While St. Louis is parlaying a relatively soft schedule and some energized play into a division-leading record, the San Francisco Giants are crashing up against a very difficult schedule, and have found a quick route to the basement of the West, and may compete for the worst record in the NL before the season is out.
Thus the Cardinals, if they can maintain their early momentum, still have the opportunity to reset expectations; to rewrite "the book" on the team for 2008. In March, the book read: "Is this a true rebuilding year, or a continued fade of a team hidebound in its veteran-pushing ways?" The chapters on winning records, improved defense, and renewed chemistry were quite underwritten, and wound up largely on the cutting room floor.
However, the start to this season that our weekend opponents are writing looks and sounds no different from that which we expected. This is a team, as Bruce Jenkins at the San Francisco Chronicle writes, with low expectations in the W/L column, but with hopes for positive developments in smaller areas, such as the emotional development of their pitching staff, and the ability to please fans with relatively scrappy, hard-nosed play.
This is a team that is going to struggle to score runs on most days, featuring a lineup still packed with declining and untradeable veterans. Here and there, though, like unseen weeds working through ancient concrete, the occasional prospect will emerge. These players, many of them already close to their "peak" years in age, are largely unknowns, late round draft picks who have been blocked by a geritol ceiling for the last five years, and have rarely cracked national Top 100 prospect lists.
Some of these guys we suddenly know quite well:
Left fielder Fred Lewis strafed the outfield wall for seven extra base hits in four games against us. Seeing red apparently does something for his bat – he has no other XBH on the year, in fact he has scrapped a measly five singles in 28 plate appearances against all other comers. Lewis is an old youngster at 27, who is just approaching his 200th plate appearance in the bigs. In 2006-07, he was cast in the role of "who's that guy" when Bonds sat out.
First baseman John Bowker made his major league debut and his first and second entries into the home run record books last weekend, both against the Redbirds. Bowker will turn 25 mid-summer, and he hopes to do it with the big league club, if he can push aside a lesser (and older) prospect in Dan Ortmeier for backup time behind Rich Aurilia. However, the younger man has yet to take more than a couple cuts in AAA, and will likely see time there if the team wants him to get his share of at-bats.
Second baseman Eugenio Velez has made perhaps his strongest impression in the Cardinals' broadcast booth, where both Mike Shannon and the normally sure-handed John Rooney play hot potato with the pronunciation of his name. A confirmed slap-and-speedster whose game is largely dependent on cue shots and stolen bases, Velez will be happy to test the arm of the youngest Molina; if he can get on base.
The unfortunately named relief pitcher Merkin Valdez is beginning his second life as a prospect, his first having been derailed by Tommy John surgery at the end of '06. Originally considered a top prospect for the rotation, he was moved to setup work as he failed to develop a third pitch to complement his fastball/changeup repertoire.
Perhaps the only true-blue prospect in the bunch is 22-year-old shortstop Brian Bocock, who jumped from A-ball and a Futures Game appearance last summer to breaking camp with the big league team. Granted, he benefited from an injury to the incumbent Omar Vizquel, but that injury has shown no signs of suddenly healing itself. Bocock is another speedster that has yet to hit with any authority above low-A ball, and yet he is highly-regarded and so could conceivably experience some sort of instant growth spurt thanks to his exposure to major league pitching.
While these youngsters toil in relative obscurity, one story still dominates the Giants: The Mystery of Zito's (slow) Fastball.
The most universally recognizable player on this team is Barry #2, the enigmatic lefthander who signed the now infamous seven-year, $126 million dollar contract. Any discussion of this pitcher or his contract inevitably turns to his mysteriously disappearing velocity, just as any conversation about American Idol must touch on the continually mystifying presence and commentary of Paula Abdul.
The Mystery of Zito's (slow) Fastball has achieved a tipping point in terms of cultural fascination within the baseball community. People who are paid (or earn pride) for their "expert" opinions fully admit to being confounded. Pitching coach Dave Righetti, unable to answer better than a year's worth of questions about Barry, his mechanics, and his disappearing fastball, has thrown up his hands. Meanwhile, the case study has thrown at least one statistical analyst into a feedback loop.
Paul Nyman, a pitching consultant and a man Carlos Gomez once called his "guru", bravely set out to write his inaugural feature for the Hardball Times on how to identify and fix Zito's flaws. Instead, as Nyman writes in his 1,600-word introduction to this topic, he nearly descended into Colonel Kurtzian madness in search of even a clue as to where to begin… or where to end.
In a way it is a perfect story for this Giants team's season-to-be. A surface examination will only show warts and pockmarks, but hidden within its depths is an existential tale of a franchise mired in a misery it can barely grasp, let alone understand and move beyond from. While the roster turns over ever so slowly, there will be more than enough time for fans and insiders alike to look within and ask: "How did we get here?"
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