McCovey Cove Musings

In this installment of McCovey Cove Musings, the first of several covering what is already an active Hot Stove league season of player signings and trades, we'll review the Giants' big moves and then take a quick look around the rest of baseball.

The First Shot Fired

Omar Vizquel. The slick fielding SS was the first of more than 200 free agents to change teams, just days into the signing period. Brian Sabean & Co. struck quickly and aggressively, and in the process both addressed a glaring need on their roster and also opened themselves up to whispers they may have overpaid, both in terms of dollars and contract length (Vizquel will be 40 in the 3rd and final year of the deal).

The move clearly illustrates the Giants’ live-for-today philosophy. In the short term, Vizquel is an obvious upgrade at SS. His defense, even at this stage of his career, easily surpasses any of the previous Giant shortstops in the new ballpark era. And his offense, despite a lack of home run power, is misleadingly solid. His line-drive, gap power should play well in his new home park and his speed on the bases makes him a natural fit as one of the pre-Bonds tablesetters, likely in the 2-hole behind Durham.

The glass-is-half-empty concerns include the aforementioned age issue, especially since gray hair seems to suddenly have become a prerequisite for a spot on the Giants roster. Injuries have also crept into the picture, mostly ruining his 2003 season, though he did bounce back with a mostly healthy, and very productive, 2004 campaign. Its no news flash, however, that injury woes tend to only get worse once a player enters his late 30s, so his health bears watching.

Overall, however, it seems like a very strong move. It shows that the Giants management agrees with the fans outcry to make an all-out effort at winning now, in the few years remaining in the Bonds era. And with the resigning of Deivi Cruz, the Giants will be able to weather any occasional tweaks or strains that take Vizquel out of the lineup for a brief stretch. Assuming they can stay healthy, a Durham-Vizquel tandem, both at the the top of the lineup and as double play partners, gives the Giants a weapon they haven’t had in recent memory.

Filling the Main Void

Armando Benitez. Even with the early Vizquel signing, it was clear all along that the main issue the Giants absolutely needed to address was the bullpen, especially the closer role. Acting aggressively, the Giants pounced on Marlins closer Benitez, an intimidating fireballer that looks the part and, at least last year, delivers the goods.

Despite an erratic period that saw him bounce around between the Yankees, Mariners and Mets, Benitez seemed to settle back into an effective groove last season. In fact, that is a considerable understatement—with a 1.29 ERA and 47 saves, he, at least for that season, achieved the rare door-slamming status reserved for uber-closers Mariano Rivera and Eric Gagne.

Had the Giants been blessed with a reliable closer a fraction as effective as Benitez was for the Marlins, of course, they would have waltzed to a playoff spot instead of watching the postseason slip away in yet another cruel 9th inning blown save on the final weekend of the year.

As a result, it’s difficult to even play devil’s advocate for this deal. If there is any slight concern, it’s that Benitez seems to have a slight history of saving his very rare closing failures for some of the biggest games. Giants fans might remember it was Benitez who allowed JT Snow’s memorable point-it-fair home run into the first row of the arcade in Game Two of the 2000 Division Series against the Mets.

Still, as Mariano Rivera proved this past October, the best closers of all time have some blemishes in big spots (also see: Eck vs. Gibson in ’88, etc., etc.). Therefore, no matter how you slice it, the Giants made a bold move to firm up their clear Achilles heel from last season.

Behind the Dish

Mike Matheny. The third part of the Giants makeover with addition of Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny. Like Vizquel, the move is an obvious reflection of Brian Sabean’s insistence on improving the team’s defense for 2005. Despite a generally anemic bat, Matheny is known as one of the best defensive backstops in the game. Matheny took home the Gold Glove for the third time this past season and is widely regarded as the premier game-caller in baseball.

History will chalk up the Pierzynski deal as a rare blemish on Sabean’s track record, a double-whammy that the Matheny signing puts to a merciful end. Giants fans will always cringe at the memory of home-grown favorite Joe Nathan representing the AL All Star team, especially during a year when the lack of an effective closer doomed the hometown squad. AJ Pierzynski managing to alienate his pitching staff with a questionable work ethic, not to mention leading the league in grounding into double plays (seemingly all of them in a crucial spot in the game), added further insult to proverbial injury. With a potential arbitration award upward of $5 million on tap for this winter, there was simply no way the Giants were going to accept the status quo.

