Giants Moves Should Have Come in June
Watching Matt Cain’s major league debut should give Giants fans hope because the young man was quite impressive, even though he lost the game because of a lack of run support.
Cain showed a fast ball that lit up the radar gun, and he also showed great poise, especially in the 14-pitch at-bat by Todd Helton, which ended with Helton flying out. Cain is still struggling with his command, throwing 103 pitches in five innings, but he also showed an ability to work out of trouble when he loaded the bases in the fourth inning but gave up only one run.
None of this is surprising. In spring training a year ago, I heard from knowledgeable baseball observers Marty Lurie and Mike Krukow that Cain would be something special, not just because of his ability but his poise. Though he struggled with his control at Triple-A Fresno, he overpowered hitters in the Pacific Coast League, a notorious hitters league.
So, what took the Giants so long to bring him up? He should have been here in July, working on his craft at the major league level. What more was he going to learn at Fresno?
But even after the All-Star break, general manager Brian Sabean was saying he didn’t know what kind of team he had. Huh? So, the development of Cain and other younger pitchers had to wait.
In fairness to Sabean, he has put Cain and currently injured Merkin Valdez on the untouchable list when other teams have tried to trade for them, especially just before the inter-league trading deadline in July, 2004. But he has given up several young pitchers in the last couple of years: Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, Jesse Foppert, Jerome Williams. There was justification for moves like that when Barry Bonds was playing every day, but as soon as it became clear that Bonds would play little, if at all, this year, the Giants should have shifted into a different mode.
It was bad luck when closer Armando Benitez went down early with a torn hamstring, which required surgery, and Jason Schmidt struggled mightily.
But the Giants were also unrealistic with their evaluation of their veteran pitchers. Kirk Rueter was always overvalued, and when the umpires stopped calling strikes on pitches off the plate (because they were being electronically monitored), Rueter was toast. He had a bad season last year, a worse one this year – and that should not have come as ae surprise.
Talking about Brett Tomko, Sabean said there was always one pitcher who did better than expected and one who did worse, and he put Tomko in the latter category. In fact, though Tomko’s won-lost record was the worst of his career, his other statistics were in line with his career averages. Going into the season, he had a 4.53 career ERA and had given up more hits than innings pitched. That is not the sign of a good pitcher.
The Giants thought that Tomko’s strong second half in 2004 would carry into this season, but Tomko has never learned the essence of being a pitcher: damage control. He has always been the kind of pitcher who can be dominating for 4-5 innings and then blow sky high in the next inning. I can’t believe the Giants ever thought he’d change.
THE GIANTS have also been slow to give their young hitters a chance.
Pedro Feliz has bounced around from third to first to left field, though manager Felipe Alou now has him at third base most of the time. The Giants have hoped a team contending for the playoffs, most likely the New York Mets, would bite on Edgardo Alfonzo, but his $6.5 million contract has stopped everybody. The Giants will have to eat part of that contract to get rid of Alfonzo, but they have to do it. The Alfonzo signing was a bad one, but keeping him around doesn’t make it any better.
Lance Niekro has shown good power in limited at-bats, 11 homers and 15 doubles in 236 at-bats, but his progress has been slowed because he’s been platooned with J. T. Snow, who has gotten 61 more at-bats. Snow is still a superb fielder and a hitter with good plate discipline, but he has little power, Yet, he’s been hitting in the No. 3 position, as he was last night, which is a partial explanation of the Giants inability to score many runs. Niekro should have played every day this year. For certain, he should next year. Let Snow go.
Todd Linden is another young hitter who should have been given a longer shot earlier. The ball just jumps off his bat, which is the sign of a good hitter. A switch-hitter, Linden struggled from the left side early but he’s worked on that; his splits with the Giants suggest he’s a better percentage hitter from the right side but has more power from the left.
Linden overpowered PCL pitchers from the start of the season. He had nothing further to learn there and should have been brought up to stay by June. He couldn’t play every day, though, because the Giants were committed to Alfonzo at third, which meant Feliz had to go to the outfield.
GIANTS MANAGEMENT was locked into a mantra: We can’t let our fans down by giving up on our chances.
The irony is that the team might have had a better chance of winning by going to young pitchers and players earlier. Can you imagine a worse pitching staff than the veteran-loaded staff the Giants had for the first half of the season? The young pitchers, despite the mistakes they make, are a definite improvement. Their veteran-heavy lineup ranks 15th in the National League in runs scored, behind only the Washington Nationals, who play in a home park where it takes binoculars to see the outfield fences. Could they have been any worse if they’d made every day players of Niekro and Linden in June?
I think their fans would have been happier, too, seeing young pitchers and hitters who give some hope for the future instead of tired veterans who weren’t doing the job.
So, now the Giants are going young in their pitching staff – and they have some impressive arms in the rotation and bullpen – and giving Linden his chance.
Better late than never, I guess, but it would have been so much better if they’d made these moves in June.
TOMORROW: A look at the Cal Bears defense, through the eyes of defensive coordinator Bob Gregory.
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