Autopsy of the 2005 season: Part V - Players Let Down

The whole season can be summed up as a number of shows. It was marred by the Barry Bonds Wait and See Show (available at your nearest website) and the long awaited (by some fans and commentators) Vets on the Downside show, starring Grissom, Alfonzo, Snow, and Tucker. It was buoyed by The New Kids On The Team and The New Vets On The Team, playing concurrently. And it ended with a thud.

Barry's Coming Round the Corner, When He Comes

One long summer of waiting, and hoping, and wishing, finally came to fruition with mere weeks left in the season when Barry returned to the lineup. And once the homers started flying, it was like he never left. But then Tomko, when we really, truly, absolutely needed a well-pitched game, and after he had gone game after game of pitching well with no support, blew all the leads the offense could give him and then Fassero, who had a marvelous season up to that point, gave up that backbone crushing grandslam, just like that the season was essentially over. Barry came, Barry homered, Barry sat down for the season. We can only imagine how the season would have been greatly different had he been playing from the start of the season instead of just before the end.

Vets Finally Hit the Wall

The season had its knees knocked in early in the season when, besides losing Bonds, Alou was injured in the second game of the season and was DLed for 2 weeks, then the Giants essentially was without Grissom, Alfonzo, and Tucker for the rest of the season after the first week when Alfonzo was on fire then just as mysteriously, he was not, and without Snow (for the most part) after the first month. All four strong contributors to the offense in 2004 were gone, piff, adios, offensively.

This fulfilled the prediction that fans and publications have been predicting since the 2003 season (that's 1 for 3 for those of you keeping score). This opened the door for a number of younger players to get more playing time, though that didn't work out that much better in the end, only cheaper, but at least there is an upside.

The New Kids On The Team

As covered in the previous posting, the Giants got so-so to great performances out of the youngsters from the farm system. Cain, Lowry, Hennessey, Correia, Munter, Taschner, Accardo, Ellison, Niekro, and Linden, as a group, did pretty well for prospects thrown in the frying pan. And it is very encouraging for the future of the team that the pitchers did pretty well. Now we have to hope for the position players to start performing.

The New Vets On The Team

The team would have been really toast if it were not for the additions of Moises Alou, Omar Vizquel, Mike Matheny, and, later in the season, Randy Winn. True, Alou was out for stretches for one ailment or another plus came back needed to get his timing back, but he was our main power source the whole season until Bonds returned and Winn was channelling Bonds. Vizquel hurt the team offensively batting 2nd after the first month, but he was a defensive marvel that I'm sure the pitchers appreciated when they weren't walking batters or giving up line-drive hits to the outfield. Matheny delivered much more than was expected as he had a great first month or so but then was pretty much as advertised offensively (poor) and defensively (great) the rest of the season. And what can anyone say about Winn: we're not worthy! 11 homers alone in the month of September, nuff said!

I don't like the sound of that

My lunchtime meal was not good.

The Chronicle reported today that Eyre has not been contacted yet by the Giants about a new long term contract. Eyre is eligible to file for free agency 15 days after the World Series.
"The way it was left with Scott, he was going to decompress and either he or his agent was going to reach out to us," as Sabean was quoted in the Chronicle.

I don't like the sound of that. If signing with the Giants was a priority with Eyre, then Sabean would already have a meeting set up with Eyre and his agent. Instead, it is the old, "Don't call me, we'll call you."

I was hopeful that Eyre would be different because he was pretty open about wanting to return, how much he enjoyed working here, how much he enjoyed being used a lot as a reliever, how much he enjoyed working with Felipe. But now I'm beginning to wonder if he is another David Bell ("Giants fans don't need to worry" said he when he did not pick up his player's option and got out of his Giants contract).

I hope I am wrong because we need a rubber armed guy like him plus even before this breakout year, he was a valuable member of the relief corp. More importantly, we need some vet stability in the bullpen. Benitez and Hawkins are nice but there are still question marks on them and then the rest of the bullpen is either very inexperienced or over experienced, which has its own question mark on the level of performance you can expect out of them.

