Congratulations to the San Francisco Giants. As I write
this, they have a three games to one lead on the venerated Phillies of Philadelphia – the clear favourites of the National
League. What impresses me about the Giants, however, is that they have come so far in their three seasons without Barry Bonds.
It is a prime example that all you need to compete for a championship is a core of about three or four impact players, keep
them healthy, then fill in the rest of the team the best you can even if it is with rejects from under-patient teams. It helps to speed matters up, if your studs are pitchers, though, position players
are generally more consistent. That’s what how the Giants did it.
First, let’s look at how bad the Giants were at
the start of 2008. I remember being flabbergasted by a Joe Sheehan article in Baseball Prospectus that pointed out how awful their 2008’s starting line-up was.
San Francisco finished in 5th place with a
71-91 record in 2007, yet they had the best hitter in the league: Barry Bonds. Although 42 years old, he was still slugging
.565 on top of an unfathomable (except for Bonds) On-Base Average of .484. We are talking 28 HR and 132 BB in 340 AB. That
was his last season.
Their generally second best hitter from the 2007 squad
first-baseman Ryan Klesko also retired. The average age of their 2007 starting eight was 36 years old! That must be a record
by a few years. There were not even any World War II teams that old. Even the age of S.F.’s most frequently used substitute
For the Bonds-less 2008 new beginning, the wise men running
the Giants installed that aging utility playrer Rich Aurilia as their new first-baseman.
year old Ray Durham remained their second-baseman. His range had deteriorated to the point where it was not of the sort you
wanted out there while breaking in young pitchers or had a low strikeout pitcher such as Barry Zito as your workhorse.
With Omar Vizquel
turning 41, they were prepared. They handed over the shortstop job to Brian Bocock who qualified for the job hitting
.220/.293/.328 (BA/OBA/Slg.) at their high A farm team in San Jose. Not surprisingly to those of us who believe minor league
stats are relevant considering their context, he hit .143/.258/.156 in the Majors and ending up relinquishing the job back
To replace third-base free agent Pedro Feliz at third-base,
the Giants waited until the end of spring training to sign Jose Castillo who didn’t pass the spring cut with Florida
– one of the few teams considered as weak as the Giants that winter.
The remaining outfielders Randy Winn and Dave Roberts
were over-the-hill, but hanging on to their starting jobs. To replace Bonds, the Giants dipped into the free agent market
and came up with 30 year old centerfielder Aaron Rowand. They bought high. Rowand was coming off of one of his two excellent
seasons. He hasn’t hit above league average since. He was finally demoted
to fourth outfielder this season.
Bengie Molina was their catcher. Now with the Rangers,
you probably know his strengths (defense) and weaknesses (hitting). Actually, for a catcher his hitting isn’t all that
bad. Of the three Molina brothers, Bengie is the oldest and still the best hitter among them. However, this year the Giants
no longer needed him this year as their best position player for the upcoming decade was ready: catcher Buster Posey.
Less than two weeks into the season Roberts needed knee
surgery. Fred Lewis was called up to replace him. That was a step in the right direction as Lewis established himself as a
solid leftfielder. However, that was his age 27 season – old to be just establishing yourself. He has been just passable
since. In April he was traded to Toronto to be their fourth outfielder for a player to be named later.
Randy Winn had one last good year in him, but the Giants
suffered with him throughout 2009. He signed with the Yankees in 2010, but they released him after two months. He is still
active with the Cardinals.
Another early call-up was first-baseman/outfielder John
Bowker – moving Aurilia back to his utility role. Bowker was only 24. That didn’t work out so well and he has
struggled to stick in the Majors. The Giants cashed him in for reliever Javier Lopez at mid season this year, who has certainly
helped them get where they are now. Meanwhile in 2009 and earlier this year, they gave an equally intriguing first-base prospect
Travis Ishikawa a shot at the job with about equally weak results.
Ray Durham was still solid enough with his bat that the
Giants were able to get a prospect for him near the 2008 trading deadline. Unfortunately, that prospect - Steve Hammond - isn’t panning out.
Getting the nod to replace Durham was Emmanuel Burriss.
However, examining his Minor League record the Giants hardly had any more reason to expect success from Burriss than they
did Bocock. They played Burriss regularly for the rest of the season and most of 2009. No miracle ensued.
The Giants did have reason to expect some success from
the third-baseman they called up from AA in August of 2008 - Pedro Sandoval. He
was successful, indeed. Good-bye, Castillo.
Despite ending the 2008 season with about as nearly a
dismal record (72-90) as in 2007, things were looking up. Tim Lincecum helped wash away the departure of Bonds by winning
the Cy Young Award.
The Giants took another small dip into the free agent
market in 2009 and came up with the seriously declining shortstop Edgar Renteria. However, he was an improvement over old
In 2009 “Freak” Lincecum repeated his Cy
Young win. Sandoval hit so well he finished 7th in MVP voting. Matt Cain evolved from being a good pitcher into
a 2nd ace. Finally, the entire Giants’ bullpen suddenly emerged as one of the best in the league. Brian “The Beard” Wilson was their closer in ’08, but in ’09 he became more consistent
finishing with a 2.74 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per 9 innings (3.4 walks/9). He wasn’t the only one. Four of the five
other relievers with at least 50 innings on the year had ERAs in the low 3.00s. The fifth lefty Jeremy Affeldt had an ERA
of 1.73. These were enough improvements to turn the Giants into contenders finishing 88-74 in 2009.
