will all be spending our future lives, in the future, who cares about the future? This is supposed to be a preview. So it's only natural that we head straight to . . .
2003 in review
Nothing lasts forever, not even Volvos and Republicans, and last year Jeff Kent took his Hall-of-Fame credentials, his motorcycles, and his dislike for Bonds to Houston, while Baker headed to Chicago. Bonds was still around, but the bitter end to the 2002 World Series skulked about, which, combined with the loss of Baker and Kent, seemed to mark the end of an era. Right? Wrong. The Giants won 100 games and the NL west by 15 ½ games.
What went right?
Felipe Alou turned out to be every bit the successful laissez-faire manager Baker was. Kent's loss was minimized partly because Bonds enjoyed another mind-numbing season (45 homers, .341/.529/.749) and partly because Marquis Grissom (20 homers, .468 SLUG) was not a complete drag on the offense despite a .322 OBP. Jason Schmidt emerged as one of the top five starters in the league, Jerome Williams handled rookiedom and pennant fever, Tim Worrell (38 saves in 45 tries) filled in capably for Robb Nen, and the bullpen in general was solid.
What went wrong?
After signing a four-year, $26 million contract to replace Kent, Edgardo Alfonzo produced a .334 OBP and a .391 slugging percentage. Counted on as an important member of the rotation, Jesse Foppert showed signs of dominance, but also lost five MPH off his fastball and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery and is expected to miss the entire 2004 campaign. Pac-Bell Park was renamed approximately 93 times before the Giants settled on . . . well, I'm not sure what it's named now. Most importantly, the Giants played uncharacteristically lousy defense in their opening-round playoff loss to the Marlins. Rich Aurilia looked like an A-ball rookie thrown to the MLB hot-house, and Jose Cruz seemed actually to use his Gold Glove in RF in the playoffs; the latter joins Candy Maldonado, Atlee Hammaker, Felix Rodriguez, and Mother Nature in San Francisco's Playoff Hall Of Shame.
Looking ahead: three key questions for 2004
1. Will Bonds show his age? Though they only scored 25 fewer runs last year without Kent, the Giants revolve around Bonds. It is nearly impossible to overestimate his presence in the lineup.
2. Is Schmidt OK? He turned into the legitimate ace the Giants had lacked since . . . well, since a long time, but he also had off-season elbow surgery. This procedure is better than shoulder surgery, like making polenta is, but no surgery is good, and polenta is gritty and flavorless. Given Schmidt's previous arm problems with the Pirates and Braves, it's something to worry about.
3. Who's closing? Worrell provided more evidence last year that closers are fungible, but now he's in Philadelphia, and with Nen just now throwing off the mound we may have another opportunity to test the Closer Fungibility Theory (CFT). If Nen can't go, Rodriguez or Dustin Hermanson should get the first shot, and hard-throwing rookie Merkin Valdez, obtained in the Ortiz/Damian Moss trade, has also been mentioned. In the past, Alou has not been afraid to use unproven closers -- Mel Rojas, Tim Burke, John Wetteland, Worrell -- but it's a big jump from the low minors to the majors.
OF Dustan Mohr, C A.J. Pierzynski, OF Michael Tucker, P Brett Tomko
SS Rich Aurilia, OF Marvin Benard, OF Jose Cruz, Jr., P Joe Nathan, P Sidney Ponson, C Benito Santiago, P Tim Worrell, 2B Eric Young
Should be better
Alfonzo. He may not return to his Mets form, but he's better than what he showed last year (.259, .334, .391).
Should be worse
Grissom. He could slug 20 home runs by accident, but his OBP could drop to the Neifi-Perez-like .280 range, which would be more palatable if Perez himself wasn't also expected to get significant playing time.
2B Ray Durham
1B J.T. Snow/Pedro Feliz
LF Barry Bonds
3B Edgardo Alfonzo
C A.J. Pierzynski
CF Marquis Grissom
RF Michael Tucker/Dustan Mohr
SS Neifi Perez
Kevin Correia/Dustin Hermanson
Robb Nen/Felix Rodriguez
Upon further inspection . . .
Fans in the Bay Area have again fused with the local media, this time to decry the Giants' inactivity this past winter. But since the famous Kent/Williams trade, the Giants have traditionally been quiet in the off-season; last year's signings of Alfonzo and Ray Durham were exceptions. Plus, everyone seems to have missed that nobody else in the division did much to improve, either. And the Giants won 100 games last year even though nobody outside of Grissom had what could be considered career-type years. However, as Baseball Prospectus points out, the Giants lost several players who contributed in 2003 -- and their replacements are not exactly as good as, say, Vladimir Guerrero. They're scarcely better than Wilton Guerrero. So how much will the off-season defections hurt? Here's a breakdown, position-by-position.
2003: J.T. Snow (.273, .387, .418, 8 HR)
Snow is 35 and hasn't had a truly productive season since 2000. On the other hand, it's not hard to imagine him doing at least what he did last year, especially if he hits in front of Bonds, and if he can reach base at a .370 pace, he'll help, because his defense is very sound.
