Giants In Denial, A's On a Roll
Magowan’s comments illustrate the big difference between the way the Giants and A’s operate. A’s general manager Billy Beane never has to look over his shoulder. He has budget constraints, but the baseball decisions are made by Beane and his people. With the Giants, general manager Brian Sabean always has to be aware of Magowan’s thinking, which at least partially accounts for some of the strange decisions coming down.
Any knowledgeable baseball person has known since Bonds’ expected return was delayed for months and perhaps all season, that the Giants were not a playoff team, but Magowan’s thinking has not allowed Sabean to operate that way. So, instead of using this year to prepare for next season, the Giants have been in deep denial all year.
Now, the thinking is that, because they play 26 games down the stretch against their division foes, they have a chance to win the National League Worst, which is now a cumulative 71 games below .500. Sounds reasonable, except that those teams also get to play the Giants.
Because the division teams play each other and somebody has to win those games, it seems likely that the division winner will have to have at least a .500 record, as leader San Diego has now. For the Giants to win 81 games, they have to win 25 of their last 36, a percentage of .694. Currently, they’re at .437 overall, just below .500 (23-24) against teams in their division. Maybe if we shout, “NO WAY” loud enough, even Magowan will hear.
Sometimes, the Giants actually do something that seems sensible. They brought up Todd Linden again, and this time, they have let him stay in the lineup, so Linden has shown the hitting ability he had displayed in Fresno this year. Now, with Moises Alou returning, his father, manager Felipe Alou, has decided to return Pedro Feliz to third, putting Edgardo Alfonzo on the bench. (With the Mets solidly in the wild card race, there’s still hope they’ll take Alfonzo off the Giants hands.)
But, will Alou stick to that plan? Earlier in the year, remember, he said Lance Niekro would be the full-time first baseman, but very quickly, he reverted to a platoon, so we still don't know how Niekro would do as a full-time player.
When the Giants were still at Candlestick, they had a good plan: Sabean put together a strong team that hit Pacific Bell Park on a roll.
More and more, though, the Giants are looking like the 49ers in the ‘90s. Good decisions in 1994 put together a strong team that won the Niners’ fifth Super Bowl, but as the team got older, the decisions got worse. By 1999, all they had was Steve Young, and when Young went down, the 49ers collapsed.
Similarly, for the last three years, Sabean has tried to fill in around Bonds, and he’s made some bad decisions. As long as Bonds was in the lineup, those mistakes could be papered over. Without him, the Giants are foundering – but Magowan still can’t admit it.
WHAT MAKES IT worse for the Giants is that, across the bay, the A’s are showing the right way to do it.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the A’s, but they’re tied for the wild card lead with the Yankees and Indians and only 2 ½ back of the AL West leading Anaheim Angels. After a two-week slump when their bats went into a deep slumber, the A’s seem to have righted themselves with 30 hits and 20 runs in the last two games.
Unlike the Giants, the A’s rely heavily on their minor league system, both to re-stock their major league team and to make trades for players. Farm system director Keith Lieppman, who is in his 14th year in that position and was a manager at all levels in the system before that, may be the second-most important person in the A’s organization. Lieppman travels throughout the system, and he’s the one who decides when players should be moved to another level. On his advice, the A’s will often move players up during the season, but they want players to be successful at each level.
When they get to the majors, they get an opportunity to show what they can do, even if they struggle at first – an opportunity Giants prospects seldom get. Nick Swisher seemed lost his first couple of months, but now, he’s an important part of the present and future. Joe Blanton was hit hard at the start of the season, his first, but he learned from his mistakes and has pitched very well since.
The A’s are starting two rookie position players, Swisher and Dan Johnson, and a shortstop, Bobby Crosby, who is only in his second year. The only starter with more than three full seasons in the majors is Barry Zito, and Zito, Blanton and Rich Harden are all products of the A’s minor league system. Their closer, Huston Street, is a rookie, only 14 months removed from pitching in the College World Series.
The A’s showed patience with Harden when he first came up, and with Blanton and Dan Haren this year. The only young pitcher the Giants have shown patience with is Noah Lowry, who has rewarded their patience by coming around nicely the last two months. It would be nice if they’d learn a lesson from that, but probably not.
Now, the A’s have some other players who could help in the future. Matt Watson, who has been up briefly a couple of times this season, is having a nice year at Sacramento, hitting .307 with a .400 on base percentage and 18 homers and 78 RBIs in just 397 at-bats.
The best prospects, though, are at Midlands. Andre Ethier, just named the Texas League Player of the Year, leads the league in runs (100) and hits (152). He’s hitting .321. Daric Barton, who just turned 20 is, says Lieppman, “just a pure hitter.” He’s hitting .327 with an exceptional .424 on-base percentage. Kevin Melillo is hitting .319 (.390, on base percentage), Brian Stavisky, .316 and .394. A couple of these players may be part of the September callup, though the A’s have said Barton won’t be.
With a young team, the A’s won’t have many openings next season; Scott Hatteberg is the only one likely to be gone. But when they need help, it should be available.
MEANWHILE, THE Giants face a series of problems. Bonds won’t be able to play regularly in the field without breaking down next season, so they should trade him to an American League club. They need to get rid of veterans like Alfonzo, Michael Tucker, J. T. Snow. They need to either fire Felipe Alou or persuade him to accept a settlement and retire.
Will they be able to do this, or will they stay in denial? Magowan is the man who can answer that, not Sabean.
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