Bengie Molina, Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Matt Holliday
The argument for keeping Molina is obvious: Heís virtually the only one supplying punch in the Giants lineup, and he had just hit his fifth homer of the season in the first inning at Wrigley Field yesterday afternoon to send the Giants on their way to a 6-2 win.
Molinaís contract is up at the end of the year. If he continues to hit as he has this year and last, heíll be able to negotiate a two-year contract, with the Giants or another team.
My concern with Molina is that, despite the way heís playing now, heís near the end of his career. I wouldnít even be confident that heíd continue at this pace in the second half of this season. Officially, heíll be 35 in July, and he may even be older because birth certificates for Latino players are often suspect. Heís been playing the most demanding position, which means his decline could be abrupt and severe. If the Giants signed him to a two-year contract after this season, they could be stuck with still another burdensome contract for a veteran who isnít worth the money. They added another this year with shortstop Edgar Renteria, who is not close to the All-Star he was in his prime.
And, the Giants have Buster Posey in the wings. Posey was in the major league camp this spring and heís on the fast track to the majors. I donít have much confidence in the Giantsí minor league hitting instructors. Theyíve had prospects who have fallen short because theyíve had too much time in the minors before being promoted. Iíd get Posey up as fast as possible.
There is one possibility for both Molina and Posey to be in the same lineup: Play Posey at first base, because heís an excellent athlete. (With his total lack of speed, Molina can only play catcher.)
Certainly, the Giants need a first baseman. Travis Ishikawa is a slick fielder but he is not a major league hitter. Heís only had a couple of blips when he was productive in the minor leagues. At this level, heíll be a .250 hitter with very little power. Not exactly what you want from a corner infielder.
For years, the Giants have emphasized pitching in their drafts, and they have a couple of more top prospects in Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson, but they obviously need to get more hitting into their lineup. They have to do it with the farm system because the terrible contracts with which general manager Brian Sabean has saddled the team donít give the Giants the financial leeway to sign free agents who could help. The fact that AT&T Park is known as a pitcherís park also discourages free agent hitters.
Among young players, Pablo Sandoval is by far the brightest spot. Sandoval is a free swinger but he generally connects even with pitches out of the strike zone, so the Giants arenít going to tamper with his style. Heíll probably develop more power as he gets older and, perhaps, a little more selective in looking for pitches he can drive. Frankly, I had doubts about his ability to play third base but he has shown an agility I thought he lacked, and he has the reflexes needed to play third base, where line drives often come like shots just to the left or right.
Beyond that, itís a question. Outfielder Nate Schierholtz is a solid hitter, though not with much power at this point, who hasnít had much chance to play with Randy Winn in right field. When he played right on Saturday, with Winn in left, he made a very nice running catch on a ball hit into the right field corner and threw quickly to first to double up the runner.
Fred Lewis hit well last year, but itís a stretch to call Lewis a young player because heís already 28. He should have been up much earlier but he was always stymied because the Giants had a veteran player ahead of him. He wouldnít have played much last year, either, if Dave Roberts Ė still another Sabean mistake Ė hadnít been injured. And Lewis is often a defensive liability in left with his inability to track fly balls.
John Bowker made a brief splash when he came up last year but then started chasing pitches well out of the strike zone and landed back in the minors. If he can get better plate discipline, he could be back, perhaps as a first baseman. Heís not as slick as Ishikawa but heís good enough and has much more hitting potential.
Down the road, 18-year-old Angel Villalona gets rave reviews from everybody Ė he hit 17 homers as a 17-year-old last year Ė but for the immediate future, the hope is Posey, whoís 22 and was rated a ďcanít missĒ prospect as a collegian.
By next year, Posey should be ready and I think the Giants have to roll the dice with him. Theyíve been trying to plug the holes in their lineup for years with veteran free agents, and that strategy has resulted in four below .500 seasons. Even this year, a .500 mark seems to be the best they can hope for, and they wonít have a shot at the playoffs.
Itís time for a different strategy, which means it will be time for Molina to go after this season and time for an influx of young position players, starting with Posey.