But perhaps his buds have been pumping him up with "yeah, you can be a closer, you can make the big bucks." Or worse, his agent ("I can get you the big bucks"). And being 33 years old, this could be his first and only chance to become a free agent and have the performance to get the big bucks. The lure has got to be pretty strong. I will keep my fingers crossed.

Autopsy of the 2005 Season: Part IV - Farm System Silver Lining

The silver lining of the 2005 season is that the Giants had a number of prospects come up from the farm system and did pretty well overall, though it started with a bang and generally when downhill from there, except for Cain. We found out a little more about some of the position prospects and a lot more about a number of pitching prospects. The future looks bright for the pitching staff but the forecast is still foggy for the position players.

For Starters...

For the starting rotation, Lowry, after a faulty start, was able to pitch very well down the stretch. Hennessey had moments of spectacular pitching interspersed with moments of wretched pitching; if he can harness it consistently, he and Lowry would make quite a twosome. Then you add Cain on top of that and they could be our main starters for the next 5 seasons and each, at their peak performance, could be a top of the line dominating starter.

However, that's putting the cart before the horse, first they need to establish that they can ptich well consistently over a full season. Lowry and Cain had stretches of dominance while Hennessey would flounder wildly from start to start, virtually - he could not get a stretch of good games beyond 3 starts. But Lowry was like that all season as well until his superlative August. And Hennessey arguably had the best last three starts of the three at the end, which was his best 3 game stretch of the season, so at least he ended the season on an uptrend.

Cain was especially a revelation. Seven starts averaging close to 7 IP, 2.33 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, .151 BAA. Six quality starts using the definition for today: 6+ IP, 3- runs. Three quality starts using the definition when I was first became a fan: 7+ IP, 3- runs. Six starts with 2 or less runs; all seven 3 runs or less. Almost had about 0.5 hits per IP. About his only flaws were his walks - almost equal to his hits, 19 BB vs. 24 H - and relative lack of strikeouts - 30 in 46.1 IP - which was 5.8 K/9, so that resulted in a K/BB of about 1.5, which is good but not great.

Plus, obviously, only seven starts, so perhaps the league hadn't figured him out but may on the second time around. However, there were some encouraging signs on even that front as there were a couple of teams who did face Cain a second time. Colorado didn't figure him out, even though the second game was at their hitter's oriented home, with both starts being about the same in terms of pitching performance. However, Arizona, in their second try and Cain's last start, "battered" him for 6 hits and 2 walks in 6.1 IP with only 3 strikeouts, resulting in his first start with more than 4 hits and more than 2 runs. And that was at SBC, as Cain actually did much better at the BOB (which is now the Chase?) in his first start against them.

In relief, there were a number of bright performances. Munter was the first to come up and do extremely well until his arm gave out; hopefully he will be OK for 2006 and beyond and if so, we could have a new Minton sinkerballer. Taschner came in and did extremely well, and was amazingly good against RHH; we'll see if that continues next season as he was only fair to OK vs. LHH, with a WHIP of 1.38 and BAA of .265. Accardo was the Hennessey of the relief corp, alternating good performances with stinkers.

Correia was more a starter than a reliever, but he did both and did OK overall for a rookie: 4.63 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, .276 BAA, not good but not stinking bad like any of the starters or relievers who were let go earlier in the season. Plus it is basically the same as what Hennessey delivered performance-wise, only there were no huge peaks to wow the fans into thinking he could break through, though he was magnificent against the Mets in his last start of the season. And that performance is just a little worse than Tomko's career line (4.52 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, .267 BAA) so perhaps the Giants are not really that interested in re-signing Tomko (especially if he wants Benson money or even near-Benson money) if they can get a similar performance out of Correia for a much cheaper price.

