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September 8, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

A Giant Story

by Joe Sheehan

Who has the best record in baseball?

OK, the White Sox.

Who has the biggest lead in any division?

OK, the Cardinals.

But do you know who has the second-best record and second-biggest lead?

The San Francisco Giants.

The mid-payroll, mid-talent, picked-in-the-middle-of-the-division San Francisco Giants are playing just shy of .600 ball and have just about put away the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, with a magic number of 17.

The Giants have done it at the plate, with the best offense in the majors by far, with a .291 Equivalent Average that dwarfs the Indians', next best at .273. They've done it on the mound, with the fourth-best rotation and tenth-best bullpen in baseball, by Michael Wolverton's measurements.

How are the Giants playing so well? Well, while you'll read a lot about Dusty Baker and his abilities as a manager--and I have no intention of casting aspersions on them--the bigger key is a team without any real holes. The Giants have three of the six best hitters in the league in Jeff Kent, Barry Bonds and Ellis Burks. They also get significant offense from catcher and shortstop, mostly Bobby Estalella and Rich Aurilia.

The big secret is that the lineup has no real problems. Marvin Benard and Bill Mueller are below-average regulars, but not so much that they're black holes in the lineup, like Boston's third basemen or Atlanta's left fielders. And the Giants' bench is strong, led by Armando Rios (.289 EqA) and Ramon E. Martinez (.281).

On the mound, they've been able to use just six starters all season, despite concern over Baker's predilection for high workloads. We've pounded him for his use of Livan Hernandez, Shawn Estes and Russ Ortiz, but all six of the team's starters have performed above replacement level and all but one, Ortiz, has been above average. And Ortiz has been a bulwark since the All-Star break.

It's a small thing, but their regular rotation is probably the best-hitting one in baseball: all starters other than Mark Gardner are above average at the plate.

While their pen is only rated tenth, a lot of that is the result of John Johnstone pitching hurt much of the season. Doug Henry has been great since coming over from the Astros and the one-two punch of Felix Rodriguez and Robb Nen has been devastating in the late innings. And Dusty Baker has done his best job yet of not burning out his best relievers, thanks in part to the performance of his rotation.

The Giants are going to enter October with the best roster, 1 through 25, in the postseason. They have a three-man lineup core that will be the best of any team. While their rotation depth won't be as big a factor as it's been in the regular season, the presence of Mark Gardner and Joe Nathan in the pen will make an already strong group better. They have, save possibly Russ Davis (who has his uses) no roster holes, no Ozzie Guillen or Luis Polonia wasting a spot.

Dusty Baker and Brian Sabean have done a tremendous job in assembling a roster that not only can win a division, but can also be dangerous in a short series. If you're looking for a reason to care about the NL East race, here's one: the winner there probably avoids playing what may be the best team in the league.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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