The Scoop on Armando 

Looks like Armando Benitez is coming to town. Henry Schulman of the Chron got the scoop. 3 years, $21.5 million. More details to follow.

**Tuesday night update: Here are the money details from the AP:

Benitez gets a $7.4 million signing bonus, of which $1.6 million is payable in 2005, $2.6 million in 2006, $1.6 million in 2008 and $1.6 million in 2009. Benitez gets salaries of $2.5 million in 2005, $4 million in 2006 and $7.6 million in 2007.

So the Giants are getting a premier closer for $4.1 million this year. That's less than the Tigers are paying Troy Percival. Given the way the Giants have spread out the cash, this makes perfect sense. On paper, a brilliant move.

A couple more thoughts on Benitez:

Last year he absolutely dominated. He's not striking out as many batters as he used to; in fact, his K/9 rate in 2004 (8.01) was the lowest in his career. But he also posted his career-low in OPS against (.475). Against him, batters only reached base 21.8% of the time and slugged a measly .257. To Benitez, the National League looked like Neifi Perez with a peg leg.

The declining K-rate and stellar OPS-against can mean a couple things: 1) Benitez played in a park where home runs died on the warning track, gappers were chased down by speedy outfielders, and hard-hit grounders were gobbled up by Gold-Glove infielders. Or 2) Benitez is no longer a brain-dead heaver, as Kruk likes to say. He actually knows how to get guys out with one or two pitches. The evidence supports #2: Benitez's pitches per plate appearance in 2004 dropped under 4 for the first time in his career (3.9), and his pitch count per inning (14.8) showed not just a career low but a dramatic drop from his previous low, 16.7 in 1999, and from his career average, 17.2.

Still, he could have had some help from Florida's defense and ballpark, no?

It doesn't seem so: He gave up more homers in Florida (5) than on the road (1) in roughly the same number of at-bats (122 to 115). Florida made relatively few errors in 2004 -- 86 was tied for third-fewest in MLB. They were 22nd in range factor but 5th in zone rating, which means, I think, that they don't get to tons of balls, but they catch the ones they get to. That seems reasonable for a team with plodders such as Mike Lowell at 3B and Jeff Conine and Miguel Cabrera in the outfield corners. Beyond their great double-play combo of A-Gonz and Castillo and the speedy Pierre in CF, the Marlins weren't a team to chase down a bunch of pitchers' mistakes.

Another amazing stat for a man reviled for his beanball ways: zero hit batsmen in 2004.

Fewer walks, fewer strikeouts, fewer baserunners, and fewer extra base hits: it appears that Benitez is maturing at the right time, and that the Giants, barring injury, have made an excellent pick-up.



Tonight's Guest Editor: Randy "Va." Wolf 

ESPN.com has holes in its baseball coverage, to be sure, and I'm a lot less devoted since Rob Neyer went behind the $7-a-month curtain, but every once in a while they make this old English major smile, such as with this headline:

A room of their own: Blue Jays buy SkyDome




After our pre-preview of the Giants third-base situation, a spirited debate ensued in the comments box about Edgardo Alfonzo's value. In a perfect world, how much would the Giants pay him? More realistically, how much of his salary would the Giants have to eat in order to trade him? Some said he was really worth $2 to $3 million, some said even less.

Let's see if we can come up with a solid answer.

Of 23 ML 3rd basemen who qualified for the batting title in 2004, Fonzie ranked:

- 15th in OBP
- 20th in SLG
- 15th in OPS

Offensively, it's fair to say that in 2004 he was in the bottom third of starting third basemen. I haven't adjusted for park factor, but Pac Bell was actually a decent hitter's park in 2004. I don't think we can attribute Fonzie's poor showing to his home schedule.

In terms of salary, however, Fonzie's $6.5 million tied for fourth place with Mike Lowell. With the exceptions of Joe Randa ($3.25 M) and Tony Batista ($1.5 M), the eight 3Bs with worse OPS's than Fonzie all made under $1 million in 2004.

This isn't boding well for El Fonzogardo, but I'd like to switch to a different measuring stick: VORP, or value over replacement player. (Or, as Baseball Prospectus defines it: "The number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances.")

The top third-base VORP in 2004 was Adrian Beltre with 89.1. (Rounding out the top five: Scott Rolen, 73.7; Melvin Mora, 73.6; A-Rod, 62.3, and Aramis Ramirez, 59.6.)