2003: Ray Durham (.285, .366, .441, 8 HR, 7/7 SB/CS)
Durham is the most consistent player you'll see, offensively and defensively, and at age 32 his numbers should look the same. His counting numbers should, in fact, be better, because he should play in more than 110 games. Though Durham is no Kent, he helps the Giants by being somebody who can get on base before Bonds is walked intentionally.
Trend: slightly up
2003: Edgardo Alfonzo (.259, .334, .391, 13 HR)
Though the Giants expected more from Alfonzo, he wasn't a complete disaster. Nearly complete, but not complete. The good news: Alfonzo played in 142 games, more than he did in 2001 and 2002, and he struck out only 41 times. The bad news: everything else. There is hope. He's only 30, and he had a year this bad in 2001 (.243, .322, .403, 17 HR) but recovered to have a very solid 2002 campaign (.308, .391, .459, 16 HR). If Alfonzo can approach those numbers this year, the Giants will be happy. Not completely happy, but happy.
2003: Rich Aurilia (.277, .325, .410, 15 HR)
2004: Neifi Perez (.yuck, .yuck, .yuck)
Here's where it goes South, or, if you're in San Francisco, West, toward the ocean, because that's where Perez belongs. Perez is an easy target, and Aurilia will never be confused with Honus Wagner, but Perez will never be confused with Aurilia. BP estimates Perez will be 24 runs worse than Aurilia, and while I know nothing about how PECOTA is generated, that seems a low estimate. There has been some speculation that Cody Ransom or Pedro Felix could get some time at SS, and if Perez is allowed to play full time for 80 games or so, he'll certainly compile numbers that will make Giants' fans yearn for a replacement. Yes, even if it's Johnny LeMaster.
Trend: down, down, down
2003: Barry Bonds (.great, .holy s---!, .you're f-ing kidding, right???)
There's no reason to expect Bonds to decline. He'll still rest once a week, but it shouldn't matter. And, no, the steroid allegations won't affect him; it's not like he's not used to being the subject of negative attention.
2003: Marquis Grissom (.300, .322, .468, 20 HR)
Grissom's success last year was not totally unforeseen, because he managed to throw together a .510 slugging percentage while playing half his games at Dodger Stadium in 2002. That said, he won't do it again, and I don't care what Felipe Alou and Mick Doherty say. Grissom will still play a decent CF, but the suspicion here is that he will hit about .260, and given his disastrous lack of patience at the plate, he needs to hit at least .300 to help.
2003: Jose Cruz (.250/.366/.414)
2004: Michael Tucker (.262/.331/.440) / Dustan Mohr (.250/.314./.399)
It's as if Sabean has adopted the George Costanza approach to player acquisitions, with a jab toward Baseball Prospectus and the sabermetric cabal (and there clearly IS a cabal): "I will do the exact opposite of what they say; that'll learn 'em! See if THEY can put together a team to go along with Bonds, knowing about ¼ of the payroll belongs to Barry. Harrumph." Tucker is not as bad as the rap he's gotten -- he plays good defense, for example, and his .771 OPS would have been the highest in Oakland's 2003 outfield -- but he's not exactly Albert Pujols, either. Tucker and Mohr play hard, and, rightly or wrongly, Sabean values that. In theory this platoon will work -- Tucker's OPS against righties was .816, Mohr's was .801 against southpaws -- but neither player was great on the road (Tucker, .650 OPS; Mohr, .731 OPS), better indicators of how they'll do in SF. After the playoff debacle, there was no way Cruz was coming back to the Giants, but he was better offensively than either Mohr or Tucker.
2003: Benito Santiago (.279/.329/.424)
2004: A.J. Pierzynski (.312, .360, .464, 11 HR)
Pierzynski closely resembles the other new regulars: they're all hard-nosed free-swingers. (Amendment: probably Perez has a hard nose, but he's not hard-nosed.) Unlike Tucker and Mohr, however, there is some upside here. Only 27, Pierzynski could have a power spike this year. Even though his new stadium is a pitcher's park, some of those 35 doubles will no doubt leave the yard this season. Pierzynski was not helpless against left-handed pitchers (.785 OPS), either. Overall, he will certainly be as good as Santiago -- and he could be significantly better.
That's three up, three down, and two even (and one of those "evens," Bonds, is so dominant, he basically counts as an "up"). In other words, the offense should be no worse than it was last year. If Alfonzo can recover all the way, Feliz takes 400 at-bats away from Perez and slugs over .500, and Pierzynski has a career year, it could even be better. There are always ifs, and Perez, Grissom, and the RF platoon have the potential to drag the Giants down, but essentially it's the same offense as last year: Bonds, two or three solid players, and a conflagration of replacement players or worse.
