Reality Time for Sabean
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 25, 2005

BRIAN SABEAN said this weekend that he still doesn’t know what kind of team the Giants have, so let’s give him some clues:

--There are only two teams in the 16-team National League which have worse records than the Giants.

--The Giants have not won a series at home in more than two months.

--The team ERA is barely below five runs a game.

--Though the Giants play in a division which is a collective 55 games below .500 – reader Janice Hough notes that, since the Olympics have dropped baseball, the best spot to watch amateur baseball is the National League West – the Giants trail three teams in the division.

Getting the picture yet, Brian?

Actually, I’m sure Sabean has known for some time what kind of team he has, but he’s been in denial because it’s such an unusual position for him. Since he took over as general manager of the Giants in 1997, the team has either been in the playoffs or contending for them every year. He had good reason to believe that would be true again this year, but the master plan was derailed when Barry Bonds was unable to play and closer Armando Benitez had hamstring surgery.

Now, the test for Sabean will be to keep from making a foolish trade this week to bring in a position player or pitcher that would improve the team enough to give it a chance to win the NL West. If he’s tempted, he should just say, “Sidney Ponson, Sidney Ponson,” to remind him of that folly.

The mantra always is, “In the playoffs, anything can happen,” but even if the Giants were able to win the NL West, it would only guarantee a first-round knockout. In the postseason, pitching is king, and the Giants rotation is in tatters. Noah Lowry (4.69) and Jason Schmidt (4.74) are the only starters with ERAs below five.

Last year, Sabean held on to his young pitching prospects, particularly Matt Cain and Merkin Valdez, realizing that, with the payroll he was losing after the season, he’d be in position to make some free agent signings in the offseason, which he did with Benitez, Moises Alou and Omar Viaquel; Alou and Vizquell have both played well.

This year, he tried some tinkering with the roster by obtaining La Troy Hawkins for young pitchers Jerome Williams and David Aardsma. He also signed outfielder Alex Sanchez off the waiver wire. Sanchez came cheap, costing the Giants only the waiver wire fee and a couple of ball games, but that experiment seems to be over, thankfully. He’s been placed on the 15-day disabled list so Marquis Grissom can be activated, and it seems he’ll soon be gone.

THE GOOD news for the Giants this year has come primarily from young players/pitchers. Reliever Scott Munter has been a real find as a setup man. Jason Ellison has played well for the most part in center field, though his hitting has fallen off since early season. Lance Niekro has shown that he is a solid major league hitter with a bright future.

Even so, Sabean and manager Felipe Alou have been reluctant to commit fully to the youth movement. Alou said at one point that Niekro would be a full-time starter at first but seemed to change his mind within 24 hours, so Niekro is still in a platoon with J. T. Snow at first. Alou has also questioned Ellison’s durability, which may be valid, considering Ellison’s second half slide.

Todd Linden was brought up from Fresno but, when he didn’t hit immediately, was returned. Linden has resumed his savaging of Pacific Coast League pitchers, but his treatment on the major league level is all too typical of the way the Giants handled their top prospects. Hitting is primarily a matter of confidence, and it’s difficult for a young player to develop the confidence he needs if he knows that a couple of 0-for-4 games will mean he’ll be sent down again. In an earlier column, I compared the Giants treatment of Linden with the patience the A’s have shown with Nick Swisher. Is Swisher a better player than Linden? I don’t know, but because the A’s were patient with him, he’s developing into a real offensive force and may very well become the AL Rookie of the Year – while Linden is back in the PCL.

The Giants attitude, of course, has always been that you try to win now and let the future take care of itself. That was a valid plan when Bonds was playing, but it shouldn’t have taken them this long to see how the season would go with Barry out. Yet, both Sabean and Alou have repeatedly talked about this team as if it were just a matter of pulling it together to make a run.

THE EMPHASIS for the rest of the season should be on setting the stage for next season.

There is some reason for optimism. Benitez’s return, which may come this season, will strengthen a bullpen which is already the best part of this year’s staff. Cain and Valdez should be part of the mix for the starters, and Jesse Foppert is recovering from his latest injury setback. Kevin Correia and Brad Hennessey have both shown flashes on the major league level; Correia has the best stuff, if he can get past that tendency to throw home run balls.

The Giants have finally seen the light on Kirk Rueter, who is in the last year of his contract, and may be able to make a deal sending inconsistent Brett Tomko on his way this week.

By next year, they hopefully will cut their ties with Snow, Grissom and Michael Tucker and make full-time players of Niekro and Linden. It should have happened this year, but when you can’t face reality, it takes longer.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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