Tuesday, October 03, 2006


2006 Post-Mortem: The Hell That Was First Base

I think the one major trap the Giant front office fell victim to this past winter was the belief that if they could just get Barry Bonds back healthy for 2006, they'd be in good shape. After all, they threatened .500 with Barry out for the year in 2005, and the division was weak, so putting their star back in the lineup with all those free agent acquisitions from the previous winter (Alou, Vizquel, and Matheny) would make their lineup one of the best in the NL. Plus, they had Matt Cain and Noah Lowry ready to step in and head a youthful yet dominant rotation, and they had Randy Winn all season long. Taking all this into consideration, the Giants really didn't have to make any big moves going into 2006, right?

Wrong. Never mind the foolishness in counting on Bonds to play a whole healthy season (he did, amazingly, amass 130 games, well above the total many had him projected for), and be the same hitter coming off three knee surgeries. The fact is that the Giants still had gaping holes that needed to be filled, and Brian Sabean and co. failed miserably at filling them, whether it be due to lack of any options or just plain complacency.

The one major hole that Sabean totally punted this off-season was at first base. With J.T. Snow parting, the Giants decided to let Lance Neikro and Mark Sweeney split time in a platoon, which to no one's surprise turned into a disaster. Neikro continued to prove he isn't a major leaguer while Sweeney basically hit like Doug Mientkiewicz Lite. The inability to find an adequate solution forced the team to acquire Shea Hillenbrand, who was basically a stocky, right-handed hitting version of Sweeney. In all, the first base situation may have played the largest part in bringing down the Giants this year.

When the season started, I advocated giving Neikro the starting job. He had some power, I figured, and maybe could smack 20 or so homers. I didn't think he'd be Paul Konerko or anything, but I thought he would at least be adequate. Nope. After a month or so of whiffing, Neikro got sent down, and things never really got any better from that point on, as the team got zero production from the position over the rest of the season. The trade for Hillenbrand brought some hope, but his propensity for hitting weak ground balls quickly drew the ire of the Mays Field boobirds. Nothing exemplified the train wreck at first base more than the fact that Jose freaking Vizcaino somehow got 27 at bats there.

I've harped about this before, but I think it bears repeating. Sabean's inability to find anything appetizing at the cornerstone is just an example of a total lack of imagination. Hitting talent, especially at the corners, is always out there; you just have to know where to grab it. There's always a power source wandering around AAA who could contribute. Of course, instead of taking a gamble on a free agent with some skills, Sabean grabbed a crappy nomad who'd had one good season with the bat, then later traded for an overrated batting average guy with no power or plate discipline. Here are some guys who were freely available but whom Sabean completely turned his back on. Any of these players would have been a better option than what the Giants threw out there this year.

Nomar Garciaparra: Tanked in the second half and got hurt again, but was still miles better than anything the Giants had.

Russell Branyan: Everybody hates those strikeouts, but he walks a lot and he slugged .556 with the Padres, so at the worst he would have been a feasible platoon partner with Neikro or somebody else. Plus, he signed a minor league deal with Tampa Bay and he would have been dirt cheap. The fact that he was dancing around in front of the Giants' faces and they did nothing about it is, in my mind, inexcusable.

Scott Hatteberg: Again, no prize, but he walked 74 times and his .826 OPS dwarfed that of any of the other louts the Giants threw at first base.

Hee Seop Choi: Yeah, yeah, a stathead favorite, and the bane of Jim Tracy, but please, I'm not kidding here. The guy has talent and he's been unfairly squashed in all of his stops in the majors. At the worst, the Giants could have given him a shot and dumped him if he sucked.

Doug Mientkiewicz: Certainly not a long-term solution, but his .770 OPS was still miles better than the Neikro/Sweeney/Hillenbrand trinity, and his glove is pretty sick.

Carlos Pena: Not the most coachable fellow, and he strikes out a lot, but he can also flat out hit. It probably would have cost the Giants nothing to acquire him.

Carlos Delgado: OK, maybe we're getting carried away here, but it seems to me that the Giants could have at least packaged something good for Delgado without including Cain. The Marlins were practically giving him away. Can you imagine Delgado in that lineup with Bonds and Alou? It might have been enough to give the Giants a playoff berth.

J.T. Snow: I'm one of Snow's goofier defenders (gotta love those high socks), but putting that aside, what the hell would have been wrong with bringing him back after the Red Sox cut him loose? He has no power left but he can still get on base and his glove is still terrific. At the worst, we could see the man play out his last days in San Francisco, where he belongs.

All of these guys were out there floating around, ready to be scooped up. I guess there may have been a damn good reason for Sabean to pass on these guys , but if you find it, give me a call.

Some of the other holes were erroneously seen as strengths. Pedro Feliz was expected to improve now that he wasn't going to be jerked around the diamond every week, but he just killed the team as an everyday third baseman. At catcher, Mike Matheny was an automatic out with an awesome glove. His injury was unfortunate but may have been a blessing in disguise, because Elizier Alfonzo's power had to be at least worth a win or two more in the standings. We all know about the Armando Benitez saga, and also about how young relievers Jeremy Accardo, Scott Munter, and Jack Taschner all crapped out.

The first base problem, though, was so glaring it was practically screaming bloody murder to be fixed. Sabean could have closed his eyes, picked some names out of a hat, and found somebody who could help, but somehow he didn't. Of all the sins of the 2006 season, the failure to find decent production at first base was the one that the Giants front office has to answer most for.

-Playoff Stuff

The Yankees hammered Nate Robertson and the Tigers as expected tonight, 8-4, but in the middle of the game Joe Torre did something so stupid that I'm surprised there was so little mention of it.

In the seventh inning, the Yanks held a comfortable 7-3 lead. Chien-Ming Wang was dealing, having retired the first two batters in the seventh, and the last six batters overall, without incident. With the lefty Curtis Granderson coming up, Joe Torre came out to get Wang and replace him with Mike Myers. To me, this made no sense. Wang was at 93 pitches and could have easily finished out the inning. Even if Granderson got on, Placido Polanco was on deck and he really isn't very good. It's one thing if Torre wanted to preserve Wang for Game 5, but this game certainly wasn't over and the Tigers were doing nothing against the Yankee starter.

Sure enough, Granderson took Myers deep, making it 7-4. Okay, so maybe Myers was in there to also pitch to Polanco and then Sean Casey, which would make the move more defensible. Nope. Torre pulled Myers and brought in Scott Proctor, who immediately surrendered singles to Polanco and Casey, bringing Magglio Ordonez up as the tying run. Proctor then got lucky when Ordonez popped a hanging curveball to the outfield for the third out, ending the threat.

Torre's gaffe meant nothing in the final outcome, as Derek Jeter pretty much beat Detroit by himself with a 5-hit performance, but this kind of micromanaging never ceases to make veins burst in my forehead. With your starter on such a low pitch count and cruising there is just no reason to bring in a crappy lefty for one batter because you want to play the percentages. If Myers stays in to face more than one batter, okay then, but by using him against one hitter you've just wasted a pitcher that could possibly be of value later on in the game. The move also necessitated bringing in Proctor, who clearly wasn't as sharp as Wang. Is there any reason to believe that Wang could not get one more out in that inning, especially since he had gotten the first two so easily?

The moral of the story: if a pitcher is dealing, just leave him alone. If Ordonez belts Proctor's hanger into the seats this stupid move is magnified a thousand-fold.

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