Giants Big Six Questions

The Big Six questions facing the Giants in the 2005 season.

In the days of the great Big Six, Christy Mathewson, the Giants didn't really have too big a question, other than who they would be competing with for the NL Championship (in the twelve seasons John McGraw and Christy Mathewson were with the Giants together, they won the NL pennant five times and came in second four times plus never finished in the lower division) and whether Christy would win 30 games that season or not (he did it four times) and have an ERA 2.00 and under (six times; ten times 2.12 and under) . Here are my picks for the Big Six questions facing the Giants this coming season:

1. Will Barry Bonds turn mortal? This could fill all six questions because the Giants are toast if it happens. The history of baseball is pretty clear: once they see 40, players will have a crappy year at some point. It has happened to all players, though Ted Williams was able to come back and have a pretty good season in his last one, famously hitting his last homer and retiring after that at-bat. And it would happen pretty suddenly when players played into their 40's, no slow degradation to mediocrity, one year great or pretty good, next year average or below average. However, Bonds has been very diligent all his career in keeping his body in tip-top shape, as attested to by a former teammate of Bonds on the Pirates, so if there is anyone who can continue to do well throughout his 40's, it would be Bonds. Given how well he played last season and past seasons, you have to expect another good season until proven wrong but the risk is there and growing.

2. Will Durham avoid the DL finally in a Giants uniform? Here are the facts. Two games behind LA. One game behind Houston. 42 missed games for Durham. Neifi Perez and Cody Ransom are his main backups (.232/.276/.295/.571 and .250/.320/.382/.702, respectively, vs. .282/.364/.484/.848 for Durham). How many games do you think that costed the Giants?

According to reports, he has used the conditioning recommendations that Conte suggested but did not come in to the team's facilities like they had hoped. I would have preferred that he said, "yes sir, I'm being paid generously and let the team down the past two years, so I will do everything I can to be in the best shape so that I won't go on the DL next season." But I am gratified that he at least made some change in his conditioning program and hope that it translates into better health in 2005.

3. Is the rotation as strong as some say? This could fill up the list by themselves. While each question by itself is probably not a big deal, collectively there are enough questions to wonder how the unit will perform as a whole in 2005.

- Schmidt: DL or no DL? He's been on the DL at the start of the season the past two seasons plus have been a regular on the DL throughout most of his career. That said, he has averaged 30 starts over the past three seasons and averaged over 7 IP per start the past two seasons. Probably will not be a significant problem but a risk nonetheless.

- Tomko: Dr. Ace or Mr. Tomko? His second half performance last season was probably the best of his career. He says that he learned a new pitch - four seam cut fastball - and adopted a new approach to pitching (going with his strength, the fastball, much more often; it was a lesson that changed Schmidt's performances) while he was out on the DL and that they contributed to his stellar second half, with post-ASG stats of 7-2 in 15 starts, 3.15 ERA with .227 BAA.

However, it was not a total feel-good story as he really only had 1 great month: July 3.97 ERA, August 4.86, September 1.78, Oct. 0.00 (1 start). So I would not put a lot of eggs into the basket on Tomko being a double Ace with Schmidt. Luckily, we don't need him to do that, we just need him to be around a 4.00-4.50 ERA and that should be good enough to win 10-15 games.

- Williams: 2003 or 2004? Nothing but good news on this front. He realizes that he partied too hardy last off-season and by "Livan" large, he got too heavy - 260! - to effectively pitch in 2004. Unlike Livan, he has dedicated himself to working out and keeping himself in shape, dropping his weight to 238.

Because he has been very mature for his age, some might forget that he's still only 23 years old and probably still prone to youthful mistakes. He should return to the form that he showed in 2003 (really throughout his career), with a 3.30 ERA, and leaving his 4.24 ERA of 2004 in the dust, in particular because his WHIP was still very good in 2004 - 1.29 - which was about the same as in 2003 - 1.26 - despite the steep increase in ERA. Alou says that he will win 20 games someday and, given his great performances over the past two seasons, I would go further and say that he will have multiple 20 win seasons, hopefully all with the Giants.

