Five Questions:  San Francisco Giants

San Francisco Giants fans may be forgiven if they’re wandering around these days muttering “October 1st.” Up until that date last season, their team had shrugged off a wholesale lineup reconstruction, a change in managers, significant injuries, and even family tragedies, and breezed to 100 wins and a wire-to-wire division championship. They had just won the first game of their NLDS. Everything was looking so good.

And then came October 1st. Suddenly, the Giants played horribly and lost three straight games to Florida, bringing their season to an abrupt and bitter finish. In the ensuing weeks and months, management drowned its sorrows in a payroll-cutting binge that not only forsook any chance at signing Gary Sheffield or Vladimir Guerrero, but also meant that stalwarts Rich Aurilia, Jose Cruz Jr., Benito Santiago, Sidney Ponson, and Tim Worrell were all cast adrift, and the only free-agent acquisitions were the decidedly non-stalwart Michael Tucker and Brett Tomko. Rarely indeed has a ballclub moved from confident 100-victory stride to a cautiously tentative posture so quickly and oddly.

Here are the five biggest questions the Giants face as they enter 2004:

1) Can Barry Bonds keep it up?

Every team is dependent upon its best player, of course, but no other team is as heavily dependent upon its best player as the Giants. And given that their best player has been producing at hysterically-historically-phenomenal rates for three straight years, will turn 40 years of age in July, and will undoubtedly be hounded all year by a media-frenzy steroid scandal, there is abundant reason for Giants fans to be apprehensive. Nobody could keep doing what Barry Bonds has been doing — could they?

Granted, even if Bonds declines substantially from his back-to-back-to-back MVP performances, he will remain one of the premier sluggers in the game. Suppose Bonds loses 40 points off his batting average, hits a dozen fewer home runs, and draws 40 fewer bases on balls this year than last — he still will hit over .300, with more than 30 homers and 100 walks. Even a dramatically diminished Barry Bonds would remain a tremendous offensive force, and so the question of precisely what superlative will best describe Bonds’ output this year is the kind of problem that every team would love to have.

But any less offense from Bonds is still less offense, and the Giants’ lineup doesn’t appear to be able to offset it. They got surprisingly good years from first baseman J.T. Snow and center fielder Marquis Grissom in 2003; given that Snow will be 36 and Grissom 37 in 2004, look for declining production from both. Shortstop Rich Aurilia and right fielder Jose Cruz Jr. were solid offensive contributors to the 2003 Giants; both are gone, and their positions are up for grabs among a host of unimpressive journeymen.

Only at catcher, where A.J. Pierzynski was acquired to replace Benito Santiago; at second base, where Ray Durham missed significant time to injuries in 2003; and at third base, where Edgardo Alfonzo endured a miserable first-half slump, is there any reasonable expectation for improved offense in 2004. And whatever improvement is yielded from those spots is unlikely to add up to what would be lost if Bonds significantly declines. The Giants can ill-afford anything less than yet another astonishing year from Barry Bonds in 2004.

2) How healthy will Jason Schmidt be?

As the Giants’ offense is highly dependent upon one big slugger, so is their starting pitching highly dependent upon one top ace: hard-throwing Jason Schmidt. The tall right-hander was brilliant in 2003, going 17-5 with a league-leading 2.34 ERA, and finishing second in NL Cy Young Award voting. That’s the good news.

Here’s what’s set to comprise the rest of the 2004 Giants’ rotation:

– 33-year-old Kirk Rueter, who was sore-armed and ineffective for much of 2003
– 22-year-old Jerome Williams, who was impressive in 2003 but has yet to complete his first fill major league season
– Free agent Brett Tomko, who posted a 5.28 ERA in 2003 and whose career mark is 4.62
– Scrap-heap refugee Dustin Hermanson, picked up in mid-summer after being released by the Cardinals, who hasn’t had a full season as a starter since 2001.

This isn’t exactly a quartet to evoke memories of the 1971 Orioles. The Giants really need another great performance from Schmidt if their starting pitching is to be an asset.

And here’s the not-so-good news: Schmidt has a long history of injuries, he pitched in pain over the second half of 2003, he underwent elbow surgery at the season’s end, and is opening the 2004 season on the DL, although he is expected to be ready soon. Even assuming he’s fully ready for action in a matter of days, there’s every reason to anticipate that Schmidt will continue to encounter injury trouble. Especially given that 2003 was by far the best season of Schmidt’s career, it would be a foolish bet to count on the same contribution from him in 2004. But that’s what the Giants really need.

3) What about shortstop?

Rich Aurilia suffered through chronically-injured seasons in both 2002 and 2003, and was unable to come anywhere close to the monster .324, 37-home run performance he enjoyed in 2001. But still, he contributed a .277 average and 13 homers to the Giants’ cause in 2003 – nice numbers from a shortstop.

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The Giants elected not to re-sign Aurilia for 2004. Even considering that Aurilia was popular and well-respected by teammates and fans — the Giants’ de facto field captain for the past few years — given his age and the likelihood of continued decline, it’s hard to argue with the decision to let him go. There’s a time to say “hello” and a time to say “goodbye” to every player, and it might very well have been the right time for the Giants to bid a wistful arrivederci to their veteran shortstop.

But that’s only half of the equation. The remaining issue is: who replaces Aurilia in the lineup? This becomes yet another cause for heartburn for Giants fans, because the heir apparent is none other than Neifi Perez.

