The keys to success in San Francisco can be broken down into five areas: the lineup, the bench, the starting rotation, the bullpen and the management. An overview of each facet of the team explains who means what, and why, and where it can take them in the new season.
Versatility is the name of the game here. Manager Felipe Alou may have been blowing smoke when he said he wanted to bat Bonds second, but his musings on where center fielder Randy Winn fits into the lineup are worth a closer look. Winn debuted in the National League at a furious pace, hitting .359 in 58 games. While he probably will not duplicate those numbers in 2006, he displayed the speed of a leadoff man, and he showed he can hit in the middle of the lineup. This gives Alou options with the top of his lineup, as well through the heart of the order. Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel fits nicely into the two hole, as he isn’t asked to come up with a big hit more than he needs to play excellent defense. Second baseman Ray Durham can hit either first or second, or slide down in the order if needed, to give the team some pop at the top of the lineup, or to mix it up after the big guys come up to hit.
The middle of the order can change as much as the spots at the top of the lineup, given who is playing on any one day. Pedro Feliz has a permanent home at third base now, and for the third year in a row, should get 500 at-bats. He delivers consistent power numbers and RBIs in these situations20 and 80 respectivelyand will hit third in most of Alou’s lineups. If and when Steve Finley starts, which could be often with an aging and oft-injured outfield, he’ll hit third, and as long as he forgets that he’s 40 years old, he’ll generate good offensive numbers. Barry Bonds hits cleanup, no matter what, and you know the story when he’s healthy. A good spring bodes well for him, as well as him playing full games in the outfield towards the end of the exhibition. The younger Alou, Moises, bats behind Bonds, and behind the other hitters who may occupy the cleanup spot. The big bats may look old and creaky, but they can still perform, and they can still scare opposing pitchers witless.
The batting order does not tail off after Bonds and friends. Durham can hit sixth when he’s not near the top of the order, and following him is catcher Mike Matheny, who had a career year at the plate to match another outstanding season behind it. Lance Niekro rounds out the lineup, and Alou may choose to bat him lower than Matheny’s usual eight spot to ease the pressure of his first full season in the majors, as well as his assignment to take over first base from the popular and departed JT Snow. Don’t split hairs with this one; they can flip-flop Matheny and Niekro and it won’t make much difference. From top to bottom, it’s not the greatest lineup in the world, but it makes the most sense for the Giants this season.
A strong team needs strong substitutes to lean on. When guys get tired or injured, a weak bench can make matters worse, and quickly. No one man on the Giants’ bench is outstanding, simply because they don’t need to be. Alou asks his extra men to be ready, able, and willing to play, and that’s what outfielder Jason Ellison, first baseman Mark Sweeney and utility infielder Jose Vizcaino are there for. Ellison used his scrappy play to impress the Giants powers that be to get a spot on the active roster, and Vizcaino and Sweeney came over to help out where they are needed. Rumblings of a platoon with Niekro at first gives Sweeney more time to play than the others on the bench, and Sweeney can also play outfield. Finley’s name belongs in discussion of the bench, because his role is not clearly defined; is he a starter, or the fourth outfielder? If it’s possible to be something like a spot starter for the offense, Finley would be it. He spells Alou and Bonds, when they are too tired or injured or old to run around in the outfield. Finley seems to go through a renaissance every few years, and he’s due to rise from the ashes of an off year in 2005. Todd Greene won the backup catching job from prospect Eliezer Alfonzo, and though he won’t see much time behind Matheny, it says something to come from non-roster invitee to active roster member.
A team can live and die by its starting rotation, ill-advised as it may be. This time around, the combination of starters looks like it could keep the Giants alive all season. Jason Schmidt reclaimed his title of “ace” with a strong spring, best of anyone on the staff with four wins and an ERA of 1.50. Of course, spring stats mean nothing, but it was imperative to Schmidt’s success to get it together after injury problems and inefficiency on the mound. Their Cy Young candidate looks better than he has in months, and it’ll take the pressure off the rest of the guys knowing they don’t have to pick up his slack. Matt Morris is the number two guy, and for his demeanor and what he brings to a club, he could be a number one. He has maturity and leadership skills as well as a good curveball.
Noah Lowry and Matt Cain make up the kiddie corps at three and four in the rotation, but don’t let their ages fool you. Both are proof that the Giants minor league system is stronger than it has been in years, with more on the way. Lowry’s growing success isn’t news to Giants fans, and with a new four-year contract, he can continue to make a name for himself. Cain has added pressure, in addition to developing his talent. He’s asked to pitch his first full season on a contending ball club, and the pressure was off for him last season. If the kid has the mental toughness to flourish in such a situation, he’ll stick around for a long time with the team, and in the major leagues. Jamey Wright came from nowhere to win the fifth starter spot with an outstanding spring, and if his success in SBC/AT&T/OMGWTFBBQ Park translates to the home side, he’ll prove more valuable than just the fifth wheel on the rotation.
It may be adventurous to say the bullpen is one of the best things about the team. Last season, Alou called on young guys for help. Left-hander Jack Taschner and right-hander Scott Munter answered, and although Jeremy Accardo had his struggles, he figured it out in time to contribute. Jeff Fassero returns as the graybeard of the bunch, and new addition Steve Kline takes over Scott Eyre’s role as lefty specialist and resident funny guy. Tim Worrell looks familiar setting up closer Armando Benitez, because he’s been here before. Should Benitez falterlikely, given his awful spring and recent knee problemsWorrell can step in and close. Another familiar face who could help out is Tyler Walker, another with his share of problems, but his twenty-three saves in twenty-eight chances last season mean he’s not without some value.
None of the pieces will mean much if they’re not used properly. Felipe Alou has a lot to handle this season, navigating the ups and downs of the baseball season, as well as fielding the side effects of the Barry Bonds shownow, literally, as he’s set to have television cameras enter his clubhouse to produce a reality show starring Bonds for ESPN. Alou needs to manage the pitching staff effectively, and to some, that means no more revolving bullpen door. If the rotation stays healthy, there will be little need to shuffle his pitchers, but knowing the old man and his ways, he may continue with his methods regardless.Of course, it all starts at the top. The front office made positive strides with the aforementioned Lowry deal, and signing Winn to a long-term contract during the off-season. General manager Brian Sabean has made questionable deals in the past, but the numbers do not lie; since he took over in 1997, the team has played in eleven meaningless games. Make of that what you will, but the Giants remain competitive year in and year out. Expect 2006 to be more of the same.
Chris has been a Giants fan since her days in utero. She loves baseball and writes about whatever she can get her hands on…even the Athletics. She's a Bay Area gal through and through. This is her 23rd season of fandom and first where she's had the honor to write for the Giants on SFDugout.com. Love/hate mail can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, where the love mail gets top priority and the hate mail gets used for kindling.
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