2004 Giants' Preview: Master of their Division

The Giants are marginally better as outlined in my previous articles but, unfortunately, are still not World Series worthy, especially after other top contenders in the NL entered the arms race.

This past off season has been a tumultuous ride, resulting, at one point, in Brian Sabean, the GM of the Giants, calling a narrow niche of the Giant's fan base part of the "Lunatic Fringe," a moniker that many fans now proudly display. But how can Giants management blame fans for the high expectations that we had that were unmet?

Sabean in his first press conference after the season ended, spoke of possibly getting a nest egg together and acquiring a high impact player. And, in the past, Sabean has been very UN-forthcoming with information unless he could back it up, so that he can set expectations of the fans accurately.

The offseason roster acquisitions started out so nicely too, with A.J. Pierzynski being traded for, a clear upgrade over Santiago, and a move that portended other moves that never materialized. Then it was reported that the Giants contacted Gary Sheffield about his contract demands - which Sabean's assistant, Ned Colletti, confirmed on the Giants flagship radio station, KNBR. There were also strong rumors that the Giants were pursuing trades for Derrek Lee and Richie Sexson, though they ended up with other teams.

And then it all ended so flatly with the Giants, after crying poverty all off-season, suddenly discovered $6-7M that they could offer Greg Maddux. And when the dust had settled for the first games of spring training, A.J. Pierzynski, who many fans thought was a very tasty appetizer, turned out to be the main course and dessert. The list of journeymen, has been, and never were who were added to the team was long and enervating: Castillo, Hammonds, Hermanson, Tucker, Mohr, Tomko, Estrella, Franklin, Walker, Crudale, Veres, Cruz.

More Than They Seem

However, as I have hoped to show in my other companion Preview articles, the 2004 Giants may be rejiggered with players who are not stars, but they cover key weaknesses that the previous players had in 2003. And frankly, none of the players lost can truly be called a star player, they were all very good complementary pieces to the Team that Starts with Barry. Certainly none of them were of the caliber of Jeff Kent and you saw how the team was able to bounce back from the loss of him in 2003.

Position Players are Improved Overall

The offense should be about the same on the surface, just looking at straight statistics. However, there are a few key offensive gains this off-season. First, we should have a relatively healthy Durham and Alfonzo playing to the abilities for a full 140-150 games this season, versus 110 games for Durham and a lost more than half year offensively for Alfonzo. Alfonzo should have a year comparable to what Jeff Kent used to deliver when he batted behind Bonds.

Another key is the addition of lefties Pierzynski and Tucker to the lineup against RHP. Last year the Giants had a number of right-handed hitters who hit righties like they were Neifi (yes, that bad). This year, having four lefties - Snow, Tucker, Bonds (should count for two!), and Pierzynski - plus Alfonzo who hit both lefties and righties equally well during his career, the offense will be much more balanced and potent against right-handers. Which is important because, like, 80 percent of all pitchers are right-handers. And what is missed by those who are still pining for a better right fielder is that at least Tucker will improve the Giants lineup vs. right-handed pitching, hitting .265/.345/.439/.784 lifetime vs. RHP, whereas Cruz hit only .233/.353/.379/.732 last year (plus he has hit better than his average with runners on during his career while Cruz hit much lower with runners on).

Lastly, while Neifi is bad, he can supply what we got from our 8th position last year, so he won't detract from our lineup any more than last year's 8th place hitter, but, more importantly, the Giants need to find players who can hit better than Neifi for the 3rd spot (where Aurilia and Grissom hit like Neifi there) and for the 5th spot (where Santiago and Cruz hit like Neifi there). Alfonzo looks like he should be able to do that, no problem, in the 5th spot, so it becomes a matter of how well the 3rd spot hitter does. Right now it looks like Tucker and Grissom will platoon there, so while that won't be great, it should at least not be Neifi-rrific, as long as they are being platooned most of the time.

In addition, the defense appears to be about the same. Losses in the outfield and 1B is balanced by having Neifi at shortstop, who has a huge range factor, and there are more plays there than at any of the outfield positions. Plus Pierzynski is an improvement over Santiago defensively as well.

Overall, between offense and defense, the 2004 Giants appear to be very much like their 2003 counterparts. And last year, the Giants were 5th in OPS, 6th in runs scored, 3rd in fielding percentage, and 1st in zone rating in the National League for 2003. So they are pretty good offensively and very good in defense last year during the regular season.

