Giants Rebulding, Stanford Win, Ugly 49ers
The Diamondbacks and Rockies, who are meeting in the NLCS, are the latest examples of that but hardly the only ones. The Atlanta Braves started a long run of success with their farm system products in the ‘90s, and even the Yankees, who can afford to buy the best on the free agent market, did that in the ‘90s. Many of their top players since then, especially shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Riviera, came out of the farm system in the ‘90s.
The Yankees got away from that in recent years, going after the top free agents, and they haven’t been as successful, once again failing in the divisional playoff this year. Lately, general manager Brian Cashman has been preaching a more responsible fiscal policy, though the Yankees still have easily the top payroll in the majors, and a stronger farm system. The Yankees have several young pitching prospects they hope to plug into their aging rotation, starting next season.
Meanwhile, fifteen of the 25 players on Colorado’s postseason roster are home grown players. Arizona has 14 such players.
It isn’t just the number but the quality. Matt Holliday is an MVP candidate, shortstop Troy Tulowski is a Rookie of the Year candidate. The Giants played more young players this season than in the last several years but the only farm system product who has won a starting position is Pedro Feliz, who is, to be charitable, mediocre.
When free agency was installed in the ‘70s, teams saw it as a way of getting good players without giving up anything, as opposed to having trade players for them. Naturally, the Yankees were in the forefront of that movement, with George Steinbrenner’s fat wallet. That paid off at first, with World Championships in 1977 and ’78, highlighted by Reggie Jackson’s spectacular three-homer burst in the 1977 World Series, but the Yankees then declined – until they started investing in their farm system. Neither their decline nor their subsequent success with farm system products is coincidental.
There are two main problems with relying on free agency to stock your team: 1) You’re often signing players who have already had their best years and will soon decline; and 2) If you make a mistake on a player, you can either be stuck with him for years or have to swallow a bad contract. The Yankees can afford to eat contracts but other teams cannot.
The Giants, of course, are kings in the bad-contract department. Remember Edgardo Alfonzo? Disregarding the fact that his bad back had sharply reduced his power, the Giants signed him to a four-year contract at probably double what anybody else would have paid. They signed Ray Durham at the same time and then, incredibly, re-signed him last winter because he’d had the best offensive year of his career. You know what’s happened since.
Looking back at the last offseason in particular, you have to wonder what the Giants were thinking – or, maybe, if. They kept signing players who were well past their prime and should have been reserves but who were considered starters: Dave Roberts, Ryan Klesko, Rich Aurilia, in addition to Durham.
During the season, manager Bruce Bochy kept talking about the Giants not playing up to their potential or, as he said after the season, not having the “warrior spirit.” Sorry, Bruce, but that wasn’t the problem. Everybody looking at the team from the outside knew it wasn’t any good. Sports Illustrated picked them to finish last in their division.
They’re still stuck with Durham, Roberts and Aurilia. I can’t imagine any team trading for any of them unless the Giants agree to pay part of their salaries. Aurilia has some value as a reserve who can play anywhere in the infield, but I think the Giants have to suck it up and trade the other two, paying part of their salaries. They have some payroll flexibility, with Barry Bonds gone (though they still owe Bonds some deferred salary). If they stay out of the free agent market, avoiding another futile attempt at a quick fix, they can do it.
And then they should, finally, take a good look at what’s wrong with their farm system. They’ve done well in developing pitching, but that’s only part of the equation. They need to develop strong position players, too. The Rockies and Diamondbacks have shown how it can be done, just as Branch Rickey did with the St. Louis Cardinals in the ‘30s.
--When I asked broadcaster Bob Murphy, the ultimate authority on Stanford sports, if he could recall a more stunning victory than Stanford’s upset of USC last Saturday, he could not.
Murphy recalled some big moments in history. “Going way back, there was the 93-yard kick return for a touchdown by Bob Mathias against USC in 1951. Then, I remember Don Bunce completing five-or-six to set up Rod Garcia’s field goal to win the Rose Bowl in 1972."
But those were outstanding teams with great players. This Stanford team is hardly in that category. USC is not the offensive juggernaut it was two years ago, with the Reggie Bush-Matt Leinart-Lendale White group, and was probably a tad overrated; the Trojans had struggled against Washington the week before, which cost them their No. 1 ranking. But still, they were playing at home and had been established as 40-point favorites, so the Stanford win was a monumental upset.
--One of his players quipped that coach Jim Harbaugh was on his cell phone to potential recruits as soon as the game was over. Well, not quite, but Harbaugh did talk to several recruits the following day, some of whom called him. “Did I hear from some I hadn’t heard from in two weeks? You bet,” said Harbaugh.
Harbaugh said Stanford has verbal commitments from nine players and is in contention for another nine. No announcements can be made until the February letter-of-intent day, of course, and he conceded “It’s still pretty fluid” with recruits.
--Stories on the Stanford win referred to Cal alums being happy that their “arch-rival” had knocked USC down and enabled the Bears to move up to No. 2, but the Cal-Stanford rivalry really heats up only at Big Game time. The rest of the year, many Cal and Stanford alumni are friends, business colleagues – and, sometimes, even married. I have always thought the most accurate assesssment came from Bob Moore, who played tight end in Stanford’s back-to-back Rose Bowl victories, 1971 and ’72 and later for the Raiders: “After you’ve been out of school for awhile, the Cal rivalry fades in your mind, but you always hate USC.”
--Saturday was a perfect day for me because both USC and the Yankees lost. The Yankees won the next day, but then got eliminated by Cleveland in the fourth game of the divisional playoffs. Just imagining the steam coming out of George Steinbrenner's ears made for a great week.
Sunday’s snoozer against the Baltimore Ravens brought back unhappy memories for me of the 1978 season, the year before Bill Walsh arrived. One of the Niners’ two wins that year was 6-3 over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ve always regarded that as the worst pro football game I’ve ever seen, but Sunday’s was close. I was downing Cokes for the caffeine and walking around the press box to stay awake. Dreadful.
One of Walsh’s great attributes was his ability to utilize a quarterback’s strong points and minimize his weak ones. His reserve quarterbacks usually looked better than they were because he put them in the right situations. The best example: In 1986, when Joe Montana was out with back surgery, he changed his offense radically to use Jeff Kemp’s long passing ability. Kemp had little success before or after his time with the Niners, when he played for much less imaginative coaches.
It goes without saying that the 49ers don’t have that kind of creative thinking now. I criticized offensive coordinator Jim Hostler for his game plan after the opening game, but, as I wrote in the Tuesday Examiner, I think the main problem is head coach Mike Nolan, who has pushed his conservative tendencies on Hostler. Nolan should butt out of the offensive planning because he knows nothing about that side of the ball.
One fan suggested a radical change before last Sunday’s game: Put Michael Robinson in the spread and let him try to make plays. It couldn’t have worked worse than having Trent Dilfer trying to run a normal offense.
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