Season Preview: How Old Can They Go? All the Way!

Will the greybeards of San Francisco teach the whippersnappers a lesson or two? The Giants are poised for a good season, even without Barry to start the season. And they look prepared for a long season and to go long in the playoffs, perhaps to win it all, because of their pitching and defense.

Throughout much of the off-season, after the major acquisitions had been done - Vizquel, Matheny, Benitez, and Alou - much has been made of the Giants old lineup - according to most, the oldest in major league baseball history. And it is true that being of such relative advanced age, for any major league sport, these players will be prone to more possibilities of breaking down physically, resulting in reduced performance, whether through injury or just plain old age. But the Giants starting players, as a group, has not been acting their age.

Old is as Old does

All of the players on the wrong side of 35 had great seasons last year: Bonds, Alou, Vizquel, Grissom, Snow. And while a slowdown should be expected, they all did so well that a severe drop in production is not probable, except for Snow who had a dream season after coming off the DL and obviously Barry since he'll be on the DL to start the season. And they all either had among the best seasonal performances of their career or of recent years.

However, as history has shown, even the greatest of players eventually breakdown and start the road towards retirement. And usually it is not a slow roll down the performance curve but a 180 crash and burn type of performance. All the greats and not so greats reach their point in their baseball life where they cannot scale the heights like they recently did, let alone what they did once with high success. So while one can reasonably expect each individual player to perform as he once did, one cannot reasonably expect the group to escape from one or more players succumbing to father time.

Success Without Bonds

Bonds was the first to fall to it, hurting his leg on a table, as odd as that might seem (not as bad as Sammy Sosa hurting himself with a sneeze last year), though I don't know if that was age related or not. And so the Giants will have to perform without the leading player of his era, let alone of his team, for an unknown stretch of time at the start of the season. How will they do?

Last season the Giants scored the second most runs in the National League; only St. Louis had more. Even if Bonds was replaced for the season by some amalgem of Pedro Feliz and Michael Tucker, the Giants should lose no more than 100 runs created. Reducing the Giants run total by 100 runs drops them in the middle of the pack, which is not a bad place to be given that your team just lost the greatest offensive force of perhaps all time.

Because the key to this season is not the offense but its pitching and defense. If the pitching staff and the defense are improved over last year, then the team should be able to play over .500 even without Bonds. The defense should be improved overall with the addition of Matheny and Vizquel, as they are key up the middle fielders. In addition, Matheny appears to be a catcher who is able to help his pitchers perform better, whether via knowledge of batters or knowledge of the pitcher's own abilities or both.

The pitching overall is much improved and they were ranked second in ERA in 2004. The starting pitching should be improved overall with Schmidt being Schmidt minus the groin injury, the addition of Lowry for a full season (over Hermanson), Williams healthy and in (relative) good shape, and hopefully either Rueter returning to form or Tomko keeping to what made him more successful in the second half, whether it be the advice from the sports psychiatrist or his new reliance on his fastball instead of going with lesser pitches, or both. Lastly, the bullpen should be incredibly improved with the addition of Armando Benitez clarifying roles in the bullpen and Fassero being able to help both short and long relief.

Preview of Your 2005 San Francisco Giants

Following is a preview of the various positions - catching, infield, outfield, bench, starting pitchers, bullpen - and how they compared to last year's composite version of the roster.

Catching Preview

2004: Pierzynski, Torrealba
2005: Matheny, Torrealba

Obviously offense will be down. And it looks to be way down, switching from a left-handed offensive catcher like Pierzynski to a right-handed defensive player like Matheny. Defense is hard to quantify relative to offense but most methods I've seen - Win Shares, Baseball Prospectus - has rated Matheny to beat out Pierzynski defensively but not so much which then is outweighted by Pierzynski far outhitting Matheny. So using these methods, it appears that the Giants took a step backward with Matheny. However, from what I've read about Matheny in quotes from pitchers, he provides a mental lift that cannot be quantified by stats right now, and I believe that he will be a boon to the pitching staff.

