Giants Draft. . . and More
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 06, 2007

THE GIANTS have an unparalleled opportunity in the first-year draft, which takes place Thursday and Friday, with six of the first 51 picks, including three in the first round. But that’s only the first piece in the puzzle. Next, they have to develop the players.

In the Brian Sabean era, which started in 1993 when Sabean was in charge of the personnel department, the Giants have concentrated on pitching, with 10 among their 12 No. 1 picks. (They had no first-round picks for 2004 and 2005.)

This year, they have two potential stars from those drafts, pitchers Matt Cain (2002 draft) and Tim Lincecum (2006). But overall, their record has been spotty. Only two other No. 1 picks are currently in the majors, Brad Hennessey (2001) with the Giants and Boof Bonser (2000) with the Minnesota Twins.

Kurt Ainsworth (1999) was so highly regarded that a Giants executive told me after he was drafted that the Giants expected him to be in their rotation the next year – as happened this year with Lincecum. But Ainsworth’s development was slow and he was traded to Baltimore in the infamous Sidney Ponson transaction. Plagued by injuries, he announced his retirement this spring.

Steve Soderstrom, Joe Fontenot amd Jason Grilli never developed. Matt White couldn’t be signed. David Aardsma was traded.

Position players? Neither of the two top picks, Dante Powell and Tony Torcato, ever contributed much.

This year, the Giants are expected to change their focus in the draft to position players, given the scarcity of them in their minor league system and the age of their current roster. But again, there needs to be more emphasis on developing these players once they’re in the minor league system.

It’s harder to judge hitters than pitchers in the first-year draft because of the aluminum bats which are used in both high school and college games. Hitters can have serious flaws which don’t show up when they’re using aluminum bats because it’s possible to make solid contact anywhere on those bats. Hitters don’t have to worry about finding the “sweet spot”, and many hitters simply can’t adjust when they have to use wood bats.

Still, it is possible to coach hitters in the minor leagues so they become productive players. The A’s have an infield that is almost entirely home grown: Eric Chavez at third, Bobby Crosby at shortstop, Dan Johnson at first. Mark Ellis came from the Kansas City organization, but he also played in the A’s farm system. Nick Swisher was drafted by the A’s, and he’s on his way to being a big star. Another outfielder, Travis Buck, came up this year.

In contrast, the Giants finally gave up on Todd Linden this year. Lance Niekro, who Giants execs told me years ago would be an outstanding major league hitter, is back in the minors. Kevin Frandsen is valuable as a versatile player, much as Ramon Martinez was in the 1998-2002 period, but there have been no signs that he will be a star. Fred Lewis has some skills but he has the look of a backup, not a starter. Daniel Ortmeier is on the roster, but he, too, looks like no more than a backup.

In fact, you have to go back to the No. 1 picks in 1985-86, Will Clark and Matt Williams, to find position players who became stars for the Giants.

What’s the problem? It’s probably not the scouting. Though it’s much harder to judge players in the baseball draft than in the NFL and NBA drafts, it seems the Giants have generally made good picks. But, they haven’t been developed well. It was probably a good thing that Lincecum was brought up quickly, before any minor league coach could change his style.

The A’s as an organization teach the same principles to both pitchers and hitters, so there is no change when they reach the major league level. Pitchers are taught to be aggressive in throwing strikes; hitters are taught to work the count.

Conversely, there seems to be no coherent philosophies within the Giants organization. Cain, who spent more time in the system, seems behind Lincecum in his development, probably because Lincecum got better coaching in the three years he spent at the University of Washington than Cain did in the Giants’ system.

Gians’ hitters? They all seem to come up with big holes in their swings which can be easily exploited by major league pitchers. Linden and Niekro are perfect examples. Linden put up great numbers at Triple-A Fresno, but those numbers never translated to success in the majors. Niekro started well with the Giants in 2005 but the longer he played, the further his average fell, which is always the sign that pitchers have figured him out.

And while the Giants can’t figure out how to change their system, the other teams in their division – Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks and even the Rockies – are bringing up good young players. So, unless the Giants want to spend years looking up at the rest of the teams in the division, they’d better figure out a way to develop the young players they’re drafting.

OH, THAT BULLPEN: On my way to the Coliseum on Sunday, I turned on the Giants’ broadcast just in time to hear Dave Flemming say the words Giants fans hate to hear, “Now, it’s up to the bullpen.” In about five minutes, the Phillies were ahead and went on to win the game. Tuesday night, they lost another game when an opposing hitter hit a walk-off home run, the third on this road trip.

The Giants have their best starting rotation in years, but it’s a bullpen game now, and that dooms the Giants to another season with no postseason appearance.

NO MORE FASTBALLS: After a blazing start, with eight home runs in 10 games, Jack Cust’s bat has been in the deep freeze for the A’s. The Giants’ Fred Lewis has had a similar problem. After hitting for the cycle in an early game, his average has sunk to .263.

In each case, the problem is the same. When a hitter comes up to the majors, the first thing pitchers try is to get him out with the fast ball. If that fails, they go to breaking pitches.

Cust is a terrific fast ball hitter, as pitchers soon discovered, but now, they’re getting him out with breaking balls. Lewis, too, is seeing more breaking pitches, and it’s become clear why he was no better than a .270 hitter in the Pacific Coast League, which has long been known as a hitters’ league.

CATCHERS AS MANAGERS: Both the Giants and A’s made a switch this season to managers who were catchers in their playing days, Bruce Bochy and Bob Geren, respectively. A high percentage of managers are former catchers, which makes sense. Catchers are the only players who see the entire field, and their choice of pitches called is important to the success of pitchers. So, it figures they’d have a good strategic grasp of the game.

Interestingly, both Bochy and Geren are complete opposites from the managers they replaced. Felipe Alou was a distant presence to his players, seldom asking them what they thought before making his decisions. Ken Macha wasn’t quite so bad, but players complained that they often heard about themselves in newspapers, rather than from Macha.

In both cases, the managers were basically managing in the style which was common when they were players, many years before. In contrast, Bochy has always been known as a players’ manager, and Geren is getting that reputation in his first opportunity on the major league level.

SWEET LOU: Major league baseball did Lou Piniella a favor by suspending him for four games for making contact with an umpire – which he denies – during a spirited argument. That means Piniella won’t have to watch the Cubs during that time, which should be good for his mental health. If he’s got a satellite package, maybe he can even watch some real major league teams.

Despite their massive offseason spending, the Cubs were only 24-31 at the time of Piniella’s suspension, which suggests their problems last year weren’t related to Dusty Baker.

ZITO’S RING: One of the reasons Barry Zito cited for agreeing to sign with the Giants, aside from the obvious 126 big ones, was his desire to get a ring.

I must have missed something here. Are they giving out rings if you finish last in your division?

E-MAILS: I answer most of my e-mails, so if you don’t get an answer to a question, it’s probably because your system blocks my response.

SPORTS, CONCERT TICKETS: Tickets for The Police concert on June 13 at the Oakland Coliseum, and the various appearances of Diana Krall – June 20-21 at the Mountain Winery in Saratogo, August 14 at Harvey’s at Lake Tahoe and August 15 at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco – are available on the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link on my Home Page. Tickets are also available for the All-Star game at AT&T Park, the Jersey Boys, and for hot summer concert tours featuring Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Kenny Chesney, among others. Click on the Bay Area or national links below and the whole list will come up.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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