Winter of Discontent
2003 was a magical season, right up until the very end. The bitter taste of the 2002 World Series defeat and Dusty Baker's acrimonious ride out of town were dispelled right from the outset, with a perfect 6-0 roadtrip to open the season. And they only poured it on from there, opening up a large division lead before the kids even got out of school for the summer. They would end up with 100 wins, a division crown that seemingly never was in doubt and a sense that a return to finish what they started in the World Series was right there for taking.
As it turned it out, the championship truly was there for taking, more than anyone could have expected. But that only made it more painful when the Giants were upset by the no-name, low-payroll wild card Florida Marlins and then were forced to watch them go on to do what all Giants fans dreamed of doing, knocking out Dusty and his Cubbies, before shocking the world by knocking off the most recent baseball dynasty, and continuing powerhouse, the NY Yankees.
And so began the winter of discontent. Instead of righting the wrongs of the previous World Series, when the Giants had done something no other team in history ever had when they blew a 5-run lead in a potential championship-clinching game, the Division Series against the Marlins somehow took the pain to new levels of cruelty. One could easily argue that the Giants should have swept the Marlins three straight. After a dominating Schmidt shutout in Game 1, the Giants blew a three run lead in Game 2 and then blew a one run lead in extra innings in Game 3 when Jose Cruz Jr. dropped a routine fly ball and then Tim Worrell compounded the damage by walking the next batter, with both coming in to score.
But most frustrating for the fans, there was no sense that the Giants were overmatched or simply lost to a better team. On the contrary, they were the favorites, had the bigger payroll, the bigger stars and had the playoff experience. As a result, despite back-to-back playoff appearances and the team's first World Series appearance in 13 years, rather than merely enjoying the giddy surge of contention, Giants fans were left oddly empty and restless.
Perhaps bolstered by the run of success, the Bay Area fanbase seemed not only certain that the final pieces were available during this offseason, but that there was no question that Giants management and their resident personnel wizard, GM Brian Sabean, would attack the market like Bonds attacks a hanging slider.
Now, heading into February, many of those same fans feel like their team has watched that hanging slider drop into the strike zone for a called strike three. Or, if perhaps they admit the Giants have not yet struck out, at least they feel like they have put themselves in the hole with an 0-2 count.
How did it come to this? And where do the Giants and their fans go from here? We'll cover many of those issues one by one.
Who Is to Blame?
This, of course, is a loaded question, because only certain disgruntled fans would argue that there is anything wrong with this offseason to assign blame for. For our purposes here, however, we will also extend the question to the larger issue, meaning who or what is to blame for the disconnection between expectations and reality. Let's go down the list, shining the spotlight on both sides of the fence.
But perhaps Sabean's biggest failure was not any move he made or failed to make, but was instead an uncharacteristic failure to control expectations. Always refreshingly candid when interviewed, Sabean has nevertheless made a habit of keeping deals he was working on under the tightest wraps. But this winter Sabean was fairly open about the fact that the Giants hoped to make a big splash and that he was optimistic that a "rainy day fund" might allow the team to be players for a big prize, likely the long-coveted complementary bat to protect the walking intentional base on balls, Bonds. When the big name bats started to find other homes, and the only local news came in the form of no-name bats like Dustan Mohr and Michael Tucker, fans were not amused.
In hindsight, it could have gone a lot smoother had Sabean and the entire front office simply been very honest and public with their budgetary realities right from the beginning. That way, had they pulled a stunner with a Sheffield or Guerrero, the payoff would have been even sweeter, and even if they hadn't, at least the Pierzynski move would have been better appreciated and the acquisitions of Mohr, Tucker and Tomko, and the resigning at a huge discount of fan favorite JT Snow, would have all been regarded as the savvy maneuverings that they very well may still turn out to be.
None of those factors completely absolve Magowan or the rest of the owners, however. They knew the risks they were taking in financing the ballpark privately, and they will continue to walk a very dangerous tightrope. Their budgets for paying off the park, maintaining a competitive team and at least breaking even on the bottom line all depend on a mostly-sold-out ballpark. If at any point the Giants fall out of contention early in the season, the upper deck becomes largely empty for weeknight games and attendance drops overall by, say, 500,000 over the course of the season, then the franchise will lose infinitely more money than they would have had they merely kept the payroll even with last year, as opposed to reducing it by $5-$7 million as they expect to.
