Frankly, 27-30 is better than I thought they were going to be, though at the beginning of the year I really had no idea how bad the offense would be. I didn’t expect the starting pitching to be quite as good as it is, either—not that we’re talking about the 1971 Orioles or anything. But this team certainly is almost exactly as frustrating as I expected. But then, that’s just part of their charm—the majority, to be sure, but still just part.
So let’s go position by position in a qualitative “analysis” of what we’ve seen so far—“qualitative” because, for the most part, I don’t want to look up numbers:
- First base—Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko, Mark Sweeney, Lance Niekro, maybe even Pedro Feliz (I forget): Mostly first base has been an awfully dark hole, even compared to J.T. Snow at his most average. Aurilia seems to be pretty decent on defense, but he’s not a first baseman. He’s still sort of a shortstop, but I have the feeling third base is a better slot for him. He started out hitting reasonably well, too, but except for the odd three- or four-hit game (such as last night’s), he’s been in a massive funk, the likes of which would gag Courtney Love’s inner circle, perhaps even Ms. Love herself. Now, if he batted sixth or seventh most of the time, probably it wouldn’t faze me as much as it does with him usually batting third. And it’s not just batting average, which is putrid enough: he doesn’t walk, and he’s not hitting for power. I really like the guy, but Aurilia 2007 and Aurilia 2001 are two entirely different animals. The guy probably should be a four-position backup who starts three or four times a week—or whatever his role was in Cincinnati last year. At most, he should be the more-or-less regular third baseman.
Klesko, meanwhile, has kind of been this year’s Todd Greene: a power-hitting dude without home runs. Granted, it took Klesko less time to hit his first of the year than it took Greene last year, and Klesko even waited less than a month to hit his second. Indeed, I’m filled—to about the quarter-full line—with the hope that Klesko ‘s gonna move into the power-hitting mode he needs to be in. I mean, it’d be nice to have a legitimate power threat in the lineup other than Bonds. Then again, it’d also be nice to have a legitimate not-hit-into-a-key-double-play threat, too. The guy can hit, though.
His presence makes me wonder how bad the Giants need Sweeney. That is, I wondered that more often early in the season, when the Giants still had Niekro. (And let’s not talk about how often I wondered how bad they needed Niekro.) But if Klesko begins to pick up most of the starts, Sweeney’s presence will make more sense—assuming he starts hitting. He’d been something like 4-for-8 as a pinch-hitter—wonderful stuff—but 1-for-18 as a starter, or numbers to that effect. And I suppose I should think of him more as an outfielder than a first baseman, but I’m not sure either appellation applies. He’s not Kleskoesque in the outfield—luckily, almost no one is—but let’s just say he’s not on this team for his glove, which makes the lack of offense all the more frustrating, even given that he hardly ever plays. The dude’s historically a very good pinch-hitter, though, which provides enough juice to want to keep him, and yet I wonder if he really provides anything on the field, at this stage in his career, that Dan Ortmeier doesn’t.
Niekro is back in Frenso, possibly for good, having been outrighted last month. He’s the kind of guy who’s easy to pull for, but clearly he just can’t hit big-league pitching well enough to keep a job for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back with the Giants, but I don’t know why it should happen unless he spends about two months hitting .750 with power.
Overall, Aurilia and Klesko would be an adequate platoon combination, you’d think. Or maybe you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I think their respective proportions of games started needs to lean toward Klesko, and I imagine it doesn’t because of the fear of other teams’ late-inning lefty relievers. Also, does anybody else mentally address Klesko as “Klezzy” or “Klezbo”? I sure hope not.
- Second base—Ray Durham, Kevin Frandsen, Rich Aurilia: I guess Durham has pretty much been Durham: hot, then not, then hot, then not, with some nagging-injury-related bench time sprinkled in here and there. Though he’s capable of the occasional glaring misplay, he’s looked pretty solid afield, especially if you don’t count the two errors he made the other day (and I don’t, because I didn’t see them, so they didn’t happen). I’d probably be fairly pleased with the guy if he hadn’t started out the year as the cleanup hitter before spending the rest of his time in the five-hole. I’m not sure where he should bat, though. He’s not a leadoff hitter anymore; maybe second or sixth would be best.
