Five Questions Revisited:  The San Francisco Giants at Midseason

Back in April, we presented a 2004 season preview of the San Francisco Giants, centering around five key questions faced by the 2003 National League West Division champs. Now that we’re at the All-Star break, let’s check in and see how the team has gone about answering those questions – and what new ones may be lurking now.

1) Can Barry Bonds keep it up?

Well, let’s see here … Bonds, going into the break at 365/628/794, is leading the NL in batting average, and the majors in both OBP and SLG. He’s on pace for 42 homers, 131 runs scored, and – get this – 241 walks. He has already surpassed his own all-time single season record for intentional walks, as is a near-certain bet to shatter his own single-season records for OBP and total walks. He’s currently leading the major leagues in Win Shares.

I’d say, despite his age, his nagging injuries, the steroid scandal, and everything, he is, in fact, keeping it up. Quite astonishingly so, indeed.

The rest of the Giants’ offense, as we anticipated, hasn’t been great. But it’s important to note that, as in years past, the rest of the Giants’ hitters haven’t been bad at all, either. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski (304/350/450) and ageless center fielder Marquis Grissom (285/327/479) are both having good years with the bat. So is, most surprisingly, platoon right fielder Michael Tucker (275/374/450). And so is injury-plagued second baseman Ray Durham (287/359/472), when he’s been in the lineup (though Durham’s performance with the glove has been another story).

Only from first base, with the aged and oft-injured J.T. Snow (261/351/400) getting most of the playing time, have the Giants received poor offensive production. Well, shortstop too, but we’ll get to that.

The Giants’ offense overall, with the indescribable Bonds continuing as its irreplaceable centerpiece, has been extremely good. Despite playing their home games in what has for most of its brief history been a very poor hitters’ park, the 2004 Giants are among the NL leaders in runs scored.

2) How healthy will Jason Schmidt be?

Schmidt began the season on the DL, still recovering from off-season elbow surgery. But he was soon activated, and after a few shaky rounding-into-shape outings, began putting together his second consecutive brilliant season. His 11-2, 2.51, 134-strikeout performance has been among the best of any pitcher in MLB. Given his history, Schmidt’s state of health will always be a question, but so far in 2004 he has answered it emphatically: he’s in tip-top form.

That’s great news for the Giants, because as anticipated, the rest of their starting rotation is pretty bad. Promising 22-year-old sophomore righthander Jerome Williams has been so-so (8-6, 4.66, 70 Ks), going through the predictable ups and downs of a first full big league season. He’s had some twinges of arm trouble, and how well he’ll stand up as the second half wears on is a matter of concern.

Veteran lefty Kirk Rueter (5-6, 4.85) and veteran righty Brett Tomko (4-5, 4.98) have both verged between not good, and outright bad. The Giants’ reclamation project, Dustin Hermanson, has been serviceable (3-3, 4.34, 63 K’s in 87 IP), but in many rotations he’d be fifth best, while for the Giants he’s the second or third most reliable starter.

It’s a very shaky rotation overall. Schmidt is the irreplaceable key; with him the Giants have a competitive starting staff. If he falters or goes down, the situation would be something approaching hopeless.

3) What about shortstop?

What indeed. As expected, manager Felipe Alou gave the first-string job to slick-fielding Neifi Perez out of spring training, and proceeded to allow Perez to keep it until June, despite a horrific batting performance (236/279/301). Perez has been not just the worst-hitting shortstop in the league; his 580 OPS is the very worst among the 177 regular players in all of MLB.

This dreadful performance finally prompted Alou to stop starting Perez regularly in mid-June. At first most of the starts went to supersub Pedro Feliz (256/286/451), who, while no one’s idea of a good-fielding shortstop, hit so much better than Perez it was still an upgrade.

More recently, however, most of the playing time has gone to veteran retread Deivi Cruz (305/343/430), who took full advantage of the opportunity by busting out a .375, 9-double month of June. There’s no reason to expect Cruz to keep up that kind of hitting, but he’s certainly going to be better than Perez. Defensively, Cruz is sure-handed but has precious little range.

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Alou will probably juggle Cruz, Perez, Feliz, and good-field-no-hit backup Cody Ransom (194/286/290) at short the rest of the way. It all adds up to a weakness, as expected.

At least one thing about it’s been fun: the Giants are the first team in major league history to have a Neifi and a Deivi sharing a position. They lead the league in first-name I’s!

4) What about the bullpen?

We noted in the spring that the Giants have done an excellent job in recent years of sorting through odds and ends and coming up with solid relief pitchers, and said that if their 2004 bullpen – with former closer Robb Nen probably unavailable — was to be anything but a problem, they’d need to practice the same alchemy again.

