Little League ties
Reliever Jim Brower is one of only eight active major league players to have taken part in the Little League World Series. The others are Gary Sheffield, Sean Burroughs, Jason Marquis, Wilson Alvarez, Jason Varitek, Jason Bay and Dan Wilson.
Since moving into SBC Park in 2000, the Giants are 258–148 (a .635 winning percentage). In that five-year span, only the cross-bay Oakland A’s have had a better home record, going 263–142 (.649).
The Giants have reached three million in attendance in each of the five years since SBC Park opened. They’ve drawn an NL-best 16,367,545 since 2000.
Fans know that Barry Bonds won his fourth straight Most Valuable Player award, but the Giants became the first team in major league history to have one of their players win the award in five straight seasons. Second baseman Jeff Kent began the streak when he was named MVP in 2000.
Scott Eyre was a struggling reliever until he joined the Giants and overcame his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with medication. Eyre has become active in promoting awareness for the condition. He has a 3.50 ERA in 178 appearances with the Giants after compiling a 5.39 ERA in 144 appearances for the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.
Since the beginning of the 1997 season, the Giants have played only 11 games that did not have any postseason implications. They’ve won three division titles and a wild card in that span.
Center fielder Marquis Grissom is at ease in the team’s normally crowded clubhouse. Grissom grew up with 14 brothers and sisters.
After finishing just two games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West, the Giants signed free agents Moises Alou, Armando Benitez, Omar Vizquel and Mike Matheny during a productive and sometimes frenzied offseason. A club that won 91 games last season and has been a perennial contender since 1997 is the favorite to win the West.
The Giants return their entire starting staff, quite an accomplishment in the free agent era. What’s more, if Jason Schmidt, Brett Tomko, Kirk Rueter, Jerome Williams or Noah Lowry are sidelined with an injury or the younger pitchers struggle, the Giants have other options. Brad Hennessey filled in for an injured Williams for most of the second half, and Matt Cain, the team’s top prospect, is on the verge of making his major league debut. Also available is Jesse Foppert. When healthy, Schmidt is an upper-echelon pitcher. If not for a groin injury suffered in August, he would have won his first Cy Young Award. Tomko, not Schmidt, was the team’s best pitcher down the stretch, going 5–1 with a 1.43 ERA in his last eight starts. Rueter was a disappointment last season and could lose his job if he struggles and the kids continue to impress.
With 28 blown saves and a meltdown in the final weekend of the season, the Giants needed to address their most glaring need. They did that, emphatically, by signing Benitez. The veteran closer has struggled at times during his career, but he had his best season with the Florida Marlins, registering a 1.29 ERA and 47 saves last year. The Giants won’t have to rely on a patchwork bullpen, which was a recipe for disaster throughout the 2004 season. Matt Herges, who lost the closer job in early August, can return to a less stressful role, which he excelled in before last season. The Giants have solid set-up men in Jim Brower and Scott Eyre. However, Brower was used far too much (he tied a team record with 89 appearances) and had elbow problems late in the season.
The Giants have never had a shortstop win a Gold Glove. That streak might continue, but they now have their best defensive player at the position in over a decade. Vizquel, signed in the offseason, has won nine Gold Gloves in his brilliant career. He’s also a contact hitter who could be invaluable hitting behind leadoff man Ray Durham. While Vizquel improves the left side of the infield, the Giants have concerns with Durham’s defense at second base. He regressed last season, committing 16 errors. He also had problems on some routine popups. Durham has also been injury-prone in his two seasons with the Giants, spending far too much time on the disabled list. When he was healthy last season, he did hit .282 with 17 home runs and 65 RBIs.
The Giants have three players for two positions. Edgardo Alfonzo is the starting third baseman and J.T. Snow the starting first baseman. However, Pedro Feliz could easily start at either spot, particularly third base. Alfonzo has been a disappointment in his two seasons with the Giants. He still has two years remaining on his contract, and it’s no secret the Giants have tried to trade him to clear the way for Feliz. Manager Felipe Alou was adept at dividing playing time between the three, and he found 503 at-bats for the emerging Feliz. Feliz hit .276 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs in his best season with the team, and could take over for Alfonzo if the third baseman has another of his slow starts. The Giants play Snow for his Gold Glove defense, but he had his best season offensively since 2000, hitting .327 with 12 homers and 60 RBIs.
This is the team’s geriatric ward. Barry Bonds will turn 41 in July, Alou will be 39 in July, and Marquis Grissom will turn 38 in April. They will need to be rested from time to time. If they can avoid injuries, the Giants will have their best outfield in years. None of them is showing signs of slowing down, however. Alou had his best season in years, hitting 39 homers and driving in 106 runs. Bonds is simply doing things no player his age has ever accomplished. By hitting .362, he became the oldest player to win a batting title (40 years, 71 days). Grissom compiled his most homers (22) and RBIs (90) since the 1996 season.
The Giants quickly grew tired of A.J. Pierzynski’s poor defense, bad start and a clubhouse demeanor for which an unidentified pitcher called him a “cancer.” Pierzynski was let go when the Giants signed Matheny, a defensive specialist who has a reputation for calling quality games and handling pitchers. On the downside, Matheny isn’t nearly the hitter Pierzynski is, but the Giants can get by without much offense from him. He hit just .247 with five homers and 50 RBIs last season for the St. Louis Cardinals, and those numbers could further dwindle playing in pitcher-friendly SBC Park.
The Giants could be much improved in this area. A year ago, they had such players as infielder Cody Ransom playing key roles at times. With the signings of Alou, Vizquel and Matheny, the bench improves dramatically. Deivi Cruz, who hit .292 in 127 games last season, was going to be the starting shortstop until Vizquel was signed. Michael Tucker will be a reserve with Alou becoming the starting right fielder. Tucker could get some starts against righthanders and could fill in for Bonds and Grissom. Feliz is a dangerous hitter off the bench when he’s not starting. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba will be back for another season. He’s not happy that the team signed Matheny, and the club is concerned about his attitude.
The Giants are entering their third season with the tandem of general manager Brian Sabean and Alou together. There is never any friction between the two. Alou is in the final year of his contract, and he’ll turn 70 in May. With his son, Moises, signed through this season and possibly returning for 2006, it’s likely the Giants will want their manager back for another season. Sabean had a good offseason after questionable signings of Alfonzo and Durham two years ago and a trade for Pierzynski with the Twins that cost them future closer Joe Nathan.
Despite their flaws last season, the Giants won 91 games and weren’t eliminated from postseason contention until the final game of the season. Management has fixed the team’s problems, with defensive upgrades at catcher and shortstop and the signing of a top-tier closer. The only questions are an aging outfield and whether Alou can adjust to playing right field at quirky SBC Park. If the team remains healthy and the rotation doesn’t overburden its bullpen, there’s no reason why the Giants can’t win the division and be a factor in the postseason.