Five Questions:  San Francisco Giants

Five questions? We get only five?

When considering what’s in store for the San Francisco Giants in 2008, a measly five questions seems like just the preamble. There are 25 slots on the active roster, after all.

Perhaps, then, the better way to think about the ’08 Giants isn’t in terms of the vast quantity of questionable elements at hand, but instead of the smaller number, though deeper profundity, of questions stimulated by this train wreck of a roster. So here’s what we’ll do: We’ll consider just five among the many obvious questions festering all over the field here, the tactical questions. But alongside each of them, we’ll also pose a larger, more strategic question, that the particular tactical circumstance rests upon.

Now, I suppose this means that this is really a “10 questions” article. Well, so what, I say. I’m a Giants fan. If ever anybody deserved a little slack, it’s us Giants fans in 2008.

So back off and let us begin our wallow …

1. Whither Barry Zito? Or, just how crazy was that contract, anyway?

Zito wasn’t terrible in 2007. He took the ball for 33 starts, logged almost 200 innings, and created 73 Pitching Runs, which tied him with Greg Maddux for 26th-best in the NL. There were quite a few worse starters in the major leagues.

But, come on: “There were quite a few worse starters in the major leagues?” That’s the best we can say about Zito’s first season with the Giants? Surely, that’s not the sort of production GM Brian Sabean was anticipating when he inked Zito to that seven-year, $126-million deal back in December of 2006.

To be fair, no knowledgeable observer anticipated brilliance from Zito. His dazzling Cy Young Award form of 2002 is something he never approached since, and by 2007 no one was expecting him to. But over the years the curveballing southpaw settled into a status as a good, solid, durable, dependable starter, and such a pitcher is a rare asset indeed. Were Zito to sustain that status through all, or even most, of the seven seasons on his contract, it would be a reasonable deal; not a bargain by any means, but the Giants would be getting value for that hefty expense.

Thus, his performance in the first of these seven contracted seasons—not terrible, yes, but a damn sight short of good—was, well, not an encouraging omen. One glimmer of hope is that Zito pitched his most effective baseball over the final couple of months of 2007. But one reason to imagine the worst is that, for whatever it’s worth, Zito got slaughtered in his early spring training outings of ’08, facing 72 batters before managing to achieve his first strikeout.

2. Who the heck is that in the bullpen? Or, is it good news that there’s no one resembling a Proven Closer™?

At this point, the Giants’ planned closer for 2008 is Brian Wilson. That’s right, the immortal Brian Wilson, at 26 years old entering his first full season in the majors, with all of 53 and two-thirds big league innings under his belt. Scheduled to be setting up Wilson are the likes of Tyler Walker, Brad Hennessey, Jack Taschner and Vinnie Chulk—not exactly a Dream Team.

What’s particularly interesting here is how different this bullpen is from every other compartment of the Giants’ ballclubs in recent years, in the degree to which it’s devoid of extreme-veteran, high-salaried, short-term-fix names. Sabean’s seemingly standard modus operandi is oddly absent.

Perhaps it’s simply the case that after getting burned so severely by the immediate combustion of the Armando Benitez contract, even Sabean has come to realize that bottom-feeding might be the way to go in the bullpen. But, in fact, except for Benitez (and a predecessor at closer, Robb Nen, who generally did quite well for the Giants), the relief squads Sabean has put together in his decade-plus in San Francisco have often been substantially constructed of no-names and castoffs. Moreover, several among them have stepped forward and enjoyed significant (if sometimes fleeting) success: John Johnstone, Jay Witasick, Felix Rodriguez and Joe Nathan all come to mind.

Indeed the bullpen is one section of the roster in which tossing bargain-bin discards at the wall and seeing which ones stick is a viable strategy. Obviously the risk is that if none of them stick, you’re sunk. But history demonstrates that with careful choosing and good coaching, a decent proportion tends to stick.

It isn’t clear whether his 2008 bullpen is a reasonable gamble on Sabean’s part, or just blind chaos. But while the likelihood of a great performance from the Giants’ relief corps is extremely slim, and the likelihood of a lousy performance far less so, it is plausible that this bullpen will hold its own. Whatever it does, it will do at extremely low cost.

3. How good are Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum going to be? Or, what is it about the Giants’ system that produces pitchers, and nothing else?