The only downside appears to be Matheny’s comparatively mild offensive output. On one level that raised the stakes on the Giants next target, the elusive outfield bat. But defense and handling a pitching staff effectively are far more important, especially with a young rotation, so this move also makes the Giants an improved team heading into spring training.

Behind Bonds

Finally, the coup de grace. Moises Alou recently signed on, providing the Giants with easily the most potent bat to protect Bonds since Jeff Kent rode his motorcycle down to Texas.

The cons are easy to identify: it makes the outfield arguably the oldest starting trio in baseball history, and that age may lead to a new barrage of triples finding the gaps in the spacious yard by the Bay. The move also further calls into question just what the Giants have in mind for the future, as their position player moves have only added to their already veteran-heavy lineup.

This is a case of being careful what you ask for with Giants fans, however, and that bodes very well for 2005. The clamor from the Bay Area faithful for the Giants to make a real run at a title while they still have Bonds as the centerpiece has clearly been answered, and Alou may well be the final piece. The lineup, already among the league leaders in runs scored last season, has been improved with Alou protecting Bonds and the high OBP and stolen bases threat Vizquel setting the table. The defense, despite the age in the outfield, should arguably still improve, with multi-Gold Glovers taking over behind the plate and at SS. And the bullpen should be infinitely more reliable with the addition of Armando Benitez, who one recent poll of scouts listed as second in all of baseball, behind only Eric Gagne, and ahead of Mariano Rivera.

Get ready for quite a ride in 2005. On paper, the Giants may be the most improved team in baseball this winter. And since they only missed the playoffs by a single game in 2004, despite a comparatively far more flawed team, they seem poised for a legitimate run at finishing what they started in the tantalizingly doomed title run of 2002.

Splash Hits & Tidbits

• With Randy Johnson heading to the Yanks, the Yankees seem poised to blow past the 100 win plateau in 2005. They’ve improved, at least on paper, across the board. Dead wood like Lofton and Felix Heredia were turned into bullpen improvements Mike Stanton and former Giant Felix Rodriquez, and the rotation has received a near-complete face lift. Randy Johnson remains a dominant ace, something they clearly lacked when it mattered most in 2004, and Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright add welcomed youth and gaudy 2004 numbers alongside returning ace Mussina and fading Kevin Brown, who nonetheless would be arguably the top 5th starter in all of baseball.
• The main competition in the AL East, the champion (still do a double-take writing that) Red Sox, remain formidable but seem set up for a let down. Ace Curt Schilling may not pitch until May recovering from major ankle surgery on his drive, co-ace Pedro Martinez defected to the Mets and playoff hero Derek Lowe will certainly wear another uniform as well. To replace Martinez, the Sox signed up David Wells, a 41 year old lefty fly ball pitcher (an ominous package for Fenway) with an injury history of his own (often related to his own drunken shenanigans). Other new additions Matt Clement and Wade Miller have upside but also real questions, both about injuries (especially Miller) and the ability to handle the pressure of the major market Boston media and fan base.
• The NL West already looks like a 2-team race between the Giants and Padres. The D-Backs and Rockies remain hopelessly lost, and the Dodgers have all of baseball scratching their respective heads. Their amateur-night handling of the original Big Unit trade, when they reneged on a hand-shake agreement simply because of bad press, coupled with the loss of MVP-candidate Adrian Beltre, stretch-drive hero Steve Finley and impending trade of Shawn Green, all give them the look of a team in complete disarray. San Diego, meanwhile, has mostly been standing pat, which gives them an edge over the reeling Dodgers but has them facing an even steeper climb to catch the Giants. But, of course, it’s only January…

That’s it for this edition of McCovey Cove Musings, Giants fans. Look out for one more Hot Stove feature a little closer to Spring Training, including recommendations for getting the most out of a jaunt down to Scottsdale to watch the 2005 team for the first time.

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