A wild card in the mix is Torrealba. He knows now that he will need to excel now and be good trade bait or be stuck backing up Matheny for the next few years. He also needs to show the offense he displayed his first year, though his lack of offense was predicted when he came up. His plus points are his defense and his ability to KILL LHP: .287/.368/.510/.879 with 5 homers in 143 AB. If he can get the vast majority of AB against LHP - last season he split them with A.J. and Matheny doesn't hit much better against LHP - that will help mitigate the loss of Pierzynski's offense.

Infield Preview

2004: Snow/Feliz, Durham, Neifi/Deivi, Alfonzo/Feliz
2005: Snow/Feliz, Durham, Vizquel, Alfonzo/Feliz

Big question mark, the offense could go either way. Minuses: Snow returns to Earth, Snow doesn't platoon with Feliz playing LF, Vizquel won't have as good a year as Cruz did, though hopefully close enough, Durham now chronically injured, Alfonzo setting new career lows for offense. Plus there are no sure pluses. Keys to an improved offense here are many:

· Snow hitting close to what he did last year. Probably won't happen though. However, he should still kill RHP and Feliz kills LHP, so they should make a good to great 1B platoon still (when Feliz is not playing LF), and make 1B strong defensively.

· Durham staying healthy a full season would be a huge boost. He has made the leadoff spot for the Giants the top ranked in the NL for OPS the past two seasons despite missing huge chunks of time. If he is healthy, the infield offense is much improved because for the 42 games he missed last year he was mainly replaced by Neifi and Ransom, it can't but be helped.

· Vizquel probably won't hit what Cruz hit, but SS was actually split by Neifi and Deivi during the season and Vizquel should at least equal their combined output at SS and could do better if he adjusts quickly.

· Alfonzo came into camp doing what he did the last time he had a really good season (2000): he had a workout routine and he played in the Winter Leagues (where he raked). And, something no one has mentioned that I've seen is that he also finally dispelled the rumors that he is actually older by being able to return back to the U.S. from Venezuela without triggering a new name and birthdate.

I think that overall the infield offense will be improved. Even if Durham is out on the DL again, Cruz is a much more capable hitter than either Neifi or Ransom, so the offensive falldown is lessened greatly, so 2B is improved. Cruz can come in and play SS if Vizquel is having problems adjusting to the NL or SBC Park. Alfonzo couldn't be any worse than he has been the last two seasons and it wasn't that bad (just not $6M worth). And Feliz is there should he falter for any reason (or Cruz if Feliz is busy manning LF). Snow/Feliz, while they won't be as good as 2004, they should not drop by much if Alou strictly platooned them. So given these, the offense is about even. But if Durham, Alfonzo, or Snow can do one of the keys above, the offense looks improved. And I would bet that at least one of them will.

Outfield Preview

2004: Bonds, Grissom, Tucker/Mohr
2005: Bonds/Feliz, Grissom/Tucker, Alou

Even with Bonds out and sharing LF with Feliz and Tucker, the offense in the oufield looks to be even. Moises Alou will hit much better than Tucker/Mohr, especially for power, even if he declines due to his age, and he hits LHP and RHP equally well and both well (Tucker was adequate vs. RHP, Mohr good vs. RHP; neither was that good vs. LHP). Plus he will greatly improve the hitting behind Bonds. Also, even through his two good seasons with the Giants, Grissom has clearly still been a platoon player, murdering LHP but rendered ordinary vs. RHP (though better than before). So Felipe Alou's plan to have him share CF with Tucker will take away RHP AB away from him and counter any drop in performance due to age and Tucker ordinary stats vs. RHP looks Herculean compared to Grissom's.

These gains will be balanced out by Bonds being out and replaced mainly by Feliz and by Bonds being older. Bonds offense is like a jack-in-a-box now that he's reached his 40's: the crank has been turning and you are waiting for the surprise, which has come to all baseball hitters who have ever turned 40 in the MLB. However, you have to give the man his due until he actually does do poorly. In addition, he could have a relatively bad season and still be one of the best hitting LFs in the game. So the offense at minimum should be at least the same in the outfield but could be much improved if Bonds and Grissom/Tucker can perform at the same level as before and Moises Alou does what he has done the past couple of seasons.