Both of these hard-throwing right handers are exceptional young talents. At this point it’s hard to say who has the higher ceiling: Lincecum, though he’s three-and-a-half months older than Cain, has far less professional experience and is quite a bit more raw around the edges, but dazzling as Cain’s stuff is, Lincecum’s is even more electric. What’s certain is that both realistically present the capability of blossoming into elite superstars.

But, of course, they’re young pitchers, and so what’s also certain is that both realistically present the possibility of getting hurt and flaming out. But that’s a characteristic they share with every other young pitcher on the planet, while the sheer ability they both offer is of a caliber enjoyed by a select few.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

However they turn out, Cain and Lincecum are the latest in a long line of impressive young pitchers produced during Sabean’s tenure, including Scott Linebrink, Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams, Jesse Foppert, Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano, Noah Lowry, Kevin Correia, Jeremy Accardo and Jonathan Sanchez. Additionally, though he wasn’t signed under Sabean, Russ Ortiz reached the majors and developed on Sabean’s watch. Even given that they’re pitchers, a distressing percentage of these kids have crashed and burned, but the high quality of the arms coming out of this minor league system has been undeniable.

Yet simultaneously, the organization’s production of bats has been appallingly meager. The best of the young hitters either signed or developed by the Sabean regime has been, get this, Pedro Feliz. It’s been a remarkable imbalance of production, and the scarcity of hitting talent offered up by the farm system presents the Giants with a particularly daunting challenge in 2008, given the departure of Barry Bonds and the departure/decline of the rest of the veteran offensive producers who have populated their lineup over the past several years.

Indeed, it raises this ugly question:

4. How bad is this offense going to be? Or—no, really, just how spectacularly bad is this offense going to be?

Oh, it’s going to be very, very bad.

Consider this: The Giants’ team Gross Production Average in 2007 was .241, dead last among all 30 major league teams. And that was with Bonds contributing a .357 GPA in 477 plate appearances, a rate that would have led all major league hitters had he not fallen 25 PAs short of qualifying. Bonds’ bat has been replaced with that of Aaron Rowand, whose career GPA is slightly above league average.

Consider this: The Giants’ cleanup hitter at this point is 33-year-old catcher Bengie Molina, who last year reached career highs in home runs and RBIs with 19 and 81, respectively, while compiling a GPA of .242.

Consider this: Pedro Feliz posted a GPA of .235 for the Giants in 2007—and he was third-best on the team in runs created. The ball club will surely miss Feliz’ excellent third base glove this year, but it will also be the case that the Giants will miss his well-below-average bat.

Consider this: Rich Aurilia is 36 years old and delivered a .229 GPA in 2007, and is expected to claim a starting job in the Giants’ infield in 2008. The only question at this point is whether he’ll play third base, or, believe it or not, first base. Persistent rumors this spring have had the Giants in the trade market for a third baseman; the rumored acquiree is either Brandon Inge (.239 2007 GPA), Wes Helms (.219) or Joe Crede (.190). The team is supposedly hot for one of these tepid bats because that would allow San Francisco to slide Aurilia over to first, where 27-year-old Daniel Ortmeier, who has never played a full season in the majors, was supposed to be the first-stringer (despite a projected line of .253/.312/.398) but has performed dreadfully this spring.

It’s going to be monumentally bad.

5. How’s that 41-year-old shortstop deal going to work out? Or, when exactly was it that Sabean lost his mind?

Hello? You decide to forego re-signing your team’s veteran superstar, and publicly commit at last to a rebuilding mode. And then your very next transaction is to re-sign your over-40 shortstop, who’s coming off a .216-GPA season, his worst performance in, literally, almost 20 years. Huh?

Sure, it’s possible that Omar Vizquel will rebound and deliver a good year in 2008. But even if he does, the looming question is, so what? This team isn’t going to contend anyway, and moreover any number of reasonably available, quad-A, good-field no-hit shortstops might perform somewhere near as well Vizquel, at a fraction of the cost, and provide developmental potential as well. And if Vizquel struggles—and given that he’s missing all of spring training with a knee injury, and won’t return until a week or two into the regular season, the possibility of Vizquel struggling is hardly out of the question—this signing will actively hinder the team.