The average 2004 VORP among the 23 qualifying starters at third base: 34.

Fonzie's 2004 VORP: 17.9.

The average 2004 salary among the 23 starters: $4.06 M.

Fonzie's 2004 salary: $6.5 M.

This is probably a crude way to measure value, but if you take the total VORP points of these 23 starters and divide by the total millions they earned in 2004, you get an average of dollars per point of VORP.

Thus: Major league owners paid these third sackers $119,000 per value point. That means if Fonzie were paid according to his VORP, he should have earned $2.13 million in 2004. Instead, he made $6.5 million, or $363,000 per value point. That's quite a premium, as we shall see.

Who were the best VORP buys at third base in 2004?

The best ratios come from young superstars who haven't been around enough to crack $1 million in salary. Hank Blalock of Texas, for example, made $550K and scored 40.2 VORP points, or $14,000 per VORP point. Quality on the cheap! (But not for long.)

Even cheaper this year, however, were older guys who took a while to break in. The bang-for-your-VORP-buck winner is Casey Blake of Cleveland, who earned the league minimum and scored 36.5 VORP points with a 28-homer, 36-double year. That's $9,500 per VORP point. And the guy's 31 years old. Dumpster diving at its finest!

The best bargain among the proven veterans was Melvin Mora, a six-year veteran who had his finest season at the age of 32. He earned $2.33 million and led the American League in third-base VORP with 73.6 points, or about $30,000 per value point. Adrian Beltre clocked in around $50,000 per point; the Dodgers probably got the best value from him that he'll ever provide.

Was Fonzie's $363,000 per point the worst value? The other obvious candidate for bloated, inefficient salary is A-Rod, whose $21.7 million salary meant he earned $348,000 per value point. But the worst must be Toronto's Eric Hinske, who actually scored negative VORP in 2004 while earning $900,000. That means he performed worse than your average warm body brought up from AAA but was paid three times as much.

So let's get back to the main question: How much of Fonzie's salary might the Giants have to eat to trade him?

Unfortunately, his salary goes up next year to $7.5 million, and in 2006 to $8 million. He was worth about a third of what he was paid in 2004 (and 2003, just by eyeballing the numbers), let's assume any trade talk will start with the Giants swallowing $10 million over the next two years.



Couldn't Call It Unexpected  

TheGiants season ticket renewal form just arrived in the mail. Seats in the 1-3-8 are now $15 each, quite a bargain compared to the cost of buying the seats individually at $17 a pop weekdays and $22 for weekend games. Is this the first year the Giants have used the two-tier pricing system for weekday/weekend games? I hadn't noticed that before.

The priciest seat in the house is $77 for an individual weekend "premium field club" ticket. That's still cheaper than the most expensive seat at Fenway, which has the highest prices in baseball. The disparity is most obvious at the bottom of the price rung: a Pac Bell SRO ticket is $10/$12, but at Fenway it's $20.

Here's an interesting business-of-baseball tidbit from a wire article on Fenway's remodeled field:

The base of the old field was dirt. The new one will have a drainage system topped by 3 inches of gravel and 9 inches of sand through which the water can seep. Lucchino said the estimated cost of $1 million to $1.5 million could be recouped by avoiding just one rainout.



2005 Giants Pre-Preview: Third Base 

(Fifth in a series. Other positions: Shortstop. Second base. First base. Catcher.)

The incumbents

Edgardo Alfonzo
Age: Turned 31 on Nov. 8
relevant stats
*2004 innings played at 3B: 1081 (122 games)
*career OPS: .798
*2004 OPS: .757 (11 HRs, 26 doubles, 46 BBs, in 519 ABs)
*2005 salary: $7.5 million

Pedro Feliz

Age: Turns 30 on Apr. 27
relevant stats
*lifetime 216 K/49 BB
*2004 innings played at 3B: 339 (51 games)
*career OPS: .736
*2004 OPS: .790 (22 HR, 84 RBI, .305 OBP, .485 SLG, 33 doubles, 23 BBs in 503 ABs)
*2005 salary: arbitration eligible, estimated $2 M

Free agent third basemen
Glaus, Beltre, Randa, Koskie, Batista.

