Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Winter of Discontent

The Giants’ offseason has been a fairly eventful one, with the most notable themes being defense, relief pitching, and old age. After watching the 2004 season booted away by a series of Hindenburg-esque bullpen catastrophes and defensive lapses, Brian Sabean went about shoring up the defense by signing Omar Vizquel and Mike Matheny (more on him in a sec) and securing a solid closer in Armando Benitez. Thus, we no longer should have to watch Matt Herges or Wayne Franklin throw flaming logs up to the plate in the 9th or see Cody Ransom come in as a defensive replacement and subsequently botch a key grounder, as in that fateful early October day. Still, many denizens of Giants fan pages and owners of blogs such as this reacted to Sabean’s moves as George C. Scott would to having a football in the groin. The point that drove most fans insane was the collective age of all of Sabean’s signings, somewhere around 57 or so. This, combined with the already aging core of players remaining from last season, made it seem as though Sabean was intent on staging some half-baked Cocoon on the baseball diamond instead of fielding a championship caliber team.

The nay-sayers certainly have a point. We hear in one ear Peter Magowan whining about paying off ballpark debt and having to limit payroll, then we open the newspaper and see Sabean investing 10.5 million over three years on a catcher who would have a hard time out-hitting the fat kid from The Sandlot. Instead of investing large amounts of money on young stars like Carlos Beltran or a top-tier pitcher like Pedro Martinez, Sabean nabs Vizquel for 14 mil, re-ups a lefty specialist for a million, and gives Pedro Feliz a 2 year/6 mil extension. Whatever. Since taking over as GM in 1996, Sabean has never once been responsible for putting a losing team on the field. That may certainly not be attributable entirely to him (a Mr. Bonds comes to mind) but he certainly deserves credit for the long streak of winning and he’s earned our trust even when he makes moves that look silly on the outside.

Here’s a little look at some of the major moves Sabean has made this offseason. In this fan’s humble opinion, it has been for the most part a successful winter, despite the criticism. The Giants look stronger on paper than they did last year, and with the defending NL West champ Dodgers doing God-knows-what it looks like the boys by the bay have the division in their crosshairs. Notice that two of the transactions Sabean made aren’t discussed here. That’s because they were ugly, send-me-on-a-long-Vicodin-induced-bender-type of moves that can only be rationalized with the theory that Sabean was either horribly drunk or intent on proving that grown, well-educated men can also spit in the face of common sense on a whim. I’ll discuss these moves at a later date, but for now, here are the deals that were either good or merely tolerable.

Omar Vizquel Well, they had a shortstop in Deivi Cruz who was cheaper and not much different in terms of production at the plate, but Sabean said “Damn the Torpedoes” or something like that, and signed this Proven MLB Veteran Who Has Played On Winners Before ™ anyway. It was a move that was completely unnecessary, but apparently Sabean saw a great need for an upgrade at short. Omar is certainly better defensively than Cruz, and their offense is about a wash, so it wasn’t a horrible deal. Deivi never walks, and thus his .292 average looks fluky and he could easily plummet back to the .250 baseline he had established before, which would kill his value. At least with Vizquel you know you’re getting a high average, decent OBP guy. Still, it would have made more sense to allot this money to somebody better. The only thing I’m concerned with is that third year on Vizquel’s contract. He’ll be 40 and I have visions of him being a Benard-esque albatross.

Armando Benitez It was a move that had to be made. I hate overpaying for closers, and I think paying guys lots of money to come in for one inning to get three usually easy outs (unless they’re named Gagne or Brad Lidge) is asinine. But after watching opposing hitters re-enact Sherman’s March against the Giants’ bullpen last year, I’m not even complaining. Benitez always seemed to be giving up the big hit in the playoffs (he coughed up two games in the ’97 ALCS and we all remember J.T. Snow’s moment of glory in ’00), but I’m willing to take the risk if he can just help us get there. The other option was overpaying for Troy Percival, and the Tigers thankfully beat the G-men to the punch on that one.

Moises Alou Detractors of this signing point to his home/road splits. He hit a scalding .339/.405/.714 at Wrigley last season, as opposed to a more ordinary .247/.316/.400 on the road. Now he’s moving from the Friendly Confines to the Homer Unfriendly Spaces of SBC Park. I think you can understand the concern. Oh yeah, and he’s also a bad fielder. I’m going to go ahead, though, and endorse this acquisition, because he’s the first legitimate threat batting behind Bonds since Kent left, and the deal they gave him (2 yr/13.25 mil) was certainly reasonable. But I won’t go so far as to say that a year like Reggie Sanders’ 2002 is out of the question, and a year like that from Felipe’s son would be a serious disappointment.

Cody Ransom Not that Lemaster, er, Ransom being non-tendered was a major move, but I’ll mention it anyway because he’s gone…thank the Highest, he’s gone! Felipe’s bizarre conviction that Ransom was a good late-inning defensive replacement led to more than a few late-game follies that had me plotting a Marathon Man-esque interrogation session with our erstwhile hapless utility-man. “Is it safe?” If by “it” you mean the ball rolling to Ransom, and by “safe” you mean the out will be recorded, then the answer is definitely an emphatic “NO!” Cue Olivier with the drill, please.

Jason Christiansen I feel very strongly about signing relief pitchers to sizable contracts. Relief pitchers are the most replaceable commodity in baseball. Grab a mediocre starter who throws hard or features a decent out pitch and give him a role as a one-inning guy. Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman, Eric Gagne, Robb Nen. These guys were all starters who flamed out before finding a niche as a closer. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look, not of how much to pay. The difference between a Danny Kolb and a hard-throwing pitcher like Justin Lehr (formerly of the A’s) toiling in AAA just ain’t that large. The Angels and Twins have been experts at finding scrap heap guys and turning them into excellent relievers, as the former did with Brendan Donnelly and the latter with J.C. Romero and LaTroy Hawkins. So when the Giants re-signed Christiansen for a million bucks, it begged the question: Why? Christiansen last season walked an atrocious 26 batters in 36 innings (against 22 Ks) and was unable to get key outs on numerous occasions in his relatively undemanding role as a lefty-specialist. I understand 1 million isn’t too much these days, but even so, are LOOGYs like Christiansen so sparse that you need to secure them with guaranteed contracts when you can just nab a guy off the scrap heap and he’ll do just as well? Remember when the Giants got Scott Eyre off of waivers for nothing? Christiansen hasn’t been good since coming off of Tommy John surgery in 2002 and bringing him back was really a dumb move. The Giants signed Jeff Fassero to a minor-league deal and I’ll bet anybody he matches or outperforms Christiansen this season.

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