Shortly before Opening Day last season Giants assistant general manager Ned Colletti asked new manager Felipe Alou whether he preferred to carry 11 or 12 pitchers. Alou answered by telling a story about a ruthless 14th-century Haitian ruler who ordered a hilltop castle to be built. Twenty-four men were pushing a huge boulder up the hill when one man stumbled and fell, causing others to topple on him and the boulder to bound down the hill. The ruler took half the men and killed them. The other half promptly moved the boulder up the hill without a problem.
"Sometimes," Alou said, "you have to take less to get more."
The moral of the story can be applied to the Giants as well. Last season, for instance, they won 100 games even though Jason Schmidt was their only pitcher to win more than 10 games, no player drove in 100 runs and the team finished last in the league in stolen bases. "We were a good team, but the reason why we won 100 games was the manager," Colletti said. Alou's club won almost 70% of its games decided by one or two runs (49-22).
Of course Alou, who seems to push the right buttons with his lineup and the use of his bench, gets more than a little help from Barry Bonds, the leftfielder who has put up three dominant seasons since turning 37. (He turns 40 in July.) In just those past three seasons Bonds has hit 164 homers, reached base 989 times and posted three of the top seven OPS marks (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in history.
San Francisco's blueprint has been to surround Bonds with complementary players rather than add another star. They had no interest in spending to get free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero this winter. Why go there when journeyman Michael Tucker (55 RBIs for Kansas City in 2003), oft-injured Jeffrey Hammonds (cut last year by Milwaukee) and Dustan Mohr (36 RBIs in 121 games with Minnesota) will do?
No supporting players are more important than Ray Durham and Edgardo Alfonzo, each of whom is coming off a subpar season. Durham, 32, broke down physically. He went on the DL for the first time in his career in May with a jammed right ankle, played with hip bursitis in August and went back on the DL that same month with a right hamstring strain. The leadoff hitter who had scored 100 runs and stolen at least 23 bases for six straight years scored just 61 runs and stole seven bags. "It's huge," Colletti said of a Durham comeback. "If he's the same player he was before he was hurt, that's just as important as whoever hits behind Barry. If Ray's on base ahead of Barry, that's more likely to force teams to pitch to Barry."
Alfonzo gets the RBI opportunities that come with hitting behind Bonds. Not only did Alfonzo, 30, have to rally to hit .259 last year, but he's also been mired in a strange three-year decline during what typically are the prime ages for a hitter. Over the past three years, the first two with the Mets, Alfonzo, who in 1999 and 2000 hit .313, while averaging 26 homers and 101 RBI, has hit just .270 and averaged 15 homers and 62 RBIs.
Alfonzo hit .167 in his first month with the Giants and stood at .236 with only five home runs at the All-Star break. The third baseman, who lives in New York, said the separation from his wife and two young sons caused him anxiety, and he began to hit better after they joined him in San Francisco in late June. Privately, though, the Giants noted that Alfonzo reported to last year's camp in poor condition and needed to play himself into shape. "I did more work over the winter and feel real good now," Alfonzo says. "I did a little more hitting than I usually do in the winter too."
Said Alou of Alfonzo's 48-RBI second half last year, "We finally saw the player we were [expecting]. I'm not looking for the long ball. I'm looking for the big hit."
The Giants have other issues besides what they can expect out of Durham and Alfonzo. Schmidt is nursing a sore right shoulder and closer Robb Nen, who has had three shoulder surgeries in three years, will open the season on the DL. Brett Tomko and Dustin Hermanson make for questionable depth in the rotation. But as long as they have Bonds, with eight guys in uniform beside him, the Giants can push the boulder up the hill again.