In the minors
Cervenak, Dallimore, Niekro (primarily a 1B)


El Lefty:

One number stands out: 7.5. It is not only the number of seconds it takes Edgardo Alfonzo to take three steps left as the ball bounces through into left field, it is also the millions of dollars he is due in 2005. That's a lot of seconds. That's a lot of millions.

When the Giants signed Fonzie, we (meaning me and anyone who cared enough to listen to me) agreed that it would be great if he could approach those halcyon Shea days in 1999-2000, days of playing every day, days of hitting lots of home runs and putting up numbers like this line from 2000 -- .324 AVG / .425 OBP / .542 SLG -- days of actually looking young and spry in the field, days before....

The Back Injury.

Alfonzo is no longer a power threat unless you hang an off-speed pitch, and he moves stiffly in the field. The big danger signing him was that his back wasn't fully healed, but according to this classic blow-by-blow account of the December 2002 negotiations, the Red Sox and Padres were also willing to take the plunge. But did the Giants agree not to make Alfonzo submit to a physical? If the report is true, that may be Brian Sabean's worst legacy as Giants' GM. Worse than Neifi's contract. Worse than the weird "we-don't-need-no-stinkin'-draft-picks" philosophy. Worse than...Got any other candidates?

Now the Giants find themselves with $15 million more to pay Fonzie in 2005-06, which makes him hard to trade. But believe you me, Sabean will try. No doubt whenever a GM calls to inquire about Matt Cain (or Merkin Valdez or David Aardsma), Sabean and Coletti are instructed to say, "Would you like a hot heaping helping of Fonzie with that? No? How about a side of Rueter Slaw? Chef's special! No? Well, sorry, we seem to be all out of Cain today."

At least the Giants didn't sign Jason Giambi.

If they trade Alfonzo, Feliz will play everyday at third base. But that leaves us wondering who will play first base against lefties? Hopefully not J.T. Snow. His resurgence last year took place after his bum knee was scoped, but no doubt a strict left-right platoon helped, too. In the trade-Alfonzo scenario, the Giants need to make sure they have a proven masher of lefties to back up Snow and not take up much room on the payroll.

Elbo adds:

If the A’s could unload Terrence Long last winter, anything’s possible, but I expect to see more of the Fonz at 3B throughout the coming season and into 2006. If the Giants are out of the race, I could see a contending team adding him as a bench player and veteran pinch hitter for the stretch drive, but that’s about it.

I’ve defended Alfonzo more than I’ve jeered him, but it’s time for me to admit that his contract is near-catastrophic. But the alternative -- more Pedro -- is just as unsatisfying.



Closer Too Fine 

Or too expensive, as the case may be. Troy Percival has signed with the Detroit Tigers for $12 million over two years. Scratch him off the Giants' list, but it seemed pretty obvious that they weren't going to go heavily after Percival or Armando Benitez. As I mentioned yesterday, I think Hermanson can be a good if not dominant closer, especially with a strong supporting cast in the bullpen and enough rest. Who knows? He may be on the Dennis Eckersley career path, where a faltering career in the starting rotation gets its second wind in the bullpen. (There's something a bit disturbing about that phrase, "second wind in the bullpen," but I'll move on.)

The Percival signing leaves open the possibility that Les Tigres will trade Ugueth Urbina, who makes a reasonable $4 million in 2005. There were rumors, spread mostly by Peter Gammons, that the Giants wanted him at the trade deadline this summer but didn't want to part with top pitching prospect Matt Cain.

Who would you rather have closing: Ugie or Hermanson?




* If you haven't seen the Across the Seams summary of the Sabean-Magowan chalk talk held recently for season ticket holders, please read it. It sheds some light on off-season strategy and the often infuriating personalities in the Giants' front office. My favorite bit: Sabean admitted he screwed up last year by 1) expecting Robb Nen to be healthy and 2) misjudging Joe Nathan's potential.

* Rumors: Thanks in part to a goofy ESPN chart that predicted where the top 50 free agents would land, there's lots of chatter about Jermaine Dye moving across the Bay. You have to wonder if Dye's great numbers in KC -- two years of .880 and .951 OPS -- were his high-water mark because of hitting-friendly Kaufmann Stadium and good health, which he hasn't really had for a while. Last year he posted serviceable numbers with Oakland, but really not much better than Marquis Grissom.