At the end of the day, however, Magowan deserves considerable credit and, in the short term, the benefit of the doubt. From signing Bonds right out of the gate, literally keeping the franchise in the Bay Area, building a new ballpark the only way it was going to get built in a tough political environment and then taking an operating loss during the past several years, it would be unfair to judge the owner too harshly. But, like Sabean, in many ways he is a victim of his own success. The bar has been raised, the team remains in position to end a championship dry spell that has lasted for its entire run in the Bay Area, hitting the 50 year mark this season, so any perception that the team is satisfied to let this window close by remaining a borderline playoff contender as opposed to an aggressive championship contender is sure to anger the hometown fans. Stay tuned.
But, of course, new eras bring new sets of expectations. Compare last season with 1997. In both years the Giants won the NL West and then lost to the Wild Card Florida Marlins, who also went on to win the World Series both years. In 1997 the Giants won 90 games, 10 fewer than in 2003, and they were swept by the Marlins in 97, instead of falling 3-1 in 2003. So, overall, 2003 was a better, more satisfying season, right? Of course not, and the entire difference is expectations. In '97 the franchise was coming off back to back 4th place finishes, and few picked them to do much better that year. But they roared back, took out the Dodgers for the division, and the first round sweep by the Marlins did little to drain the glow of the accomplishment. Bonds on top of the dugout and Brian Johnson's huge home run remain images frozen in team history, certainly more than any single moment from last season.
And the reason, as I mentioned, is simply the scope of the expectations. Last year the Giants were defending National League champs, and even that was a disappointment. Despite two great regular seasons, and a spirited ride through the first two rounds of the 2002 playoffs, the main images many fans have stuck in their craws are Dusty Baker giving the ball to Russ Ortiz as he left with a 5-run lead in Game 6 of the World Series and Jose Cruz Jr. dropping a routine fly ball to torpedo an extra inning lead in the swing game of last year's division series.
That is the environment the Sabean and Magowan find themselves in. Should the fans cut them a break, give them a hall pass for the great run of baseball the organization has provided under their watch? And should they get the benefit of the doubt, since this team may easily still be good enough to at least win the division? They probably should but also probably won't. After all, that's not how sports work. If you prove you can jump over the bar at one level, nobody cares if you can jump over that bar at the same or lower level the next time, only whether you can jump over an even higher bar. And after the past two seasons, when the Giants have lost to teams with lower payrolls, when the Giants failed in crucial situations where they could easily have controlled their own fates, there is only one level left that Giants fans care about jumping over. The top level, the level they throw you a parade for clearing.
First, expectations have increased greatly because clearly it is an era where anyone can win, at least those with competent management. If the Giants were winning their division and stumbling in the playoffs in the late 90s, when National League teams were seemingly vying for the honor of being swept by the Yankees in the World Series, the letdown would not be so severe. But if the Angels and Marlins can rise from (and in the Angels case last year, return to) mediocrity and put together a World Series championship run, clearly the window is wide open.
The Marlins situation is doubly galling. The franchise has only existed for about 1/5th of the Giants 50 year title drought and already they have won two titles, adding insult to injury by going through the Giants on the way both times. And, this past year in particular, the Marlins were not clearly the better team and they certainly had a much lower payroll.
Which, in turn, has to factor into the Giants management thinking this offseason. As the Marlins and Angels proved, once you get to the playoffs, payroll and on-paper superiority don't seem to matter. Anything can happen. So, from the Giants standpoint, does it make sense to blow up the budget by signing a Vlad Guerrero, assure yourselves of losing many millions of dollars in the process, and still have no assurances whatsoever of winning it all? Or does it make more sense to aim for smaller, less glamorous moves, and perhaps save the rainy day fund that Sabean alluded to for a strategic midseason pickup, when questions such as Nen and Schmidt's health will have been answered?
The second way that the baseball landscape has contributed to the grumblings from fans about the Giants offseason is that, just as it seems possible for any team to win it all, it also has seemed possible this offseason for most teams to sign the superstar free agents that historically have chosen between teams like the Yankees, Braves and Red Sox. While the Yankees and Sox made their usual impact moves, arguably the biggest splashes were made by the mid-market Angels and Orioles. Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens went to the distinctly low-profile Astros. And the lowliest of low, the Detroit Tigers, are the reported front runners for the top remaining free agent, World Series hero (and Giant killer) Pudge Rodriquez.