We also got some value in trades of pitchers. We know the story - Williams and Aardsma for LaTroy Hawkins and Foppert and Torrealba for Randy Winn. Lots of question marks on the deals, Williams and Foppert could come back to haunt us, but Hawkins provided us a lift for two months before tiring or something in September and Winn was a godsend, providing the team a big offensive presence in September after an average August.

Not Well Positioned...

The position players did not do that well overall but gave the team a nice lift early in the season. Jason Ellison and Lance Niekro was going to be just backups at the start of the season but poor performances of starters gave them an opening which they took and did very well in their first month or two. However, by the end of the season they were both exposed for their weaknesses, with Ellison hitting .229/.265/.250/.515 after the All-Star Game, in contrast to the very nice .277/.335/.402/.737 prior to the ASG and Niekro hitting .186/.262/.310/.572 (HR every 56.5AB) after the ASG, nullifying a great .297/.318/.564/.882 (HR every 16.5 AB) pre-ASG. Those collapses led to Sabean getting Randy Winn and Felipe starting JT Snow again. Both at least still had a nice split vs. LHP for the season, Ellison hitting .328/.375/.454/.829 and Niekro hitting .324/.361/.657/1.019 (HR every 12 AB), but was just terrible against RHP, which, unfortunately for them, accounted for about 75 percent of the ABs for the Giants in 2005.

The only other position to get more than a couple of handful or two of games was Todd Linden. Like Ellison and Niekro, he had his moment: after doing poorly in his first stint with the club, he came back and did very well in the first month or so of coming back, hitting .352/.375/.519/.894 in August with a HR every 27 AB, but, like the others, hit the wall and hit only .143/.238/.161/.399 in September with no homers (he also had a hitless 3 AB in October with a walk). Also like the others, he hit LHP most excellently, .300/.364/.467/.830 with a HR every 30 AB, though that was in only 30 AB. And he had the worst OPS of the three vs. RHP at .566 with Ellison slightly ahead at .599 and Niekro squeaking by as well with .587; nothing to be proud of.

Prospects for the Prospects

I'm looking forward to seeing how the prospects turn out. On the whole they contributed nicely to the 2005 team. They came in and gave the team a lift when various veterans could not deliver. The future looks good, mainly, of course, in the pitching staff.

We have a nice set of starters and relievers in the pitching staff and if Sabean does get a top of the line starter to "take some of the pressure off the youngsters" then we could have a superior rotation for 2006. Niekro will probably be platooning with whomever Sabean gets to be a LHH to bat against RHP at 1B (and perhaps in the outfield as well); Niekro mashed LHP and have a history of hitting well in the minors, unlike Ellison, plus he hits for power. We will need someone to be able to play SS (sounds like Alfonzo will be backing up 2B and 3B in 2006 unless he is traded) on the bench but I don't think that Angel Chavez will fit the bill, we will probably get a retread to do that for us, like how we got Neifi and Deivi, someone who is dropped during the off-season or non-tendered (unless we swap Alfonzo for someone who could back up 2B and SS and therefore open up another spot on the roster).

I don't see both Ellison and Linden making the team next season so it could be good-bye for Ellison. I don't see Linden really benefitting from another year in the minors plus, that point is moot if I counted his years right, because I think he is out of options (brought up in August in 2003, brought up in June in 2004, brought up in June in 2005, making three options used up). If he is out of options he either makes the club or is released. And I don't think the Giants are ready to give up on a hitter who hit 30+ homers in the minors quite yet.

I think Ellison is gone because there is only one spot open in the outfield. With Alfonzo as the new uber-utility guy and probably Niekro as the platoon 1B plus a vet backup catcher, that leaves two spots. But with one spot taken for the SS backup, that leaves one spot open for the bench, assuming 13 position players and 12 pitchers, which has been the basic ratio for the Felipe Alou years, and expect to have 3 young pitchers in the rotation so they will probably want to have extra relievers around. That last spot most probably is Linden as the Giants are probably not ready to give up on him as a prospect. Maybe Bonds can work with him during the season and get his hitting more consistent. The only glitch with this plan is that Linden is not a CF by trade, he is just a good defensive corner OF, so the Giants may be playing with a little fire with no true backup CF on the roster.

