Minor League Baseball: San Jose Giants

Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) gives away free tickets to San Jose Giants games regularly and I finally took advantage and took my family to the game last Tuesday. It was a nice night for baseball in San Jose, though it did get a little nippy by the middle of the game.

Unfortunately, the starting pitcher, Juan Serrato did not have it at all, despite the 8 strikeouts. I've seen and heard a lot of baseball games but, I swear, more than half of them were strikeouts on pitches in the dirt that the batter swung on and the catcher had to throw to first to get the batter out. He ended up giving up 6 runs in his 4 IP. Brooks McNiven, however, came out and starting striking out people at the same higher rate and shut them down for the most part so that was good.

The reason I wanted to make it out to the park was because I wanted a look at Eddy Martinez-Esteve, Travis Ishikawa and Nate Schierholtz (and because it was free, thanks OSH!). I missed Matt Cain last year and didn't want to miss out again on players who may make it up to the majors. I was also hoping to see Joe Bateman too. It was a lot of fun being there, the crowd was into the game, the weather was nice, the sunset was nice, the moon rose nicely.

Unfortunately, my daughter is too young to enjoy a ballgame and we had to leave early, after the 6th inning. EME and Nate did not do much while I was there. Ishikawa saved the day for us, hitting this MONSTER homerun in the bottom of the 6th. The ballpark has this cute tradition of playing "broken glass" noise when a homer is hit or foul ball out of the park, but I found out as we walked out that it could literally be true that your car might get a nice dent or broken window from a ball hit out of the park. Ishikawa later unloaded again to tie the game before San Jose won the game in extra innings.

Ishikawa has a lot of power, as his stats show. It was quite interesting to see it in person, that ball was OUT OF THERE lickety-split when he connected, it was no doubt about it, the only question was whether it would clear the back fence and reach the parking lot, which it did. I was very excited to see that, there's nothing like a nice homerun to charge up the crowd. It was also a rare night where he didn't strike out at all, he had good swings prior to the homerun and had solid contact, he just happened to hit them where they were. He gave me hope for the Giants of 2008-10, he should make it there in some capacity, the only question is whether he can stop the strikeouts and keep the average up like he is doing this season.

One down, many more to go, but does that matter?

Well, at least Schmidt appears to be, if not back to normal (normal being 2003-2004), he's back to what we Giants fans have been used to since we stole, er, acquired him from the Pirates in mid-season of 2001. And wow, two near shutouts to boot, to make a big statement about him coming back. That's one element the Giants need to be more than a .500 team this year.

But do we want to be more than a .500 team this year? I see a lot of Giants fans who have already written off the season and talking about trading off as many pieces as we can to dump salary and to get pieces for the future plus play our young players to give them experience. Trade Matheny and play Torrealba. Trade Vizquel (and I guess play Deivi Cruz, not exactly a youngster). Trade Durham and Alfonzo for a pair of athletic socks (or worse :^). Same for Rueter. Some even talk about trading Schmidt and Bonds. Get young and regroup for 2006.

However, for all the grief that Sabean gets for going with veterans and not youngsters, vets are generally less risky than youngsters in terms of variability of performance. For example, there was a lot of talk in the pre-season about how the Giants should trade our pitching prospects for young stars. One mentioned trading Matt Cain for Vernon Wells and get our CF of the future. Well, had we gotten him for Cain (and hit like he has this season), a lot of fans would be upset with that trade: .246/.295/.455/.750 in 264 AB, though with 14 HR in 264 AB. If this continues for the season, this would be the second consecutive down season in performance.

Young players are not a panacea though, obviously, if you are given the choice of a up and coming young player and a downtrodden vet, you go with the young guy. But that's rarely the choice, it is normally between an unproven young player who hasn't blown through the minors, like Ellison and Niekro, or an ageing but productive vet, like Grissom and Snow. And Sabean chose the vets.

But those who deride the pre-season moves to keep those vets are viewing the moves with convenient blinders. Those who say that Grissom is a ticking time bomb of age are mainly the same ones who were against getting Grissom in the first place, when he was an ageing platoon player who couldn't hit anymore. He has provided two good years of production for us and did not appear to be slowing down much last season. And it appears that he has been battling an injury all season long, an injury that has been lurking, apparently, for the past 10 years but that he was able to play well with until this year.

Those who didn't want Snow are mainly the same ones who have been riding the Giants management for getting Snow in the first place. He's not the best 1B offensively (and got too huge a contract) but he has been very productive vs. RHP throughout his career and one of the Giants problems the past few years, despite having Bonds in the lineup, was our offense against RHP, except for last season when Snow hit like Bonds for half a season and lefthanders Tucker and Pierzynski were added to our offense (as well as Mohr who also did well against RHP). In addition, for those of you who are Sabres, Snow's key offensive contribution has been his ability to take walks and keep his OBP high (still good at .368 this season vs. RHP and that's approximately what his average OBP been during his time with the Giants).

I agree that Sabean is not perfect but for every move you can question about Sabean, you can find something equally good or better. Plus his trades for Snow, Kent, and Schmidt should earn him a lot of leeway (for a bunch of who's and over the hill players in Allen Watson, Matt Williams, and Armando Rios/Ryan Vogelsong). One can twist oneself into knots thinking through all the permutations of goods and bads.

I prefer to keep it simple, as in wins and losses: what has each team he has had charge over done? And every year, until this year, his teams have generally been in contention until the very end and making the playoffs. Having a good hitter, even the best hitter in the league, does not mean that you even win, let alone make the playoffs, look at how teams have fared with, say, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez on their teams for recent examples, Don Mattingly and Tony Gwynn for not as recent, and Ernie Banks for an old example. Yes, having them should make it much easier but it does not mean it is that easy to do either, it is not a slam dunk. It is still a good accomplishment for a GM to put together a team that makes the playoffs, great player or not, because it takes more than that one player to have a good enough team to make the playoffs.

So back to the question, trade away or stay the course? Had any of the other teams had enough to pull away from us more, I could have been convinced that we should plan for the future. But they haven't. While 10 games is not unsubstantial, especially with 3 teams ahead of us, there is still a lot of baseball left to be played (91 games), Schmidt and Lowry are coming around, Tomko and Rueter are doing about what they can be expected to do, Hawkins coming back soon would a bullpen trio of Walker, Eyre, and Hawkins shutting down close games, and Feliz and the offense is starting to heat up.

Plus there is the huge wildcard factor of Barry Bonds coming back. The Giants offense, while totally sputtering, has been very potent at times. A potency that would only be enhanced with Bonds in the lineup.

However, when is becoming a huge factor. 10 games back now is one thing, 10 games back when Bonds comes back, which looks more and more like the end of July or later, is another. One can point to Houston's comeback last season as an example of it never being too late but most times teams like Houston are also rans at the end of the season, not playoff teams.

I think that we should stay the course for the most part until the end of July. With the pitching looking up for July and the offense perking up, if we can cut down 1 game off the standings each week, we could be as close as 5 games when Bonds return (if he returns about the end of July). However, if one of the teams ahead of us suddenly put in their afterburners and decide that they are taking the division, then we could be screwed.

But I think that there is still plenty of time before that happens before the Giants have to make the difficult decision to scuttle this season and look to the future more aggressively. They should not make wholesale changes until it is very clear that we are not going to be a factor in the pennant race (though a trade of either Durham or Alfonzo to free a position for Feliz - and drop salary - would be great). However, the light at the end of the tunnel is visible and coming fast so the Giants better start picking things up now or face their first season under Sabean without a playoff chase at the end.

Go Giants!