Focus must switch to the 'pen
With Neil Mcann
Expectations are running high in the Bay Area, at least on one side of the Bridge. Despite repeatedly stating that they would not splash out on a marquee free agent, San Francisco have ended up spending more than only the richest (Boston, New York, New York, Anaheim) and the most desperate (Arizona, Los Angeles, Seattle). While preaching restraint and the long term, they have instead committed a tidy $67m to players whose ages are 37, 32, 34, 38 and 35. And now, with their decision to release Dustan Mohr, the team has righteously shed itself of half the young blood in its otherwise aging lineup. These guys are winding down, yet the front office have paid up for their services.
However, as every Giants fan knows, there are two sides to the veteran coin. Dated the lineup may be, but obsolete it most certainly is not. Instead, with their veteran additions, it is likely that any decline in individual performance (see Vizquel, Grissom, Snow) will be offset by the collective benefits of leadership and experience that the new arrivals will bring. It's just a shame that there aren't any young position players around to learn from it. Indeed, as few Giants fans know, no Giants non-pitching farmhand has made it to The Show since Bill Mueller in 1996.
Despite the sad fact that they're all hired guns, the infield by all accounts looks very good. The problem is that it's not built to last: the youngest of the quintent is Edgardo Alfonzo, who is 31. Both Ray Durham (34) and J.T.Snow's (37) contracts will be up next year. In lieu of this looming vacuum, the club would do well to ink utility first/third baseman Pedro Feliz (29) to a long term deal.
Compared to the bullpen though of course, the lineup is a relative sea of tranquility. The state of Marquis Grissoms' hamstring pales into insignificance when compared to the state of Matt Herges' fastball. Yet, for all its ineffectual elements, the relief corps curiously contains the best signs of a future after Barry Bonds. Jesse Foppert, David Aardsma, Brad Hennessey, even Matthew Cain and Merkin Valdez should all feature at some stage in 2005. So excited are the Giants with their entourage of young hurlers, it might not be long before the bullpen consists solely of new anchorman Armando Benitez and this band of promising youth.
But that's pretty optimistic. Most of the younger pitchers need at least another season of seasoning in the minors. And, given the organization's preference for experience, it will take a considerable performance to change the overall shape of the Giant's 'pen. The 2005 relief corps, as it presently stands, is unspectacular:
- Closer: Armando Benitez
- Set Up: Matt Herges, Scott Eyre
- Short Relief: Walker, Hennessey
- Middle Relief: Brower, Correia
- Long: Foppert, Franklin
- Lefty specialist: Jason Christiansen
It is patchy at best. Assuming Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry nail down their starting roles -- a dangerous assumption at any rate -- there could be quite a scuffle for action in Dave Righetti's bullpen. Even now, no one's role is cetain. Take Herges. After a dismal 2004, where he suffered the 2nd highest OPS among ML closers, he is a prime candidate for relegation. Lacking as he is both stuff and confidence, should he fail to deliver in the first couple of months in 2005, he could be shown the door. There are no sure candidates to replace him, but any one of the Giants plethora of young arms could step up. Of these, Foppert (24) is perhaps the most intriguing. After spelling brilliantly -- although intermitantly -- two years ago, he has the biggest upside, and will be fresh and eager after missing 16 months through injury. It is Cain, though, that has attracted the most interest from opposing GMs this winter, after a stellar 2004 where he breezed through double-A, aged just 19.
In the meantime though, the bullpen is short on tried and tested arms. Dustan Hermanson could have provided some of that much needed depth that instead leaves Jim Brower, commendably durable in the last campaign (4th among ML relievers in appearances) as the club's most reliable later-inning option. And then, as I have recently protested, possibilities from the left side are, with the possible exception of Scott Eyre, derisory. The bullpen has no man who in 2004 struck out more than 1 hitter per inning; sabermatric balley-hoo to some, but those who dismiss the power of intimidation do so at their own peril. For now at least, these Giants aren't scaring -- let alone fooling -- anyone.