* The Hermanator: The Giants are apparently working on a deal to bring Hermanson back. Probably a good idea if it's not expensive. (Duh.) If the opportunity arises to get a better closer, Hermanson could move back to the starting rotation. This flexibility would allow the Giants to trade a starting pitcher for a closer (Noah Lowry for Eddie Guardado? Jerome Williams for Octavio Dotel?) and not have a gaping hole in the rotation. Or simply let Hermanson be closer. His worst moment, in the final series at L.A., came after working in every game for a week. With better rest and more experience in the role -- and a team that had stronger starting pitching -- he could be more than good enough. It's a small sample size, but his numbers as a reliever last year were encouraging: more than 1 K/IP, only 2 HR/27 IP. Take away the L.A. meltdown of 2/3 IP and 4 ER, and his relief numbers look quite good.

* Reviewing the assorted punditry re. the Vizquel signing, one would think Omar had changed his name to Oscar and grown a giant, man-eating 'fro, because everyone's saying what a gamble he is.



MVP on the Line 

It seems from John Shea's article that was just posted online, Shea simply called Barry Bonds's home in Beverly Hills, and Barry answered. Is he listed???



Omar? Oh My. 

MONDAY A.M. UPDATE: the terms of Vizquel's contract, from today's Chron:

"Vizquel is the first free agent to change teams this offseason and will get $2.5 million in 2005, $4 million in 2006, $4 million in 2007 and deferred payments of $1 million in 2008 and $750,000 in 2009. When the Indians declined his $5 million option for 2005, making him a free agent, there was outrage in Cleveland, where he was a fan favorite."

Thoughts: Regardless of what you think of the length of the contract, $2.5 M in 2005 for a premiere defensive shortstop is outstanding. As Elbo likes to remind us, defense is the new OPS.


Hot off the wires, ladies and germs: the Giants have signed Omar Vizquel to a 3-year, $12.25 million deal. Vizquel is only the second MLB player to sign as a free agent since the signing period began, meaning the Giants must have known from the get-go that Vizquel was their man and made an offer he couldn't refuse. No doubt the 37-year-old heard "three years" and grabbed for the nearest writing implement.

That's a long commitment for an old guy who plays a young man's position. Jeff Fletcher of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported in this morning's edition that the White Sox had offered Vizquel $10 million for two years, so it seems the Giants were willing to tack on the extra year to get their guy.

As for the money, the figure was given anonymously to the Associated Press. No word yet on how the cash will be broken down over the life of the contract.
The vitals on Vizquel:

Age: Turns 38 on April 24.
2004 stats: .291 BA / .353 OBP / .388 SLG
2004 stats vs LHP (190 ABs): .258 / .306 / .358
2004 stats vs RHP (377 ABs): .308 / .377 / .403

With a good knack for getting on base and enough speed to avoid a lot of double plays, Vizquel seems to slot nicely into the number-two lineup position behind Durham. He was especially effective last year versus righties, although don't expect much extra-base power from either side of the plate.

Don't expect a strict platoon split, either. For the last three years, Deivi Cruz has hit only marginally better against lefties than righties (that is to say, not well in either case), and actually hit worse against lefties in 2004.

On defense, Vizquel is a huge upgrade over Cruz, which Giants pitchers will no doubt love to hear. Anecdotal reports say he's lost a step over the years -- he's no Cabrera or Renteria, but still damn good.

I still remember the day the Giants signed Edgardo Alfonzo under similar circumstances: A proven veteran coming off a bounce-back year from an injury year, but with lingering doubts (in Alfonzo's case, about his health; in Vizquel's case, his age). I remember thinking, Wow, that's a lot of money and years for a guy with a bad back.

Thus the big question: is three years too much for Vizquel, a soon-to-be 38-year-old shortstop who will play out the last year of his contract at the age of 40? Vizquel was healthy in 2004 and turned in a solid if not spectacular offensive season. But he had the injury bug in 2003 and only played 64 games.

Why so willing to tack on the third year to keep him from the White Sox? Perhaps Sabean heard the first round of offers for Nomah, Renteria and Cabrera and realized his bank would be busted by pursuing one of them. Perhaps the contract is backloaded to 2007, i.e., post-Bonds, when the Giants have very little money committed.

What I think of this deal is based on how those dollars are structured and, like so much of last winter's maneuvers, on who else the Giants nab.

So welcome, Omar. May your glove be golden once again and your bat slap many balls gapward in your new spacious environs.



2005 Giants Pre-Preview: Shortstop 

(Fourth in a series. Other positions: Second base. First base. Catcher.)

