You Gotta Like These Keiki 

It's a given: I go away on vacation, stay as far away as possible from an Internet connection so as not to be tempted into blogging from the side of a volcano, and Giants-related news happens hot and heavy. Not to mention hotly and heavily.

Let me recap:

November 2003: Behind my back Brian Sabean trades, well, you know.

December 2004: The Giants sign Mike Matheny and Moises Alou.

April 2006: The Giants trade Tyler Walker to Tampa Bay, where he promptly saves a game against the Red Sox -- "He had a great look about him, so I walked back to the dugout feeling a lot better," said his new manager -- then two days later, not so much. But the biggest blow was that my last shred of hope for Shinjomania II! has been stripped bare. (As noted by Jefferson in the previous post's comments.)

Also, Brian Wilson comes up and promptly pulls an oblique muscle. How original. Then Kevin Frandsen replaces Ray Durham and pulls a Brian Dallimore, with three hits in his first major-league start. (Kevin apparently pulled a brain muscle in yesterday's game, neglecting to run out a pop-up that turned into a double play.)

Where was I, you ask? Not really on the side of a volcano, you say? Behold:

I'd also show you dramatic photos of lava splashing into the Pacific Ocean as the setting sun turns the sky the color of a silly tropical drink, but my suspect lensmanship rendered the lava as tiny red smears against a steamy dark-blue background. Dang these newfangled soul-capturing apparatuses.

Happy me, though. I got back in time this morning to hear Brandon Webb Cy-lense (hint, hint) the Giants. Dude can pitch.

All in all, I'll take a winning April despite a gimpy Bonds, an anemic 1B/3B (and while we're at it, 2B) combo, and a bullpen that smells worse than this sulfurous crack high above Kilauea:

Before the month turns over, how about an April caption contest? Giants-related, of course.

I'll start:

"Former Giants third baseman Pedro Feliz decides to retire to the beachfront property he recently bought near his hometown in the Dominican Republic."



To All The G's I Have Loved Before (2006) 

At least once a year I like to check in on our former Gigantes. The exercise affords me a feeling that's one-half nostalgia, one-half Schadenfreude, and one-half teeth-gnashing jealousy. In emotional literacy, as in all other aspects of my life, I'm giving 150%.

The noble, the clear-eyed, the retired: Marquis Grissom, Kirk Rueter.

The last gaspers: Michael Tucker, cut by the Nationals in spring training, now in the minor leagues. Deivi Cruz, cut by the Cardinals, whereabouts unknown. J.T. Snow, backing up Kevin Youkilis in Boston, 12 at-bats so far. Benito Santiago, 23 ABs last year with Pittsburgh, current whereabouts unknown.

The grim march continues: Edgardo Alfonzo, 9 ABs so far with Anaheim. Jim Brower, 8 IP, 13 H, 9 R, 8 BB with Baltimore. Felix Rodriguez, proud as hell to be a Washington National, last seen getting thoroughly abused by Carlos Beltran.

You're dead to me. Dead!: Brett Tomko, Jeff Kent, Jose Cruz Jr., Ramon Martinez, Bill Mueller, Kenny Lofton, Ned Colletti.

The wayward prodigies: Jerome Williams couldn't crack the Cubs depleted rotation out of camp, started in the bullpen, just had his first start of the year. David Aardsma made his Cubs' debut yesterday. Let's go to the recap: "Aardsma...walked the first two batters in the sixth. Sandy Alomar Jr. snapped a 2-2 tie with a two-out RBI single to right. Aardsma then loaded the bases with a walk to Jason Repko and Ricky Ledee batted for Penny, greeting Eyre with another RBI single that made it 4-2." Yorvit Torrealba: He sucked in Seattle and started his Rockies career on the DL. Tony Torcato: "Hey, Mr. Sabean! Surprise, surprise! What brings you to the Pasadena Mall? Did you know you can switch to Cingular and still keep all your rollover minutes?"