Bench Preview

2004: Feliz, Mohr, Ransom, Deivi/Neifi, Torrealba
2005: Feliz, Tucker, Ellison, Torcato, Cruz, Torrealba

The bench will be improved overall offensively. Feliz should do about the same. Torrealba could do no worse. Cruz should beat out his combo with Neifi last season. Even Ellison should be able to outdo Ransom. And Tucker and Torcato adds needed LH hitting ability that only Mohr could provide last season. There are four players who could or did start in 2004 on the bench: Feliz, Tucker, Cruz, and Torrealba. So they all could slip in and replace a starter without the team missing much of a beat. And Torcato has plain raked anytime he has put on the Giants MLB uniform and I am hoping that he hits well to put the Giants in a tough position when they need to drop someone to activiate Barry off the DL.

Offense Overall

Catching is down, outfield is even or better, and the infield is even or better, even with Bonds out a month or two. The essential nature of forecasting is that you know that whatever you forecast for any one player, you will be wrong almost all the time, but in general the ups will balance the downs and you end up with the same results and conclusions, barring catastophic injury or slump, like Burrell, Konerko, and Shawn Green. For all the grief that Sabean gets for signing grizzled vets, vets have an established performance level that most probably will be close to his actual performance for the next season, while younger players could suddenly find out that the league finally figured them out and his performance will suffer greatly.

I think the offense overall will be only down slightly from last season, which was second in the league in runs scored in 2004. It helps that other top teams have lost some offense as well. If the offense can stay at least average versus the league, that will be OK because the pitching and defense look to be improved.

Defense

The defense looks to be much improved with the addition of Vizquel and Matheny, two key defensive positions that see a lot of balls. The infield is now strong at all four positions while the outfield look to be average at best and below average when Feliz is in there. A stronger defense will help the pitching get the defense off their minds and keep it focused on pitching to the batter.

Starting Pitching

2004: Schmidt, Rueter, Tomko, Williams/Hennessey, Hermanson/Lowry
2005: Schmidt, Rueter, Tomko, Williams, Lowry

The starting pitching looks improved overall:

· Schmidt: Improved just by not starting season on DL. Should be another Cy Young-type year again, especially without an injury, like his groin injury last season.

· Rueter: Couldn't be worse, but there is a huge upside if he can return to his past glory. He has looked good this spring from all reports.

· Tomko: He really only had one great month pitching at season's end and two ordinary ones, it just made the three months look incredible. He needs to prove that he can do it all season long. However, we don't need him to do that, if he can be at least as good as last year, he will win a lot of games for us. And if he can do it all season long, we could have a Schmidt-lite in Tomko, as Bill James Handbook showed that Tomko relied on his fastball a lot more often than before, which was Schmidt's admitted problem prior to joining the Giants, they both didn't go with their best pitch.

· Williams: His success is inversely related to his weight and his weight dropped a lot from last year's 260 to this year's 238. Unfortunately, his father's poor health may afffect his performance but he has shown in the past that he is mature beyond his years. And his 2004 season really wasn't that bad, his WHIP was still low, it was just he gave up a lot more homers than before, pushing his ERA above 4. He should be better this season and, if he can return to 2003's form, he should get in the high teens in wins.

· Lowry: While he won't go undefeated in 2005, he should be able to match his and Hermanson's combined total of 12 wins. However, there is a big upside if he can continue his success with his devastating changeup.

· Backups: In addition, the backups are much improved. Last year, Wayne Franklin, Ryan Jensen, Noah Lowry, and Merkin Valdez were the choices. This year it is Foppert, Cain, Hennessey, and Valdez. Vast improvement.

Overall, the starting pitching looks to be at least as good as last season and there are many possibilities for a much improved unit over last season. I think that Williams and Lowry will have great seasons and will be led by Schmidt. Tomko probably will do what he has always done in his career, just pitch OK enough overall. Rueter, while taking the 2 spot, should be no worse than anyone else's number 5 pitcher and, if he should be faltering still by mid-season, Cain or Hennessey could be ready to come up and give the rotation a lift, like Foppert and Williams did in 2003 and Lowry did in 2004.

Relief Pitching

2004: Hermanson, Brower, Eyre, Christiansen, Herges, Walker, Franklin 2005: Benitez, Brower, Eyre, Christiansen, Herges, Walker, Fassero

The relief corp is great with just the addition of Benitez. The bullpen as a unit was just missing that essential piece: a great closer. That screwed up Herges and the other relievers couldn't help but be distracted by the fact that they might take over with Herges doing so poorly, then it went downhill from there.