The incumbents

Deivi Cruz
Age: Turned 32 on Nov. 6
relevant stats
*2004 innings played: 800 (104 games)
*Career OPS: .682
*2004 OPS: .753 (7 HRs, 30 doubles, 17 BBs)
*2005 salary: $800,000, plus potential incentives

Free agent shortstops
Cabrera, Renteria, Garciaparra, Vizquel, Larkin, Reese, Valentin, Guzman, Chris Gomez, R. Martinez, Clayton, Vizcaino, Counsell, Aurilia, A. Gonzalez (the ex-Cub).

In the minors
Cody "Don't pay the" Ransom, "It just encourages more hostage-taking."


El Lefty:

Not long ago, Deivi Cruz was only mentionable in the same breath with Neifi Perez, usually when answering the question, "Which everyday players have the worst OPS in the majors?" N-F and D-V were often in the bottom five. But in 2004 he rose from the scrap heap to post what was nearly his best offensive year ever.

Be aware, though, that he only played about two-thirds of a season. You can read that in two ways: 1) with a larger sample size he would have sunk to his usual Deiviness of sub-.300 OBP and sub-.400 SLG; or 2) over a full season he would have posted career highs in home runs and walks.

His defense? Well, he makes the plays he gets to. But you know it's bad when Felipe Alou, who prefers not to air complaints through the media, admits to the press that Deivi's range is limited.

Now he's signed for next year, at a price that, if it bought a season's worth of his 2004 offensive numbers, would be a bargain indeed.

But no one's really counting on that. Giants' fans are expecting that one of the first few names from the free agent list above will soon be stitched onto a gray uniform with black and orange trim. Early sentiment seems to be leaning toward Cabrera, perhaps because of the aura of the Red Sox World Series victory and Cabrera's ties to Felipe via the Expos. He'll never be an offensive powerhouse, but he's capable of 15 HRs, a decent OBP, and lots of doubles. Add that to what's generally considered a fine glove, and you've got a shortstop likely to demand $7-8 million a year. (He made $6 million in 2004.) But with a lot of shortstops on the market this year, it's possible that Cabrera may not get what he asks for.

With all the free agent speculation at shortstop, no one's said much about trade possibilities. Looking at the list of everyone who played SS in 2004, I'll throw a couple names into the mix:

Jimmy Rollins: the Phils seem perpetually disappointed with J-Roll, especially as a leadoff hitter, but he seems to have put it back together this year with a Ray Durham-ish line of .289/.348/.455, including 14 HRs, 43 doubles, 12 triples and 30 of 39 stolen bases.

Michael Young: The Rangers certainly weren't disappointed with Young, who had a great year taking over for A-Rod at short. He's not as young as Rollins -- 28 compared to 25 -- so the question is whether 2004 was his high-water mark, and whether he's a cornerstone to build around. Because of his age, the Rangers' asking price may not be sky-high.

Either of these guys, or perhaps Russ Adams, only 24 and anointed the Blue Jays' starter next year, could probably be pried away for a blue-chip pitcher. The Rangers in particular can afford to part with Young, given all the other offense on that team. An offer of a potential top-of-rotation starter may be just what the Rangers need. Look for the Giants to trade Matt Cain or Merkin Valdez, if not for a shortstop then in some other unexpected deal, a la the Pierzynski trade last winter.

El Lefty recommends:

If the Giants go the free agent route, don't overpay. Garciaparra is an injury-riddled decline waiting to happen; Renteria is incredibly solid but not a $8-10 M a year guy, and Cabrera is a great supporting actor, not a starring role.

Instead, go get Jimmy Rollins. He's young, he's fast, he's from Oaktown, he's got some flash to his game, and he'd be the Giants shortstop and leadoff hitter for years to come. Trade Jerome Williams. The Phillies are likely to lose Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood, which leaves Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers as their rotation anchors. If they don't want Jerome, ask if they want Matt Cain or Merkin Valdez. (Hey, how about Brett Tomko!) Whatever the case, come up with a combo that they want.

Elbo adds:

Well whaddaya know – a quick peek at Deivi Cruz’s and Orlando Cabrera’s player cards at Baseball-Reference.com reveals that each is the most similar player to the other. How about that! (Second most similar to Cruz? Neifi Perez, of course.)