Their spirits still stride these hallways, haunting all who care to listen: Joe Nathan, two straight all-star years; Francisco Liriano's brief major league career numbers: 33 IP, 9 BB, 48 Ks; Boof Bonser, this year in AAA so far: 18 IP, 8 H, 6 BB, 19 K.

Still leaves a warm tingly feeling, but not the $11 M type of tingly: Scott Eyre, no earned runs in 8 IP on da North Side so far.

Nice guys finish...let's just say Florida is lovely in April and leave it at that: Matt "Old Man of the Marlins" Herges, 6.1 IP, 10 H, 2 BB, 2 K, 2.84 ERA. Rich Aurilia is now Cincinnati's super-utility guy in the best hittin' park in the bigs: 14 HR, 68 RBI last year.

Wishful thinking: Pedro Feliz, traded straight up for Jonathan Papelbon two years ago, had a decent year as a utility guy for the World Champion Red Sox, played one more year as Boston's regular third baseman, then decided to retire with his ring to run his family's yucca plantation on the leeward side of Hispaniola.

There are plenty more out there, waiting, lurking, ready to draw game-winning bases-loaded walks off Armando Benitez in their only major-league appearances of the year. At whose career have you sneaked a peek lately?


Small print update: Niekro and Benitez back on the active roster, Ishikawa and Taschner back to the minors. Congrats, Travis, on your 1st major league hit last night.



Welcome Back 'Mando 

Wait a second: how welcome is the imminent return of Armando Benitez? On the radio last night, Felipe Alou said he threw two innings in a minor-league game and looked just OK. Felipe was not turning verbal somersaults. His fastball was mostly 90-91, 92 tops, and his off-speed stuffwas inconsistent. He struck out three, but the opponents were the dregs of the Cubs minor league system.

Felipe has also said that when Benitez returns, which could be as soon as today, he won't immediately be the closer. Worrell will remain there for the time being. That's smart.

If Benitez's velocity is permanently down to the low 90s, something many observers suspected before he tore his hamstring from his -- argh, it hurts just to write this -- pelvic bone last April, it's not the kiss of death. The question becomes, how quickly can he learn to compensate? Almost all power pitchers lose a few MPH on their fastballs; only the really good ones adapt.

Jason Schmidt has been struggling for a year and a half with his new reality. Matt Morris used to throw a lot harder before various injuries; last night's bad inning notwithstanding, he seems to have the right makeup to evolve into a successful high-80s/low-90s pitcher with pinpoint control. Think Livan Hernandez or, if you really want to think big, Greg Maddux.

Often overlooked is that Benitez's repertoire includes a killer split-finger and decent slider. Those two pitches, plus a 90-92 MPH fastball that he knows how to sink, could be more than enough for him to remain an effective closer. The key to watch for: his splitter and slider. If he's hanging them, as he's often done in a Giants uniform, batters will wait for the fastball. If his off-speed stuff has bite and movement, it'll make his diminished fastball look a few MPH faster.

Short-term, I wouldn't be surprised to see Benitez struggle for at least a month or two. The game plan should be to let him pitch in low-leverage situations, preferably more than one inning at a time to stretch out his arm a bit. The Giants may not have that luxury, but if he blows a couple games right away, the boobirds will descend, the negativity may snowball and his season will spiral down the drain.

Who should be demoted? Jack Taschner's the obvious choice: he's not pitching well and he has a minor-league option. Let him get his game together in Fresno. According to today's Chron, Tyler Walker has no more options and would have to pass through waivers before a minor-league demotion. Walker seemed much better in last night's game after some reported one-on-one work with Righetti; if the Giants can nurse him back to decent-ness, he'll be valuable as an emergency closer.

Thanks to Worrell's fine run to start the season, we can honestly welcome back Armando with the hope he has the smarts to realize he's not going to blow batters away anymore.


Small print update: I just found ESPN's player salary charts. They don't quite jibe with the two salary pages I've linked to (Cot's and MLB4U); it looks like ESPN ignores deferred salary, prorates signing bonuses, and gets other stuff just plain wrong (Barry Bonds is listed at $20 M this year even though his option was $18 M and $5 M is deferred). But ESPN has a salary for Jamie Wright ($500,000), which I can't find anywhere else, so I'll use that for now.



