Hunter Pence/Shane Victorini/Brandon League; A's Run/Henley Ramirez; Warriors Moves; Reggie McKenzie/Rich Gannon/Al Davis
IT SEEMS THAT the Giants and Dodgers are playing “Can you top this?” with their moves in the last few days.
The Dodgers struck first with the signing of Hanley Ramirez, who had worn out his welcome in Miami. Ramirez is one of those players who rises to the top when he likes the situation he’s in, then tanks when he doesn’t like what’s happening around him. Local fans should understand that after watching Randy Moss’s sick act with the Raiders, followed by his record-setting run with the New England Patriots. Ramirez has already shown he is rising to the occasion again with the Dodgers; his hitting was a big factor in the Dodgers’ sweep of the Giants last weekend.
That forced the Giants to move and they made a dandy trade yesterday, getting outfielder Hunter Pence from the Phillies for Nate Schierholz and two minor leaguers, catcher Tommy Joseph and pitcher Seth Rosin, who was strictly a throw-in. Joseph is an excellent prospect but the Giants are well-stocked with young catchers now, with Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez. Pence is exactly what the Giants need, a right-handed power hitter. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s what the Giants need. AT&T is tough on left-handed power hitters, unless they hit the ball right down the line, but it’s not a difficult park for right-handed power hitters. It certainly didn’t hurt Jeff Kent.
But, almost simultaneously, the Dodgers traded for another Phillies outfielder, Shane Victorino, and closer Brandon League from the Seattle Mariners, a pitcher who also interested the Giants, whose bullpen has been shaky lately.
And, Giants general manager Brian Sabean admitted that the deal for Pence became urgent because it was obvious that the new Dodgers owners are willing to do whatever it takes to reach the postseason.
Ironically, before Sunday’s game at AT&T, I was talking about all the Pence rumors with Henry Schulman, The Chronicle’s Giants beat writer. We both thought the Giants couldn’t get Pence because the Phillies weren’t in a five-year plan mode.
We were both wrong. The Pence and Victorino trades were clearly salary dumps. The Phillies still have outstanding starting pitching, but they’ve taken themselves out of contention for the immediate future.
Both the Dodgers and Giants were probably looking at a landscape that seems a bit different. Cincinnati, even without Joey Votto, went on a 10-game win streak to shoot to the top of the NL Central. Pittsburgh also showed surprising strength after the All-Star break. The Nationals still look tough, the Braves are playing well and the St. Louis Cardinals seem dangerous. Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks have been creeping up in the NL West, only 3 ½ games back as of this morning. Earlier reports that the D-Backs would trade Justin Upton now seem to be nothing more than unsubstantiated rumors.
Even a couple of weeks ago, it seemed whichever team finished second in the NL West would certainly be a wild card team. That is no longer certain, so winning the division is more important than ever. And right now, that looks like a race that may not be decided until the final day. And, the final series for the Dodgers and Giants will be at Chavez Ravine.
MANWHILE, THE A’S have been the biggest story in baseball with the best record in July in franchise history. Think about that for a minute. The A’s won three straight World Series, 1972-74, and were in the playoffs in the years before and after that run. They won three straight pennants in Philadelphia, 1929-31, and in Oakland, 1988-1990. Yet, none of those teams had as good a July as this year’s team.
Pitching has fueled the A’s run, for the most part; both their starters and their relievers top the American League in ERA, though their best starter, Brandon McCarthy, has been on the DL for a good part of the season, and both Dallas Braden, who has a perfect game on his resume, and Brett Anderson have been out all year after surgery. Credit Curt Young for doing an incredible job with the young starters. The A’s are so deep in pitching that they’re considering going to a six-man rotation when McCarthy returns.
If you look at the A’s lineup on any given day, you see averages barely above .200, or even below, but the A’s make up for their average deficiencies by hitting home runs. Chris Carter, who seemed a lost cause at the start of the year, has shared in the bounty since he came up, hitting eight homers in his first 18 games. As a comparison, only two Giants have hit more, playing far more games.
I thought their tough second half schedule, 61 of 77 games against teams with winning records, would sink the A’s but nothing seems to daunt them. They started the second half with five games against the two best teams in baseball, the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, and won four of five. They lead the majors with 13 walk-off wins, which speaks to their attitude of never giving up. As of this morning, theywere only half a game behind the Anaheim Angels in the AL wild card race. There’s a lot of baseball left, but I can’t count the A’s out, with their spirit.
They still need a shortstop. They pursued Ramirez but general manager Billy Beane offered prospects and the Marlins just wanted to get out from under that contract, which the Dodgers happily took over. Cliff Pennington is a good defensive shortstop but he was hitting below .200 when he had to go on the DL. Perhaps his hitting was affected because he wasn’t healthy, because his average was far below the .264 he hit in his second season last year. But, I’d rather see the A’s get another shortstop than wait for a revival of Pennington’s bat, which may never happen.
CAN IT BE that the Warriors will be relevant again this season? It certainly seems that way with the moves that new general manager Bob Myers has made (no doubt, with advice from Jerry West, among others) to solidify the team. His moves have been reminiscent of the way Trent Baalke has remodeled the 49ers into a premier team. Similarly, Myers has done a good job of identifying the players he needed and, as a former agent, he knows how to make a deal.