Plus the Winn trade kind of tells what the Giants think of Ellison long-term. Ellison is either a throw-in on a trade or will be released; I think another team will give him a chance just like how Calvin Murray got picked up by the Rangers even though he didn't do anything to show that he was going to hit. At worse, he can hit LHP well and platoon with someone who can hit RHP well plus be a defensive replacement at all three OF positions and a pinch runner when a slow player is on base late in the game. The only way he can stay is if the Giants are able to trade Alfonzo to another team for someone who can play 2B and SS as a backup.

One player who would fit that bill is Kazuo Matsui of the Mets. He can play both positions and the Mets are not happy with with his play so far, he has shown neither the power nor the speed that he showed in Japan. And he is low on the depth charts for both 2B and SS with the Mets, with Woodward and Cairo looking like a good backup SS and 2B, respectively, for 2006. He will be paid $8M for 2006, the last year in his contract and Alfonzo will be owed $7M in salary and $1M in bonus for a total of $8M as well, in his last year of his contract, so the salaries would be a push.

There are a couple of problems. One problem is Matsui has a limited no-trade clause and I don't know if the Giants are one of the teams blocked or not. Another is why the Mets would want Alfonzo over Matsui, who can play SS whereas Alfonzo plays 3B where Wright is rightfully anchored there now.

The main reasons why that I can think of is that Mets fans loved Alfonzo and perhaps returning home (literally, his family still lives there) will give him the boost he needs to return to his former glory and the Mets don't really have a regular 2B right now. They could use Marlon Anderson there as well as Miguel Cairo and perhaps Woodward, but a revived Alfonzo should easily push all of them back to the bench. Whereas the Mets clearly are fed up with Matsui, to the point where they could be willing to give Alfonzo a try, for old times sake. At worse, the fans at least like Alfonzo whereas they are probably as tired of Matsui as Giants fans are of Alfonzo, and at best, they get a good hitting 2B who plays defense well there (or used to) who can get on base and drive in runs from the bottom of the lineup.


After The Mourning...

No matter how good or bad the Giants play during the season, I go through a period of mourning where I don't give a darn (he's the shortstop) about baseball in general.

I'm starting to come out of the fog so I thought I would take some time during lunch to comment on the playoffs. The playoffs so far has gone about as well as any die-hard Giants and baseball fan would want. ChiSox beat BoSox (Boston got their's last season and Chicago been on the outs for a long time); Angels beat Yankees (Can't buy me luuuuv! or pennants...); Cards beat Padres (sorry, no love lost for divisional opponents, even in playoffs); and Astros beats Braves (they will pay for 1993 until I am happy :^). Vendetta? Yes. But it makes it easier to figure out who to root for and who not to root for. :^)

But now I'm a little conflicted in the LCS. I don't like the Angels, for obvious reasons, but I don't like the ChiSox, for A.J. reasons. So perhaps I should have rooted for Boston. However, I can root for the Astros now that "Truck Wash" Kent moved on to the Dodgers as I am still not happy about the Cardinals robbing us in the Jack Clark trade (Jose Gonzalez, er, Uribe or no Uuuuu-riiiii-bay!) and for 1987 plus for things before my fanaticism, i.e. robbing us in the Orlando Cepeda trade and for beating us out generally in the mid-60's, making us 2nd or worse a number of times.

So my rooting interests right now is for the Angels (A.J. really, really screwed us up with that trade and for that I will never forgive him for being such an ass) to meet the Astros in the World Series and for the Astros to sweep the Angels and for the Angels to play really, really badly, like stinkingly bad.


Autopsy of the 2005 Season: Part III - Alou's Hands Were Tied

Many fans were angry with Alou. They ridiculated his lineups. They blasted his use of the bullpen. They thought he went overboard in responding to racist comments, intended or not by the perpetuator. I think Felipe Alou did about as good as can be expected given the circumstances.