Praising Sabes 

OK, unbelievers, it's time to repent. All Brian Sabean's off-season moves are working so far. The '06 Giants are built not for speed or power but for depth, and so far it's working. No Niekro? Mark Sweeney, say hello to this 2-0 fastball from Jose Valverde. No Benitez? Tim Worrell will pitch the ninth and a little bit extra. Steve Finley, fourth outfielder: I like the sound of that.

Jamie Wright is warming hearts with his life story, "Sinker Boy From Scrap Heap, Ark." In Noah Lowry's absence, the emergency fifth starters (Hennessey, Fassero) have filled in admirably. Even backup catcher Todd Greene has paid off: two starts, five hits.

I still wouldn't mind Carlos Delgado hitting third.

And I'm not backing away from yesterday's grumble: the pitchers' abysmal BB/K rates must improve, and the bats must come to life for this team to win consistently. A little dry desert air seemed to help with the latter problem. Being able to take regular batting practice should help, too.

Billy Beane's famous dictum is that in April and May you evaluate what you have, and in June and July you make adjustments. If the middle relief continues to flounder and Benitez doesn't come back strong, I don't think Sabes will wait for summer to make changes.

Despite the abysmal outing by Tyler Walker (would Tampa Bay even want him at this point?), the pitchers showed encouraging signs. Fassero pitched 4 strong innings but fell apart when asked to squeeze out another. Bad call by Felipe. Taschner wasn't great, but he should have been out of his inning without a run scoring -- the ball Hudson hit to left was catchable by anyone other than a limping, wheezing Bonds. Correia looked excellent. Why he wasn't the first option out of the bullpen (to start the fifth, ideally) is a head-scratcher.

One last note: Vizquel's at-bat in the eighth that allowed Sweeney to hit his two-out, game-tying home run reminded me of a game late last year in which Livan Hernandez walked Bonds in the ninth inning in front of Moises Alou, who promptly hit a two-out, 3-run homer to win the game. But Omar started the rally with a walk.



I just saw this headline: Nationals GM Bowden arrested, charged with DUI. I assume the "D" stands for "Dealing Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano."




After 11 games, the Giants' new motto is either:

a) Enjoy It While It Lasts!


b) They've Gotta Start Hitting At Some Point!

The Giants 7-4 win-loss record could just as easily describe the ratio of smoke to mirrors they're using. [Ed. note: Seven smokes to four mirrors? What?]

By most measures this is the worst hitting team in the major leagues. Fewest runs. Fewest runs per game (an even 4.0). Lowest batting average. Lowest slugging percentage. 22nd in on-base percentage. Fewest home runs. 25th in doubles.

The only plusses so far: they haven't been caught stealing (8-for-8) and they lead the majors in fewest strikeouts.

So it must be the pitching, right? Not exactly.

The staff is last in the majors in strikeouts (61) and fourth in walks allowed (54). That's the type of ratio only Kirk Rueter's mother would love. It is atrocious, usually associated with teams like the Kansas City Royals that rely on the Jimmy Gobbles and Jose Limas of the world. The S.F. staff has been fairly stingy with the hits (less than one an inning) and the home runs, which is good, but the high walk rate (more than one walk every two innings) ensures plenty of opposing runners on base. So what's going on?

Two answers:

1) The Giants have gotten exceedingly lucky. Balls in play have managed to find gloves (line drives hit right at Bonds, for example). Soon enough, those balls will manage to find alleys and other wide-open spaces.

2) The Giants have a fantastic, watertight defense. Sure enough, they've only committed three errors and turned 16 double plays (third highest in MLB). They've only surrended one unearned run, but that's not such a wide advantage: seven other teams in MLB have given up either one or two unearned runs.

