Paying the Price

Mere minutes before the Non-Waiver Trade Deadline passed, the Giants pulled off a huge trade for the consensus top pitcher available to the buyers of the major leagues. Now fans, feeling safe and secure in knowing we have that starter that is what we need to win the elusive World Series title, are ready to look to the Braves and Yankees in October. But is Sir Sidney the man we think he is?

It's hard to argue with the image. Sir Sidney Ponson, riding in on his orange and black Oriole to come save San Franciscan fans from the one piece of evidence the Los Angeles Bum fans have rightfully held over us all these years: No World Series Title. Sir Ponson swoops into the rotation, bringing his impressive 14 wins through July. He does this not to ensure what even the most cynical pundits are predicting to be a NL West Title, but to get past such intimidating teams like the Braves and Phillies and get back to the only real interleague game.

Arubian Knights, indeed. (Thanks to the one and only enut21 for coming up with that. I'll pay the licensing fees later.)

But is Ponson the man the Giants fans are thinking he is? Is he Moby Sabean's infamous white whale? Or are Ainsworth, Moss and Hannaman just the men lost overboard to a crazed quest to capture something that was never truly attainable?

Ponson is a good pitcher, no doubts there. His 3.77 ERA speaks volumes. Some say it deserves a louder volume in the AL than the NL because of the DH. His 4 CG's this season speak to the fact he can take up innings, a weakness of the rotation. His control is on, for this year at least. When comparing him straight up to the man in the rotation he replaces, Damian ‘A Rolling Pitch In The Dirt Gathers No' Moss, it's difficult to argue that the Giants are not a better team on August 1st than on July 31st.

Too bad the job opening wasn't for a ‘good' pitcher.

There was one job opening available in the rotation, and one only. And that was for a playoff stud. A man who won't back down, who has a proven track record, a man who legitimately will get us to and win us that trophy we all want to take bad digital pictures of when it's paraded down Market Street.

We needed a Playoff Stud.

Sir Sidney Ponson is not that man. In fact, for the problems that Giants fans wanted solved, he may be no better than the men who have since departed.

Let's start with his experience. Ponson has been a major league pitcher for 6 years, and all but one of them he's been a starter. That certainly outweighs the experience of Moss and Kurt "It's True, It's Damn True" Ainsworth. Combined. But, as much as it is experience, it's not the playoff atmosphere, clutch experience people worry about young pitchers not having. They haven't been to the playoffs, nor can they handle it, according to the worriers.

Unfortunately, neither has Sir Sidney. Come on, this guy pitched for the Orioles his entire career. He's never pitched in a meaningful game in August, much less September. Not that Ainsworth or Moss have.

But then, Moss was in the playoffs (watching) last year with the Braves. He's seen the attention. And Ainsworth did play in the College World Series. And he did pitch for the United States in the Olympics. And he won there, too. I'd say those kids have more high pressure experience than Sir Sidney.

So, then there's the track record. Ponson's track runs sharply uphill as you look behind him. Ponson's ERA is under 4 for the first time of his career this year, and it's not all that far under 4 for that matter. Last year was a 4.09 ERA, but the years before that were all just shades under five. This is not the track record of a playoff stud.

But, I hear the naysayers say, he's only 26. Isn't he about in line to turn it around like Schmidt? Or Ortiz? Perhaps. Or perhaps he found his groove only to be plucked out of his groove and put in a new park in a new division in a new league in entirely different circumstances. There's certainly a wait and see attitude here. Maybe Sir Sidney will be up to the task. I don't see anything resembling an ability to take adversity in his past, though.

But what about the injuries? We needed a solid starter to fill in for our oft-injured rotation, which has seen every regular starter miss time due to injury.

Can't argue here. Heck, Ainsworth wasn't scheduled to return until September from his injury. Rueter had a stiff shoulder just before this deal was made, and missed a start. And though Jason ‘About' Schmidt has not been about injuries for once this year, he did just come back from a missed start due to elbow tendonitis. But is Ponson a relief to our injury woes? Each of the past two years, Ponson has suffered an injury in August related directly to his pitching. In 2001, it was, you guessed it, tendonitis. Last year was even more serious, a season ending rotator cuff tear. And, looking at my iCal, I see that August is here.

Hopefully the horse Sir Sidney rides in on doesn't have a Red Cross on its side.

The naysayers then like to point attention to Ponson being a 14 game winner. 14 games by August is a big feat, no doubts. It's pretty impressive. Wins don't just come out of nowhere, right?

