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July 22, 2009

On the Beat

Mid-Week Update

by John Perrotto

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AT&T Park is the house that Barry built. The Giants never would have been able to move into their beautiful waterfront ballpark in San Francisco's China Basin without having all-time home-run leader Barry Bonds hitting in the middle of their lineup to ensure plenty of sellout crowds that pay off a facility built without a heavy dose of public funding.

However, AT&T Park, or Pac Bell Park as it was known when it opened in 2000, wasn't exactly a house built for Barry. It is one of the more spacious parks in the major leagues. Now two seasons removed since the last time Bonds played in a major league game-remember, the embattled 45-year-old left fielder has yet to officially retire, and one can make a case that he's been blackballed after posting .276/.480/.585 slash stats with 28 home runs in 477 plate appearances in 2007-the Giants have a team they feel is much more suited to play at AT&T Park.

"It really is a pitcher's park and it always has been, though the presence [of Barry Bonds] hitting balls into McCovey Cove (beyond the right-field wall) made it seems more like a hitter's park," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "We finally have a team suited to our home park because our pitching is outstanding and our defense is good, too. We're doing things a little differently than the Giants have done in the past and it's working out quite well."

The Giants are scoring less and winning more as they are in the thick of a wild-card race following four straight losing seasons and five consecutive years without qualifying for the postseason. They are 50-43 and a half-game behind the Rockies in the National League Wild Card standings, though 9 games in back of the Dodgers in the NL West race. "You don't get this far into the season and play as well as we've played and be a fluke," Bochy said. "We feel like we've turned the corner this season after some rough years. We feel we're a legitimate playoff contender, and will be disappointed if we're not playing in October."

If the Giants do make it to the postseason, it assuredly will be because of a strong starting rotation led by a pair of young aces. Right-hander Matt Cain is second in the NL with a .760 expected winning percentage, and reigning Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum is sixth with a .697 mark. Cain is only 24 years old; Lincecum is 25.

Randy Johnson, on the other hand, is 45, on the disabled list with a strained shoulder, and has a .483 expected winning percentage. However, Bochy credits him for helping the Giants' resurgence after the big left-hander signed with the team he grew up rooting for in Livermore, California as a free agent in the winter. "He's not only made us a strong pitching staff, but his presence and the way he prepares has been something that the rest of our pitchers have learned from," Bochy said. "His knowledge of the game and work ethic is second to none and our young guys understand that."

While closer Brian Wilson (1.099 WXRL) gets most of the mainstream publicity in the Giants' bullpen, it is left-hander Jeremy Affeldt who has solidified the relief corps after being signed as a free agent over the winter. His 2.743 WXRL is seventh in the NL, and ranks first among senior circuit lefties. Altogether, the Giants lead the major leagues with the lowest runs allowed with an average of 3.7 runs give up per game. They also rank third in Defensive Efficiency with a .705 mark. "We've got a situation where everyone is pitching well and contributing on our staff," Lincecum said. "It's a case where we're feeding off each other. Nobody wants to let the team down. Nobody wants to be that weak link. When you have that kind of pretty fierce internal competition, it's going to make everybody better."

Perhaps the Giants' hitters might want to start some internal competition of their own, as they are 27th in the majors in runs scored with 4.1 a game, which if anything overstates their effectiveness-they rank an even worse 29th in team-wide Equivalent Average. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, the big, lovable Kung Fu Panda, is the only regular with an EqA over .268, as his .316 rates 15th in the NL. Giants general manager Brian Sabean has been trying to acquire a big bat for the pennant drive, and Athletics left fielder Matt Holliday's name keeps coming up as a possibility in a cross-bay trade.

However, Lincecum is not so sure the Giants need to add any pieces to get to the postseason. "I think we run the danger of disrupting something good here if we start changing the roster around," Lincecum said. "We've got a good enough team to make the playoffs with what we have right now. Our hitters score enough runs for us. We're getting enough offensive support. We have a pretty young team. There are about 15 or so of us who have been called up in the last two years and we've reached that point where we've been in the major leagues long enough that we're comfortable in our own skins now. We feel like our time has come. We're ready to win now. We are winning now."

