Object Lesson for Giants
The hamstring surgery which will cost Armando Benitez four months of recovery time is the latest example of the problems which have resulted from the Giants policy. Let’s backtrack to the months before the 2004 season to see how the Giants got to this point.
Two years ago, the Giants had a catcher from their system, Yorvit Torrealba, who was superior defensively but a relatively weak hitter. Giants general manager Brian Sabean thought the team needed more offense from that position so on Nov. 14, 2003, he traded pitchers Joe Nathan, who had come up through the Giants system, and minor leaguers Boof Bonser, once a No. 1 draft pick, and Francisco Liriano for Minnesota catcher A. J. Pierzynski.
At the time, I thought it was a good trade, but I had seen Pierzynski only in a few games against the Oakland A’s. My evaluation was based mainly on his batting average; he was a career .301 hitter at the time of the trade.
But the Giants have scouts who had much more information than I had, and they should have known what became obvious to those who watched the Giants last season: Pierzynski is an inferior defensive catcher. He also had a questionable work ethic which, again, the Giants should have known before the rest of us discovered it.
Pierzynski was a disaster in his one season in San Francisco. The pitchers quickly became unhappy because of his inability to block pitches off the plate, which then rolled to the screen. There were anonymous comments (though Brett Tomko later admitted he had supplied some of them) from pitchers who claimed A. J. was playing cards in the clubhouse before games, instead of studying the opposing hitters.
The Giants made no attempt to re-sign him, instead signing veteran catcher Mike Matheny to a free agent contract. Matheny is a superior defensive catcher and a weak hitter. Sound familiar?
If anything, Matheny is a worse hitter than Torrealba. In his 512 major league at-bats (roughly a full season for a catcher), Torrealba has averaged .256 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs. Matheny has more than six times the at-bats Torrealba has had, and has averaged .239. For comparison purposes, let’s divide his 51 career homers and 366 RBIs by six; that’s 8.5 homers and 61 RBIs.
If you just consider the defensive difference between Torrealba and Pierzynski, the trade for A. J. was a bad one, but the inclusion of Nathan made it far worse. With the Twins, Nathan blossomed as a closer, with 44 saves and an ERA of 1.61. Meanwhile, the Giants failed all season to find a closer on their staff. If they’d still had Nathan, they would have won their division easily. Instead, they fell a game short, with the Dodgers winning.
So, on Nov. 30, 2004, Sabean signed Benitez to a three-year, $21.5 million contract as a free agent. Now, Benitez is out and the Giants are back to the closer-by-committee system which failed them last year. When the A’s needed a closer last spring, general manager Billy Beane found Octavio Dotel in Houston, but Sabean isn’t as resourceful as Beane – and, it seems, he doesn’t have the reliable information he needs from his scouts, either.
THE GIANTS philosophy in recent years has been to find players who can fill in the holes around Barry Bonds, who is the game’s dominant player.
That’s meant getting veteran players who could, the Giants hoped, hold it together for another season or two or even three. The Giants lineup is so old that, at 32, Benitez is part of their youth movement.
The danger with having so many older players is obvious: They are more vulnerable to injuries. The Giants have had a rash of injuries which have kept five of their nine starters out of the lineup for various periods. Moises Alou, the 38-year-old free agent acquisition, has spent 15 days on the disabled list.
Now, their two most important pieces, Bonds and Benitez, are both out.
Before the Benitez injury, there was a strange complacency around the Giants, a feeling that, even without Bonds, they’d start playing better soon.
Omar Vizquel, the 38-year-old who the Giants signed to play shortstop, commented on that earlier this week.“I think guys are taking things for granted because we’re a bunch of veteran guys here,” he said, “that we know how to get ready. We know what to do. But we’re not doing it.’’
I doubt that the Giants are complacent now, though. Panic would be a more appropriate reaction. Benitez will be out for four months and is unlikely to be game-ready even when he returns, so he probably won’t be a factor this season. Bonds’ rehab information has been so carefully guarded that the natural assumption is that it’s going more slowly than he or the Giants had hoped. Even when he returns, there’s no guarantee that he will be the fearsome hitter he’s been in the last four seasons.
THE LESSON is clear: The Giants should trust the players from their own system. Maybe the latest developments will finally drive that point home.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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