Well, they come from somewhere. But it's not all the pitcher. In fact, it's 50% the job of the guys doing the job the pitcher can't in the AL. And, believe it or not, Baltimore's offense is good. Very good. Get this, they're 10th in the league in runs scored. And they've played less games than the rest of the league. In runs per game, they are tied for 7th with Kansas City. While a pitcher needs to be good to get wins, he also needs the run support to win as well. Sir Sidney has been quite a recipient of run support, too, averaging 5.62 runs a game in his favor, higher than Baltimore's team average.

Will he be just as winning with San Francisco's 4.8 runs a game? Would we be so down on Moss if he got more than 4.25 runs a game? Or if Foppert got more than 4.52? The difference sounds small, but to a pitcher, a run or a run and a half is a big difference. Ponson may come from a league that generates more offense against him, but he's also going to a league that will generate less offense for him. It's a double-edged sword this knight wields.

So between the injuries and the past ERA's, the run support and the new league, the question is asked again. Is this team better with Ponson instead of Moss?

And the shortsighted answer remains yes. Of course. However, Ponson is not the proven playoff stud Giants fans want and some still seem to think they've gotten. He is no guarantee we'll win in October.

And that brings me to the other side of this trade. What we lost.

Let me share a gem of knowledge about me with you. I don't believe in rebuilding. Never have. I like slipping young players into a lineup with veterans, so that when the former veterans retire, new experienced players in their prime are taking over without missing a step. Winning is not about looking only at the immediate step in front of you. Nor is it only looking at distant peaks, shrouded in the distance. Winning is about both finding your next step, and watching the future so that you don't climb up a tough hill to the top only to find you're on Half Dome, the sheer drop is a step away, and the lemmings behind you are getting impatient.

This is what I saw in our future before Thursday's.

I saw a five man rotation, paid and made. Schmidt, Rueter, Williams, Ainsworth and Foppert. Moss was essentially deadwood and trade bait in this group. They were signed and all ours, without question, until 2005. I saw a bullpen that was sound, with several key players under contract and our pick of various arbitration eligible guys to round it out.

I saw a team who was going to have an opportunity to upgrade two of the most underachieving players on the roster in Aurilia and Snow, and have a respectable amount of money to do it with. (And I really like those guys.) I saw a team with a respectable young catcher, a rarity these days, ready to go, and a couple of young outfielders ready to be backups in the big leagues.

I saw a team that had the making of an NL West Dominance for years to come.

Without Ainsworth, as it would be without any of the other pitchers in the rotation, that vision goes to waste. Suddenly, an unreliable Foppert, who is still looking for his show legs, can not be allowed to learn as a fifth starter, but must step up. No fifth starter is signed, and one must be found, and the meager payroll that had some flexibility is getting tighter like Livan's belt when being worn for an afternoon trip to the Krispy Kreme. Suddenly, having a complete team next year looks harder and harder to achieve.

And the resigning of Ponson is hardly something to count upon. He's turned down a $5 million a year offer from the Orioles, a team he expressed publicly that he wanted to stay with. $5 is about a third of our expected free payroll, and won't leave too much for a SS, 1B and more. And he wants more than that.

So that's what I'm upset about, most of all, with the acquisition of Ponson. We got a guy who is not ‘The Answer,' and who answers only one of the many questions we had about a fragile rotation, and cost ourselves a very rosy future.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying we should have gotten a different guy (though I'd be less upset about Vazquez, but still disappointed for various reasons). I'm not saying we should have gotten a bat. I am saying I believed in standing pat, because we had a very good team, and I didn't see any major improvements out there.

And, quite frankly, the idea that we should overspend for an overrated talent in a seller's market to prevent a rival from getting him sounds a little too Dick Cheney-ish for me.

I hope to the heavens that I'm wrong. I hope that Sabean keeps his genius streak going, and that Ponson finds himself as inspired at Pacific Bell Park as I do every time I settle into my seat. No one will know the answer until this October, nor for a few years.

Until then, Sabean's going to ride his white whale straight into the cove and beach him like Humphrey outside of Candlestick. And we'll see if Sir Sidney Ponson is indeed a Knight of the Table Diamond on August 5th, or if he is simply another pretender, trying to pull May's bat from the stone, and if we'll have to find another true King to lead us to the promised land.

On another note, I want to thank everyone who's written me for my articles as of late. I enjoy the attention. I apologize for the fact I have not had time to reply to emails written this month. My email box was corrupted by a virus sent by an overeager Sosa fan named Laquisha who thought Perez was a close second to Sosa in the NL MVP race. It jumbled addresses and messages so that I was replying to letters sent by different people. The problem is fixed now, and I invite everyone to continue to write me. Except Laquisha. You're officially quarantined by the Internet Health Organization. Go stand in the corner.

I may do a mailbag column in the future, so please send me questions, replies, comments and the such that you don't mind being shown to the world, and I'll put you up there for the world to see.

I suggest earplugs for the coming laughter.


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