Giants, A's Have to Think of the Future
Swisher was brought up to the A’s from Sacramento in the September callup last season, after hitting 29 home runs in 455 at-bats – some of them, it was discovered later, with a broken bone in his wrist. The A’s immediately planned to have Swisher, who’s now 24, in the starting lineup during the 2005 season.
“We’re bringing him up a half-year early,” A’s general manager Billy Beane admitted when we talked after the Jason Kendall press conference in November, “but what are we going to do – tell him to go back to Sacramento and hit 30 homers? We want him here, adjusting to major league pitching.’’
Swisher has indeed shown that he’s not quite ready for prime time, hitting .225 to this point in the season. He’s also shown flashes of power; he has the plate discipline that Beane likes; and he is so confident that he’s the frequent target for jibes by the A’s veterans. I expect to see improvement from him in the second half this year and his future is bright.
Linden, who’s about five months older than Swisher, made a swift ascent through the Giants minor league system, getting to the big leagues in the September, 2003 callup in only his second season in professional ball. But then, his progress stalled. He had played 125 games in Fresno (Triple A) before the 2003 callup, went back to Fresno for another 130 games in 2004 and was sent down for a third year this season, and he stepped up his game to lead the Pacific Coast League in home runs and RBIs.
Finally, when Edgardo Alfonzo went on the disabled list, Pedro Feliz was moved to his natural position at third base and Linden was brought up to play right field. Even then, Giants general manager Brian Sabean said that was a tough call because Linden had been playing at a top level only for less than half of this season. But it was his third season at Triple-A, and he had clearly learned what he had to learn at that level.
At least, the Giants brought Linden up at an age when he still has some upside. Typically, an athlete’s peak years are 27-32, so if he doesn’t make it to the big leagues before that point, what you see is probably the best you’ll ever see.
The Giants have been notorious for not giving their prospects a chance to play until they’re at a relatively advanced age. Jason Ellison, who has given the Giants a spark of life this season, is already 27. That’s young by Giants rookie standards; Calvin Murray was almost 30 when he got his shot. Predictably, he didn’t do much.
The Giants had to keep Feliz on the roster in 2001 when he was 26 because he was out of options (Sabean told me at that time that they would certainly have sent him down if they could). Feliz had hit 33 homers in his last season at Fresno, but he averaged only about 200 at-bats for the next three seasons with the Giants. It was only last season that he finally got a chance to play regularly, though he had to move from position to position to do it. He’s still learning as a hitter, but he’s 30 now; these are lessons he should have learned at 26.
THERE ARE always exceptions, of course, and both the A’s and Giants have deviated some from their normal strategies this season.
Beane erred in not bringing up first baseman Dan Johnson at the start of the season, probably because two of his pet projects, Eurbiel Durazo and Scott Hatteberg, were blocking the way.
After trying for a couple of years, Beane traded for Durazo before the 2003 season. In limited playing time with Arizona, Durazo had looked like he had the power to hit 30-35 home runs as a full-time player. He hasn’t reached that level with the A’s, but he did have a good season last year, hitting .321 with 22 homers, 35 doubles and 88 RBIs.
Beane and his people saw a hitting potential in Hatteberg that nobody else did, Hatteberg is the poster boy for the Beane approach to hitting; he had a .367 on-base percentage last season, and he is an excellent two-strikes hitter.
But Hatteberg doesn’t put up the power numbers a team needs from a first baseman, and his defense has deteriorated. Durazo’s defense hasn’t deteriorated because it’s always been dreadful, and he won’t put in the practice time to improve.
Unlike Durazo, Johnson has worked very hard on his defense, and he’s changed from being a defensive liability to being an excellent fielding first baseman. Unlike Hatteberg, he has a first baseman’s power, with 29 homers (and 111 RBIs) at Sacramento last year.
Yet, it wasn’t until Durazo went on the DL that Johnson got his chance. When Durazo returns, Johnson should stay at first. Beane hasn’t been able to trade Hatteberg, so the A’s may have to eat his contract.
The Giants deviated from their veteran-friendly strategy to put Ellison and Lance Niekro in the lineup, and they’ve benefited from both moves. Ellison has more speed than Marquis Grissom, though he seems lost when the ball comes out to him on the ground. Niekro has long been highly-regarded in the Giants organization but his progress has been slowed by injuries. He had another freak one recently, fouling a ball off his foot, but he’s been an important power source.
Manager Felipe Alou has decided to play Niekro at first, even against right-handed pitching, which was the right decision. When Alfonzo returns, he should keep Feliz at third, where he hits better because he’s more comfortable, and Linden in right field.
The problem with Alfonzo and Ray Durham is their contracts. The Giants overpaid for both and attempts to trade them have failed because nobody else wants to take on those contracts. The Giants may have to agree to pay part of a contract to move one of them. I’d put Alfonzo at second when he returns and move Durham, who’s a defensive liability and can’t stay healthy.
IRONICALLY, BOTH teams find themselves in basically the same position now, with the pennant race only a rumor. Their records are nearly identical. Only two National League teams have worse records than the Giants, only two American League teams have worse records than the A’s. That essentially means that both are playing for the future, not the present.
That’s easier for the A’s, who have from the start been trying to build a team that will start another run in the 2006 season. There have been some encouraging signs lately with the development of the young pitchers. The next step will have to be hitting improvement from Bobby Crosby, Johnson and Swisher.
The Giants are more problematical. Sabean has said any moves he makes at midseason will be to go younger, but I suspect that the Giants management still secretly believes Barry Bonds will return and make this team a contender.
That possibility becomes more remote with every passing day. The Giants need to forget that and think young, even though that means changing their entrenched mindset.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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