Sabean's Reality: Bonds, Alou - and Magowan
Sabean has the advantage of about $25 million more payroll to work with than his Aís counterpart, Billy Beane, but he doesnít have Beaneís autonomy. Beane has total control of the baseball part of the Aís operation but Sabean always has to be aware of what Magowan wants.
Basically, Magowan wants a team which will always be competitive so the Giants can maintain the high attendance level at PacBell. That support is soft, as was shown by empty seats at soldout games this season, and by the fact that people who held tickets for games had to sell them at reduced prices or simply eat them. (The Giants will host the 2007 All-Star game, which will help their season ticket sales the next two years, because that will be part of the 2007 package.)
For Sabean, that philosophy has meant bringing in veterans to surround Bonds. We saw this year what happens when Bonds is taken out of the equation, but donít expect that approach to change.
Magowan also figures into the managerial decision because Alou got him out of an embarrassing situation, after the Giants owner had forced Dusty Baker out. Sabean quickly hired Alou, a popular choice because of his history as a player for the Giants, as well as an inspiration to the Latino audience. That was an important factor when the Giants extended Alouís contract through the 2006 season earlier this year.
Since then, the situation has changed drastically. When KNBR talk show host Larry Krueger had his infamous rant about ďbrain dead Caribbean hittersĒ, Giants executives were gleeful about their chance to get in some Krueger-bashing. The Giants do not react well to criticism, especially on the station which carries their games.
The situation quickly got out of control when Alou went over the top with his ďSatanĒ comments and KNBR added fuel to the fire by running a joking commentary about Alou. Krueger, program director Bob Agnew and morning show producer Tony Rhein all got fired. (Agnew has since landed a much better job as the west coast director for Clear Channel stations.)
Did the Giants ever try to restrain Alou? Iíve heard conflicting reports, but one thing is known: Ned Colletti, who is close to Alou and is probably the one man in the organization who could have talked sense to him, was sent out of country on a scouting trip at that time. Coincidence? I doubt it.
Alou has lost the respect of his players. The public comments by Kirk Rueter and Jason Christiansen, both gone now, echoed the off-the-record comments made by other players to beat writers.
But Alou wants to stay, so he can reach the 1000-win mark as a manager. The Giants wonít fire him, because that would be a real embarrassment, and they certainly wonít be able to persuade Alou to take a settlement and retire voluntarily.
ALOUíS RETURN is of much less importance than what happens with Bonds. The feeling in baseball has always been that having the best manager means no more than a six-game swing in the W-L column, but Bonds affects every game in which he plays. He affects the pitching strategy for the other team, he boosts the confidence of his teammates and takes the pressure off them and, when he gets a chance to hit, heís the best since at least Ted Williams and maybe Babe Ruth.
Some of the Bonds-haters theorized earlier in the season that the Giants didnít want Bonds to return because of the steroids issue, but that was just plain silly. Those people donít come to the games. Those who do love Bonds because of the excitement he brings, especially in comparison to the boring team the Giants fielded without him.
In fact, the Giants were glad to see Bonds return in September, not just because they needed the boost in their attempt to win the pathetic NL West but because they hoped to be able to evaluate how much they could expect of him in 2006. In the end, they didnít achieve either objective.
The one thing we all learned is that Bonds hasnít lost anything as a hitter. In his first at-bat in a game in almost a year, he came within about a foot of hitting the ball out. Heís flat-out amazing.
We still donít know how many games he can play in the field, though, because nobody can predict how his knee, after three surgeries, will hold up with the starts and stops heíll have to make, especially running the bases.
Bonds had his problems in September, but he was not in playing shape because he didnít have spring training behind him. Weíll have to wait until next season to see how many games he can play. My guess is that 120 games is probably optimistic.
So, Sabean will be trying to get a veteran left-handed power hitter, but thereís not much out there, either in the free agent market or in trades. The pendulum has swung from the great hitters era to one increasingly dominated by good young pitchers.
THE GIANTS made significant strides with their pitching staff this season, putting Matt Cain in the rotation and young relievers Scott Munter and Jeremy Accardo in the bullpen. It would be nice to see another young arm, perhaps Merkin Valdez, in the rotation next year, but itís more likely that Sabean will bring in a veteran to fit with Jason Schmidt, Noah Lowry and Cain in the first four slots.
For 2007, the Giants will have to make a decision on extending Bondsí contract, but theyíll know by then how much he can be expected to play. The contracts of Edgardo Alfonzo, Ray Durham and Moises Alou will be up, and I wouldnít expect any of them to come back.
Does this mean the Giants will finally go younger with their position players? No. Their farm system continues to spit out flawed position players; even Lance Niekro, who looked so promising at the start of the 2005 season, is now seen as a platoon player.
Theyíll continue to go for veteran free agents or trade young pitchers for them, with or without Bonds. Thatís the word from the top and the reality for Sabean.
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