Well, Nen has been unavailable (and his career is likely over), and the Giants have certainly tried to find a recipe for lemonade. They’ve given the ball to a collection of castoffs and never-weres, but the bullpen performance they’ve gotten has been a consistent problem. No pleasant surprises have yet emerged.

The closer role was given to journeyman Matt Herges from the get-go, and he’s kept it despite what can only be acknowledged as a horrid performance (4.89 ERA, 1.61 WHIP). Felix Rodriguez has been predictably humdrum (3.20, 1.30) as the primary setup man, and Jim Brower has done capably (3.72, 1.37) as the whatever-is-needed workhorse. But no Giants’ reliever has really been good, and much of the very long cast of no-names they’ve deployed has been pretty bad (overall 4.67 bullpen ERA, 1.58 WHIP).

Last week the Giants had a game at home against the Rockies that kind of summed up their pitching situation in a nutshell: Schmidt provided a 7-inning, 1-run, 1-hit, 12-strikeout performance, and Alou then asked the bullpen to hold a 6-1 lead for two innings. The arsonists proceeded to cough up 5 runs in the 8th inning to tie the game up, and 2 more in the ninth to lose it, 8-6.

Obviously things aren’t always that disastrous, but it’s certainly the case that the Giants could really, really use some bullpen help.

5) Which Alfonzo and which Feliz?

Edgardo Alfonzo had given the Giants and Hyde-and-then-Jekyll season in 2003, and Pedro Feliz had hit well for the first time in his ML career. The mystery was whether either would be an asset or a weakness in 2004. The answers in both cases have been encouraging, though not cause for celebration.

Alfonzo in 2004 had a very bad April (219/296/288) again, and the Giants had to have been in severe uh-oh mode. But since then he’s put together a 315/376/413 May and a 305/348/448 June, and has hit 257/316/371 so far in July. While it doesn’t appear as though Alfonzo will ever again be the same hitter he was at his best with the Mets, he may well have settled into a status of being solid enough with the bat, in combination with his dependable glove, to be at least an adequate third baseman.

Leaving third base in Alfonzo’s hands allows the Giants to deploy Feliz wherever needed elsewhere, and Alou has used him as an everyday utility man, with 42 games (33 starts) at first base and 20 games (14 starts) at shortstop, in addition to 23 games (18 starts) backing up Alfonzo at third, and even 3 late-inning fill-in games in the outfield. Feliz has handled the daunting defensive challenge with aplomb.

His hitting has been a mixed bag. While he’s genuinely turned the corner from his dismal 2001 and 2002 performances, in his first stint this year as a long-term everyday player it appears Feliz might be wearing down from the strain. He was hitting .280 with 12 home runs on June 17th, but since then he’s faded to .256, and has just 1 homer in his past 69 at-bats.

Feliz may be deployed off the bench more in the second half, starting less frequently. The Giants need him to contribute power in that role, and based on his 2003 and first-half-2004 performances, there’s every reason to expect him to do so.

The conclusion to our spring preview was this:

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 their 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 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.

Man. Don’t you hate it when you’re right all the time?

So far the 2004 Giants appear to be, almost eerily, following the predicted scenario: struggling to get much above .500, yet contending closely in a lackluster division. The Giants are an obviously flawed ballclub, especially in the pitching staff, and the bottom could drop out from under them at any moment, particularly if anything were to happen to Bonds or Schmidt.

But after a dismal start, they valiantly surged from mid-May through the end of June, all the way into first place. While the team has slowed a bit since, what appears to be shaping up is a three-way dogfight between the Giants, Dodgers, and Padres, perhaps all the way to the end. It remains the case that maybe none of these teams will win much more than 85 games, although it must be noted that if the season were to end today, the Giants would be the NL Wild Card winner.

Even if the Giants don’t win the Division or the Wild Card, being in a tight race down to the wire would virtually guarantee another spectacularly successful season for them at the turnstile, and in radio and TV ratings. 2004 is looking like it will be another year in which the San Francisco Giants have been granted a license to print money.

We fans — who were tearing our hair out this past off-season, when the team took no interest in maintaining, let alone improving itself — we fanatics had good reason to be concerned that the product on the field in 2004 would be less than scintillating. But from ownership’s point of view, if a just-good-enough-to-contend product generates as much revenue as a 100-win juggernaut, and does so at a substantially reduced cost, then the scalp health of fanatics like me is apparently less compelling than the robust health of that thriving profit margin.

So, the question remains: Is Giants’ management brilliant, or is it wickedly cynical? Or is it both? Or neither?

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