That confidence is soaring two years removed from the Bonds' era. "It's a completely different culture now," Bochy said. "We've got a younger team now and the feeling in the clubhouse is a lot different. We play a different style of baseball. Barry was a great player and did great things, but we've moved on and we're showing you can do things differently and be able to win."

The Giants, though, are winning with heavy hearts after Sue Burns, the club's principal owner, died of lung cancer Sunday at 58. Burns was diagnosed with the disease on July 10, and passed away just nine days later. Later that night after Burns was diagnosed, Giants left-hander Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter against the Padres; Burns was unable to attend. "It was the first game anyone remembers her missing in years," Giants president Larry Baer told the San Francisco Chronicle. "In some ways, you almost feel like she gave her permission to move on to new heights without her."

---

The Yankees are in first place in the American League East by one game over the Red Sox. However, that apparently isn't enough to satisfy owner Hal Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner made it clear earlier this week that second-year manager Joe Girardi's future would be very much in jeopardy if the Yankees fail to make the playoffs for a second straight season. The Yankees' run of 13 consecutive post-season appearances ended last year as Girardi took over for Joe Torre. "Joe knows what's expected of him," Steinbrenner said. "It's never changed. We expect to win every year. We've said that, we always say that, and our job is to field a championship-caliber team every year. That's what we strive to do."

Girardi said he does not feel any undue pressure because of Steinbrenner's comments. He was a player, coach and broadcaster with the Yankees before taking over as a manager, so he understands what the organization is about. "I know the expectations," Girardi said. "I knew when I took the job in year one, and I know what they were this year and for however long I manage here. The expectations are going to be on the next guy, too. It's never going to change."

Steinbrenner certainly makes it sound that "the next guy" could be in place at the start of the 2010 season if the Yankees don't get to the playoffs. "I think we've got a championship-caliber team," Steinbrenner said. "Everybody's got their injuries, everybody's got their ups and downs in different areas, nobody's perfect and we all know that, but I think we're doing good."

The Yankees are first in the majors in run scored with an average of 5.5 a game (but second in team EqA behind the Rays), and 10th in runs allowed with a 4.8 average. While some in the organization believe the Yankees need to make a deal for a starting pitcher with right-hander Chien-Ming Wang on the disabled list (again), GM Brian Cashman said he isn't looking to add in that department with the non-waiver trade deadline approaching at the end of the month. The Yankees called up right-hander Sergio Mitre from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to start Tuesday night, and he beat the Orioles despite allowing four runs in 5 2/3 innings. However, Girardi worries what might happen if the Yankees lose another starter, particularly since right-handers Phil Hughes and Alfredo Aceves have been converted to relievers this season to strengthen a shaky bullpen. "If we have another injury, where do we go?" Girardi said.

---

Though he has been the target of boo birds at Kauffman Stadium in yet another frustrating Royals' season, general manager Dayton Moore told the Kansas City Star that manager Trey Hillman will back in 2010 to fulfill the third and final year of his contract. At the outset of his tenure, Hillman was considered an innovative hire, as he had spent the previous five seasons managing in Japan. However, the Royals are 37-56 this season and in fourth place in the AL Central, 13 games behind the Tigers. In 2008, Hillman's rookie season, the Royals were 75-87.

However, Hillman believes the Royals are making progress under his leadership and was grateful to hear he still has Moore's endorsement. "For our general manager to say that, it certainly gives you a boost of confidence, no doubt, and I'm appreciative of that," Hillman said.

