"A poor run of drafts, coupled with an overreliance on veterans, created this mess."
At a mid-March dinner in Scottsdale, Ariz., broadcaster Jon Miller stood in front of a group of Giants investors and executives and attempted to offer a hopeful word about a franchise that has seemingly lost its way. "I have two words for you: ay-ooh-HEY-nee-o VEL-ez," intoned the team's play-by-play voice, nailing the pronunciation of Eugenio Velez, a 25-year-old shortstop whose strong spring has been a small, but much-needed hint of better days ahead.
Execution, not elocution, has been the problem for the Giants. Exhibition-game numbers are not to be taken too seriously, but there are a few that could not be overlooked. On March 3 lefthander Noah Lowry, a 14-game winner last year, walked nine of the first 12 Rangers before he was yanked; four days later he underwent surgery on his left forearm and will be out until at least mid-April. More alarming, Barry Zito, after a rough first season in San Francisco, appears to be getting worse: His first four starts this spring yielded an ERA just under 15, and, according to several scouts, his velocity was off 4 to 5 mph as he continued to tinker with his mechanics.
Here's another number that can't be overlooked: 25. Barry Bonds wore it for 15 seasons with San Francisco, but he was nowhere to be seen. The Giants had good reasons to cut their ties with Bonds -- salary, his indictment for perjury in the BALCO case, the clubhouse distractions he created, the need for the club to get younger -- but performance was not one of them. At 43, Bonds reached base on 48% of his plate appearances last season, and his 1.045 OPS was only 20 points lower than that of Alex Rodriguez. Even then, San Francisco was last in the league in OPS, second to last in runs and third from the bottom in on-base percentage and homers.
A poor run of drafts (the last everyday impact player picked by the club was Bill Mueller, 15 years ago), coupled with an overreliance on declining veterans, created this mess. But even before the departure of Bonds, there were signs of a new franchise identity emerging. Last year's draft, in which general manager Brian Sabean loaded up on high-ceiling position players for the first time in his 11-year tenure, was widely praised throughout baseball. Then there is 6' 3", 200-pound man-child Angel Villalona, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic for $2.1 million in August 2006, hit .285 in rookie ball -- as a 16-year-old -- and will start the season in the high Class A California League.
However, Villalona, like most of the 2007 draft class, is several years from the big leagues. As for the present, free-agent pickup Aaron Rowand (five years, $60 million) brings plenty of intensity, a good glove in centerfield and decent power, but the offense remains largely dependent upon once-dangerous-but-fading veterans such as Ray Durham, 36, and Rich Aurilia, 36. The cleanup hitter could be catcher Bengie Molina, 33, who has yet to hit 20 homers in a season or walk as many as 30 times. "We don't have big boppers in the lineup,'' Durham concedes. "We're going to have to play National League-style baseball and manufacture our runs."
Given that there's little chance for this year's team to contend, it makes sense for San Francisco to deploy what major-league-ready youngsters it has. One club official likens the fleet Velez, a Rule 5 pickup from Toronto in 2005, to Willie McGee. Dan Ortmeier, 26, had a poor spring, but the Giants like his power and believe he can become the regular first baseman. Utilityman Kevin Frandsen will get a shot at third base, though the front office has been closely monitoring White Sox third baseman Joe Crede, who himself has been having a dreadful spring and is coming off back surgery.
Only the front of the rotation, which includes hulking Matt Cain and tiny, flamethrowing Tim Lincecum, both righthanders who are under 25, stands between the Giants and 100 losses. But with some new, young faces in their future, at least it won't be the same old story. -- Jon Heyman
Issue date: March 31, 2008