Could it be that the Winn/Finley outfield rotation, the full-time installation of Feliz at third base, and the good health of Durham at second have suddenly made the Giants a defensive force? Let me crunch some sabermetriffic data here...hmm...err...the answer is Not Bloody Likely. Bonds and Alou have the range of Keanu Reeves doing Shakespeare, and no matter how much Omar Fu is unleashed upon the world, the slow and/or elderly infield isn't going to prevent an inordinate number of Scott Munter sinkers from being slapped through various holes.

I hate to say it, but the pitching-and-defense honeymoon will soon end. Runs will be scored. Let's hope the Giants also score some of those runs, or the most exciting thing 'round these parts will be summer reruns of Bonds on Bonds.



Omar Fu II 

In a time...when honest men were easily seduced to the dark side...

In a land....where an ancient evil held domain...

One man was civilization's best defense. With the honorable tools of wood and leather, he practiced the healing art of Omar Fu.

But one year was not enough to turn back the Blue Hordes. As spring came and the rains ended, the hordes gathered strength and attacked again. A great battle ensued. In the sixth inning of the third day, with the forces of good having gained a slight advantage, Omar Fu was called upon again, this time to throw out a young follower of the dark side named Ross.

Unlike most instances of Omar Fu, a photo will not describe its brilliance. Words must suffice. Instead of trying to turn a double play on the fleet-footed Kenneth of Lofton, Omar made The Force, instantly spun and hurled a bullet to third in anticipation of Ross rounding the base. As soon as Ross stepped past the bag, Omar's dart arrived, and his humble and mostly unworthy sidekick Pedro Feliz tagged the wayward runner to end the frame.

In the words of Elder Bard Krukow, it was "like, the most exciting play I have ever seen."



Cautious Optimism 

Did anyone just notice that the Giants opened the season with series against two division winners and the NL champions, suffered multiple disruptions because of weather, had neither their closer, a key starting pitcher nor an effective Barry Bonds, and still went 5 and 3?

And with all those gimpy-kneed, sore-hammied oldsters on the squad, who figured the only player to get injured on the soggy turf would be Chipper Jones?

If you're looking for more good signs among the tiny sample sizes: two of their three losses came against two of the best starting pitchers in the National League, Peavy and Oswalt.

On the too-good-to-be-true side, Omar Vizquel isn't going to hit .400 all year, but I'll see that and raise it with a "Ray Durham isn't going to hit .150, either." If Jamie Wright gives up 4 earned runs every 7 innings, I'll take it.

As for the ugly bullpentronics, the main culprits are Tyler Walker and Special Agent Jack Taschner, who's in imminent danger of a demotion to the animal control unit. The good news is both are expendable -- Taschner back to AAA to get whatever's ailing him worked out, and Walker to Tampa Bay.

What worries me most is all those walks. Thanks to Matt Cain (13 K, 5 BB), the staff has more strikeouts than walks, but barely. The 48-38 ratio is better only than the Atlanta Braves' staff, who have hired South African mercenaries to rappel into Camden Yards and kidnap Leo Mazzone.

Keep this up, boys, and the center will not hold. Things will fall apart, and we'll spend the summer slouching toward a perjury conviction.


small print update:

From Will Carroll's The Juice to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: I'm not sure what's worse, a cocktail of Winstrol, Clomid, HGH and THG, or a E. Coli o157:H7 burger. I'll take an order of free-range, grass-fed Barry to go.



Back From Chicago 

The Giants conveniently had three days off while I was gone, so I didn't feel bad about abandoning my blog duties. Here's a quick outline of my Chicago trip:

- Saturday: Babes With Blades. I kid you not. Great idea, terrible execution. Some of the worst theater I've ever seen, despite plenty of topless swordplay. My sister, her boyfriend (both SCA geeks, hence the choice of entertainment) and I represented about 20% of the audience.

- Sunday, my only possible day to see baseball: White Sox out of town, Cubs sold out. However, I was in a bar near Wrigley on Sunday night after the Cubs won. The highlights on ESPN brought forth many a "Whoo! Cubbies!" outburst. Note to self: Never wear blue the color of an artificially-flavored lollipop. Sure, bright orange is bad, but at least the Giants save it for piping and the occasional funky piece o' merch. The Cubs wear their neon blue on their jerseys. At home. All their fans do, too, and they fill up bars with it. Is there an official name for this tint? Let me know.

