Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It’s Already Ugly

The 2006 Giants looked a lot like the 2005 Giants on Opening Day. Naturally they chose to get hurt by my least favorite Padre, Khalil Green, and my new, second-least favorite Padre, Mike Piazza—so categorized because they habitually kill the Giants. Piazza would be a great hitter no matter what, but I’m convinced Green would be Cody Ransom if the San Francisco Giants did not exist.

Last night’s contest went much better, though, because it was rained out. In San Diego. Yes. I gather it was the first rainout there in eight years. And the Giants looked great!

Meanwhile, virtually everybody but me believes that absolutely no meaning can be attached to spring training games. Even baseball insiders say that, including A’s GM Billy Beane on a recent interview on KNBR. And while the results of the games themselves are meaningless in a practical sense, I think it’s awfully shortsighted to dismiss them out of hand. For instance, in 1997, I think it was, the Giants beat the A’s in a Bay Bridge Series contest on ninth- or extra-inning home runs by Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent. I commented on the Giants newsgroup that I thought this was a good sign. A couple of posters attempted to shout me down, on the order of “What a bozo, getting all excited about a meaningless exhibition game!” But that’s not what it was about.

See, here we were, just a day or two shy of Opening Day, with all team rosters all but set. In other words, the Giants and A’s of that night were the Giants and A’s we were going to be seeing for the foreseeable future. And I thought the Giants showed some unexpected character that night. (Well, I didn’t expect it, anyway.)

Since then, I’ve paid, well, not strict attention, but a bit more than passing attention to the exhibition results. Now, I think it is fair to say that on the whole, a team’s won-lost record in the exhibition season is worthless, but if you have, say, two teams go 16-16, with Team A winning 12 of their first 16 games and Team B winning 12 of their last 16, doesn’t that tell you something? Doesn’t that tell you, for instance, that Team A was winning at a time when the regulars were getting an at-bat or two per game, long looks were being given to guys with uniform numbers in the high 70’s, and shorter looks were being given to guys brought up from the minor league camp due to the need for warm bodies? Doesn’t it also tell you that once Team B was pretty close to being set (and thus so were the team’s opponents), certain comfort zones were reached, and that Team B—again, going 12-4 “down the stretch”—might be showing us that they’re pretty good, and that by the same token, Team A (4-12 during that period) might well have some problems? It does to me—maybe not with a hundred percent certainty, but still, meaning can be derived.

In 1997 (or whenever the aforementioned game took place), the Giants looked a lot like Team B. In 2006 they look a lot like Team A. And once the bell rang, they played a lot like Team A, in their one and only game to date. And hey, every loss in April is a game you gotta win in September, right? (Thanks to Robert S., who pointed out that I’d initially said “2007,” thus, he said, going out on a limb.)

But that’s not really what bothers me. For one thing, Armando Benitez started the season on the shelf, and apparently it’s a different physical problem from his horrendous leg thing that kept him out most of last year. For another, geez, this team’s awfully soft at first and third base, don’t you think? Lots of you will say no, and I sure hope you prove me right. I don’t anticipate that happening, though.

Lance Niekro seems likable enough, but just not good enough. He’s not very selective up there (though I know he went to great trouble to work on that in spring training), and last year he was abysmal against righthanded pitching—i.e., in most of his at-bats. Against lefties he was pretty much what we always wanted J.T. Snow to be, but that’s not good enough unless (a) you figure on Niekers to be a platoon player, (b) his platoon partner has opposite platoon splits, and (c) you wind up with the reincarnation of 1978’s “McIvie” platoon of Willie McCovey and Mike Ivie. As it is, your backup first basemen are Mark Sweeney, Pedro Feliz, Todd Greene, and Jose Vizcaino.

Of these, Sweeney no doubt is the one who’ll get most of the swings when Niekro sits, and well he should. He’s one of those guys people call “professional hitters,” and I’d be surprised if he hurt the club. (Surprised, that is, within the boundaries of surprise, when you’re a Giants fan, at something going horribly wrong.) When it’s not Niekro or Sweeney, I think it should be Greene. (Apparently Feliz is getting a full-time shot at third this year; more on that later.) The one that bugs me is Vizcaino. I’d really have to pore over the offseason transactions column, but I have no doubt that better, cheaper players were available after the Giants signed this guy. And when the signing was reported, apparently joy reigned at the notion that he could back up at first base.

Well, first, the only reason to pick up Vizcaino at this stage is to back up Omar Vizquel, which is probably bad enough. Also, though, he’d be the backup third baseman—a step down from Feliz, which in itself isn’t easy to believe. But to consider him as a backup first baseman is jut plain painful. I used to think of Vizcaino as a “slash” hitter—lots of doubles, hard line drives, etc. Sounded great to me when the Giants acquired him. (Well, great in the context of how angry I was that the Giants traded Matt Williams in order to get him for 1997.) I actually thought The Vizzer was the key acquisition in that deal. (Quiz answer: No, it was Jeff Kent.) But as a Giant, he was pretty much a slap hitter—a love-tap hitter—and he’s scarcely changed since. I’m not sure, therefore, why we’d need him and Vizquel, but that’s a shortstop thing. Why we’d want him to back up at third, I don’t know, unless the Giants are really hot to bat their third baseman eighth. But as a first baseman, Vizcaino is the antithesis of the prototype. That’s not always a bad thing, but in this case, how can it not be? It’s not like we’re watching McCovey In His Prime most days. My real concern—and maybe this is an overreaction, maybe it’s an amazingly astute observation: you make the call, as long as you agree with me—is that the fact that Vizcaino is around to play third and first suggests that his range at the middle-infield positions has dropped significantly as he has aged. If so, what possible use is there for a player like this? Meanwhile, it’s not very long ago that the Padres picked up Geoff Blum from the White Sox. Could he really have been that much worse a deal than Vizcaino?

And with Benitez (such as he is) out, who’s the closer? Could it be anyone other than Tim Worrell, inexplicably re-signed for this season? Now, Worrell wasn’t bad in that role in 2003, but the gaudiness of the save statistic boosted his stock (as it did, no doubt, for Tyler Walker last year). He got himself a nice deal in Philly after that, then was terrible last year (for reasons that I gather were personal, ergo none of my damn business) until moving on to the Diamondbacks. Either way, I don’t trust the guy a hell of a lot. Do you? And with Scott Eyre no longer available as the setup man, no doubt Worrell was going to get a lot of time in that role. Now who’s it gonna be? Anybody encouraging? To me the best sign last year was Jack Taschner, but he seemed to get lit up this spring whenever I listened to a game, and he got knocked around on Opening Day. Should he be the guy? It’s one question too many.

Of course, the A-Number-One question mark is El Fellow Biggo, Barry Bonds. As you know by now, the first book has come out detailing what an awful human being he maybe is, and folks are going, “Boy oh boy, he’s gonna get booed everywhere he plays!” Well, gee, folks, that would certainly be new, wouldn’t it? Barry getting booed? Shee, I’m surprised it took until the other day for someone to actually throw a syringe onto the field. (The only good that can come out of that is that when Dodger fans witlessly call Giants fans “battery chuckers” because of an idiotic incident in 1982, we can lay “syringe chuckers” on Padres fans. Whee.)

But don’t interpret the previous 1,500 words as panic. There is no reason to panic. Tragically, though, there are plenty of reasons to strap oneself in for a long, long season. I sure hope I’m wrong.

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