It always starts at the top with any sports organization. It’s more difficult in the NBA because the salary cap restrictions are almost incomprehensible and the top stars get such huge salaries that one mistake can doom a team. That’s happened in the recent past with the Warriors and Andris Biedrins. At one point, Biedrins seemed to be developing into a topflight defender and rebounder with just enough offense. Then, a series of injuries sidelined him and apparently undermined his confidence. He’s become a liability with two years still left on his contract.
In recent years, most assessments of the Warriors have included Biedrins, but not this year. The draft and deals Myers has made have shoved him to the third spot on the Warriors depth chart at center, which means he’ll probably be inactive for most games, unless the Warriors can somehow trade him.
They had a great draft. Harrison Barnes, their top pick at No. 7 in the first round, is penciled in as the starter at small forward. Many basketball people think that Barnes will be a better pro than he was a college player. Certainly, his skills seem well suited to the pro game.
The second pick, Festus Ezell, will be the backup at center, whose best talents are rebounding and defense. Their third pick, in the second round, Raymond Green is tentatively listed as the No. 3 small forward. The Warriors say they were surprised that all three of their picks were available. That’s what teams often say, but impartial NBA observers agree with that assessment.
Last season, the Warriors traded for Andrew Bogut, who was injured at the time (now fully recovered) and a healthy Bogut gives them a scorer and rebounder in the middle that they haven’t had since Nate Thurmond, incredible as it seems. The NBA used to have a surfeit of good big men – think Bill Russell dueling with Wilt Chamberlain – but there haven’t been many dominant big men in recent years. Still, the Warriors’ record in this area is astounding.
In this offseason, Myers has made other significant moves. Trading for Jarrett Jack gives the Warriors a flexibility they didn’t have before because he can be either the point guard of shooting guard, with the size and strength to defend against big guards. If Stephen Curry goes down again with an ankle injury, always a concern, Jack can take his place. Curry is better, but there won’t be a sharp dropoff, as there has been in the past.
Carl Landry, signed this week, is a solid backup at power forward, allowing the Warriors to give David Lee the rest he needs at this point in his career. Brandon Rush is expected to be re-signed any time, possibly by the time you get this, to give the Warriors depth at small forward.
Overall, the Warriors depth is regarded as their best since the 1991-92 season, when they won 55 games. That’s not a prediction that they’ll win 55 games this season but they should certainly be interesting and have a strong shot at being a playoff team. For those of you who have just been watching the Warriors for the past 20 years or so, the playoffs are for winning teams. The Warriors have made the playoffs only once since they traded Chris Webber.
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SOME THINGS never change:
Monte Poole and I were guests on “Chronicle Live” last Thursday and we were exchanging Al Davis stories in the “green room” before we went on air. Monte told me that, early in his career, Davis had been very helpful to him.
“Then, when the team was coming back to Oakland, I asked Davis why he wasn’t speaking out about the deal. He woulldn’t say a word about it. So, I wrote that, if he were trying to sabotage the deal, he couldn’t have done a better job. That did it. I saw Bruce Allen the next day and he told me’That one story has done it. He’ll never talk to you again.’”
More than 20 years earlier, the same thing had happened to me. Davis and I had had a good relationship when I was covering the Raiders, but when I started writing a column and, in writing about the lawsuit Wayne Valley had filed against him, wrote that Davis had been ungrateful, that ended our relationship. We never had a meaningful conversation again.
That was just part of the problem with Davis, who increasingly ran a mom-and-pop operation while the NFL had become a super market. That was the biggest reason the Raiders eventually fell off the cliff, though when I pointed that out, Id get angry letters from the true believers.
The new general manager of the Raiders, Reggie McKenzie, seems to share my opinion of what Davis was doing. Though he repeated the usual nonsense about the Raiders at his introductory news conference, his actions are opposite Davis’s. He’s cut players who were being terribly overpaid by Davis, traded off others and made it clear that he’s building from the ground up.
He gave his new coach, Dennis Allen, a four-year contract, so Allen wouldn’t feel he had to win immediately to keep his job. He invited Rich Gannon, who quarterbacked the last Raiders team to make the Super Bowl, to talk to players at their Napa camp this year. Davis barred Gannon from talking to players before Rich worked a Raiders TV game last season because Gannon had been critical – meaning, realistic – about the Raiders. That’s how pathetic Davis was at the end.
McKenzie also has been checking the waiver wires closely for good players. Good teams often cut good players because they don’t have the room for them. This year, for instance, the 49ers have a glut of good running backs. They can’t keep all of them, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Raiders picked up a running back cut by the Niners to fill the hole left by Michael Bush’s departure.
Frankly, I don’t expect the Raiders to win this year. If Peyton Manning can stay healthy, the Denver Broncos should win the AFC West, and there won’t be a wild card coming out of the division.
But, I’m optimistic about the long-term prospects of the Raiders. I think McKenzie is building the right kind of team, one which will have long-term success. And, I don’t miss Davis at all.
LAST WORD: Watching the fantastic American women gymnasts, I thought again that this is what the Olympics is all about, and that competitions should be limited to sports which have no professional component. That means no basketball, no baseball (which was dropped this year) and even no tennis, though that is largely an individual sport. There are plenty of events for them to reach a large audience. Kobe Bryant doesn’t need to take another victory lap.
The competitors in the individual sports in the Olympics, including gymnastics, work incredibly hard and make huge sacrifices to achieve their goals. Some of them even give up their high school years, getting home instruction so they can pass tests, to train for a possible Olympics appearance. They shouldn’t have to share the stage with professional athletes who have their own big events.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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