Tough Sledding for Bay Area Baseball
The Giants improved their team with offseason moves, but their hopes for the postseason basically rested on Barry Bonds playing 120 games and being the hitter he was in 2004 and the division remaining as weak as it was the previous season, when the Padres won the title with just 82 wins.
Neither hope has been realized. The division is actually the only one in the National League with more wins than losses. Arizona seems to be dropping back – the Jason Grimsley case knocked the wind out of the Diamondbacks – but the Padres, Dodgers and Rockies all seem to be improved. That’s significant because the Giants play almost half their 162-game schedule within the division.
Beat writers continue to write about Bonds “slumping,” but that’s not a slump, it’s the 2006 version of Bonds. He can still hit the ball 450 feet if a pitcher slips and gives him a fat pitch over the middle of the plate, but I’ve lost count of the times he’s swung and missed or hit a weak ground ball on pitches he used to crush.
It complicates matters that he has to play in the field, where he’s below average, because that’s more wear and tear on his knees.
Bonds has still been an important factor in the Giants offense because pitchers still walk him frequently, and they pay more attention to him than they should, which helps other hitters in the lineup. But as managers, pitching coaches and pitchers study the videos at the half season, I think they’re going to realize they need to change their approach.
Though Bonds is weak and Ray Durham is mediocre at second, despite an occasional spectacular play, the Giants are strong defensively overall. That helps the pitching staff, which is not as good as the Giants front office seems to think.
The Giants have more good young arms than at any time I can remember, but there’s still more promise than accomplishment. Matt Cain is going to have an outstanding career but until he gets command of a pitch other than his fast ball, he’s going to go back and forth between brilliant outings and the fifth inning exits. It’s a shame the Giants didn’t bring him up in midseason last year. They didn’t because they thought they still had a shot at the postseason, but dreaming doesn’t make it so.
Jeremy Accardo may be a lights-out closer by next season, but he’s been inconsistent, so the Giants have to stick with Armando Benitez, which says it all. One youngster who’s shown he definitely does belong is Jonathan Sanchez, in a setup role.
The bullpen is vital because the Giants have no real No. 2 man behind Jason Schmidt, who is pitching well without much run support. Schmidt has become a real pitcher who can be effective even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, as has been true since his 16-striikeout game. Matt Morris was signed to be the No. 2 starter, but he’s had a roller coaster season, great at the start, terrible for a long stretch, great again until a bad outing the last time. That may be the real Matt Morris. Though he won 29 games over the past two season in St. Louis, his ERAs were 4.72 and 4.11, and the Cardinals made no attempt to re-sign him. Noah Lowry looks like the early Kirk Rueter, a nice No. 4 starter, no more. Jamey Wright, who seemed a real feel-good story early, has since shown why he’s bounced from team to team.
The main problem with the Giants, though, is the one that’s always been obvious: They’re old, old, old. Even the Dodgers, who seemed to be the Giants South, have inserted some youth into their lineup with rookie outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp. When September arrives, the Giants superannuated veterans will fade, and so will the team.
THE A’S have had a strange first half. They’ve been racked with injuries to top pitchers and position players, they’ve gone through periods where they made every opposing pitcher look like a Cy Young candidate and yet, they’re tied for first in the AL West.
That comes with a caveat, of course: The Al West is a weak division, certainly the weakest in the league at this point.
My view of the divisional race is the same as it was at the start of the season: It’s a two-team race with the A’s and Angels. The Angels were also plagued by injuries and weak hitting in the first half, but now that they’ve finally put the right Weaver in the rotation (it’s inconceivable to me that they optioned Jerod out for a time while keeping Jeff in the rotation), they’ve got an excellent rotation to go with a great bullpen.
Texas’s pitchers are already starting to fade, and the heat and humidity in their hitter-friendly park will cause them to fade even more. The Rockies seem to have solved their problem by putting baseballs into the humidor, but the Rangers would have to use it on the whole state. Seattle got back into the race by beating up on NL teams in inter-league play but they won’t have those patsies to play any more.
The key to the A’s is Rich Harden; they were 6-0 in the games he started in the first half but he was out most of that time with injuries. If he’s healthy, they have a 1-2-3 punch in the rotation with Harden, Barry Zito and Dan Haren that is comparable to the Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito in the recent past, and that allows them to put up with the inconsistencies of Joe Blanton and Esteban Loaiza. Their bullpen, which was riddled by injuries in the first half, is returning to health. Closer Huston Street, when he’s used as Dennis Eckersley was – for one inning – is very good.
The A’s hitting continues to be problematical, as it has been in recent years. They’ve had three different hitting coaches in that time, so I think we can rule that out as the problem. One big problem in the first half was that Eric Chavez, because of multiple injury problems, has not hit well since an untypically hot April. The A’s should have taken advantage of the All-Star break and put Chavez on the 15-day disabled list; because of that break, he would have missed only 11 games. Had they done that, he might have been able to get healthy again and be the big hitter he should be. Now, I fear he will never be healthy enough to be a real force the rest of the way.
The A’s are capable of having great streaks, as they did last year after a dismal first two months, when they have strong hitting up and down the lineup. They are also capable of long stretches in which everybody in the batting order goes cold, which is pretty much what’s happened in the first half of this season. Oddly, the Angels are much the same kind of team, so the divisional race will probably hinge on which team comes up with a more productive offense in the second half.
THESE PREDICTIONS come with one caveat: A big trade by either or both teams could change things. Realistically, though, I don’t expect either team to make that kind of deal. What you see now is probably what you’ll get for the rest of the season.
CRUISE WITH ME: I am organizing a sports-oriented cruise of the Panama Canal, Feb. 16 to March 3, starting in San Diego and ending in Fort Lauderdale, aboard Holland America’s Volendam. While we’re at sea, we will have sports seminars and discussions about your favorite teams. For further information and prices, please contact my travel agent, Janice Hough, at email@example.com.
TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!: Tickets will be available on this link for these hot concerts:
--Barbra Streisand, Oct. 4-November 20.
--Mariah Carey, August 5-November 10
--Aerosmith & Motley Crue, September 9-Octover 25.
--Red Hot Chili Peppers, August 18-December 17.
--Pearl Jam, July 29-November 5.
You can also get tickets to NFL and NCAA football games, as well as any sports or cultural event, in the Bay Area or nationally.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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