Deivi Cruz isn’t really anyone’s favorite Giant, but he got the job done this year. He did produce 30 doubles –- most of them down the left field line, as I recall -– but only 7 homers, after muscling 14 longballs for Baltimore in 2003. Those doubles kept his SLG out of the toilet, and contributed to his sort-of-respectable .322 OBP. But I doubt he was anyone’s favorite Oriole after posting an abysmal .269 OBP in ought-three, and the chances of him regressing to that territory are probably greater than or equal to his chances of repeating his modest successes in 2004.

I’d love to have Jimmy Rollins on the team, but it’s hard to imagine the Phillies dealing a 26-year-old shortstop for whom they have no replacement. I think the Rangers absolutely love Michael Young, and I really doubt they’ll move him.

As for O-Cab, will he really make $8 million this year? The Red Sox Mystique (!) notwithstanding, I think almost everyone thought he was overpaid at $6 million this year, despite being due a raise following his very solid 2003 campaign. Still, you’d have to commit to a multi-year deal to get him, and I’m afraid the risks are just a little too high for me to be comfortable with that.

Shortstop may be one position where the Giants elect to save, save, save their money, and stick with Cruz for less than $1 million. I can’t say I’d blame them if they did.



Beltway Boondoggle? 

The most fascinating story of the winter is shaping up to be the Montreal Expos' move to Washington. After the stadium agreement seemed to be greased up and on its way to passage (built mostly with public funds), D.C. city council chairwoman Linda Cropp has finally decided to throw some sand into the vaseline.

On an almost daily basis she's come up with new ways to stall, derail, deride and confuse, which I reluctantly admire, even though others most certainly do not. The idea of taxpayer-funded ballparks is distasteful; in this day and age it's a civic outrage. So whatever shenanigans Cropp foists upon Mayor Williams, even if she ends up looking flip-floppingly foolish, are worth the attention the process sheds on the done-deal arrogance of MLB.

Would a new stadium along the Anacostia River bring a reflowering of civic life to a blighted neighborhood, as the Post's Michael Wilbon claims? Maybe, maybe not. There are arguments on each side. (Slight tangent: did Pac Bell revitalize the South of Market/China Basin area? It certainly hasn't hurt, but that neighborhood has been the target of massive, long-term urban planning. It might have taken a wee bit longer, but without the ballpark it would no doubt still be booming.)

In this country, large outflows of public money that directly benefit people who are already extremely rich should be the subject of open debate. It often doesn't happen that way. The D.C. mayor and MLB will scream and yell that this is the opportunity of a lifetime and there's no time to waste, but I don't see how D.C. could get worse if the ballpark deal falls through.

If I were a D.C. citizen and/or businessman about to have my taxes raised, I would much rather keep the Expos in Montreal for another year, even risk losing them to Las Vegas or Norfolk, Va., or Great Falls, Montana, than have a corporate welfare subsidy rammed down my throat.

I'll say it again and again: crap on Peter Magowan and his alleged skinflintedness all you want, but he never asked the people of San Francisco to subsidize his rich man's fantasyland.



Eyewitness Defense 

Veteran baseball stathead Tangotiger is asking readers to rate major league defenders not according to Zone Ratings or Range Factors or other SABRliciousness -- just your own sophisticated subjectivity. There's a page for each team, including the Giants. I can't wait to see the results.

More news and notes to start the week:

* This winter, whenever I get steamed at Giants' management for only 91 wins in 2004...or for not putting together a World Champion team (so far) with one of the best players in history...or for encouraging people to bring their laptops to games by making Pac Bell a wi-fi hot spot...I'll simply think to myself, "You know, self, for sheer incompetence and embarrassment and cautionary tales re. selling out for one World Series ring, it could be a hell of a lot worse."

* The rumors of the Giants' free-agent interest have been limited to Troy Percival, Moises Alou, and a shortstop. The chatter is most defined by whom they can't afford: Pedro, Beltran, Renteria, Nomah, Beltre. Before we start moaning about the lack of a top-line free agent coming aboard, check out this comparison of 2004 statistics:

Pitcher A: 16-7 / 221.1 IP / 214 H / 72 BB / 152 K / 24 HR / 4.07 ERA
Pitcher B: 16-11 / 212.2 IP / 218 H / 33 BB / 151 K / 35 HR / 4.02 ERA

Pitcher A worked for the Giants; Pitcher B almost worked for the Giants but signed with the Cubs.

