The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Last night I was driving home from a bridge game and turned radio to KFRC, 610-AM, so I could catch the end of the A's-Seattle game. The game was over, so I flipped back and forth between the postgame show and the Giants postgame show on KNBR-680.

The A's had just won, were 9-6, and led their division. The Giants had just lost and were 6-9. So as you can imagine, the A's fans were happy and the Giants fans were not. But the emotional gap between the two was much greater than the three-game difference in the standings would warrant. The A's fans were mellow and satisfied. The Giants fans were bitter and depressed.

They do have a lot to be depressed about. No one except for Barry Bonds is hitting. Jason Schmidt, the Giants' best pitcher, had pitched his second game -- and was shelled, giving up six runs in four innings. This may not be a single bad outing either; Schmidt injured his elbow last season and it's not clear whether he's recovered fully. The rest of the rotation is mediocre at best. Meanwhile closer Rob Nen is on the DL, with no return in sight.

Last fall, when many good players were available on the free agent market, many Giants fans had a fantasy that former Expos star Vladimir Guerrero would wear a Giants uniform. (And not a clean, healthy, wouldn't-it-be-nice-to-have-this-guy fantasy either, but a seedy, desperate wish. Think Judge Reinhold in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.)

The Giants did not sign Guerrero. Or Gary Sheffield, or any other big-name player. Instead they announced that payroll would be cut from around 85 million to 75 million. Now the fans are furious because there is no big bat to "protect" Bonds -- to make the opponents pay when they walk him.

I think these fans are focussing on the wrong issues. Sure, 75 million is less than 85 million, but it's still more than the payroll of the Athletics and many other teams. The team has pervasive problems that cannot be addressed by a single player. The Giants will probably win 70 games this year. Even if a big name free agent is responsible for 10 wins -- and I think that's a considerable overestimate -- that doesn't get the orange and black over 0.500.

Many Giants fans, including the guys who work in my office, have extolled the genius of Brian Sabean. But it seems to me as though Sabean's strategies are about the worst possible:

First, the Giants do not develop position players. There has been no decent position player to come up from the minors since the 1980's. I don't know if this is by choice, or through poor management, but in either case it is criminal neglect. A minor league player is a serf; he must work for practically nothing his first three years, and far less than his true value the next three years. If you don't develop minor leaguers you are depriving yourself of cheap talent.

This leads to the next problem: The Giants have to get their position players from the pool of veterans, and appear to overpay them. Consider: Kirk Rueter and Mark Redman are two pitchers with very similar WHIP (walks + hits per innings pitched) and earned run numbers. The Giants will pay Rueter over $6 million this year; the A's will pay Redman less than $4 million. Neifi Perez, a good fielder who hits 0.270 (which is a little above the league average), has 0.301 on-base (way below average), and little power, is being paid $2.75 million. There has got to be a AAA player that you could pry out of some other team's farm system with similar numbers, and he won't cost you anywhere near that much.

Even though the Giants have Barry Bonds -- who gets on base more than half the time and worships doing so as much as any stat geek -- the management has no interest in the value of on-base percentage. They employ a first baseman, Pedro Feliz, who has a 0.276 OBP. Marquis Grissom: 0.320. Guess what: Giants aren't getting on base and the team isn't scoring runs.

As far as I can tell, Sabean has never gone against baseball's conventional wisdom -- which may explain why he was named Baseball Executive of the Year by the Sporting News in 2003. (Oakland GM Billy Beane, who has won more games than all teams except the Mariners over the last four years while operating on a tiny budget, has never won this award.) Veterans are better than young players in some intangible way. On-base percentage doesn't matter. If a player looks good for one year, sign him to a multi-year deal. A closer who pitches 70 innings a year is worth $9.5 million dollars.

The 2004 season figures to be the Giants' own Portrait of Dorian Gray.



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