· Benitez: HUGE improvement over Herges/Hermanson. 'Nuff said!

· Brower: Prepared to be starter/long-relief last off-season and still did great as the key setup man in the bullpen. This season he prepared to pitch a lot of short stints and is ready to pitch as many games without faltering at the end like last season.

· Eyre: Did well again and look to do well again in 2005. Hopefully rooming with Lowry will help Eyre's changeup.

· Christiansen: Not sure why he was re-signed at $1M when we had Walker and Fassero in the wings. But he's here and shouldn't do any worse than last season and hopefully better since his surgery is another year past.

· Herges: Couldn't pitch any worse and, given his past, he should do much better, as he has rebounded from poor seasons to pitch well. I think he will shine and be a huge contributor to the bullpen like he was in 2003.

· Walker: Now that he's got a full season under his belt, hopefully he can build upon his successes and continue at least as well as he did last season. No reason to think that he would do that much worse, and even if he did, the Giants will have options like Aardsma, Correia, and Munter in the wings.

· Fassero: He should easily beat Franklin's poor overall performance and, unlike Franklin, he is prepared to pitch short or long. He had a great road ERA of 3.23 last season pitching for Colorado (obviously lousy home stats).

The bullpen is clearly much improved by the addition of Benitez and it was a good group of relievers before, lacking only a clear and powerful closer, so as good as the starting rotation could potentially be, the bullpen should be even better and definitely shine in 2005.

Conclusion

Even with Bonds out, the Giants should be competitive enough to compete for the division lead while he is on the DL because the pitching looks that much better this season than last. Just look at how well the team has hit in his absence during Spring Training. They have hardly missed a beat, seemingly, and won 20 games for the first time since 1987, when they first won the NL West under Humm Baby Roger Craig.

The key to the Giants performing well is their strong inventory of players ready to jump in should anyone falters. Like how Feliz can come in and be a good player in Bonds stead while he is on the DL. The outfield is backed by Tucker plus Ellison had a good spring. The middle of the infield is backed by Deivi Cruz who was adequate as a replacement last season. Feliz backs up the corner positions and now the OF as well. Torrealba would be a good replacement if Matheny should be out for any reason. Plus Dallimore and Niekro played very well during spring training as well. There are four starters on the bench ready to take over if anything should happen to a regular or to come in when necessary. And, as noted above, the starting rotation and bullpen has a number of players ready to jump in as needed. This will keep the team chugging along towards winning the division without much letup.

Right now, it looks like the Padres will be the main competitor for the Giants for the division lead. They only lost Wells and added a number of players to cover for that, Darrell May and Woody Williams, plus got Dave Roberts to leadoff, a key ingredient to any offense. The Dodgers have changed their team all around but I don't see how they replaced Green's, Finley's and Beltre's offense (only got Drew and Kent and both have big question marks, Drew's past health problems and Kent's .250/.316/.441/.757 career hitting at Dodger Stadium - and he thought PBP/SBC was bad, he hit .305/.385/.509/.894 there), and I don't know that Derek Lowe will pitch well for L.A. as he had a horrible season last year. Drew's contract has the potential to be the Darren Dreifort anchor on the offense side for them.

The other teams don't look to compete much. Hard to tell how the D-backs will do, they took chances on hitters with question marks in Green and Glaus but I like the additions of Rus Ortiz and Javier Vazquez. But then they added Craig Counsell and Royce Clayton to the top of their order plus was 51-111 last season. Even if they improved by 30 games, they are still only a .500 team. And Colorado is Colorado, the only good thing is that they added Dustan Mohr, who I think will have a bust out year for them, I really liked him in his short time with the Giants.

So despite losing the greatest player of this era for potentially two months, the Giants look to be competitive until he does return and should slowly pull away from the pack after he rejoins the team. The other teams, who were at about the same win level as the Giants in 2004, did nothing much to improve, only the Padres look to be improved, with the addition of Roberts, but not greatly so, plus suffered the loss of Wells, and the Dodgers look like they took a step or two backwards. And if the Giants should make the playoffs, they look poised to go all the way this time and finish the job that they started in 2002 and win the World Series, based on their pitching and defense and supported by their offense.



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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