Pitcher B, like duh, is Greg Maddux. Pitcher A is the two-headed monster of Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry, who more or less tag-teamed on the roster because of Williams's second-half injury.

Despite the two eerily similar stat lines, the arc of each season was different in one crucial regard. Down the stretch, as the Cubs raced toward their all-but-anointed wild card berth, Maddux faltered. In his final six starts, he gave up 6 runs three times, 5 runs once, three runs once, and shut out Montreal. His Sept./Oct. ERA was 5.55. In Sept./Oct., Noah Lowry's five starts went like this: six runs, one run, one run, one run, three runs. ERA: 3.21. Plus, Jerome Williams came off the DL to make one crucial late-September start: 7 IP, one run against San Diego.

This isn't to argue that expensive free agents are always replaceable with raw talent from the minor leagues. And it's not to say that by signing Maddux, the Giants wouldn't have had the services of Williams/Lowry. But not signing Greg Maddux was the least of the Giants' problems.

Still not convinced?

How much would you pay for this overweight, overrated, just plain ugly stat line:

208.1 IP / 215 H / 71 BB / 158 K / 38 HR / 5.01 ERA

$11 million? Your name must be Arte Moreno.



It Can't Come Soon Enough 

The Giants have posted their tentative 2005 schedule. Some highlights:

Apr. 5: Opening day at home vs. LA.

May 6-8: The Washington Neocons come to town. Word has it they're prepared to rack up huge deficits, as long as their fans trust that it's all God's will.

May 20-26: The annual home-and-away series with Oakland.

June 7-19: Interleague extravaganza. Home vs. KC and Cleveland, away vs. Minnesota and Detroit.

September 15-18: Four games at home vs. LA. (Series of the year?)

Sept. 30 - Oct. 2: Final series of the year, home vs. Arizona. Before this series, however, the Giants play 10 straight on the road in Washington, Colorado and San Diego. Tough stretch if the race goes down to the wire.




That's the word of the day, or it was yesterday, when Brian Sabean explained why he exercised options on Brett Tomko, Marquis Grissom, J.T. Snow, and signed Deivi Cruz to a $800,000 contract with $300,000 in incentives. Sabean reportedly has also told Cruz and Grissom that he'll continue to look for a front-line center fielder and shortstop, and they're OK with that.

I have no grand objections. Cruz should not be the starting shortstop, but he's good insurance in case the Giants' efforts elsewhere don't pan out. If Sabean whiffs on the big free agents and can't make a trade, the Giants would go into spring training with Cruz and Feliz as stopgap options. If the Giants sign a higher-profile shortstop, Cruz could be traded or groomed to be a super-utility/PH type. He didn't seem to cotton to second base last year, but with a little more mental preparation and a ton of grounders in spring training, he would probably do OK anywhere on the infield.

Tomko certainly earned another shot with his great stretch run and clutch pitching against the Dodgers. I've seen arguments that much of his late 2004 success was at the expense of bottom-feeding teams, but that's not really fair. He also pitched excellent games against tough teams on the road -- Philly, Florida and LA come immediately to mind. If he posts similar overall numbers to 2004, his 2005 salary ($2.65 M) would be very comfortable for the Giants.

Henry Schulman points out in today's Chron that the Giants get all this continuity on the cheap: only $8.2 million for four veteran players who had great years last year. But if they end up playing sparingly, does that price really seem so cheap?

Grissom's $2.75M is a tad expensive for a platoon outfielder, which is what he'd become if the Giants get a top-notch CF. (I assume Grip would slide to right and platoon with Tucker.) It's even more expensive when you figure Mohr could do a better defensive job and a similar offensive job (less power, more OBP) for less than a million.

Same argument with Snow, although his defense is so good that it's almost worth $2 million to have him as an occasional starter and late-inning defensive replacement. That's what he'd be if the Giants can't trade Alfonzo, and Feliz ends up most of the time at first base.

Quibbles aside, I think these are the right moves. Let's give Sabean credit twice-over: once last winter for the original Snow, Grissom, and Tomko contracts and their cheap second-year options, and once now for getting these guys locked in early and (according to Schulman's report) willing to accept subordinate roles, if that's how it shakes out.



2005 Giants Pre-Preview: Second Base 

(Third in a series. Other positions: Catcher. First base.)