WEBSITE FUTURE: Iíve been wasting your time with my proposal to write three columns a week for $10 annually. That would mean five columns a week, counting my two for the Examiner, and after thinking about that (as I should have before) Iíve decided that I donít want to make that commitment.
So, I have a different idea. Iíll continue to write my Wednesday multi-topic column, which often runs 1500-1700 words, but make it available only through e-mail, to those who pay a $10 annual subscription fee.
Donít e-mail me about this now. In mid-June, Iíll get a post office box and ask those who are interested to send checks and their e-mail addresses to me. If I get at least 500 responses Iíll go forward with that, starting with the first week in September. If I donít, Iíll simply destroy the checks sent to me and drop my column.
Not incidentally, Iíve heard from readers who want assurances that I wouldnít sell their names and e-mail addresses to other businesses. Frankly, I had never even thought of it. Having been victimized by this process myself, I find it abhorrent. Rest assured, I wonít do it.
LINCECUM CROWDS: So far this season, the Giants have averaged about 7500 more fans when Tim Lincecum starts than for games with other starters.
Thatís not surprising. Star pitchers often make a difference at the box office. Star position players, like Barry Bonds, help their overall attendance Ė if theyíre part of a winning team Ė but a fan canít know whether theyíll see a position player having a great day. Star pitchers are more predictable.
When Sandy Koufax was pitching for the Dodgers in the Ď60s, attendance would jump as much as 10,000 a game. When Vida Blue had a sensational season in 1971, Oakland Tribune beat writer Ron Bergman found that roughly 1/13th of the fans who attended American League games that year saw him pitch.
Lincecum wonít approach those numbers but fans know that theyíre going to see something special when he pitches. Itís remarkable because heís only in his third season but heís already set the bar so high that when he has only a good game, as he did yesterday in Chicago, itís a disappointment.
PITCH COUNTS: A Chronicle columnist who hates the idea of pitch counts noted that Blue pitched more than 300 innings in 1971 and never had a sign of arm trouble. This same writer never acknowledges that, when he was covering the Aís and Billy Martin was the manager, that the four members of the starting rotation Ė Mike Norris, Rick Langford, Matt Keough and Steve McCatty Ė all broke down because Martin overworked them.
Frankly, I preferred the old baseball model when pitchers like Juan Marichal pitched complete games; Marichal actually had one more complete game than victories, 244-243, in his career.
But I also acknowledge that many pitchers of that era had their careers cut short because of that overworking.
Thereís also no turning the clock back. Pitchers today are taught to throw hard for 6-7 innings and then, let the bullpen take over. There are occasional complete games when pitchers keep their pitch counts down, but thatís not the norm any more. And when pitchers exceed that pitch count? Well, I remember that Jason Schmidt threw 141 pitches when he tied the Giants franchise record with 16 strikeouts, and he was never the same pitcher again. Heís now pretty much a permanent member of the disabled list with the Dodgers.
AíS HITTING WOES: The Aís were supposed to have a much improved offense this season, but it hasnít worked out that way so far.
Part of it is that Jason Giambi has gotten off to a slow start, which isnít a surprise, considering his age. I think Giambi will come around and supply the power the Aís need.
Another part is unrealistic expectations. Given their injury history, how could anybody expect much production from Eric Chavez or Nomar Garciaparra. Both are on the disabled list, and my guess is that theyíll spend as much time there as on the active roster this season.
The real puzzler has been Matt Holliday who, though he got a home run last night, hasnít been hitting at all.
In fact, Hollidayís home run total fell off to 25 last season, after totals of 34 and 36 the two previous seasons. When that happens to a hitter in his prime Ė Holliday is 29 now Ė the immediate suspicion is that heís gotten off steroids.
Maybe, but itís also true that Holliday hit much better at Coors Field than he did on the road, where heís just a .280 hitter for his career, and heís come to a park which has long been known as a pitcherís park.
He also took batting instruction from Mark McGwire this spring, which seemed strange to me because McGwire, though an outstanding power hitter, wasnít a very good percentage hitter. And his style wasnít really suited to Holliday.
Itís still early in the season, so Holliday has plenty of time to recover, but if he doesnít recover his form soon, the Aís may be out of the playoff race before they even got in it.
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