Does that mean that the Giants really do have no excuse for their failure to land a marquee free agent? Really, it's tough to tell. On one level, right up until the very end it seemed possible that the Giants could pull off a coup with Vlad Guerrero. After all, the Pettitte move proved that players would be willing to heavily backload a deal to make it work for the team. After making about $12 million last year, Pettitte's deal calls for him to drop all the way down below $6 million in 2004 before spiking the final two years to bring the annual average up over $11 million per year. Wouldn't it have made sense, then, to offer a similar deal to Guerrero, with deals barely over $5 million for the remaining several years that Bonds is making huge money, and then spiking once Bonds is off the books to a level that would have made the overall deal competitive? The Giants no doubt considered it, but in the end it didn't happen, and like the rest of their offseason, only time will tell whether the Giants were wise in their restraint or merely asleep at the wheel.
This is an absolute classic glass-is-half-full/glass-is-half-empty move. There are very convincing stats to support the case that this will be an excellent addition to the pitching staff: very durable, settled down to pitch extremely well in the second half of last season, dominated at home in St. Louis, in a similar pitchers ballpark to Pac Bell. But there are just as many red flags: gave up the 2nd most HRs in baseball, had a bloated overall ERA in the 5's and got absolutely hammered against good offenses (at Denver, Boston and vs. the Yankees).
So, bottom line, is it a good move or a bust? Like the other moves, the jury is out, but my money is on this move working out quite well, for several reasons. First, he's projected as a 4th starter, so he's not being asked to lead the staff. Second, his innings are very important, especially next season. Some have cynically pointed out that it doesn't help much to provide lots of innings if you give up lots of runs during those innings, but that doesn't tell the full story. With Schmidt coming off surgery, Rueter being a 6 inning pitcher at best and Jerome Williams a question mark simply due to his youth, a 4th starter who can rest the pen and take advantage of the spacious dimensions in his home park does add real value. Also, his stats were misleading. He had three horrible starts on the road, and his ERA drops by about a run by just removing those three aberrations.
In summary, just as Michael Tucker and Dustan Mohr are no Vlad Guerrero, Brett Tomko is no Greg Maddux, another free agent linked in some rumors to SF. But as the Marlins and Angels have proven the last few years, sometimes the marquee names have to watch the no-names celebrate when it comes time to hand out the World Series trophy. The Giants are clearly banking on that strategy paying off for the 3rd straight season.
Splash Hits & Tidbits
Tidbits From Around the NL West
The Padres picked up starter David Wells from the Yankees since the last installment of McCovey Cove Musings, and they are clearly confident that they are ready to leap from last place to contention in the NL West in 2004. Like the other teams in the division, they seem to feel that the Giants have come back to the pack and that 90 games may well win the division crown. From where I sit, the Padres will be improved, but I just don't see how their moves have closed the 38.5 games that separated the two teams in last year's standings.
The pending sale of the Dodgers continues to drag on, and they continue to wait quietly for that process to be completed before making any substantial moves to address their hitting woes. The Dodgers also feel fairly good about their chances, again based on their perceptions of the Giants slipping, but also because they feel that they can significantly improve their league-worst offense just by having their existing players, like Shawn Green, return closer to their career norms than the anemic output of 2003.
Tidbits From Around MLB
In an interesting news item out of NY that stands an outside chance of affecting the Giants, Yankee 3rd baseman Aaron Boone reportedly may miss the entire 2004 season after injuring his left knee in a pickup basketball game. The team is waiting for the swelling to go down, at which point they can confirm the extent of the injury, before making any moves, but they know their 3rd base options are limited this late in the offseason. The reason it may affect the Giants is that it has been widely reported that SF may be willing to part with Edgardo Alfonzo. Those reports mainly surfaced earlier in the offseason, with the plan likely being that they would allow Pedro Feliz to play 3rd regularly while using the savings from Alfonzo's deal to chase the big bat they coveted at one of their other open positions. Whether Alfonzo would still be available is debatable, especially since the other bats to protect Bonds are now off the market, making Alfonzo more crucial than ever in the center of the SF lineup. Unless the Giants and Yankees could somehow involve a third team looking to unload a viable bat, perhaps teams with players in their last year before free agency, like Carlos Beltran in KC or Magglio Ordonez of the ChiSox, it seems highly unlikely. But keep an eye on this story, because stranger things have happened.
Well, that's about it for this, the final Hot Stove edition of McCovey Cove Musings. Look for the next installment in late February, at which point the sounds of baseballs popping into catchers mitts will already be ringing through the desert air!
John Yearout is a Giants season ticket holder and is currently working on a crime novel centered around a fictional Giants star pitcher. His two year old son already features a mean curve ball and is slated to make his Giants debut during the 2022 season.
John welcomes your feedback on the Giants, baseball or the best tasting beer at the ballpark and already looks forward to doing research on all three topics in April. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org'
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