The Giants signed Perez as a free agent following the 2002 season, and he was put to good use in 2003 as a middle-infield utility man. His fielding, in 57 games at second base (filling in for Ray Durham) and 45 games at shortstop (backing up Aurilia), was top-notch. But Perez’ bat has always been a problem. His 2003 batting average was a respectable .256, but his utter lack of power and complete inability to draw walks rendered it a very hollow .256: he hit one homer and drew only 14 walks in 344 plate appearances in 2003, and his career OPS+ is a paltry 63.

Such a classic good-field, no-hit middle infielder can be helpful in a backup role. But exposing him in 500 or more plate appearances really acts as dead weight on an offense. If Perez plays full-time for the Giants, no matter how good his defense, shortstop becomes a weakness for them.

And Perez likely will play full-time, or nearly so. His only competitors for the shortstop job are:

– 28-year-old rookie Cody Ransom, who can handle the task defensively, but in over 1300 triple-A at-bats has posted a cumulative batting average of .233.
– 31-year-old veteran Deivi Cruz, who has good hands but limited range, and isn’t any great shakes offensively, with a career OPS+ of 76.

At best, it appears the Giants will rotate weak-hitting shortstops in 2004. (Although there might be some fun to be found with the names “Neifi” and “Deivi” in the same infield.)

4) What about the bullpen?

In recent years the Giants have done an excellent job at developing run-of-the-mill pitchers into effective relievers. John Johnstone, Felix Rodriguez, and Joe Nathan were all reclamation projects who blossomed in the Giants bullpen. Tim Worrell was a humdrum journeyman who turned in three straight solid years for the Giants, emerging last year as an effective closer when Robb Nen went down.

The team had better work more of the same magic in 2004. Nen is attempting to come back after two surgeries, and is starting the season on the DL. Whether he will be able to pitch effectively again is quite unknown. Nathan, the pleasant surprise of 2003, was traded. And Worrell, able to command closer money in the free agent marketplace, was (probably wisely) not re-signed.

This leaves the likes of Rodriguez, Matt Herges, Jim Brower, Scott Eyre, Jason Christiansen, Wayne Franklin, Leo Estrella, and Kevin Walker carrying a lot of bullpen weight in 2004. Relievers are a highly unpredictable breed; it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that one or more of these spare parts (or perhaps someone else) will step forward and render the Giants’ bullpen a strength. Maybe Nen will be as good as ever. But it’s at least as likely that the Giants’ relief pitching will be a source of chronic anxiety in 2004.

5) Which Alfonzo and which Feliz?

The Giants’ highest-profile, biggest-money free agent acquisition of 2003 turned out to be anything but a rousing success. Edgardo Alfonzo simply didn’t hit at all for most of the first half, carrying a .228 average and just 5 home runs into July. He did crank it up after that, hitting .294 after July 1st, and finishing especially strong: .296 with 6 homers and 24 RBIs in September, and a sizzling 9-for-17 performance in the NLDS.

Alfonzo has been an inconsistent hitter throughout his career. When he has been good, he has been superb, but 2003 was his second down year in the past three. He has suffered from a bad back in the past, and while back trouble wasn’t cited as a source of his 2003 struggles, one certainly has to be concerned. If Alfonzo hits for most or all of 2004 the way he hit down the stretch in 2003, the Giants will have an All-Star caliber third baseman. But if they get a repeat of his overall 2003 performance, Alfonzo will be nothing more than a highly-paid mediocrity.

Alfonzo’s backup, 29-year-old Pedro Feliz, is another enigma. Highly touted as a rookie in 2001, he flopped, and did poorly again in 2002. It was doubtful whether he would make the major league roster in 2003. But he did, and then proceeded to finally deliver the kind of power the Giants had been anticipating: Feliz smacked 16 home runs and drove in 48 runs in just 235 at-bats, providing an extremely productive bat off the bench.

Feliz is a one-dimensional player; he doesn’t hit for much average, or draw walks at all. He has to hit for power to contribute. But with the kind of power he showed in 2003, he’s a handy guy to have around: the Giants could use him not only to spell Alfonzo at third, but also as a platoon partner with J.T. Snow at first base, and/or as a corner outfielder. The Giants even gave him some innings at shortstop this spring; bad as his fielding must certainly be there, with Perez, Ransom, and Cruz as the alternatives, Feliz at shortstop is actually imaginable.

But only if he hits the way he did in 2003. If Feliz’ 2001 and 2002 performances were truer indications of his ability, then he’s practically useless.

In Closing…

All things considered, it’s a near-certainty that the 2004 Giants will be a distinctly inferior ballclub to the edition that waltzed to a division title in 2003. Despite near-total sellouts all season long in his gorgeous waterfront ballpark, owner Peter Magowan decreed that cost-cutting was the priority, and the moves that GM Brian Sabean made to fulfill this mandate have come at the obvious sacrifice of quality.

However, there is a silver lining to this gloomy forecast: the rest of the NL West doesn’t stack up as very formidable competition. It wouldn’t be a surprising result in 2004 if the Giants struggle to remain much above .500 – yet contend closely in a division in which no team wins many more than 85 games. If, despite slashing payroll and fielding a significantly weaker team than in 2003, the Giants repeat as division champs anyway, the question as to whether management’s decisions have been brilliant, or wickedly cynical, will be very interesting to ponder.

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