Frandsen surprises me with his hitting every so often, which is bad because he doesn’t do it often enough not to surprise me. Sometimes I get him confused with Brian Dallimore, which is unfair because Dallimore almost always looked overmatched. Maybe it’s the way Frandsen sometimes looks overmatched, plus the occasional bonehead maneuver—more prevalent last year than now, admittedly. This time around he’s played second, short, third, and left, which is okay with me because current-day 12-man pitching staffs (and God knows the Giants can easily go to 13 every so often) make it necessary for bench players (and even some regulars) to be versatile. You know who I liked in Frandsen-ish roles? Guys like Greg Litton and Steve Scarsone. Sure, if you look those guys up, you’ll note that either of them could’ve broken loads of strikeout records if given the chance, and you’ll also note that neither of them was exactly Brooks Robinson out there, but they were fun. Especially Litton, with his cannon of an arm. Scarsone was more like Litton Lite. I’m hoping Frandsen won’t wind up being Scarsone Lite, or the Giants fans’ whipping-boy.
- Shortstop—Omar Vizquel, Rich Aurilia, Kevin Frandsen: I really don’t care what the numbers say, because they show Vizquel to be a pretty average shortstop. I just don’t believe that. He gets to balls nobody else can, and he improvises like nobody else can. He’s simply too good out there. The appellation “The Out-Maker” isn’t entirely ironic. Would that he could still hit, though. It’s taken a long time, but the Giants have finally started batting him eighth. I’m sure he hates it, but it seems to be a better spot for him than second or, heaven help us, leadoff. The guy’s 40, an age at which most ballplayers, even good ones, are spending more time at home with their kids. Vizquel’s got probably another year or two after this, but not as a Giant—not if he keeps hitting like this. But he sure is fun to watch in the field. He’s the anti-Batiste: I expect him to make a successful play on every ball hit near him.
- Third base—Pedro Feliz, Rich Aurilia, Kevin Frandsen: Feliz just isn’t very good. Indeed, if you said that to Giants fan/baseball writer/blogger Steven Rubio, he’d provide plenty of evidence that Feliz is not only not very good, he’s the worst regular third baseman in the world, rating at or near the bottom of every important offensive category. Dave Flemming is the only Giants broadcaster I’ve heard speak my thoughts on the matter, namely that Feliz just doesn’t seem to have a plan when he goes to the plate. (Flemming, however, recently modified that view to “Whatever plan Feliz has, he doesn’t stick with it during an at-bat.) Maybe it had never struck me before, but until Feliz came along, I’d never seen anybody make so many outs with so few of them being productive. Get that runner to third with a ground ball? Forget it—time to smack a two-hopper to the third baseman. Get the guy home with a fly ball? Sorry—gotta whiff. It’s hard to take, over and over and over and over, and while Feliz seems like a nice enough guy and all, I would be thrilled to see him dealt, assuming we don’t send along, say, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the process. If the Giants can somehow jettison Feliz (and somehow wind up with a good bat), I’d be okay with Aurilia playing third most of the time. (Then again, even if they keep Feliz, I’m not sure I’d mind seeing Aurilia playing third most of the time.)
- Left field—Barry Bonds, Dan Ortmeier, Todd Linden, Mark Sweeney, Pedro Feliz, Ryan Klesko (hee!), Fred Lewis: Supposedly it’s Bonds’ left knee, the one that didn’t endure three rapid-fire surgeries, that’s giving him trouble now. And today I heard something about shinsplints and swollen ankles. Whatever hurts, it hurts a lot, because Bonds isn’t Bonds right now. He had an astounding April and a puzzling May, and his June, thus far, is nothing to write home about. He’s got 12 dingers at this writing and is nine behind Aaron, and he’s generating a lot more hate messages than offense right now. He’d been hitting home runs like a house afire (see
http://www.houseafire.com/stats/hr.html for specifics), and now he’s hitting them like Sweeney. Good thing he’s still drawing walks. Oh, he’ll have the occasional two-for-three game with a line-drive single and a double to the base of the center-field wall, but mostly he’s popping up and hitting ground balls into the shift. And striking out. Does that mean the league has figured him out? I don’t know. He sure doesn’t look right, though.
Ortmeier has hardly been a revelation, but he’s gotten some timely hits, including his first two major league home runs. He’s a switch-hitter who throws lefthanded—not often you see that—and he seems to play a decent outfield with a decent arm and decent speed. I’d like to believe he’s a significant upgrade over Linden. How can he not be?
At bat, Linden looked like he didn’t even know what planet he was on. Talk about not having any evident plan at the plate. He seemed to have it backward, routinely taking strikes, swinging at balls, and, well, reeking. Once it reached the point where he even looked stupid on defense, finally the Giants made a decision and cut him loose. I think they thought he’d clear waivers, like Niekro—and so did I—but for some reason the Marlins, either desperately needing a body or believing they could reclaim him, picked him up, perhaps to serve as the welcoming committee for Armando Benitez. Whatever progress Linden may have made last year, he lost that and more this year. Maybe he’ll be a decent player some day—just not with the Giants. But don’t worry, Giants fans: he’ll haunt the hell out of us, probably by OPSing 3.000 against the Giants and dropping the fly ball that put the Dodgers into the postseason.
