After more than nine years as manager of the Montreal Expos and a short stint as bench coach for the Detroit Tigers, the San Francisco Giants hired Felipe Alou as their new manager this off-season. The architect of the strong, young Expos teams of the mid-90s faces a different challenge in San Francisco, managing a veteran club led by Barry Bonds. Continuing his series of articles from spring training in Arizona, BP correspondent Craig Elsten sat down with Alou recently, and asked him about job battles among some of the team’s weaker veterans, the challenge of nurturing pitching prospects like Kurt Ainsworth and Jesse Foppert, and building an optimal lineup around Bonds.
Baseball Prospectus: You had a number of chances to return to the dugout as a manager over the past couple of years. What made you decide to accept this challenge in San Francisco?
Felipe Alou: It is my former team, the one I signed with as a kid and made it to the big leagues with. A good ballclub, good city. I know San Francisco. I played there six years, not to mention two years with Oakland, so the Bay Area is one of my favorite places. But, the stability of the franchise in general was also very attractive.
BP: There has been a great turnover on this team since last year, and an interesting mix of younger and older players. You managed a number of very young teams in Montreal…what adjustments do you have to make now, dealing with a more veteran ballclub?
FA: Well, those guys (the veterans), you have to leave them alone, longer than you do a young club. A young club, you work on their development, and their needs–keep them going. (The veterans), they know what it takes to go to the playoffs, especially the guys left over from last year’s club. The four position players (brought in from the outside this year), plus Damian Moss, and a couple of reserve guys who will probably make this ballclub (Neifi Perez and Marquis Grissom)…they know, like I do, why we came here. We came here, and the people are expecting us to be in the playoffs. That’s what the fans are expecting from us, the front office, the media, and baseball in general. So, we know our responsibility. We also know, the guys who are left here from last year’s team know, we’ve got to blend this thing well, and as early as possible, to be the ballclub that everybody thinks we could be.
BP: At a number of positions, you’ve got young players pushing the veterans. For example, at first base, you’ve got Damon Minor pushing J.T. Snow, and particularly in the rotation, you’ve got young guys like Jesse Foppert and Kurt Ainsworth pushing veterans such as Livan Hernandez. When you watch a spring training game and evaluate your talent, what keys are you looking for?
FA: Well, I look at stuff for pitchers, and for position players, the skills. In the case of the pitchers, I like to see command of the fastball first. First, command of the fastball, and then, the rest of the stuff. If they have a good changeup that they can use, better yet. I also see presentation on the mound. The two young guys you just mentioned, Foppert and Ainsworth, they have everything that I’ve just mentioned. So, those guys are knocking hard at the door, and we are going to have a serious problem if they don’t make it, or if we make them wait too long. But, there’s no question about those two guys being ready, or almost ready, to be here, whether they are in the bullpen or as starters.
BP: Does a veteran get an automatic edge over a younger player trying to make the team?
FA: We have to give the veteran guys the benefit of the doubt. I know Livan (Hernandez) hasn’t had the greatest of springs, but right now he’s throwing the ball a lot better. He’s going deeper into the pitch count. The last time out he threw 85 pitches and threw real well. So, we’ve got to give those veteran guys, not only in the pitching staff but also the position players, the benefit of the doubt. We’re not going to go ahead and judge a guy in spring training, especially someone who just got to this club. You only know them, like in my case, you’ve only seen them from across the field. Right now, I’m getting to know these guys real well. They know how to prepare themselves, and when the bell rings, they’re going to be in tip-top shape. We’re going to wait a while before we (make any decisions).
BP: You have a unique challenge building your lineup around Barry Bonds, who is performing at a level unlike any we have seen in the history of baseball. Deciding who bats in front of and behind Barry is an important decision, and you’ve brought in two players (Ray Durham and Edgardo Alfonzo) who could provide a high OBP in front of Bonds. What are your thoughts right now as to how you’re going to construct the top of your order?
FA: Well, right now I’m batting Rich Aurilia #3, but he could wind up being #2. I want to bat Aurilia ahead of Barry, because Barry told me the biggest year Aurilia ever had was when he batted 2nd or 3rd, in front of (Bonds). So, I’m keeping with that right now. Right now, Barry’s batting 4th, but there might be an adjustment to that when the final week of the spring gets here. That will be our regular lineup. Right now, I’m playing with some things…there’s a lot of split-squad games right now, so it’s hard to keep those guys together. Durham’s had a little bit of a hand problem, so he hasn’t been playing. And, it’s been difficult with the weather, and the rainouts. I like Alfonzo batting behind Bonds, because in the worst-case scenario, he’s going to be on base himself. Alfonzo’s a very patient hitter, a clutch hitter, and he has enough power to do some damage. When they do walk Barry, there’s going to be more than one man on base. I know a lot of times they won’t pitch to (Bonds), they’re going to pitch around him with one guy on. Alfonzo is going to find a lot of guys on base in scoring position, and I believe he’s the right guy to do it.
BP: What is your plan as the season progresses to keep your veteran ballplayers fresh and healthy throughout the year?
FA: Some guys, like Barry himself, Marquis Grissom, Benito Santiago, those guys will need a day off here and there, especially when we travel coast-to-coast. I believe that’s the right time to do it. We have good backup guys here, and that way we believe we’re going to keep (the starters) fresh.
BP: Whether it’s on Opening Day or down the road, you’re going to have the young starters in your rotation at some point this season. Has Brian Sabean talked to you, or has the organization made a decision on pitch counts and trying to keep these young arms healthy?
FA: Well, no, we haven’t talked about that yet. I know we will, it’s just a matter of time. When we are just about ready to leave Arizona and play three exhibition games in San Francisco, we’re going to address all of that. Right now, Brian has been in and out with the ballclub. In my case, especially, I’m evaluating the young talent we have, that we’ve brought up for me to see, especially, because I need to know the organization. In fact, I still don’t know it, but we’ve got some young guys that I like, and that’s my main project. In the final week of Spring Training, we’re going to devote more time to the lineup, and to pitch counts. As of now, we’ve only named two starters, the #1 and #2 guys, and those are Rueter and Schmidt, in that order. After that, everything is up in the air (ed note: Kurt Ainsworth is expected to crack the Opening Day rotation following Monday’s trade of Livan Hernandez).
Craig Elsten works for KOGO Radio in San Diego as the pregame/postgame co-host for the Padres. He has also served as the Cactus League play-by-play voice of MLB Radio, and regularly beats Joe Sheehan in Strat-O-Matic baseball. He’s filing a series of articles from spring training in Arizona over the next few days. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.