Lack of a Consistent Offense Hamstrung Any Lineup

Lineup contruction was a common complaint. One of the repeated complaints I heard about Alou's lineups was the batting of Feliz. While I agree that Alou is not consistent about his lineups, I think, whether intuitively or consciously, he is doing it in a good way.

The way I see it, after the loss of Bonds plus multiple losses of Moises (and it took him a while to get his stroke back when he returned) plus the impotent offense contribution for large stretches of time for Grissom (all season long), Alfonzo (basically since the first weeks of the season), Vizquel (basically since first month), Feliz (basically for the second half), Ellison (basically once he became a starter), Niekro (basically for the second half), Snow (missing much of middle of season), Matheny (second half of the season, though, at least that was expected of him given his career stats), Tucker (gone most of the season), even Durham (missing at start and end of season). In other words, there were a lot of poor performances all around and to expect Alou to find a great lineup among all that inconsistency is pure folly.

So I don't see much to complain about thought I do have a few complaints. People complained about Feliz batting third, but really, what was Alou suppose to do, he had to bat somebody there, to paraphrase his retort to complaints about his use of the bullpen. Alfonzo and Snow weren't hitting in the mid-part of the season and Niekro was not high OBP guy either. Grissom has just as low a rep as Feliz for OBP plus he was hitting horribly anyhow then when Ellison took over, he was a natural leadoff hitter. Vizquel and Matheny would have been silly choices. And, of course, Moises was batting 4th since Bonds was out.

That left Durham and Feliz as choices to bat 3rd. I can see going with Durham as 3rd instead of Feliz perhaps, but that would kill Moises AB because who is going to challenge him with Feliz batting after him? Durham, at least, would be a more valid threat hitting behind Alou. And whose AB would you rather "waste" with little protection, Durham's or Alou's?

Some also wondered about why Durham was not leading off. Again, nobody was really hitting that well so Felipe wanted Durham's higher offensive potential down lower in the batter order because no one else was delivering the power. Plus when Ellison did well initially, that freed Alou to bat Durham lower. Again, even when Winn was added because Ellison wasn't doing it, lack of power lower in the lineup forced Felipe to bat Durham lower.

My only problem was with Vizquel in the 2 spot all season long. Alou at least saw that Feliz wasn't doing so well at the end and put him down lower in the lineup. I guess the same thing here applied: who else could get on base well enough to hit 2nd? But at the end, perhaps a lineup starting with Winn, Snow, Durham, Bonds, Alou, would have been better overall; Durham at 6th, while protecting Alou to some extent, has his offensive talents wasted hitting down that low, he needs to be higher in the batting order and he hits for more power than Snow does.

In any case, most studies of lineup construction come up with just a few strong conclusions. One is that you need a good leadoff hitter. We, of course, didn't really have one for most of the season until Winn came along. The other, and it varies with the study, says that you should put your best hitter (presumably in terms of OPS) batting 2nd or 3rd - most have said 3rd, but there was one that said 2nd is best. Of course, our best hitters hit 4th and 5th most of the season until Winn came along, and Vizquel stunk up the 2 spot after April and there was a parade of pretenders in the 3 spot most of the season. The last thing is that some of them say that the placement of players among the other positions of the lineup don't seem to matter much.

Bullpen Usage In Question but OK Overall

I think Alou did the best that he could under the circumstances overall. Everyone in the bullpen disappointed this season except for Eyre and Fassero. Even Walker who was passable as a closer but couldn't do the job otherwise.

Some complain about his warming up pitchers needlessly and bringing in pitchers for just a batter or two, then playing the percentages again. But my understanding of how Alou has been running the club is that he has delegated a lot to Righetti, his pitching coach. If so, Righetti should be the pitchers' advocate and letting Alou know who is ready and able and who is not, who is tiring and need rest, etc.