- Center field—Dave Roberts, Randy Winn, Todd Linden, Fred Lewis: I don’t know if the team’s really feeling Roberts’ absence. He sure didn’t hit at all—except for a booming home run the day before he went on the DL—and he didn’t reach base often enough for steals to really be a factor. He seemed to do just fine in center field, and I like the kind of player he’s supposed to be: pesky, base-reachy, disruptive-speedy. It feels as though he’s been out since about April 10—or maybe he just hasn’t done enough to remember all that well. I sure hope he heals up and does whatever the Giants hope he’ll do. As a Giant, I mean.
In Roberts’ absence, Winn has been manning the post. I guess the Giants really don’t like him much as a center fielder, and indeed he gets mixed reviews. I’ve never had a problem with him out there, and I thought his fairly rotten 2006 season might have had something to do with him never knowing where he was going to play from inning to inning. I’m not sure he’s really a right fielder, though—he’s probably best suited for left field, but that’s where Bonds hangs out. Winn had a brutal start to the year and has picked up tremendously, helped in no small part by a 20-game hitting streak. I’d like to believe he’ll keep hitting. I mean, while he’s not the same guy the Giants picked up for the last couple months of 2005, I do think he’s capable of putting up pretty good numbers, and when he’s hot, nobody’s hotter, even Bonds.
- Right field—Randy Winn, Fred Lewis, Todd Linden, Dan Ortmeier: I’m not really sure what’s going on with Lewis and Ortmeier. Lewis seemed to be the guy they brought up to replace Linden, and Ortmeier appeared to come up mostly because Roberts hit the DL, but they’re both getting a fair amount of playing time, especially Lewis, who’s exceptionally fleet afoot. I think he might be a worse outfielder than Linden, however, and that’s problematic. He also has a long, looping swing that concerns me—I don’t see how he can hit a fastball. But he’s managed a couple of off-field home runs and some slashy hits. He’s even been stealing bases—something he’s supposedly not all that good at. In fact, I think his first two steals involved third base. He seems to be an exciting player, but he might be hitting too high in the order. Even so, he seems to have an idea at the plate. Still, he’s 26—older than Linden—and unlikely to improve a lot. I’d love it if he did, though. Shortening that swing might be a good start.
- Catcher—Bengie Molina, Eliezer Alfonzo: They’ve hyped Molina’s superhuman lack of footspeed. They’ve hyped his hitting with two outs and runners in scoring position. So far he’s lived up to the hype. Not to focus on the negative, but indeed this dude might not be able to win a footrace against Smoky Burgess at his fattest. Indeed, even J.T. Snow—dubbed “D.P. Slow” by some in the Giants newsgroup—could lap this guy. You’re not even sure Molina will score from second on a double—maybe not even from third. He looks like he’s jogging, but maybe that’s his top output. It’s really something. Meanwhile, they say he handles the staff very well, and he does seem to fight for his pitchers. He’s let more pitches get by him than one might like to see, however. Still, as skeptical as I was when the Giants signed him, I’m more or less a believer now.
Alfonzo hasn’t shown the absurd inability to catch pitched baseballs that we all got to know and loathe last year. He’s thrown a few balls into center field, though—in attempts to catch base stealers, I mean; not just as random acts. At the plate… well, what he does is, he gets big hits in two, three games in a row, then drives me bats by utterly, utterly failing to produce for weeks thereafter. He’s got that sort of Felizesque strike-zone judgment, and you know what happens a lot? When he swings and misses at strike one, you know his at-bat will only last two more pitches, both to be swung on and missed. So I usually cringe a lot when I see him come up as a pinch-hitter. Especially in the middle innings, given that the Giants have only two catchers. I mean, what’s up with that?
