Sabean Made the Right Choice
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 08, 2005

BRIAN SABEAN’S decision not to trade top pitching prospects for immediate help in midseason last year makes the Giants future much brighter, and perhaps the present, as well.

Sabean’s inaction before the July 31 trading deadline went against form, as was his reluctance to trade top pitching prospects. In the past, he’s traded No. 1 draft picks Joe Fontenot, Jason Grilli, Kurt Ainsworth and Boof Bonser.

His judgment on the pitchers he’s traded has been excellent. None of the four above has done anything yet, though Ainsworth may become an effective pitcher if he can stay healthy.

The last three Giants No. 1 picks – Brad Hennessey (2001), Matt Cain (2002) and David Aardsma (2003) are still in the Giants organization. Many teams tried to pry Cain and Hennessey loose last year, but Sabean wasn’t listening. Nor would he deal Jesse Foppert, recovering from Tommy John surgery, or Merkin Valdez. He knew the Giants needed help in too many areas for a quick fix to do much good. More important, he wasn’t going to mortgage the future.

Now, Aardsma has a good chance to stick in the Giants bullpen this year. Hennessey was up for a time last year. Cain, who will likely start the season in Triple A Fresno, has a very bright future. Only 20, he’s on the cover of the latest Baseball America as the best prospect in the NL West.

How soon Cain gets here depends in part on the Giants rotation. Though some think this rotation could be as good as 2002, when Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz and Kirk Rueter all pitched more than 200 innings (and Jason Schmidt has 185 and Ryan Jensen 171), but there are significant questions about four of the five starters.

THIS IS how I view them:

SCHMIDT: When he’s healthy, as he is now, he’s the best in the National League.

Despite his great natural ability, it took Schmidt some time to build up his confidence. As recently as the start of the 2003 season, pitching coach Dave Righetti told me, "Nobody’s ever told him he’s ‘The Man.’ When he realizes how good he is, he’ll be awesome.” In midseason, a light seemed to come on for Schmidt and, as Righetti predicted, he’s been awesome since then. He’s the kind of pitcher who’s capable of throwing a no-hitter any time he pitches.

RUETER: He’s the most overrated starter on the Giants and possibly the entire league. Though manager Felipe Alou has set up his rotation to alternate between hard-throwing righthanders and soft-throwing lefthanders, the rotation will be stronger if the others pitch well enough to force Rueter down to the No. 5 slot.

Rueter has always been a six-inning pitcher; his only plus-200 innings season was 2002, and he was just over, at 203. His success in the past was due to great run support (he went 15-10 in 1999 with a 5.41 ERA!) and great fielding support. He puts a lot of runners on base but the Giants defense had been able to get him out of jams with double plays, until last year. The addition of shortstop Omar Vizquel will mean more to Rueter than any of the other starters, but it won’t be enough to make him an effective pitcher again.

BRETT TOMKO: An enigma. He’s got the stuff to be one of the best in the league, but he’s been an inconsistent pitcher since he first came to the majors in 1997. Last year was no exception: A dismal first half was followed by a lights-out second half.

So, which is the real Tomko? He’s said he finally learned how to pitch in the second half of last season, but you have to wonder what took him so long. My guess is that he’ll continue to be inconsistent, but if he truly has learned from last season, he’d be a good fit as the No. 2 starter.

NOAH LOWRY: He gave the Giants a big pick-me-up with his 6-0 run in the second half of last season. He doesn’t blow anybody away with his fast ball, in the high ‘80s, but a well-disguised change-up registers in the low ‘70s, so he has the change of speed that makes a pitcher effective.

Sometimes, a rookie pitcher will make a big splash but hitters will catch up to him in his second season. Some wonder if that will happen to Lowry, but he has the poise a major league pitcher needs, and I think his success will continue.

JEROME WILLIAMS: In Williams’ rookie season, he looked like a pitcher who was headed for a long, productive career. Last year, he had some setbacks, part of it his own doing when he showed up horribly overweight in spring training. He’s also had some personal setbacks; his mother died of cancer and his father is apparently fatally ill now.

Williams has cut back on his eating, which is a good sign. Only 23, he still has the potential that got the Giants excited early.

THE ROTATION as Alou has set it will probably go through the first half of the season, barring injuries. After the All-Star break, Alou can make changes. At that time, it’s likely that Rueter will be dropped to No. 5 and everybody now below him will move up, probably in the order they are now. That will break up the righty-left rotation, but it will also give the Giants their most effective rotation.

Next year, there will be more changes. Rueter’s contract is up this year, and the Giants should release him. Cain and possibly Foppert will move into the rotation, and Tomko will be gone if he has another inconsistent season.

And then, we’ll really see why Sabean didn’t trade his young pitchers.



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