Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Burning With the Fires of Ort
Except for one problem. They also had this kid named Willie McCovey, who was the same age as Cepeda, who also played first base, and who just might have been an even better hitter. McCovey had nothing to prove in the minors, so the Giants were faced with the not-so-simple task of getting both of these guys in the lineup on an everyday basis. McCovey would actually only get into 52 games that season, and in the games that he played, Cepeda moved to left field in a bit of inspired lineup juggling (although he wasn't any good out there). In his limited playing time in 1959, McCovey absolutely murdered National League pitching, ending the season with a ridiculous .354/.429/.656 line. As you well know, both of these guys went on to have Hall of Fame careers.
But it doesn't end there. On top of all this, the Giants had another young first baseman who, while not quite the prospect that Willie Mac and the Baby Bull were, was still considered to have a bright future ahead. Bill White had hit 22 home runs in his rookie season in 1956, but he missed almost all of the next two seasons due to military service and by the time he returned, he was one of three first baseman fighting for one position. As talented as he was (he went on to have a fine career with the Cardinals), he couldn't hold a candle to Cepeda and McCovey and he was traded away in the spring of '59 for Sad Sam Jones.
What's the point of this little history lesson? Well, I think any Giants fan would kill for the team to have this problem right now. The Giants' inability to find adequate production at first base has gone on so long now that it is bordering on the absurd. Around the league, guys like Carlos Pena and Chris Shelton keep getting swept up by other teams for cheap while the Giants putz around with the Mark Sweeneys and Lance Neikros of the world. It really does make one yearn for the Cepeda/McCovey/White conundrum days of yore.
Right now, the Giants don't really seem to be out there looking for somebody good, they just appear to be engaged in a quest to find the least reprehensible in-house option. The latest news on that front has Rich Aurilia, he of the . 252/.304/.368 line in 2007, winning the starting first base job by default because Dan Ortmeier is having a miserable spring. I'll just express my disgust by quoting John Shea from the article in the above link: "...The organization's thinking is beginning to change, and the stated preference is a youth movement, though it's not exactly playing out before our eyes."
Ya think? Instead of Fred Lewis, we get to watch Dave Roberts. Instead of Kevin Frandsen, it's Ray Durham. Now, based on a ridiculously small sample size of bad Ortmeier at-bats, Aurilia gets another chance to show us that he's washed up. Yay!
Look, I love Richie, I really do. He's probably my favorite Giant of all time. I even grew a (terrible-looking) goatee when I was a senior in high school just to honor him. He'll go down in the annals of beloved Giants players, and rightfully so.
The problem is, this isn't 2001. Based on his age and the fact that he's had one good season since 2003, we can safely assume that he's going to be just miserable as an everyday player, especially at first base. He just can't hit anymore, and it pains me to say it. His defense is solid, yes, but he's better used in a utility role if you have to use him at all, not as a starter at the easiest position to put offense at.
It's also reasonable to assume that Ortmeier won't be great because he was never too far above average in the minor leagues, and average in the minors usually translates into stinky in the majors. However, 45 spring at-bats just is not enough to gauge whether he belongs or not. In 157 at-bats last season, which is a considerably larger sample, his walk rate was miserable but he also slugged .497. Hey, it's a start, and doesn't he get bonus points for hitting a game-ending bomb off of Dodger behemoth Jonathan Broxton?
I'm a senior member of the Board of Dan Ortmeier Skeptics, but that's sort of beside the point. The point is, if the Giants are really committed to rebuilding, it means giving young guys like the Ort a real, no foolin' shot at sticking. That doesn't entail having Giants management watch him suck for 45 at-bats and then throw up their hands and say, "Welp, we tried! Let's go back to old, reliable Richie!" It means giving him until at least June to prove he isn't better than Aurilia. If he can't hang, then yeah, send him off and try something else. Until this happens with Ortmeier and some of the other young guys, this so-called youth movement will be more like a farce than an actual strategy.