- Starting pitchers—Barry Zito, Matt Cain, Matt Morris, Noah Lowry, Tim Lincecum, Russ Ortiz: This is the closest the Giants have come to having an actual strength, and it’s got to be their best rotation, one through five, in years. Zito’s having trouble reeling off more than one or two good starts in a row, which I suppose is what most people have expected of him. We all know he signed a ludicrously fat contract, and his signing has been hailed by Baseball Prospectus, among other folks, as the worst, dumbest free-agent signing of all time, including other sports and even non-sports. I don’t see it that way. The Giants knew they were going to lose Schmidt, and they felt they needed an ace, or reasonable facsimile thereof. They know they overpaid for Zito: Brian Sabean has said as much—It’s as though he was trying to say that the market required overpayment. All that said, though, I don’t care how much they’re paying Zito. All that matters is that he perform. I think he’s doing reasonably well, considering that he’s going up against number-one starters a whole lot. His control is not what I’d like it to be, though, and it’s hard to feel very confident when your team’s starting pitcher rarely breaks 85 on the gun. In three years he has a good chance of becoming Kirk Rueter—but will it be the 2002 model or the 2005 model? There’s a big difference. On the other hand, before becoming Kirk Rueter himself, Rueter never won a Cy Young. I don’t think Zito’s Cy was any fluke—he just hasn’t been nearly as good since. Either way, I have no reason to think he won’t end up being a solid Giant. Granted, for the money they’re paying, fans tend to want him to be a spectacular Giant, but, again, I don’t care about the money.
Cain started off looking like a Cy Young candidate, but lately he looks more like Sean Young. True, Sean, even now, is still a visual treat, but I’d be very surprised if she gave up less than a hit per inning. Cain, early on, was giving up roughly a hit every three innings, but from the day the Phillies roughed him up for the first time all season, he hasn’t been the same guy. His control is terrible—how the Diamondbacks scored only three runs off him last night is beyond me, since he seemed determined to just get it over with and shatter the season record now for walks allowed. I also don’t understand how he doesn’t strike more hitters out. He sure gets a lot of two-strike counts, but unlike his immediate elder, Lincecum, he doesn’t finish off the hitters nearly enough, especially for a guy who seems to be trying to strike out everyone. He throws an awful lot of pitches, and maybe this has contributed to his fastball dropping from about 96 to about 92 lately.
Morris has had some terrific starts, which comes as a surprise to me. He’s way up there among the ERA leaders, which leads me, as a Giants fan, to wait for the other shoe to drop. If you told me last year that he would be the team’s ERA leader on June 6, 2007, I might well have wept, picturing a team ERA well in excess of a million. Had you told me, however, that his ERA would be 2.66 after his last start, I might well have plotzed. It’s as though… it’s as though… I don’t know if I can say it… it’s as though he’s… the team’s… ace. Indeed, if no Giant is elected as an All-Star starter—and maybe Bonds will be, maybe he won’t—Morris should receive plenty of thought as a managerial selection, as should Molina.
Lowry’s had some hard-luck losses, but then again, this team doesn’t hit. You shouldn’t be a 5-5 starter with a 3.28 ERA, should you? (Nor should you be a 2-5 starter with a 3.54 ERA, if you’re Matt Cain.) It bugs me that while he doesn’t walk that many, he doesn’t strike anybody out, either. If we wanted that, wouldn’t we bring back Rueter?
The guy on the staff getting the most press these days is Lincecum, and with good reason, even though his ERA is half a run higher than any of his rotation mates. He strikes out about a batter per inning, doesn’t walk many, doesn’t give up a lot of hits… indeed, he surrenders just over a baserunner an inning—so why’s his ERA over four? Probably because he gives up home runs at an alarming rate. If everything else pretty much remains status quo and if he, I dunno, keeps the ball down more or something, nobody’s gonna touch him. Of course, I’m afraid of saying stuff like that because of the dangers of Earnest Praising, so maybe I should stop now.
Lincecum came up when Ortiz went on the DL, and it was pretty obvious that the former would not only have to stay but would also require a place in the rotation. It would be fair to consider Ortiz the odd man out, and indeed he is, at least as a starter. He was a great story in the spring, a reclamation project coming back after an absurdly bad 2006 season. Indeed, his first few starts weren’t bad—even when he was busy giving up five runs against the Dodgers, he still struck out seven and nearly completed the game. However, he gave up more than one hit per inning in all his starts, and that’s trouble, despite the fact that he didn’t walk many. So now he’s had four relief appearances and hasn’t been scored upon yet. However, he faced two Phillies the other day, retired them both, then left with a forearm injury, so who knows?
- Closer—Armando Benitez, Brad Hennessey: There are yak herders in Buna-Tufi, New Guinea (assuming they have yaks there) who know how I feel about Benitez and how delighted I am that he’s gone gone gone. The guy left here with a reputation for being a choke artist and a whiner, and he did nothing to dispel either notion.