However, there is the potential for the offense to be much better if certain players can just do what they have done in their careers and not hit like Neifi, as Aurilia and Grissom did hitting 3rd and Santiago and Cruz did hitting 5th. Lost in all the grumbling about Tucker being a mediocre 3rd place hitter (and valid grumbling based solely on his career stats) is the fact that Tucker will probably improve our offense simply by being his normal mediocre self. For his career, his OPS against RHP is .784 and overall is .769 while last year, for any 3rd place hitter NOT named Barry Bonds, the OPS was a paltry .687, down in Neifi country. And Tucker has an OPS of .799 with runners on and .745 with RISP, which is an improvement over what was accomplished last year in the third spot.

Pitching Depends on Health

The Giants pitching for 2004 obviously revolves around the health of both Schmidt and Nen. If either falters, then the team will falter unless Sabean can make one of his patented "steal the candy from the baby" trades that he usually tries to make. Unfortunately, this uncertainty can last for another month or two as both pitchers recover from their surgeries.

And while Schmidt wasn't ready for the opening "play ball" of the season, it looks like he'll be ready to start a game for us by mid-to-late April, about the same time he came in last year too. And you saw what he did last year. In addition, he could have a monster year, even better than last year, because he said that he learned to pitch last year but couldn't do everything he could because of his torn tendon. That means this year, if healthy, he should now know how to pitch plus is healthy enough to throw off-speed pitches to mix in with his fast ball, as he did everything just with his heat last year (scary!).

Assuming that Schmidt is back and performing about as well as last year, the rotation looks to be better than it was last year, where three-fifths of the rotation was relatively unproven: Damian Moss, Ryan Jensen, and Kurt Ainsworth. While there was a world of difference in potential that they had over our current 3-4-5 of Jerome Williams, Brett Tomko, and Dustin Hermanson, since the latter two are journeymen starters, there is a lack of reliable performance from Moss and Jensen that negated any potential that Ainsworth showed. Tomko has been touted as a horse that will get us 200 IP but Hermanson was regularly pitching almost as many innings when he was a starter before an injury appeared to derail Hermanson's career as a starter.

The bullpen has been even more devastated by injuries. Nen we all know is trying to make a comeback of all comebacks with the odds decidedly against him, putting his career into a situation he has known for most of professional MLB career: it's the bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded and his career is on the line, will he deliver? His coming back being questionable, Sabean tried to populate the bullpen with enough reliable relievers to hold the fort until it is clear that Nen is permanently out and the Giants can act to get another "Proven Closer (tm)". The troika of Matt Herges, Felix Rodriguez, and Scott Eyre, while not impenetrable, would have been a decent to good 7-8-9 combo to go to when the game is ready to be saved, with Christensen and Brower contributing to the set-up duties when needed.

However, then Eyre's back got injured and he is out until the end of April, necessitating the literal scraping of the bottom of the barrel and picking up the two Brewer's pitchers - Wayne Franklin and Leo Estrella - plus Mike Crudale and Dave Veres. Estrella has already been designated for assignment. And Veres was blown out in a save situation the other day; I had my highest hopes for him since he actually pitched well in spring training despite his missing arm strength and so am very disappointed.

The Giants pitchers in 2003 were 2nd in ERA, 2nd in runs allowed, 3rd in WHIP, and 3rd in OPS to opposing batters. For a relatively nondescript group of pitchers with its one shining star in Schmidt, that is pretty good results, reminiscence of Roger Craig's Humm Baby cobbling together of good pitching staffs with nondescript pitchers such as Mike LaCoss. With a rotation that appears up to the task of equaling last year's rotation and perhaps bettering it, the Giants appear to be set to finish roughly about where they were last year in pitching. It is up to the bullpen, whose composition is still as up in the air now as the beginning of spring training, to determine whether it will be as good as last year or down a few notches or more.

Not World Series Worthy

Overall, I think the Giants are better off than last year and should win the NL West again. However, with the arms race at Chicago and Houston, I think that they will be hard pressed to get by both teams in the playoffs to make the World Series with the current offense. I think the Giants need another big bat to make the World Series this season and hopefully Sabean can pull off one of his patented mid-season trades that would shock and awe the competition, hopefully the young stud that will take over for Barry in a few years.

However, if Schmidt is out for an extended period of time, the Giants will only be marginally competitive, like the D-backs last year while Randy Johnson was out. And if the offensive gains I noted above do not materialize as well, the first losing year under Sabean could happen unless he pulls off a monster trade. Even if everything went well, as already noted, the Giants probably would make the playoffs but would be hard pressed to make it to the World Series. The Giants would need a Bartman, Part 2, to rear its ugly head and turn the tide for the Giants or Schmidt would have to become the second coming of Christy Mathewson and pitch 2-3 games each series and win every game masterfully. In other words, Lady Luck would have to smile on the Giants to even make the World Series and to actually win it would need another dose of Lady Luck.

Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@nospam.yahoo.com (remove the "nospam." if you wish to e-mail me) if you have a question or comment.

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