- Monday: Bio '06, trapped inside a massive vacuum-sealed convention center while outside, Chicagoans enjoyed their first day of beautiful spring weather.

- Tuesday: Trapped inside a massive vacuum-sealed convention center with the onset of body chills, unpredictable bowels and miles to travel between restrooms. Uh-oh.

- Wednesday: Managed to crawl onto United flight 907 with two carry-ons, a nasty bug, a packet of Theraflu and a belly full of Pepto. You know that guy you fear will be sitting next to you when you take your seat and buckle your belt? That was me. Hi there. To my credit, I only made four trips to the aft lavoratories and didn't sneeze once. But the last two hours of the flight, as the clammy sweat soaked through my clothes, I could only think, "At least when I get home I can crawl into bed and listen to the Giants game."


But I did return to find some good news. "Once a Dodger, always a dodger."



Pitch to My Daddy 

Three games into the season, and Barry Bonds looks mortal. It's painful watching him run in the outfield, and there are signs, yesterday's two intentional walks notwithstanding, of opposing teams being less fearful this year.

Sign #1: Jake Peavy going right after Bonds on Opening Day with a man on second and first base open.

Sign #2: Shawn Estes repeatedly trying to bust Barry up and in with mediocre fastballs (88-90 MPH), until he got too close and plunked him.

Sign #3: Barry striking out yesterday on four straight changeups down and away.

All these signs will melt into obscurity if Barry launches a couple balls into the Cove this weekend, but here's the pattern that may emerge if teams feel he's lost a fraction of his legendary bat speed:

Pitchers will throw hard stuff in, especially in big parks like Mays Field and Petco, betting that Bonds won't have the speed to yank those pitches down the line and inside the foul pole, as he seemed to be able to do at will before last year.

Once Bonds is primed for hard stuff inside, pitchers will go with soft stuff down and away, like those Ken Ray changeups (by the way, Ray is a right-hander, not a lefty, which makes you wonder which game Ray Ratto was watching).

Bonds is probably the smartest hitter in baseball, so if anyone can adjust to declining skills such as a drop in bat speed, he can. We may see him slap more balls to left field; we may see him lay off the borderline inside fastball, forcing pitchers to prove they can paint the corner.

No doubt the steroid-enhanced swirl around Bonds this year will continue unabated. We'll know who the real baseball aficianados in the media are if they pick up on the fascinating story of an aging slugger making in-season adjustments to his declining game.


Notes: Opening day was a blast. The sunshine was the real hero of the day, very welcome after, what, three straight years of rainy days? That's what it has felt like 'round these parts.

Best moment of the game: Pedro Feliz murdering a 3-1 fastball after showing great patience against a pitcher who was obviously struggling.

Worst moment of the game: Watching Noah Lowry do twisty back stretches behind the mound. Uh-oh.

* It was also opening day for the Giants' farmhands. The lovely and talented Steve Shelby has posted the year's first "Minor Lines" over at the McChronic. Marcus Sanders' OBP? Know it. Learn it. Love it.

* I'm off to Chicago tonight for a conference. I'll try to get to the Sunday night Cubs/Cards game and post a report. Does anyone want to sponsor me if I wear a "Bonds 25" jersey into the Wrigley bleachers? You never know, but maybe Cubs fans will be sympathetic to Barry's plight. As this deeply scientific survey shows, Chicagoans may not know what biotech is, but hey, they kind of like it. What are performance enhancing drugs, if not the cutting-edge intersection of biology and technology?



You Got Lucky, Babe 

First win of the year: nothing to sneeze at. Achoo. But there's a disreputable saying that goes something like, "I'd rather be lucky than good" -- Mae West, perhaps? -- and tonight that's exactly what the Giants were.

Not that they aren't good. We just don't know. We haven't seen them enough to really say for sure one way or another. Matt Morris threw a lot of strikes, but he also walked his opposing number and generally pitched deep into counts while not surrendering much damage. "Effective," I think the word is. "Dominating," I think the word isn't.

