Sabean Takes the Blame
by Glenn Dickey
May 13, 2005

BRIAN SABEAN did a mea culpa on Thursday, saying he should have strengthened the pitching staff in the offseason by bringing in a veteran pitcher, but the Giants general manager is too hard on himself this time.

There are decisions which are stupid from the start and decisions which are well-conceived but have unfortunate consequences because of unforeseen circumstances. Signing Edgardo Alfonzo and Ray Durham to long-term contracts for more than they were worth falls in the first category. Sabean’s offseason moves since the 2004 season fall in the second.

Sabean made the big move everybody knew he had to, getting Armando Benitez to be the closer. He did not re-sign Dustin Hermanson, who felt he should get closer money though he was no longer scheduled for that role. He made no move to get another veteran pitcher because he believed the Giants rotation was solid with Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Brett Tomko, Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams.

If necessary, he felt the Giants could draw on their minor league system for pitching help. Brad Hennessey had already been up for a time last year, Matt Cain was moving rapidly through the system, to Fresno this year, and Merkin Valdez had also pitched at the major league level.

Many of us felt, in fact, that the Giants pitching would be their strength, but the Giants seem to have been under a black cloud all year. Benitez went out early with a season-ending injury, Schmidt has been ineffective and is now on the disabled list. Lowry is having problems adjusting in his second year. Williams is at Fresno, mostly because his family problems have upset his psyche. Who could have forecast all that?

And decisions are not made in a vacuum. Who would have been available in a trade? Only journeymen pitchers, and the Giants have had too many of those in recent years. Sabean wisely protected Cain and Valdez when clubs demanded them in return for any pitcher at midseason last year, and the Giants seem committed to their young pitchers, finally, which will be a good thing.

NOW, THEY NEED to ride out the storm and, as I wrote earlier in the week, look to their future.

Hennessey, Cain, Valdez and David Aardsma will be a big part of their future. Jesse Foppert, when he regains his velocity (remember that it took Joe Nathan some time to recover from surgery) should be, too. Williams probably will be; before his family problems hit, he had been a winner for the Giants.

The solution to their closer problem may be on the staff already. I like Tyler Walker. He has the take-charge attitude a closer needs, and a live fast ball that he’s not afraid to throw inside. He’s been overthrowing, but in Thursday’s game in Houston, he took a little off his fast ball to improve his control and saved the game with a scoreless ninth.

Sabean has always believed in building a pitching staff from the ninth inning backwards. If Walker can be the closer, the rest of the bullpen falls in place, because the Giants have four pitchers who can be setup men: Jim Brower, Matt Herges, Scott Eyre and Jason Christiansen, and the last two can be used to counter strong left-handed hitters. Eyre is especially good in that role; Washington’s Nick Johnson looked pathetic trying to hit him.

THE OTHER unforeseen problem is that Barry Bonds has had additional knee surgery and re-hab problems is still out.

Bonds had talked early in the spring about playing on Opening Day. That was too optimistic but an early May return wasn’t an unreasonable projection. Now, it’s uncertain when Bonds will return, and how effective he’ll be when he does. (I can hear those who are hysterical about steroids calling this steroids-withdrawal, but steroids only help with the re-hab; they don’t prevent further injury.)

Bonds’ absence hasn’t hurt the Giants as much as had been expected. They’re fourth in the National League in scoring, behind the Cardinals, Dodgers and Braves, who have scored just two more rims/

That doesn’t mean that they’re as dangerous as they were with Bonds. Their projected run total for the season would be 786, and they scored 850 with Bonds last season, second only to the Cardinals’ 855. And the schedule so far has been a favorable one. They’ve already played the sad-sack Rockies six times and get another three games on this road trip. They caught Milwaukee and Pittsburgh when they were down, though the Pirates got some revenge by winning two of three in their last series, and now they’re playing the Astros, whose 12-22 record is the second-worst (behind the Rockies) in the league. That may be why Sabean also said the Giants were lucky to be at .500.

Still, the Giants have shown they can score enough runs to be competitive. They’re running more; Omar Vizquel has stolen nine bases in 11 attempts, and the hit-and-run has been featured more than when Bonds is playing. Pedro Feliz is among the league leaders in RBIs, rookie Lance Niekro has gotten timely hits, some of them homers.

But the pitching staff has yielded more runs than they’ve scored, 175. In the National League, only the Reds and Rockies, playing home games at Coors Field, have yielded more.

THE PITCHING improvement will have to come from within because Sabean isn’t going to be able to get any help from other clubs without making a disastrous trade, giving up one or more of the Giants young prospect.

Though the emphasis has been on “The Future Is Now” in recent years, the Giants need to be building their staff for the future, as well as this season. Their chances of reaching the postseason disappeared when Bonds and Benitez went missing and Schmidt dropped out of the rotation, with no guarantee that he’ll return to his dominance any time soon.

None of this should be laid at Sabean’s feet. It’s admirable that he is willing to shoulder the blame, but it’s not his fault.

OOPS: I mistakenly wrote on Monday that Alfonzo's contract is up this year. He's actually signed through 2006. Wishful thinking on my part, no doubt.

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