- Lowry: Exposed or Unexposable? Can Lowry keep tantalizing batters with the severe drop in speed between his fastball and his superb changeup now that he has been scouted extensively and been around the league a few times? I'm no expert but I would think that a 10 MPH difference and similar throwing motion really plays around with a batter's timing so much that you cannot adjust to it by knowing that he throws it. I don't think that can be scouted away unless Lowry gets into a pattern of when he uses the pitch and in what situations or is tipping off his pitches. My hope is that Matheny, with his experience, would catch on to something like that and stop him from doing that.

In addition, like Williams, uncommon maturity for his age is a phrase applied to Lowry as well. This should mean that he won't get rattled easily and can continue doing what he is doing and not lose his groove. He should have a good season, teaming up with Schimdt and Williams to form a formidable trio of starters for the Giants over the foreseeable future.

- Rueter: Return to Career or End of Career? Rueter lost his mojo last season - can he get his career back on track? I think that he was able to take advantage of knowing how umpires call strikes and nibble, nibble, nibble, earlier in his career, but I think his advantage has recently been severely reduced by the changes in how the strike zone is interpreted (Rueter could take advantage of the differing strike zones for each umpire and get strikes in quickly due to the batters unfamiliarity with how the umpire calls strikes but now they are all about the same) and in how umpires are scheduled (instead of segregating by league, they rotate throughout MLB, so there are umpires scheduled that Rueter had not learned their idiosyncrasies). I have been a staunch Rueter supporter but I don't see how he can get his career back on track, especially since he is well into his 30's now and his strikeout ratio has dropped a lot.

On the other hand, Rueter has been crafty all his career and he has never relied on his fastball, just his guile, so you never know. But it doesn't look good that he will return to past form. However, hopefully that's not necessarily because he's basically our 5th starter now and if he performs like he has the past two years, he would be OK as the 5th starter.

- Reserves: Ready for Primetime or Prime to Let Down? If any of the starters should be out for any reason, health or performance, who will be first in line to join the rotation? The leading candidates are Jesse Foppert, Brad Hennessey, and the dark horses are Matt Cain and Merkin Valdez. At the beginning of the season Foppert and Hennessey will probably be the choices but by mid-season, if Cain and Valdez show that they can handle pitching in a higher class, Cain and Valdez might get the call to see what they can do and how they handle things.

Will they be ready? Foppert and Hennessey have done well in limited MLB action so I think that they should be good backups if any of the starters should falter for any reason. Cain has been improving by leaps and bounds each year so he could be ready for MLB action by mid-season, but he's still only 20 years old, so the Giants are probably hoping to wait before they start his MLB career clock started towards salary arbitration plus to give him a full season at the AAA level. However, they did not hesitate to bring up Foppert even though he had less than a season at AAA, so clearly there is some level of performance at which they say he's had enough minor league experience. Valdez was ready enough last season with no experience over low-A ball that Sabean did not hesitate to talk about bringing him up as a reliever in the pre-season, so as long as he is healthy and doing well, he should be an option to be called up again.

I think that overall the rotation will be good as a group with just a few glitches, the biggest of which is moving Rueter out of the rotation if necessary. The other pitchers should do well and I expect good to great seasons out of Schmidt, Williams, and Lowry. Each has a different way of pitching and that should thoroughly screw up batters having to face them in a row (adding Hennessey would further screw up batter as he has a great slider). Should there be any injuries, we have a strong enough backup group in Foppert, Hennessey, Cain and Valdez that the Giants should be able to continue without missing much, unless it is Schmidt, in which case they should be good enough to stem the bleeding, though not stop it.

4. Will the team elders - Bonds, Alou, Grissom, Vizquel, Snow, and Matheny - avoid decline, DL, and a stiff neck while napping during games? Like the rotation and except for Bonds, if one of them suffered a decline in performance, probably not a big deal, but if more than one does, that could stall the offense enough to make the season a tough one like last season.

Especially critical is Moises Alou since he will be hitting behind Bonds all season. Hopefully his "hands-on" approach to improving his hitting will continue to provide a "golden shower" of hits throughout the season, otherwise you can piss the season good-bye. I think the Giants should be OK in spite of their advanced ages, but keep your fingers crossed, you never know when a player starts playing his age.