All in all it’s just one of the latest Sabean moves that induces us Giants’ fans to grasp our skulls and emit unintelligible squeaks of bewildered despair. And perhaps what really exasperates us is that Sabean didn’t used to be this way.

Sabean has had his share of critics all along, of course, with the standard knock being that his run of success with the Giants was entirely a function of having Bonds on the roster. But while one of the greatest players of all time was obviously the key, it’s simply incorrect to assert that Sabean didn’t do a good job of putting together the supporting cast in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

Not only did Sabean pull off a series of excellent high-profile trades, bringing in Nen, Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow, Ellis Burks, Livan Hernandez and Jason Schmidt, he also demonstrated a keen eye for scrap-heap bargains to plug holes, such as Mark Lewis, Brian Johnson, Bobby Estalella, Andres Galarraga, David Bell, Kenny Lofton, Scott Eyre, Jose Cruz Jr. and Dustin Hermanson.

But those days are long gone. Since right around 2003, Sabean has simply lost it, fallen off a cliff. He’s committed one of the worst trades in the history of the sport (the A.J. Pierzynski howler), intentionally surrendered a first-round draft berth by signing Michael Tucker (?!?) as a free agent, been taken for a ride on exorbitant free agent contracts with Benitez and Edgardo Alfonzo (and, it may well be, Zito), and pointlessly signed the nothing-special Randy Winn to a big-bucks extension, all the while not showing his prior knack for creative low-cost solutions to specific problems.

In Bonds’ final few seasons, the supporting casts Sabean cobbled together got worse and worse, and now with the team’s longtime centerpiece gone, the entire works is in disarray. Over the past several years Sabean has exhibited both a blundering clumsiness in tactical execution and a foggy incoherence in strategic planning. There is, it must be said, precious little reason for optimism as the Giants enter the post-Bonds era.

5a. So is there any silver lining amid this dank gray downpour? (I know, I know, it’s yet another extra question …)

As a Giants fan, obviously this circumstance is heavily depressing. But in all candor there’s also a small part of me that finds it, while certainly not enjoyable, at least perversely entertaining, and even in some weird way (which you’re free to dismiss as a rationalization) hopeful in the long term. Allow me to explain.

I’ve been an ardent fan of this franchise for something ominously close to half a century now (and am still waiting for my first World Series championship; but that’s another story), and that experience has taught me that, as bleak as things are for the Giants right now, they could be bleaker. This 2008 team will absolutely be bad—95 losses is about what I’m expecting—and if just a couple of things go wrong (such as injuries to their young pitchers, hardly a long shot), this club could be catastrophically horrible, losing well over 100 games. If nothing else, the Giants’ offense should give some historically impotent offenses a run for their money.

Watching a bad team isn’t nearly as much fun as watching a good team (duh), but there’s a point at which a team gets so amazingly bad that it becomes more interesting than just your run-of-the-mill bad team; just ask fans of the early New York Mets. The 2008 Giants could very well discover that kind of territory, which would be memorable if nothing else, more memorable than the ordinary 95-game loser that trudges to the finish every year, in every league.

And here’s where the hopeful part comes in. This really bad Giants team has one tremendous advantage over the last Giants team that was really bad (in the early-to-mid 1980s) in that it owns a gorgeous destination-in-itself ballpark that accords a steady stream of revenue (the Giants’ current attendance could drop by 25 percent and still be middle-of-the-pack). This means the Giants have a critical fundamental in place, a fundamental that could be sensibly leveraged if they didn’t have a lunatic as general manager.

As the currently configured Giants prove to be an abject disaster on the field, the pressure will mount on managing general partner Peter Magowan to fire the far-over-the-hill Sabean and bring in someone new to run the operation (why Magowan extended Sabean’s contract last year is baffling). And a new GM, while he’d obviously have his work cut out for him in reconstructing both the major league roster and the minor league system, would be undertaking the project on a foundation of fiscal vitality that many franchises can only long for. One can reasonably imagine it as an attractive challenge for a bright and ambitious GM.

Perhaps someone resembling the then-rather-young Brian Sabean, whom Magowan hired as a rookie GM almost a dozen years ago. Perhaps someone even brighter and more ambitious.

Hey, it’s something to dream about anyway, as the defeats pile up this season. Here’s to a grotesquely awful 2008!

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