2. San Francisco Giants
Fans, lots of them, will enjoy the new yard, but they'll be seeing the same old team
By Lars Anderson
This was on Jan. 21, on the 15th pitch of Barry Bonds's first batting practice at the new yard. After crushing that pitch, Bonds then sent a few more shots soaring into the afternoon. It was a tantalizing peek at what Bonds might accomplish in the hitter-friendly park, which has the shortest rightfield porch (307 feet) in the National League. "Rightfield does seem real close," Bonds says with a mischievous smile.
No player is more important to those postseason hopes than Bonds, who missed 58 games last season with injuries to his left elbow and right knee. With Bonds out of the lineup from April 18 to June 8, San Francisco was an ordinary 25-22. His injury also exposed the club's lack of depth, which, surprisingly, the Giants front office did not address during the off-season. (The Opening Day roster will not feature a single significant addition.) At some point this season that decision to maintain the status quo will haunt the team, especially when you consider that most of its key veterans have spent substantial time on the disabled list in recent years. "Obviously we need to stay healthy to compete for the playoffs," says manager Dusty Baker. "But we can't expect the injuries to hurt us this year as much as they did last year. Certainly, we don't expect Barry to get hurt again. After all, he's a world-class athlete."
During the off-season Barry's father, Bobby, a Giants scout, told his son to cut back on his upper-body weightlifting. Bobby felt that Barry was too bulky and his flexibility too limited last season when he hit .262, his lowest average in a decade. Barry heeded his father's advice and in the spring he was again stinging the ball as he had been before his injury-plagued 1999. This season, playing in the Giants' new bandbox of a ballyard, Bonds could threaten his 1993 MVP totals of 46 home runs and 123 RBIs. "Barry will be outstanding in the new park," says Bobby. "It looks like it was made for him."
Bonds wasn't the only Giant who missed considerable time last year. Second baseman Jeff Kent was shelved for 24 games with a toe injury, and rightfielder Ellis Burks missed 42 games because of knee problems. Kent's toe injury lingered over the winter, and he suffered a rib-cage injury while lifting weights just before the start of spring training. While Burks says he is fully healed, he has played in more than 120 games only twice since 1993. The Giants desperately need Kent -- who had 128 RBIs two years ago and 101 last season despite missing significant time -- in the lineup to protect Bonds. They need Burks because when he plays, he's one of the league's best clutch hitters. Last season he had the NL's third-highest batting average with runners in scoring position (.378). If this trio stays healthy, it's capable of 100 home runs and 300 RBIs.
Sabean says that the main reason he didn't bring in any new talent to shore up the offense was that it would have cost him one of his young pitchers. He's got a point. The Giants have one of the better young rotations in the majors, led by Russ Ortiz and Joe Nathan. Ortiz, 25, developed into one of the NL's top starters last season, when the righthander won 18 games and learned to throw his big, overhand curveball for strikes. But it was Nathan, also 25, who was the first player inquired about by nearly every general manager who called Sabean this off-season. The righthander was 7-4 as a rookie in '99, and his repertoire -- which includes a fastball in the mid-90s -- is so good that he's regarded as a future No. 1 starter.
Shawn Estes, who was the Giants' ace only two years ago, has regressed. He made the All-Star team and won 19 games in 1997, his first full season in the bigs; he is 18-23 since. Despite sound mechanics and a good fastball and nasty hard curve, he has struggled with his control; both he and Ortiz walked well over 100 batters in '99. Because of the starters' high pitch counts and inability to pitch deep into games, Baker relied heavily on his bullpen, which wore down in the season's final two months when the Diamondbacks pulled away from the Giants in the NL West race.
"Our players believe in our young pitching staff," says Baker. "Our pitchers will respond to that. We need to win early so the pitchers gain confidence, and we need to avoid sustained losing streaks like we had last year. If we do that, we'll be right in the the thick of things until the end."
Issue date: March 27, 2000