Since pitching by its nature is impossible to predict/project, I won't get into details here. The key to the staff is Schmidt. If he's healthy and dominant, he'll win his 15 games and give the bullpen some rest. Nobody can figure out how Kirk Rueter keeps winning, and while last year he was less effective than the year before, there's little reason to think he'll fall off the cliff in 2004. Rueter has been on extinction watch before, in 1999, when he put up a 76 ERA+ -- and still managed to produce a 15-10 ledger. As long as Rueter goes 10-5 despite giving up 170 hits in 147 innings and having a K/BB ratio of less than 1:1 -- he peformed all those miracles in 2003 -- the people who claim "Pitcher X knows how to win" will have one parcel of evidence.
Meanwhile, Jerome Williams should improve overall, though he may get slapped around a bit in the first half of the season. You'd like to see him improve on his K/BB ratio (1.88), but his health should not be a problem; never known for their nurturing of young pitchers, the Giants nonetheless kept Williams below 100 pitches per start. Because of his relative consistency, Tomko will be a slight upgrade over Foppert/Ainsworth/Ponson, and few teams have good fifth starters, so whoever wins the last spot in the rotation will be, at worst, like every other team's, outside of the Yankees, Red Sox, A's, and Cubs. The loss of Worrell, along with Nen's health problems, would seem to weaken the bullpen; but while Jim Brower, Scott Eyre, Matt Herges, Hermanson, et al, are not sexy (in the bullpen sense, that is), they're effective. If the Giants have a serious hole going into the season, it would be that their pitching is thin. But even that does not seem like a deal breaker, because they have the minor league arms to get help at the all-star break. And they have Bonds; he helps a bit.
Despite the off-season losses, despite the certainty of 170 walks for Bonds, despite the Vortex Of Infinite Negativity at shortstop, this team looks as good as last year's. So much so that I declare them to be Smooth Johnny Gizzi's Lock to win the NL West. They may not win 100 games again -- their Pythagorean record last year was 93-68 -- but even if they only win 90, who from the NL West is going to challenge them? With Paul DePodesta taking over at GM, the future looks good for the Dodgers, but that future probably will start in 2005. The Padres are a trendy sleeper pick, but their starting pitching, while young and talented, is thin, and we don't know if Phil Nevin and Ryan Klesko will be healthy, if Sean Burroughs can consolidate his patience and size and become a power hitter, or if Khalil Greene will produce at above replacement level. Every team has health concerns, and even if Nevin and Klesko do what they did last year San Diego will be better, because they will get full seasons from Brian Giles, Adam Eaton, and Ramon Hernandez. But they look like they're a year away. As for Arizona and Colorado, they have the same equal mixture of haphazard strengths and weaknesses, making a .500 season likely.
There is one possibility that could ruin Smooth Johnny Gizzi's prognostication: if Bonds goes down for an extended period. No good team is more dependant on one player; no single player has a larger effect on the micro game. There is no way to measure the mental impact when a pitcher sees Bonds in the on-deck circle, but it's unlikely it has no effect. Does a flash of nervousness hit the pitcher, causing him to groove one to the current hitter? Even if he walks Bonds, does the pitcher relax after issuing the free pass? Or does he press, making mistakes in the strike zone? This is where an argument can be made for the value of having free swingers behind Bonds. Because he's on base so often, either intentionally or not, there is going to be constant pressure on opposing pitchers to throw strikes. And though Grissom and Pierzynski often swing at balls in the dirt, they won't have to worry about it as much, so they can look for locations and put the ball in play.
A better argument, of course, is that the Giants should have kept Kent to surround Bonds, or at least picked up a David-Ortiz-type flier. But they can't afford to load up on hitters the way the Yankees and Red Sox have, and Sabean does not subscribe to the idea of free talent as readily as Billy Beane supposedly does. Otherwise, Billy McMillon, Graham Koonce or any number of cheap, patient minor-league hitters would be on the team. The Sabean recipe shouldn't work -- even a team with Bonds and Kent should not succeed as well as it has with offensive ciphers like Tucker, Santiago, Tom Goodwin, et al, and someone like Rueter is an extreme outlier; plus there's no Mulder/Hudson/Zito in SF -- but who's going to argue with the results? They were six outs from a World Series title two years ago, they've been in the hunt every year since Sabean became GM, and in all likelihood they are going to the win the NL West in 2004.
The constants are Bonds, Sabean, and the stadium, not necessarily in that order, but in particular it's hard to imagine the club without Bonds. Still, for all his dominance, he's nearing the end, even if the results on the field don't yet indicate it, and so the Giants are that much closer to the precipice. That is why they forfeit two draft picks to sign Tucker; that is (one reason) why they heavily draft college pitchers who can be ready soon, either as trade fodder or as emergency use in their own rotation; that is why they rely on Proven Veterans like Tucker rather than giving rookies or free talent a chance to play. Could Linden or McMillon out-hit Tucker? Probably. But the Giants can't wait around for rookies or give McMillon the shot he deserves; they need to win now, and they need to maximize their chances to do so. It's doubtful Perez or Tucker or Mohr or Goodwin maximize anything save for their opponents' statistics, but even if one disagrees with the details (why not McMillon instead of Tucker?), trying to win now is the right course for the Giants, because even though Sabean and SBC Park will be around indefinitely, the only guarantee the team has is that the Greatest Baseball Player On Earth will not.