Not that I'm not complaining: 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball? I'll take that every time, by Zeus's beard!

But the rest of the Giants got lucky, it needs saying. Steve Kline came in to relieve Morris in the seventh and looked lost until Steve Finley streaked across the greensward to snag a line drive.

Then Scott Munter struck out Mark Bellhorn...talk about irresistible force meeting immovable object (roll over Beethoven, and tell Ella Fitzgerald the news). Munter never strikes anyone out, and Bellhorn never met a strikeout he didn't like. So of course he whiffs on a 90-MPH sinker that doesn't sink, unless you consider "right across the bellybutton and practically on a frickin' tee" a downward movement.


Then Munter walks Brian Giles to start the eighth, as if to say, "Say, let's just see how much luck we have running in our favor tonight," but he finally gets out of the jam when Adrian Gonzalez, who seems to hit lots of balls hard the opposite way, smacks a bullet that short-hops Peter Happy almost in his happies -- hello, stranger! -- and he starts an inning-ending double play.

Get the drift?

Then Tim Worrell gets atrocious defensive non-help in the ninth -- that blown infield pop-up looked like something my 25-and-over team would pull on any given Sunday -- and ends up making things interesting. That is, until Eric Young hits a "grounder" -- three feet to the left and it's a solid basehit to left, but it's right at Omar Vizquel to end the game with a little 6-4-3.

Luck-ee. Luhhhhhhh.....keeeeeeeee. Lucky.

And I haven't even gotten started about the offense.

Best moment of the game:

Tie: 1) Worrell strikes out Spicoli with a 88-MPH fastball in the ninth; 2) Lance Niekro draws a bases-loaded walk in the sixth.

Worst moment of the game:

With bases loaded, no outs, and the previous hitter walking on four pitches (see above), Pedro grounds out on the first pitch into a double play.

See y'all tomorrow at the real Opening Day.



Opening Day Notes and Quotes 

* Jason Schmidt was throwing harder than last year. According to the FSN gun, his fastball ranged from 90-92 with an occasional 93 or 94. That's not as fast as he used to throw regularly, but it's plenty if his other stuff is working. Which it wasn't -- he threw at most three good changeups all game, and he left several breaking pitches up. At least he lasted longer than Barry Zito, who took the earliest exit of his career against the Yankees.

* Jake Peavy is the spitting image of Kevin Brown (ED. NOTE: the 1998 version, not the 2005 version): the big leg kick, the herky-jerky motion, the fastballs at 92 to 96 and moving all over the place. Nasty, even though like Schmidt he had trouble all game with his off-speed pitches. Their ace is better than our ace; no surprise there. Best pitch of the day: one at-bat after Bonds sliced a tailing fastball over the center-field wall on a hop, Peavy busted Barry's hands with a cutter and forced a weak pop-up.

* It's the rest of the Padres rotation that raises eyebrows. Shawn Estes, #2, followed by Chris Young, Woody Williams, and Dewon Brazelton? It's a sure sign of the sad decline of Chan Ho Park that he couldn't crack this starting five.

* Mike Piazza: who cares about his inability to throw runners out when no one's getting on base. If he can hit crazy-huge opposite-field home runs, the Padres will be happy. Lesson: do not let him get his hands extended. Learned: the at-bat after his home run, Schmidt busted him inside and got him to pop up.

* Quote of the day: "The difficult thing with Jake is, one of his balls moves one way and one moves the other way." - Lance Niekro, telling us things we'd prefer not to know.

* Made-up quote of the day: "All I need is some cool bud and some tasty hanging change-ups, and I'm fine!" - Khalil Greene, shown below getting ready for the game in the Padres' clubhouse.



Opening Day 

Friends: I'll be watching Monday's Giants-Padres opener at Yancy's Saloon on Irving St. in the Inner Sunset. Anyone who wants to join me, I'll be parked in front of the big screen, wearing a Giants cap and several days of stubble.


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