AT A MID-MARCHdinner in Scottsdale, Ariz., broadcaster Jon Miller stood in front of a groupof Giants investors and executives and attempted to offer a hopeful word abouta franchise that has seemingly lost its way. "I have two words for you:ay-ooh-HEY-nee-o VEL-ez," intoned the team's play-by-play voice, nailingthe pronunciation of Eugenio Velez, a 25-year-old shortstop whose strong springhas been a small, but much-needed hint of better days ahead.
Execution, notelocution, has been the problem for the Giants. Exhibition-game numbers are notto be taken too seriously, but there are a few that could not be overlooked. OnMarch 3 lefthander Noah Lowry, a 14-game winner last year, walked nine of thefirst 12 Rangers before he was yanked; four days later he underwent surgery onhis left forearm and will be out until at least mid-April. More alarming, BarryZito, after a rough first season in San Francisco, appears to be getting worse:His first four starts this spring yielded an ERA just under 15, and, accordingto several scouts, his velocity was off 4 to 5 mph as he continued to tinkerwith his mechanics.
Here's anothernumber that can't be overlooked: 25. Barry Bonds wore it for 15 seasons withSan Francisco, but he was nowhere to be seen. The Giants had good reasons tocut their ties with Bonds—salary, his indictment for perjury in the BALCO case,the clubhouse distractions he created, the need for the club to get younger—butperformance was not one of them. At 43, Bonds reached base on 48% of his plateappearances last season, and his 1.045 OPS was only 20 points lower than thatof Alex Rodriguez. Even then, San Francisco was last in the league in OPS,second to last in runs and third from the bottom in on-base percentage andhomers.
A poor run ofdrafts (the last everyday impact player picked by the club was Bill Mueller, 15years ago), coupled with an overreliance on declining veterans, created thismess. But even before the departure of Bonds, there were signs of a newfranchise identity emerging. Last year's draft, in which general manager BrianSabean loaded up on high-ceiling position players for the first time in his11-year tenure, was widely praised throughout baseball. Then there is 6'3",200-pound man-child Angel Villalona, who was signed out of the DominicanRepublic for $2.1 million in August 2006, hit .285 in rookie ball—as a16-year-old—and will start the season in the high Class A CaliforniaLeague.
However,Villalona, like most of the 2007 draft class, is several years from the bigleagues. As for the present, free-agent pickup Aaron Rowand (five years, $60million) brings plenty of intensity, a good glove in centerfield and decentpower, but the offense remains largely dependent upon once-dangerous-but-fadingveterans such as Ray Durham, 36, and Rich Aurilia, 36. The cleanup hitter couldbe catcher Bengie Molina, 33, who has yet to hit 20 homers in a season or walkas many as 30 times. "We don't have big boppers in the lineup,'' Durhamconcedes. "We're going to have to play National League--style baseball andmanufacture our runs."
Given that there'slittle chance for this year's team to contend, it makes sense for San Franciscoto deploy what major-league-ready youngsters it has (box, below). One clubofficial likens the fleet Velez, a Rule 5 pickup from Toronto in 2005, toWillie McGee. Dan Ortmeier, 26, had a poor spring, but the Giants like hispower and believe he can become the regular first baseman. Utilityman KevinFrandsen will get a shot at third base, though the front office has beenclosely monitoring White Sox third baseman Joe Crede, who himself has beenhaving a dreadful spring and is coming off back surgery.
Only the front ofthe rotation, which includes hulking Matt Cain and tiny, flamethrowing TimLincecum, both righthanders who are under 25, stands between the Giants and 100losses. But with some new, young faces in their future, at least it won't bethe same old story.
a modest proposal...
The Giants cutties with Barry Bonds, but not with the other veteran outfielders theyassembled around him. Players such as Dave Roberts, 35, and Randy Winn, 33, areout of place on a rebuilding team with younger outfielders. Any playing timeinvested in those two is wasted. Instead, the Giants should let Rajai Davis andFred Lewis (left) play a full season alongside new centerfielder Aaron Rowandto see what they can do. Neither is particularly young (both are 27), but theyoffer power, fresh legs and upside that the veterans do not. Nate Schierholtz,24, who slugged .560 at Triple A Fresno in 2007, is another preferable optionto Winn and Roberts, both of whom should be offered posthaste to the Mets, acontender whose outfield has been decimated by injuries this spring.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
SECOND SEASON WITH SAN FRANCISCO
New acquisition(R) Rookie B-T: Bats-throws
*Double A stats
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
Losses that MattCain suffered in 2007, the second-most in the NL. However, Cain's 3.65 ERA wasthe league's 10th best, and the .235 opponents' batting average against him wasthe fourth-lowest among NL pitchers with 30 or more starts. The entire Giants'rotation was plagued by a bullpen that allowed a league-worst 38.3% ofinherited runners to score; that number jumped to 55.6% of the runners Cainbequeathed to the pen.
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APRIL 11, 1955
NEW YORK'Sdefending champions have many qualities devoutly to be desired, includingchutzpah, which a Jewish lexicographer defines thus: "When mybrother-in-law wore my hat, coat, shoes and ties, I thought he was just nervy.But when he sat down to dinner and smiled at me with my own teeth—then I knewhe had chutzpah." As Red Runnie wrote from camp, Leo Durocher exhibitedthis quality long before there was any apparent justification for it.
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FIRST TO WORST Ex-Phillie Rowand not only went from a playoff team to an also-ran, he also left the NL's best offense for its weakest.
BRAD MANGIN (LEWIS)
HY PESKIN (COVER)