Half Full 

I'll be out of town when the season reaches the midway point of the calendar, so a few days in advance we present for you El Lefty First-Half Roundup.

Going into the season, most people assumed the Giants had just enough juice to win a weak NL West and get pummeled in the playoffs. A month and a half into the season, most people assumed that Brian Sabean was an idiot, or at least his off-season moves were idiotic. Now, halfway through the season, most people say they knew all along that the Giants had just enough juice to climb back into the race and take a demonstrative if not commanding lead but that they'll still get pummeled in the playoffs.

By "most people" I really mean "me." I knew the Giants had big holes to start the season and, even while assuming that Grissom, Pierzynski and Alfonzo would perform serviceably, I grew more skeptical as March progressed. In mid-May I was a few losses away from calling for a rebuilding process. OK, I did call for it, but I did so in verse, which means I wasn't fully committed to the idea.

So what's going on?

Offensively, nearly everyone is performing as expected. Some slightly better (Durham, who's on track for one of his best years ever; Feliz, who's got more SLG than Rafael Palmeiro), some slightly worse (Alfonzo, who has gotten hot but is still basically a singles hitter who doesn't walk enough to compensate for the lack of power; Pierzynski, ditto). Despite an ungodly hot streak, much of which saved the Giants' bacon when Durham was on the DL for the second time, Michael Tucker is on pace to hit slightly better than his career averages. Granted, that's without adjusting for park factors, but it's safe to assume we're not watching the second coming of Luis Gonzalez here. Tucker's on pace for 15 HRs and a .368 OBP, which would have prompted us all to say "Praise the Lord and pass the butterbeans" if back in March we were told those would be Tucker's season totals.

So with the latest offensive spurt, the Giants have become what I originally expected: a decent offensive team that still needs a home run hitter behind Bonds to make opponents pay for all those walks.

Defensively, there are problems. Every ball hit to the painfully creaky Bonds in left has a better chance of falling than President Bush's 2004 approval ratings. Now that Deivi Cruz has thankfully taken over at shortstop (a move El Lefty promoted back in April), the range of the left side of the infield is a few years and several pounds more than we'd like. Feliz at first makes newbie mistakes, and A.J. behind the plate is less than inspiring. Not a typical Giants flashy leather squad, to be sure.

Pitching: Schmidt, Hermanson and Williams have done exactly as I expected, although J-Rome's 4.50 ERA is a bit disappointing. Tomko's been worse than expected (I was hoping against hope he would do a mini-Schmidt and get his head together at the age of 30), and Rueter's been a lot worse. Three months of ulcer-inducing inconsistency have done nothing to change my preseason assessment: the rotation is Schmidt and the Six-Inning Shower Boys, which, in the absence of Robb Nen, has led to an overworked bullpen.

The stories of the year:

1) The relative good health of Schmidt and Bonds. Yes, both have missed some time, but nothing major. Even when Barry goes homerless for long stretches, he continues to get on base, which means there's always an opportunity to score runs if the 5-6-7 guys do a decent job, and they have in recent weeks. Schmidt has basically equaled an automatic win every five days.

2) The hot streaks of Tucker and Deivi Cruz. On May 16, after the weekend sweep by Pittsburgh, Tucker's OPS was .685. On May 31, after the Giants won their 10th game in a row, it was .798. It rose to a high of .881 before he started falling back to earth in the second half of June. By then, Deivi Cruz was getting all jiggy and stuff. He's gotten huge hits, especially the 5-for-5 night Wednesday, the two-run single Thursday against the L.A. Meltdowns and the 3-run dong off Barry Zito on Friday. I'm not saying these guys have carried the Giants on their shoulders, but in a lineup that achingly needs someone other than Bonds to get on base and drive in runs, these two hot streaks have stood out during the Giants mad comeback dash.

3) Matt Herges. He's blown a few saves. He's collected some ugly numbers. He's not as good as Tim Worrell, but he's better than Arthur Rhodes. He's gotten by with one pitch: a nasty sinker that tails back over the corner. Nothing else has consistently worked for him this year. If he finds his curve and change, he'll be much better in the second half.

4) Figuring out Feliz. We know he's not a good number-five hitter. We know that he likes fastballs and hanging sliders. He's shown glimmers of learning the strike zone, but his OBP remains awful, and one could make a lot of money sitting in bars and announcing to people who don't know much baseball, "Betcha $20 this guy swings at the next pitch." The next pitch being, of course, the first one of the at-bat. But mostly what we've figured out is that Pedro is a very useful everyday player as long as he's not counted on as a main run producer or The Barry Protector. Look ahead to 2005: Feliz is the SS and Ransom is the backup and late defensive replacement. (More on this in my next post.)

What's ahead:

The two biggest prizes on the trading block, Carlos Beltran and Freddie Garcia, are now off the block. Smart move by both the Astros and White Sox, not only in getting these rent-a-players for an extra month, but also in that if the teams fall flat, they still have time to turn around and deal their new acquisitions before July 31. (Side note: the White Sox have certainly improved their starting pitching, but no one's really noted that in giving up Miguel Olivo and handing the catching job to Sandy Alomar Jr and Ben Davis, they've also created a fairly big hole in their lineup. The good ship USS Mariner has some remarkably bubbly comments on how good the trade was for the M's.)

Neither trade bothers me too much, in that I think there are others Sabean can snag to fill their pressing needs: another outfield bat (Steve Finley, J.D. Drew, Matt Lawton, perhaps someone who can also play first base, a la Matt Stairs or Kevin Millar) and a starting pitcher. It won't be easy: the Giants have two big holes to fill, plus some cheap bullpen help to find, without giving up too many prime prospects.

All this to say, the Giants in the past six weeks have done a great job of filling in, coming through, scratching and clawing, looking sharp, and Humming a lot of Baby. But unless there's some magic in Brett Tomko's jockstrap that we don't know about and Edgardo Alfonzo decides to do his best Frank Howard impression for the next three months, it'll take a couple of snazzy trades to make us believe come October that this year, it's the Giants' turn to shock the Yankees and make George Steinbrenner's nosehairs curl.


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