A's, Giants Come Up Empty
by Glenn Dickey
May 15, 2006

THE GIANTS and A’s both spent big bucks for free agent pitchers in the offseason. In retrospect, they might wish they had invested in government bonds instead.

The A’s mistake, signing Esteban Loaiza, has been the most embarrassing to this point.

There were certainly some red flags in Loaiza's background. He had had one great year, 2003, when he was 21-9 with a 2.90 ERA for the Chicago White Sox, finishing second in the Cy Young Award voting, but in a major league career which had started with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1995, he was only 112-99 with an ERA of 4.60. Moreover, the year after his best, he won only 10 games, though he did make the All-Star team, and was traded by the White Sox to the Yankees.

Last year, he won 12 games for the Washington Nationals, with a solid ERA of 3.77. The A’s signed him for rotation depth, figuring him as the No. 5 starter who would move up if they had another injury to a starter, as they had with Rich Harden at the end of the 2004 season.

But Loaiza has never been anything like the pitcher they thought they were getting. He was throwing what baseball people call “batting practice fast balls,” with little movement. Hitters who had faced him the year before noted that his “cutter”, which had been his out pitch, had disappeared. He was not only losing but putting a tremendous burden on the bullpen because he pitched only 18 innings in four starts.

With Harden again injured and on the disabled list, the A’s badly needed strong outings from Loaiza, but he was incapable of them. He insisted there was nothing wrong with him physically, but the A’s disagreed and put him on the disabled list. Nobody can know for certain whether he’ll come back and be a factor for the A’s, but I’d imagine you could get pretty long odds on that proposition from a sports book.

The Giants were originally in the Loaiza sweepstakes but when the A’s beat them out, they went immediately to their second choice, Matt Morris, who was a free agent because St. Louis had not renewed his contract.

Like Loaiza, Morris had had one outstanding season, going 22-8 with a 3.16 ERA in 2001. Unlike Loaiza, he had had solid seasons since, winning 57 games in the next four seasons.

There were some red flags with him, too. He had lost his last five decisions in 2005, though the Cardinals were running away with the NL Central. His ERA was more than four in each of the past two season, 4.76 and 4.11. One important measure of pitchers is the number of hits per inning. Good pitchers seldom give up as many hits as innings pitched; Jason Schmidt has averaged just under eight hits per nine innings in his Giants career. Last year, Morris gave up 209 hits in 192 2/3 innings, and over the course of five-plus seasons in St. Louis, he gave up 13 more hits than innings pitched. The Giants media guide trumpets Morris’s record as the 10th best winning percentage among active pitchers, but that’s probably due more to the outstanding run support he got from the Cardinal lineup than his own pitching.

Morris had a couple of good starts with the Giants but he’s fallen back to 2-4 with a 6.20 ERA overall. He should do better than that, but it appears that the Giants have again picked up a Cardinal discard who isn’t what they thought he would be. This year’s Brett Tomko, in other words.

THE LOIZA/MORRIS failures are a painful reminder how dangerous it can be to sign a veteran pitcher as a free agent. Too many things can go wrong. Veteran pitchers are more vulnerable to injuries. Deteriorating skills force them to make adjustments, which some can, some can’t.

It’s much better to develop pitchers in your minor league system, which both teams are trying to do, with differing levels of success.

The A’s have had some spectacular successes with their young pitchers. The “Big Three” of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were all products of the A’s farm system. Hudson and Mulder were traded and Zito will be gone after this season (bet on the Yankees signing him), but Harden is another gem, if he can stay healthy, and Joe Blanton came on strong in the second half of last season. (Dan Haren, another successful young pitcher, came from the Cardinals, in the Mulder trade.) Huston Street also came out of the A’s system, though he was hardly in it; he was pitching in the majors less than a year after pitching for Texas in the College World Series.

The Giants have concentrated on drafting pitchers and they’ve had several for whom they had high hopes, but so far, Noah Lowry is the only one paying big dividends for them. Lowry struggled in early season last year but finished strong, and he looks like the real thing. Matt Cain has the stuff to be a big winner, and I think he will be, but he’s been struggling to find his groove. He’s being passed over for tonight’s start but is supposed to go back in the rotation when his turn comes up next. Russ Ortiz, an earlier success, won 63 games in four years but was traded.

Otherwise, it’s been a steady stream of disappointments. Kurt Ainsworth was supposed to be a “can’t miss” prospect, but he was traded and has won only six games in five years. Jerome Williams started strong but had personal and physical problems; he, too, was traded. Joe Nathan battled through “Tommy John surgery” and was traded, becoming a topflight closer for the Minnesota Twins, and Francisco Loriano, who went in that trade, is apparently going to be elevated to the Twins’ starting rotation. The Giants have raved for three years about Merkin Valdez, who came in the Ortiz trade, but he’s still in the minors.

There have been momentary success in the bullpen. David Aardsma looked good, but he was traded. Scott Munter was impressive last year but has been very hittable this year and is apparently about to be sent down.

Why have the A’s been more successful with young pitchers? I think it’s their general philosophy. Pitchers get good instruction in the minors, and they’re expected to stick with the big league team when they get there. Hudson, Mulder and Zito never went back down. Harden hasn’t, either, except for three innings of re-hab at Sacramento last year. And when they struggle, the A’s stick with them, as they did most recently with Blanton when he was terrible in the first half last season.

There doesn’t seem to be the same even-handed approach in the Giants’ system. Certainly, there’s no patience. Pitchers seem to be on a shuttle between San Francisco and Fresno. Cain will bear watching this year. Though the Giants insist this start will be the only one he misses, their record with young pitchers doesn’t indicate that Cain has much breathing room.

THE DEBATE over whether Loaiza or Morris is the bigger bust may continue, but because of their emphasis on developing young pitching, the A’s are in a better position to recover. Even if Loaiza contributes nothing, they will have enough pitching to take up the slack. But the Giants were counting on Morris to be a key part of their rotation, at either No. 2 or No. 3. If he can’t be the solid starter they expected – and at this point, it seems unlikely he will be – it will be a serious blow.


LETTERS: I updated this section yesterday.

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