Sabean In Deep Denial
by Glenn Dickey
May 31, 2005

ITíS FOOLISH to draw parallels between one season and the next in baseball because teams and conditions change, but Giants general manager Brian Sabean seems to be doing exactly that.

Last year, the Giants started 16-24 and appeared to be in disarray, with the bullpen unable to adjust to the fact that, with Robb Nen sidelined for the second straight year, there was no real closer. Nonetheless, the Giants coped with first Matt Herges and then Dustin Hermanson in that role and played well enough the rest of the season to be in contention for the postseason until the final weekend.

Once again, the Giants are struggling, with a 23-26 record as they near the 1/3 of a season mark, which has led Sabean to trade for LaTroy Hawkins to be the setup man in the bullpen. That will help, but not enough, because there are two significant differences from last season:

--NO BARRY BONDS. Even with the slow start in 2004, everybody could be confident that, with Bonds there, the Giants offense would get going again, as it did. The Giants finished second in the National League in runs scored for the season, topped only by the St. Louis Cardinals.

This year, without Bonds, the Giants are 11th among the 16 National League teams in scoring.

That should not be surprising. Having Bonds in the lineup helped in multiple ways. He was the most dominant hitter in the game, when pitchers gave him a chance to hit. If they didnít and walked him, he was another baserunner Ė and he scored 129 runs to go with his 101 RBIs.

His presence was even more important. The No. 3 hitter benefited most directly because pitchers never wanted to walk him ahead of Bonds, so he got a steady diet of fast balls. Other hitters benefited indirectly: Because there was so much concentration on Bonds, pitchers didnít spend as much time mentally preparing for other hitters. That advantage is gone, and it shows.

--THE DIVISION is much stronger, which means the schedule is automatically tougher.

Last year, the only team the Giants had to beat in the division was the Los Angeles Dodgers, and they fell two games short. Some of the San Diego Padres power hitters were spooked by their new park, and though the Padres were probably the best team in the division, they didnít play that way.

The Giants lost their season series to both teams, 10-9 to the Dodgers, 12-7 to the Padres, which was probably a better indication of the teamís quality than their second-place finish. Their postseason hopes were fueled by the bottom-feeders in the division, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the worst team in the league, and the Colorado Rockies, who werenít much better. They beat the D-backs 14 times, the Rockies 11, and those combined 25 victories were more than 27 per cent of their overall total.

This year is quite different, with only the Rockies continuing their sadsack pace. The D-Backs are probably the most improved team in the league. The Padres are playing as they should have last year; after their sweep of the Giants and a Monday win over Milwaukee, they are eight games ahead of the Giants, who now trail three teams in the division. As of this morning, there are 10 National League teams with better records and an 11th, the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom they start a series tonight, in a virtual tie with the Giants, two percentage points higher.

SABEANíS TRADE for Hawkins, though it will strengthen the Giants bullpen for the rest of this season, was a troubling one because this was still another trade in which he gave up young pitchers for immediate help.

For a time, Sabeanís record with his trade of young pitchers was good. The only prospect heíd traded away who had had a good career was Keith Foulke, and Foulke went in a midseason trade in 1997 that brought the Giants a division title.

Last year, though, he included Joe Nathan in the trade for A. J. Pierzynski, and that trade ranks with Orlando Cepeda for Ray Sadecki as the worst in San Francisco Giants history.

Itís too early to say how this one will turn out, but we know that Williams had shown that he could win on the major league level before he was derailed, probably temporarily, by his family problems. We know that Aardsma was on the Giantsí staff last season and showed a good competitive makeup and a major league fastball. He was sent down to work on other pitches, but heíll be back Ė now, with another club.

We know that Giants management has no faith they can hold on to their fan base if the team is not contending for the postseason. They look in horror at what is happening across the bay, with the Aís in a painful rebuilding mode that has produced two eight-game losing streaks.

But we also know that the Giants current plan isnít working. This isnít just a matter of tweaking a team that is close to being a playoff team. There are too many other holes. Though manager Felipe Alou has anointed Tyler Walker the closer, his outings over the weekend werenít encouraging. Jason Schmidt looked like his old self against the Dodgers but got battered by the Padres. Noah Lowry looked good on Saturday against the Padres, so he may be over his sophomore year problems, but Brett Tomko, Kirk Rueter and Brad Hennessey donít inspire confidence.

In the field, there are too many Sabean mistakes: Edgardo Alfonzo has no range at third, so ground balls just to his left get through for base hits. Ray Durham is so wary of pulling another muscle, he lacks that burst on the basepaths and starts slowly on balls hit in his area; Michael Tucker is taking up roster space that should be used for a young outfielder, specifically, Todd Linden.

ONE OTHER thing we know: Bonds isnít going to save this team this year. Itís still uncertain when heíll be back, but thinking heíll come back as the same old Barry Bonds this season is wishful thinking. It will be very risky to play him in the field, after multiple knee operations, and he wonít be the same hitter, either, because the legs are the key to a power swing.

The Giants are in deep denial about this season, but the rest of us can look at this and say, it ainít happening, Brian.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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