As part of why the Giants are even better this year,
Wilson’s ERA is down to 1.84 with 11.2 strikeouts per 9. None of those other good relievers from 2009 have been much
help this year. Two of them left as free agents. However, new set-up men Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla have been even better.
Their ERAs are 2.18 and 1.95 and unlike Affeldt in ’09, they have hefty strikeout rates in line with those miniscule
One set back, however: this year Pedro Sandoval was so
awful that he lost his starting job. Don’t worry. He is so young, you can almost guarantee that is only temporary. Making
up for Sandoval’s collapse was the rise of catcher Buster Posey. He is that good – probably better.
Plus, the Giants have developed two more starter pitchers
who are nearly ace status in Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. Sanchez is pretty much there, while Bumgarner still has
a little more developing to do. It should come. He was rated their top prospect at the start of the season and he just recently
Additionally, the Giants seemed to have lucked out replacing
all those holes and rapidly aging average players with rejects from other teams that have had fire breathed into them. Interestingly,
they all were at some point rejected by an American League team.
Besides the reliever Casilla – a free agent not
re-signed by Oakland, the only other free agent purchase last winter was the low cost first-baseman (and occasional outfielder
or third-baseman) Aubrey Huff. You never know what kind of season you are going to get with Huff. His very good years came
at ages 26, 31, and now 33. He was pretty good at ages 25 and 27 surrounding his first peak. He was below average in the three
years between those years and his big come back with Baltimore in 2008. In the year between these last two very good years,
his OBA/Slg. was .310/.384 – disgraceful for someone of his fielding ability. The Tigers last year made a trade for
him hoping they could bring him back to life and help keep them ahead of the Twins. He hit .189/.165/.302 for Detroit and
was a significant part of their collapse.
It would be overly harsh in calling Freddie Sanchez an
A.L. reject. He was not much of a prospect, though, until he solved the International League at age 25. The Red Sox cashed
him in on a trading deadline deal for Jeff Suppan back in 2003. Sanchez gave the Pirates one very good year and a few less
dazzling ones. He was traded to the Giants last year for a minor league pitcher who is showing no signs of moving up.
Juan Uribe had an excellent year for the White Sox way
back in 2004. Then it was four years of mediocrity. Obviously the White Sox did not think it was worth keeping him after he
became a free agent, but he's been pretty darn good for the Giants. He spent 2009 as the Giants’ utility infielder playing
second, short,, and third in an almost equal split of games. This year he was phased in as the regular shortstop job over
Edgar Renteria. Uribe is three years younger than Renteria, but is much heftier. By evidence of hitting and defensive reputation,
Uribe is not showing signs of decline, while Renteria is.
Temporarily replacing the disappointing Sandoval at third
is Mike Fontenot. Although, once upon a time - 2001 to be exact - he was a first round pick, my recollection was that he was
never particularly highly regarded - especially on his defense. He was totally blocked by Brian Roberts, so he was traded
for a washed up Sammy Sosa. After a year with Baltimore's AAA team, he spent another two and half seasons at AAA Iowa before
the Cubs finally called him up. In his 3+ seasons with the Cubs, he was terrific in one of them, barely passing in the others.
Frankly, he didn't hit well for the Giants after they acquired him cheaply in August, which makes his nod over Sandoval all
the more obviously short term.
Cody Ross - had an undistinguished minor league career
with the Tigers before they exchanged him for the never to be distinguished pitcher Steve Colyer. That was by the Dodgers,
who two years later, traded him to the Reds, who a month later traded him to the Marlins. That is where Ross suddenly blossomed
into a productive Major League outfielder. After three full seasons of success there, the 29 year old Ross struggled this
season. He was impatiently waived away and the Giants picked him up on August 22. He's been terrific since - especially this
post season. In the opening game against Doc Halladay, for example, he hit two homes. Then a reader on Bill James online wrote in that Cody Ross spelled backwards is, “Sorry, Doc.”
Getting pushed aside for Ross was Nate Schierholtz. He
was a second round pick in 2003 out of high school. He was promoted slowly throughout his Minor League career, but hit well
at each level. After a couple of small trials with the Giants in ’07 and ’08, he finally had 4th outfielder
status last year and regular status this year until Ross came along. Schierholtz had not been able to adjust to Major League
pitching in that time. At 27, he might get another chance.
In 2009, Andre Torres was a 31 year old veteran minor
league outfielder with only a few cups of coffee in the Majors. He had been rejected by the Cubs, Rangers, Twins, and twice
by the Tigers. He has now replaced Aaron Rowand as the Giants' centerfielder and quite deservedly so.
Finally, Pat Burrell. After nine years with the Phillies
– usually amassing an On Base Average of about .390 and Slugging .500 – Burrell signed with the Tampa Bay Rays
in 2009. For a year and a quarter as a Ray, he hit a pathetic sub .700 OBA+Slg. They released him. Scooped up by the Giants
at the beginning of June, Burrell has hit like his stint in the A.L. was a nightmare he has now woken up from. He just turned
Not all 34 year olds the Giants picked off the A.L. scrap
heap turned out to be gold. For a bunch of years Jose Guillen had been milking his good seasons of 2004 and particularly 2003.
He did not improve after arriving in San Francisco.
Giants General Manager Brian Sabbean is not one of the
more respected team builders, but he surely has conquered his doubters now. Sabbean deserves much credit for a) developing
a great rotation; b) backing them with a few outstanding relievers; c) developing a couple of impact players in their line-up;
and d) finding worthwhile bargains to fill in all the remaining holes – of which he had essentially an entire line-up
of them two seasons ago. Perhaps, Bruce Bochy and his coaching staff equally deserve kudos.