Schmidt Is Key for Giants
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 29, 2006

IN HIS WAY, Jason Schmidt is almost as important to the Giants’ success as Barry Bonds.

Schmidt is projected as the No. 1 starter, with Matt Morris, Noah Lowry, Matt Cain and Jamey Wright following in that order. If Schmidt is unable to be a reliable No. 1 starter, it shoves others up in the rotation and puts more pressure on the young pitchers, Lowry and Cain.

Schmidt has been an interesting case study. Observers have been marveling at his stuff since he first came to the majors with the Atlanta Braves in 1996.Yet, overall, he was below .500 with the Braves and Pirates and with high ERAs. Giants GM Brian Sabean was able to virtually steal Schmidt from the Pirates in 2001, a trade which is probably the best Sabean has made.

Schmidt improved immediately in a Giants uniform, going 20-9 in his first season and a half and bringing his ERA down below 3.50. Still, he seemed capable of being even better.

Before the start of the 2003 season, I talked with Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti who said he was trying to convince Schmidt he could be “the man.” At that time, Righetti said, “He’s never been in that position before.”

Early in the season, I criticized Schmidt for not being all he could be in a Chronicle column. When I heard he was very unhappy with that column, I arranged to meet him in the dugout before a game and talk about it. It was not an angry confrontation because Schmidt is a soft-spoken, courteous man, with a deep religious conviction. He was more hurt than angry at my criticism. In the course of our conversation, he said, “I know I’m not Curt Schilling.” I assured him that he was quite capable of being that kind of pitcher.

That turned out to be Schmidt’s breakout year, not because of what I said but because of Righetti’s encouragement. Schmidt did become “the man” with a 17-5 record, backed up by a 2.34 ERA. The next season, he was 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA.

But last year, he slid back, to 12-7 with a 4.40 ERA. His problems started in spring training, when he never felt comfortable. In the regular season, he twice went on the disabled list. He never had the velocity of previous seasons, and he seemed to have lost his confidence, too.

The reports from spring training are encouraging. Schmidt has been throwing easily and with his old velocity. He’s 33, so he should have several good years left. I think it’s reasonable to expect him to bounce back.

I like this year’s staff much better than last year, when the Giants were unrealistically counting on Kirk Rueter and Brett Tomko to play vital roles. This year’s staff has a nice blend of proven veterans, Schmidt and Morris, and two young pitchers among the first four. Lowry came back strong in the second half last season. Cain has the possibility of being a super pitcher.

LIKE THEIR pitching rotation, the Giants appear much more solid with the position players they’re putting on the field.

Again, last year, there were unrealistic expectations. The Giants were still hoping to get good offensive numbers from Edgardo Alfonzo, though it should have been ovious that Alfonzo left his power in New York. They were still clinging to J. T. Snow because of his great glove, unwilling to admit that he had become an offensive liability. They weren’t willing to admit that Marquis Grissom was no longer a top-level player.

Now, Alfonzo is gone, for Steve Finley, who provides a reliable outfield backup. Grissom is retired. Pedro Feliz is finally installed at third base, his natural position, and Lance Niekro is getting a full shot at first base. Reportedly, Niekro has been swinging the bat well in Arizona. He’s been a strong hitter coming up in the system and looked good early last year but slumped as he was shuttled in and out of the lineup. Veterans can usually adjust when they're relegated to part-time duty, but that's very difficult for young players.

The Giants are once again an old team, and that always brings the risk of injury. This year, though, they have added depth. Jose Vizcaino is available as a reserve infielder, most likely at second base when Ray Durham suffers one of his inevitable injuries.

Nobody knows how many games Bonds can play, and Moises Alou is almost guaranteed to spend time on the DL. But Finley is there, Jason Ellison should be the fifth outfielder and Mark Sweeney is available as a backup at both first base and the outfield. Sweeney is also an excellent pinch-hitter, an element the Giants have lacked.

THE OPTIMISTIC hopes of the Giants and their fans collapsed last season when Bonds was unavailable until September and new closer Armando Benitez was sidelined early.

Nobody can adequartely replace Bonds, so it’s vital that he play at least 100 games this season. Benitez got rocked in his last stint in spring training, but before that, he was throwing well and he should be ready. If he isn’t – or if he gets injured again – the Giants are protected because they have Tim Worrell back; Worrell had 38 saves for the Giants in the 2003 season.

If Schmidt can come close to his 2003-2004 form, I think it’s realistic to expect the Giants to be back in the postseason.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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