1. San Francisco Giants
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Think the division champs didn't make a big off-season move? Think again
By Josh Elliott
While much was made in the Bay Area of the Giants' failure to sign any celebrated free agents during the off-season, this much is clear: Only when Baker decided to return did San Francisco, which had baseball's best record in 2000, become the favorite to repeat as National League West champs. To a man, the Giants admit that without the peerless motivational skills of Baker, the league's Manager of the Year last season, theirs would be a rudderless ship. Still, despite receiving a two-year, $5.3 million offer that would leave him second in salary among skippers to the Yankees' Joe Torre, Baker -- stung by criticism of his strategy following San Francisco's meek playoff showing against the Mets -- was hardly a cinch to come back.
"Dusty was a free agent, and he could've gone anywhere," G.M. Brian Sabean says. "It was a trying time, but it was a relief for the organization when we decided we'd all be pulling on the same rope." Adds shortstop Rich Aurilia, "[Baker] would've been impossible to replace. We've got a great core group here, but to throw a new manager into the mix would've been disastrous."
In returning, Baker faces the vexing challenge of replacing rightfielder Ellis Burks, who departed after the Giants balked at his demand for a two-year deal, reasoning that his already-brittle 36-year-old knees would never hold up that long. By standing aside while Burks signed for three years with the Indians, San Francisco lost a clutch hitter who last season had a .344 average (highest by a Giant in 42 years) and 96 RBIs in 393 at bats; San Francisco was 72-38 when he was in the starting lineup and 25-27 when he wasn't. Not only did Burks provide invaluable protection to Bonds and Kent in the batting order, he also made up for the leadership shortcomings of the frosty duo. "He was one of the best clubhouse guys I've ever seen," says Aurilia. "His void is a huge one."
To fill it, on the lineup card at least, Baker will turn primarily to Armando Rios, who drove in 50 runs in 233 at bats as Burks's understudy last year. That he did so is something of a medical miracle, because Rios played the final month of the season with a torn tendon in his left (throwing) elbow. Stunned doctors, who couldn't believe that Rios was able to throw a ball or swing a bat with the injury, recommended Tommy John surgery two weeks after season's end. "When I heard those words, I went into shock, and I cried a little," says the normally cocky 29-year-old Rios. "I knew Ellis probably wouldn't be back, and I thought maybe I'd just lost my chance." After the surgery and a vigorous off-season of rehab, a lean, fit Rios came to camp a month ahead of his recovery schedule; he impressed the coaches with his arm strength and increased pop at the plate. But because Rios hit just .167 against lefthanders last season and because he still has less than a full season's worth of big league experience, the Giants signed free-agent outfielders Eric Davis (.390 against lefties in 2000) and Shawon Dunston.
If San Francisco stumbles, it will most likely be on defense, where the departure of Burks and third baseman Bill Mueller, who committed just nine of the Giants' franchise-low 93 errors, will be acutely felt. Replacing Mueller will be the stone-handed Russ Davis, though San Francisco hopes rookie Pedro Feliz (33 homers and 105 RBIs at Triple A Fresno) will be ready by midseason.
If Baker's demeanor is a bellwether, there will be no stumbles in 2001. During his press conference the day he re-signed -- just hours after his visit to her -- his mother-in-law died. That also happened to be two days before the start of the World Series. "If we'd made it to the Series, it might've been too much to handle," Baker says, "but that emotional roller coaster made me stronger, more focused. We're ready for this year. Ready for it all."
Issue date: March 26, 2001