And the pitchers are at fault as well if they are not speaking up. This is their career and livelihood at stake, they need to let the coaches know when they are stretching their limits. Why didn't Brower speak up last season about his usage if it was straining him? Let the coaches know because if you have nothing left, you do the team a disservice because you will go in and either ruin another pitcher's good outing or the team offensive production by pitching batting practice. Eyre understands himself enough to know that he likes frequent usage, the more the better, and thus he is not necessarily looking to close for a team because a closer doesn't get used as frequently; that give me hope that he will stay with the Giants in 2006.

Frankly, I think baseball teams are babying their pitchers too much in general, the pendulum has gone too far in the other direction. I understand that there are things one should take it easy on youngsters. Especially if they have shown that they have arm problems. But there were a lot of pitchers who had long and good careers pitching 250-300 innings regularly when I was growing up. If you baby everybody, then it is a self-fulfilling prophesy that pitchers cannot pitch that many innings because nobody will be pushing the pitchers to pitch that many innings.

Since he is a more old-fashion manager, I'm hoping that he goes with a 4-man rotation like most managers did when I was younger, where the 5th man only comes in depending on the way the schedule works out, so that the 4-man rotation can keep to a steady schedule of regular rest, because we have a good core of Schmidt, Lowry and Cain plus Sabean is targeting getting a top line starter to take the pressure off Lowry and Cain but no strong 5th starter in view for 2006.

Alou's Strategy

To me, Alou manages looking to win every game as long as the team needs the wins. With a good offense and a good pitching staff, which the Giants teams under him has been in prior seasons, the team will be in most games and so he manages accordingly. A win early in the season is always as good as a win later in the season.

So Alou will leave in the starters when he thinks they have enough left in the tank to get the win. And when he thinks he is done, then he goes to the bullpen. And he will play the percentages to try to get that win. So he will sit down players who aren't performing well enough and push them down the totem pole of usage but will still give them another chance later to perform back at his expected performance.

This year because the Giants were losing so many games and playing generally poor baseball for too much of it, fans didn't want to see so much maneuvering and some wanted to see the youngsters play. But, really, despite their poor record, they were always within striking distance of taking the division title, which they proved with their late season move once Barry Bonds returned to the lineup. Had he given up on the season earlier, then the Giants might not have been able to make such a late charge: he had to manage as if Bonds was returning soon for most of the first half before it was realized that Bonds might not even come back this season, then, because the 'Dres refused to take the division by the horns, the Giants always stayed close enough to think that they were just one big win streak away from taking the divisional lead. And they were but fell short.

Another thing I like about Alou, though it took me awhile to appreciate, is that he has trust that the players will eventually play to their past abilities but will not wait too long until they do. Yes, he often hits players in positions that don't make a lot of sense: Neifi and Grissom leadoff, for instance, or even Feliz batting 3rd to take the example from above. But look at how it really turned out: Feliz only batted 21 games there, Snow actually got the majority of the ABs there.

The main point, however, is that any player will usually get a chance to get prove himself at some point in a position that he had not tried before. Yes, it may not make sense at the time, but how are you going to find out about the capabilities of that player for that year without trying him out in a variety of different situations.

This is good for developing young players. You give them some rope, then if they fail, you bring back in the pros into the rotation. But you still play the youngster or professional periodically to give them a chance to prove themselves and if one of them get hot then he would get the ABs until somebody takes over.

I like the fact that he sat down Tomko and that he gave him another chance to redeem himself, not only once but twice; the second time he pitched well for nearly a month. That worked with Alfonzo in 2003, when he was cold for much of the season but then, after the All-Star Game, he hit .296/.372/.474/.847 with 8 homers and 48 RBI in 56 games and 196 AB. He also got good production this year out of youngsters like Ellison and Niekro before they hit the wall, but even then he still played them regularly, and the pitching prospects really benefited from this approach, getting to pitch in critical situations late in the season, despite their lack of MLB experience, despite giving up the winning hit the night(s) before. I am looking forward to our San Jose prospects to advance and be developed under his tutelage.