On Grant Brisbee’s McCovey Chronicles blog I said, “Don’t sweat the Benitez deal. We already know he’ll haunt us as often as possible, though because the Giants will only play the Marlins roughly six times a year (until the Marlins decide they can’t stand him anymore either, and he goes to the Dodgers), he won’t haunt us as a Marlin nearly as often as he haunted us as a Giant. If we accept it rather than dread it, we’ll be marginally less miserable. And since we’re Giants fans, what more can we hope for?” (Well, one thing we could hope for is… reports are that not only is Eric Gagne pitching very well for the Rangers, he’s also on the block because the Rangers suck. I shudder to think who we’d have to cough up in exchange, though.) (Note to Sabes: Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, not around my eyes, look into my eyes and… you’re under. Feliz Feliz Feliz Feliz Chulk. And… you’re back in the room.)
Hennessey seems to be the closer pro tem. He could give up fewer hits without making me upset, but mostly he’s looked pretty good, and he’s striking out more guys lately. Is he “closer material”? Well, let’s forget everything I’ve ever said about “closer mentality” and “do we really need set roles?” and all that stuff, and pretend that every team definitely needs a guy they can turn to to slam the door in the ninth. Is Hennessey that guy? How the hell should I know? What, you people think I’m an expert now? How fair is that? You never did before! Either way, he’s the best candidate on the big-league roster (and was, even before the Benitez deal). I don’t detect the Atlee Look on his face—a look that was tattooed (painfully, no doubt) onto the countenance of Benitez and, before him, would-be closers such as Matt Herges (though not necessarily Tyler Walker). I’m willing—as if I have a choice in the matter—to wait Hennessey out.
- Other righty relievers—Kevin Correia, Vinnie Chulk, Scott Munter, Randy Messenger: Well, Munter only pitched an inning before getting sent back down, so he doesn’t count. Correia, though, is our latest walkoff loser, having surrendered a predictable game-ending home run last night. He strikes out lots of hitters, doesn’t walk that many, doesn’t even give up all that many hits—so why don’t I trust him? Maybe it’s the timing. Maybe it’s the home run, along with two others. Whatever it is, I don’t think he’s a closer in the making.
Nor is Chulk, whose ERA—I still can’t believe this, because I would’ve guessed twice as high—is 3.24. He doesn’t walk anybody, doesn’t give up that many hits—so why does he stink? He’s pitched well since I seriously (and very Earnestly) ragged on him here a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember a lot of key appearances for him. In other words, maybe mopup relief is where he needs to stay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Messenger, meanwhile, is the guy we got for Benitez. He put up a 2.66 ERA for the Marlins, though he allowed a lot of baserunners. So far he’s walked two opponents in 2-1/3 innings as a Giant, and it’s hard to tell much from that. (Benitez, incidentally, has given up a run in four innings as a Marlin. Jerk.)
- Lefty relievers—Jack Taschner, Steve Kline, Jonathan Sanchez: All these guys have been really, really bad. With Taschner that’s more of a recent development: he got seriously roughed up in Philadelphia. And I don’t know whether to think of him as “consistent” or not. After he coughed up a home run to the lefthanded batter he was brought in to face in his first appearance this year, he had eight straight scoreless appearances, got blasted by the Diamondbacks, had five more scoreless appearances, then three scoreful appearances, then two scoreless, two scoreful, and last night’s two-batter, two-strikeout performance. Without his two games in Philly and his horrific time against Arizona, his ERA is 2.40. Unfortunately, you have to count all of his numbers, so it’s 5.74.
Kline is… well, he might be through. Then again, his last two appearances were very good. Indeed, he’s only had a couple bad performances: early against the Padres, last month against the A’s. That one was world-beatingly bad, though—four runs, zero innings pitched—and without that one his ERA would only be 3.38, and I wouldn’t be complaining. But it’s 6.08, and I am. So maybe he’s not through, but he sure gives up a hell of a lot of baserunners and never strikes anybody out. True, he’s only pitched 13-1/3 innings all year, but how important is it to keep him over Sanchez, no matter how great a “teammate” he supposedly is?
Then again, Sanchez was pretty awful before his demotion. He strikes out an awful lot of people—one and a half per inning this year—but he also walks nearly one and gives up one hit per inning, and he seems a tad susceptible to the home run ball. Why? Maybe he’s got lots of speed but not a lot of movement. Maybe he only throws one speed. I don’t know. Still, I hope to see him back soon. I like guys who rack up a buttload of strikeouts. I think he can be fixed.
How good are they really? If I had to sum it up in one word, I think it’d have to be: Meh. Assuming “meh” ever really becomes a word.