Where's Vladimir Guerrero?
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 22, 2005

THE GIANTS should have signed Vladimir Guerrero when he was available as a free agent before last season. Now, much sooner than they had expected, they are looking at a future without a superstar who can lead the team and draw the fans.

No, I don’t think Barry Bonds will miss this whole season, even though he said that might happen. I think that statement was more a factor of his disappointment after another setback.

Bonds was determined to play Opening Day, and he may have pushed himself too hard in his re-hab. Whatever the reason, he’s had another knee surgery and there’s no medical opinion on when he’ll return.

Bonds has had such a rigorous training regime that he has been able to return from injuries sooner, sometimes much sooner, than expected. He’s been durable, with five seasons of more than 150 games with the Giants, another five of more than 140 games, including 143 last season. Only in 1999, when he played just 102 games, have injuries been a serious factor.

Now, though, he’s 40 and can’t recover from injuries as rapidly as he did when he was younger. He and the Giants will probably be fortunate if he can play half a season this year, and it’s a question how much he can play next year, too.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The Giants were counting on Bonds playing two more very productive seasons, which would have enabled him to break Hank Aaron’s career home run record, with fans filling PacBell Park to watch the chase. It seemed almost a given that Bonds could achieve that, but that goal may not be attainable now.

Last year, many of their fans wanted the Giants to sign Guerrero, who is the same kind of all-round player Bonds was when he was younger, an excellent outfielder, a hitter who can hit for both average and power and a good baserunner, though not the base stealer Bonds was in his prime. Like Bonds, who was 29 when the Giants signed him, the 28-year-old Guerrero was coming into his best years.

The Giants never made an attempt to sign Guerrero, who went to the Angels, for whom he hit .337, third in the league, with 39 homers and 126 RBIs.

There were good reasons for the Giants’ inaction. They were saddled with some big contracts, including $9 million for former closer Robb Nen, whose shoulder injuries sidelined him for the last two years of his contract, $6.5 million for Edgardo Alfonzo, whose best years are in the rear view mirror, and another $5 million for Kirk Rueter, who had a mediocre year.

Though fans and some writers tend to think the Giants are rolling in money, they had reportedly lost money the previous season. There is a $20 million yearly debt service on their privately-financed park and, because their revenues are high, they had to pay approximately $16 million into the revenue-sharing pool. Some sources of non-baseball income they had earlier, including renting out the park for business seminars, had slowed or disappeared because of the drop in the economy.

Since 1997, too, the Giants had felt that they didn’t want to put a high percentage of the total payroll into two players. They had been in that situation in 1996 with Bonds and Matt Williams, and despite having two superstars, they had finished last in the NL West in 1996. Brian Sabean, in his first big move as general manager, decided that Bonds was the better bet to lead the team, so he traded Williams. The trade was wildly unpopular with fans and heavily criticized by most of the media, though not by me, but it turned out to be a great trade for the Giants.

All those factors went into their decision not to pursue Guerrero, but in hindsight, they were wrong. If they’d taken the plunge, even though it would have meant red ink for a couple of years, they’d have the superstar in place to replace Bonds as he faded out, and there wouldn’t have been a missed step, in the field or at the box office.

Now, they’re scrambling. Last year, they signed three mediocre outfielders, Jeffrey Hammonds, Dustan Mohr and Michael Tucker, who played as you’d expect from their career statistics. Hammonds was released during the season, Mohr at the end. Tucker is still here because he’s on a two-year contract, but he’s a backup, nothing more.

This year, they signed Moises Alou to help “protect” Bonds in the batting order. Alou has power – though his power numbers were probably inflated by playing in Wrigley Field last year – but he’s not a very good defensive outfielder. With Bonds out, the Giants may play Alou more in left field than in the treacherous right field at PacBell.

And Alou is 38, so he’s certainly not a long-term solution.

Even if Bonds is able to return to play half a season, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to play at the level of recent years, and the end of his career is nearer than it seemed at the end of last season.

The Giants should have signed Vladimir Guerrero.


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