5. Can the trio of Snow, Alfonzo, and Feliz be able to get enough playing time and not drive each other crazy? There is not enough plate appearances that can be shaved from 1B, 3B, and the OF to give Feliz the 600 PA that the Giants were talking about giving him this season right after last season. I can get the count up to around 500 PA by platooning with Snow and giving Alfonzo ample rest time, and significant time in the outfield, still a good number of PA, but that would still mean cutting into Alfonzo's playing time a lot. The good news is that Alfonzo has finally gotten the message and he reportedly has worked diligently to get and keep himself in playing shape throughout the off-season, dropping about 20 pounds, including putting in some time in the Venezuelan winter leagues where I recall he did well.

I think the more important question for the Giants is not whether Feliz gets enough PA, it is whether or not Snow and Alfonzo can play extraordinarily enough to keep Feliz safely on the bench. I want a pissed off Feliz as that means that Snow is probably hitting like he did after getting off the DL last season and that Alfonzo is hitting like he did at the turn of the millenium when he was with the Mets. Feliz can sit on the bench all the way to the bank if that gets both Snow and Alfonzo performing at their career peak performance. Then our offense will be that much more potent in any World Series games where there is a DH because Feliz will probably be our DH for those games instead of possibly subbing for Alfonzo or Snow.

6. Will the bullpen hold up? The bullpen was burned out by the time the Dodgers ended the season for the Giants with that horrific ending of a game. And the only experienced reliever that the Giants have added is Armando Benitez. However, I think the bullpen will be fine this season because we aren't waiting for Nen anymore.

Everyone knows that Benitez is the man, the closer. And the setup roles, as they always do under Alou, varies depending on who has the hot hand. I think that Brower will continue to do well and probably improve as this is a contract year for him. I think that Eyre will apply the lessons he has been learning on throwing a changeup from his roomie Noah Lowry and they will pay off in improved performance. I think Matt Herges will return to his career norm and be the good to great setup guy that he has always been in his career when his mind wasn't being warped by the pressure of being "the closer." It is also his contract year as well too. Lastly, I am hoping that Jesse Foppert will come in like Nathan did and provide a boost to the bullpen overall by doing well, presuming that he is fully recovered physically.

Crystal Ball Time

Overall, just looking at the changes and potential problems and not doing much numerical analysis, I think the Giants should easily return to 95+ wins if the questions above turn out to be needless worry and win the division easily. The second best offense of 2004 appears to have improved in 2005 despite the addition of Matheny to the lineup, the injured players are working on preventing getting injured in 2005, the starting rotation looks to be very strong, if a bit younger now, the defense looks improved, and the bullpen looks like it is improved as well.

If a few problems cropped up, that would knock them down a notch and they should be around the 91 wins that they had in 2004 and be competitive for the NL West title again. In any case, hopefully the Giants can answer these questions positively and be competitive or it will be a looong season. But right now I don't see any reason for Giants fans to be overly worried, the Giants appear to have prepared the team to go for it all in 2005.

Not only that, but their reserves are very good all around as well. They have severely strengthened the bench with the addition of Cruz and Tucker to it when they were starters last season and had big contributions. So the bench is full of players - Feliz, Cruz, Tucker, and Torrealba - who have been adequate to good starters when given extended playing time in the past, which would allow the 2005 Giants to sail through any DL patches that may crop up during the year without missing much of a beat. In addition, their strength in starting pitching is starting to spill over into good backup reserves in AAA and long relief.

To sum, Bye-bye Baby, these Humm Babies are looking good as You gotta like these kids and old dudes. Giants management has seen the light and, while they did not go get the annointed heir apparent to Barry, they did go out and committed a lot of future dollars to acquiring the players to ensure that the 2005 team is prepared for the long haul towards first making the playoffs, and second winning it all and bringing a World Championship to San Francisco.

That is a far cry away from their attitude right after the 2004 season ended and they were talking about reducing the budget and not bringing in a premier hitter to complement Bonds. Better late than never. Perhaps it was Boston finally winning it all and taking away excuses from other teams that haven't won it all in a long while. Perhaps it was the leaked grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds that made them realize that they need to make the product on the field better because there could be a backlash from fans not coming to see steroid-deprived athletes doing poorly and not hitting as many homers, killing revenues. Whatever it was, I'm just glad the Giants were active trying to do something this off-season, which was in stark contrast to what they did in the last off-season, when they did very little other than make the mistakes of trading for Pierzynski and not pursuing Vlad Guerrero.



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 for bringing the combination of power and speed to the game.Please feel free to comment on his blog, http://biasedgiantsfanatic.blogspot.com/, if you have a question or comment on this article.

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