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May 21, 2008

On the Beat

Not So Giant

by John Perrotto

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Bruce Bochy spent a few seconds searching for the right word to explain the state of his ballclub. "I would say we're a team in transition," the Giants manager said. "We're definitely in transition."

They still have plenty of veteran players at the end of line, holdovers from their unsuccessful attempts to make a run at a world title before the end of last season, when Barry Bonds' contract expired. There are five regulars or semi-regulars who are 33 or older: catcher Bengie Molina, first baseman Rich Aurilia, second baseman Ray Durham, shortstop Omar Vizquel, and right fielder Randy Winn. Another, outfielder Dave Roberts, is currently on the disabled list.

On the other hand, the Giants also have a number of relatively inexperienced players on their roster, with three rookies seeing significant playing time: first baseman John Bowker, second baseman Eugenio Velez, and shortstop Emmanuel Burriss. Neither half of the left-field platoon of Fred Lewis and Dan Ortmeier has spent a full season in the major leagues. Their three best starting pitchers--left-hander Jonathan Sanchez and right-handers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum--are all 25 or younger.

It all adds up to a mishmash of talent that has resulted in an 18-29 record in Bochy's second season with the Giants. Though the Giants would already seem out of the playoff picture--they trail the Diamondbacks by 11 games in the NL West--general manager Brian Sabean told the San Francisco Chronicle last year that he isn't inclined to trade his veterans to add more youngsters.

Not that Bochy is unfamiliar skippering squads stocked with young players; there were times during his tenure in San Diego that the Padres retrenched and went young. "There are obviously challenge when you have a young team," Bochy said. "We have guys who are still learning to be professional players on the major league level; that's tough to do. At the same time, it's rewarding to see the young guys improve. We've seen it already this season, and I anticipate that we will continue to see improvement."

However, the improvement might be painstakingly slow, as the Giants are rebuilding around a core of young players who are not all that highly regarded beyond Cain and Lincecum. None of the eight rookies currently on the roster was ranked by Kevin Goldstein among the top 100 prospects in the game coming into the season. Bochy obviously won't run his players or organization down, but when asked about what he likes most about his club this year he gave an answer that is skipperspeak for gong on a blind date with someone with a good personality: "I like the effort," Bochy said. "We give a good effort."

Effort is great, but talent is better and the Giants are devoid on the offensive side. They are averaging only 3.5 runs a game, 15th in the 16-team NL, ahead of only the Padres. Not surprisingly, the Padres are the only team in the major leagues with a worse record.

The Giants are also only 12th in the NL in runs allowed, giving up 4.8 a game. However, Lincecum (1.9 SNLVAR), Cain (1.0), and Sanchez (1.0) give the Giants hope that they can be a trio to build around. "We're obviously building this thing around pitching and defense now," Bochy said. "It's a change for us. It's not a case of having a guy like Barry Bonds in the middle of our lineup and trying to outslug the other guy. It really makes sense for us go this way anyway. We play in one of the bigger ballparks in the major leagues. Our park really makes it advantageous to rely on pitching and defense."

While the aforementioned three pitchers are a large part of the Giants' future, the face of the franchise is also the most baffling player on the roster. That would be left-hander Barry Zito, signed to a seven-year, $126 million contract as a free agent prior to the 2007 season. Zito didn't do enough to justify the big contract last season, contributing a mid-pack 4.2 SNLVAR; that looks great now that he's below replacement level this year at -0.4. PECOTA projects Zito to win just 42 games in the final six years of the contract, including this season. Zito was banished to the bullpen for a week earlier this month after losing his first seven starts; he never did pitch a game in relief before being returned to the rotation, and Bochy said the move was really only intended to give Zito a mental break by missing a turn in the rotation. Zito's out pitch has always been his curveball but it is no longer the big bender it was. More alarming is that Zito's fastball rarely cracks 85 mph, which gives it little variance in velocity from his other pitches, and makes everything easier for hitters to time.

Zito is seemingly as bad a fit as any player in the major leagues right now, a highly paid but unproductive player on a team that is retooling. Yet, Bochy insists the 30-year-old Zito can still help. "When he's pitching the way he is capable, he is still one of the better pitchers in the game," Bochy said. "It's a matter of getting him on track. He is still young enough and talented enough that he can still help us while we make our transition."

---

Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester warmed hearts Monday night when he threw a no-hitter against the Royals less than two years after overcoming cancer. However, catcher Jason Varitek made an interesting bit of history by being on the receiving end of Lester's gem, as the Red Sox captain became the first catcher in baseball history to catch four no-hitters. Varitek was also behind the plate for gems by Hideo Nomo (2001), Derek Lowe (2002) and Clay Buchholz (2007).

Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell does not believe that is an accident. "You think of someone who has what I consider a photographic memory and how he retains the information of what goes on inside the game and how to attack hitters the second, third, and fourth time through a lineup," Farrell said. "It also shows he has caught some pretty good pitchers. But the most important thing, I think every pitcher that walks to the mound has the utmost confidence in what he calls. We're fortunate to have him here. The fact he has caught four in his career, the only catcher to do that, that's a team effort and Jason has a huge impact of what goes on. Certainly Jon throws every pitch, but Jason's guidance certainly got him to that point."

On his Hall of Fame plaque, Ray Schalk is credited with catching four no-hitters for the White Sox. However, the baseball committee on statistical accuracy, chaired by then-Commissioner Fay Vincent, changed its definition of a no-hitter in 1991. The new definition became a game of nine innings or more that ended with no hits. Thus, the game that the White Sox' Jim Scott pitched in 1914 in which he gave up no hits in the first nine inning but allowed two in the 10th was expunged from the no-hitter list.

"I'm very fortunate," Varitek said after finding his way into the record book. "It's so exciting to be part of one as a catcher. Each one is so different. The work that Jonny Lester's had to do, to be able to be a part of something like that with him is totally different."

Ironically, if the old no-hitter definition was still in effect, Varitek would be credited with five caught as he was behind the plate on the final day of 2006 season when Red Sox rookie Devern Hansack threw five no-hit innings in a rain-shortened game against Baltimore.

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One of the more disturbing bits of news in baseball in recent days was the White Sox firing senior player personnel director David Wilder and two scouts for improprieties in their Dominican Republic operation. The Chicago Tribune reported that the federal government and Major League Baseball are investigating the trio for skimming some of the bonus money the White Sox paid to amateur free agents signed in the Dominican. While MLB is investigating other teams in regards to irregularities in the way bonus payments have been made to amateur free agents in Latin America, those with knowledge of the situation say the problem is not widespread and isolated to a handful of teams.

Wilder was considered one of the fastest-rising young executives in the game. He had also worked in player development and scouting with the Braves, Cubs, and Brewers after his playing career ended at the Triple-A level. Wilder interviewed in recent years for general manager openings with the Pirates, Red Sox, Mariners, Orioles and Diamondbacks.

White Sox GM Ken Williams also considered Wilder one of his closest friends, and became emotional when discussing the firings with reporters. "On a professional level and personal level, this hurts but you will never see me--even though there was obviously some things that have drawn us to this day--you're not going to hear me say a disparaging word about any of the people who are involved in this, simple because we're going to maintain a level of professionalism," Williams said. Williams added, "sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying."

---

Stan Musial played his last game for the Cardinals in 1963 on his way to the Hall of Fame. Forty-five years later, he remains the most beloved figure in St. Louis. A sellout crowd at Busch Stadium honored Musial before Sunday's game with the Rays and the street that runs in front of the ballpark was renamed Stan Musial Drive. While Musial is considered the greatest Cardinals player of all time, there stands a good chance that he will at least have to share that honor with current first baseman Albert Pujols someday, if not cede it to him outright.

The 87-year-old Musial is a big fan of Pujols, and would have no problem passing that torch. "He loves baseball and he's a good first baseman," Musial told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "You know the first time I saw Albert Pujols? He gave me a big hug and kissed me on the forehead." Musial doesn't get to many games anymore but said he watches all the Cardinals games on television because "I love baseball, and there's nothing else on TV."

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American League Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees are considering scuttling the plan of moving reliever Joba Chamberlain into the starting rotation after the All-Star break, something co-chairperson Hank Steinbrenner heartily endorsed a few weeks back, and instead might keep him in the bullpen for the entire season. The Angels aren't looking to make a deal now, but would consider trading seldom-used outfielder Juan Rivera to fill a hole later in the season. The Orioles have no plans to be sellers at the trading deadline at this point, but if they do they will have two of the most attractive bargaining chips on the market in second baseman Brian Roberts and left-handed reliever George Sherrill, who has been a revelation as a closer. The Red Sox would consider trading for Omar Vizquel if Julio Lugo continues to falter in the field and Sabean changes his stance on not wanting to deal his vets. The Blue Jays plan to stick with such journeymen outfielders such as Kevin Mench, Shannon Stewart, and Brad Wilkerson for the time being rather than call Adam Lind back up from Triple-A Syracuse.

National League Rumors and Rumblings: Brewers manager Ned Yost is clearly feeling the heat of his team's disappointing start, but speculation that bench coach Ted Simmons is poised to replace him are off the mark. If the Brewers would can Yost and promote from within, the job figures to go to third base coach Dale Sveum. Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez's contact expires at the end of this season, and he says he would consider retiring in order to be home in the Dominican Republic with his father, who is battling brain cancer. Some impediments to the Padres holding an anticipated fire sale in the coming months are that right-hander Greg Maddux has a full no-trade clause and right fielder Brian Giles' contract calls for him to receive an extra $2 million if traded.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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