The incumbents

Ray Durham
Age: Turns 33 on Nov. 30
relevant stats
*2004 innings played: 990 (118 games)
*career OPS: .789
*2004 OPS: .848 (17 HRs, 28 doubles, 57 BBs, 10 of 14 SBs)
*2005 salary: $6.5 M (or $7M)

Dick Cheney
Age: Turns 64 on Jan. 30
relevant stats
*Crawls out from under bridge in 2.5 seconds
*Eats 1 billy goat per month
*6.4 scowls per week
*Orders invasion of foreign country once every two years
*Drafts personally avoided: 2
*2004 salary: Depends on Halliburton stock price

Free agent second basemen
Reese, Alomar, Cairo, E. Wilson, McLemore, Alexander, Grudzielanek, T. Walker, Kent, J. Hernandez, Polanco, Womack.

In the minors
Athas, Dallimore, Doster, Ransom


El Lefty

A running joke between me and Elbo: His Imperial Barry is sitting at His End of the bench on a chilly S.F. summer night and realizes he needs someone to talk to. "Hey, Marquis, how old is Ray Durham?" His Barryness asks. "Is he old enough to come down here and sit by me? Go ask Ray how old he is."

We're glad you asked, Barry. Ray Durham will be 33 in a month. Until he turned 31, Durham rarely missed a game and was one of the rare major league leadoff hitters with good speed, good base-stealing ability, and good power. From 1998 through 2002, Ray-Ray averaged 17 homers and 29 steals (versus 10 caught stealings) per year. How good is that? How about Joe-Morgan good, or Craig-Biggio good? (Click here and scroll down to the "Similar Batters" category.)

Hey, that's pretty good! Is that $7 million worth of good? Because that's about how much Ray will earn next year and the year after if his option kicks in. Put in terms of Biggio, Morgan, and Johnny Damon, the answer is yes, if Ray does what he did this year -- post a career-high slugging percentage (.484) and get on base at a very respectable clip (.364). (The decreased stolen bases are less consequential, although as Dave Roberts and Carlos Beltran demonstrated in the LCSes, it's nice when a guy can guarantee a stolen base in a critical situation.)

But if Ray plays in only three quarters of the Giants games, as he did this year, or fewer as he did in 2003, his salary starts to teeter on the edge of liability.

That's where Barry's question about Ray's age comes into focus. Are those balky hamstrings and quads going to improve in his mid-30s? Optimists may ask, "Why not?"

After all, Marquis Grissom has achieved relative health in his late thirties, perhaps because he's hanging out with Barry. (Ahem.) The 39-year-old Steve Finley gallops around center field like a college wide-out who knows that kegs and cheerleaders await his return to the frat house every Saturday night. Ray, too, could find a second wind, especially under the tutelage of Stan Conte, who runs a consistently healthy ship.

Defensively, Durham is no Joe Morgan. In 2004 he caused a lot of tense moments with 16 errors and a weird double-clutch throwing tic that conjured the ghosts of Sax and Knoblauch. I don't profess to understand defensive ratings, so I'll just toss out a couple comparisons:

In 2004, Durham had the 4th best range factor among qualified ML 2Bs behind Orlando Hudson, Aaron Miles and Alfonso Soriano. He also had the third-worst zone rating in the same group, ahead only of Miguel Cairo and Bret Boone. If anyone wants to tell me what this signifies, I'm all ears.

In 2004 Neifi Perez was Ray's backup until the Giants could no longer bear his swinging bunts and bow-legged gait. Then Cody Ransom stepped in and became the world's sorriest defensive replacement. With Ray's injury record the past couple years, whom the Giants sign as a backup infielder is important. It's possible they'll go try to convince Omar Vizquel or Barry Larkin to sign as super-utility guys, playing a lot of short and backing up Ray when necessary.

El Lefty recommends

Making sure Ray is healthy so he can lead off at least 150 games is a top priority. If he's running on all gears offensively, the Giants can tolerate his mediocre defense. However, if the Giants can come up with a surefire leadoff hitter (any suggestions?), trading Durham while his value remains high might not be a bad idea.

Elbo recommends

The same. Apart from Kent, that’s a pretty lame free agent pool. I imagine Placido Polanco makes too much money to be a Neifi-like utilityman, but then again, we paid Neifi a lot, didn’t we?

Plus we have to make sure Cody Ransom never plays again.


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