Hillman said he understands the heat he takes from the fans, particularly since the franchise has not been to the postseason since 1985 and has finished under .500 in 13 of the last 14 seasons. "I'm for whatever this organization wants to do," Hillman said. "I want to be here. I want to continue to grind through this, to go through the hard times and the hard knocks, the second-guessing of strategical moves, the protection of (closer Joakim) Soria and making sure we don't run him back into another injury. I've got to stick with my guns, stick with my convictions of what I've learned and what I know is best for the individual guys over the long haul for this organization, whether I am here or whether I'm not here, to do what's right. I'll continue to do that to the best of my ability."

---

The Rays made their surprising run to the AL pennant last season without making any major in-season acquisitions. In third place in the AL East, 4 games behind the Yankees, the Rays again figure to stick mainly with what they already have this year in an attempt to get back to the postseason. "We've had lots of creative thoughts and conversations," executive vice president Andrew Friedman told the St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin. "Whether that yields anything remains to be seen. Based on how difficult it is to make deals in general, it's safer to bet on no than yes."

If the Rays do add any players, it will like be complementary types, such as a middle reliever or utility man. "We have supreme confidence in the 25 guys we have and feel like we are well-poised for a successful second half," Friedman said. "That being said, it's not our nature to be content. We're not in the business of doing something just for the sake of doing it. But we've had a lot of different conversations, and will continue to do so until the deadline."

---

Scouts' views of various major league players

  • Mariners closer David Aardsma: "I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop all year, but I'm starting to think it won't. He's figured a few things out about pitching, and his confidence is obviously at an all-time high."
  • Giants first baseman/outfielder John Bowker: "I'm not very convinced he is the answer, but the Giants need some pop in their lineup badly, and he's the closest thing they have to a power-hitting prospect."
  • Rays designated hitter Pat Burrell: "The Rays are finding out what the Phillies already knew-he is on the downhill side of his career and sliding rapidly."
  • Brewers third baseman Bill Hall: "They are starting to work him into the outfield mix, and have finally figured out what he really is, a good bench guy, albeit an overpaid good bench guy."
  • Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff: "I've got to believe some contender is going to pick him up for the stretch run. He can really hit. He can't do much else, but he hits enough to make a difference."
  • Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns: "He has completely faded into oblivion, and hardly ever gets off the bench for the worst team in baseball. It's hard to believe so many people thought he was going to be a star when he came up with the Reds. I really how much career he has left."
  • Indians left-hander Aaron Laffey: "I just don't see him as anything more than a number-five starter. The Indians have a lot of guys like him who should really be long relievers or at Double-A."
  • Rockies left-handed reliever Franklin Morales: "The Rockies are looking to trade for a veteran lefty for the late innings, but they just put this kid into the role. He's got the stuff for it, and he's ready to do more than pitch middle relief."
  • Tigers designated hitter Marcus Thames: "The Tigers need to just leave him in the lineup the rest of the way. He's given them some pop and they can't keep tinkering with their lineup at this point of the season. They need to play their most productive guys, and Thames is one of them."
  • Cubs right-hander Randy Wells: "He really has been a bright spot for the Cubs. He doesn't dazzle you with his stuff, but he attacks hitters and isn't scared to throw strikes."

---

Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Twins at Angels, Thursday-Sunday (July 23-26)
Scott Baker vs. Jered Weaver, 10:05 p.m.; Francisco Liriano vs. John Lackey, 10:05 p.m.; Nick Blackburn vs. Sean O'Sullivan, 4:10 p.m. (Fox); Anthony Swarzak vs. Ervin Santana, 3:35 p.m.

Cardinals at Phillies, Friday-Sunday (July 24-26)
Joel Pineiro vs. J.A. Happ, 7:05 p.m.; Kyle Lohse vs. Rodrigo Lopez, 4:05 p.m. (Fox); Todd Wellemeyer vs. Joe Blanton, 1:35 p.m. (TBS)

Giants at Rockies, Friday-Sunday (July 24-26)
Matt Cain vs. Jason Marquis, 9:10 p.m.; Jonathan Sanchez vs. Jason Hammel, 8:10 p.m. (MLB Network); Ryan Sadowski vs. Jorge De La Rosa, 3:10 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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