By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (91-71) - Second Place (NL West)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: OF - Moises Alou; RP - Armando Benitez; C - Mike Matheny; SS - Omar Vizquel
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Dave Burba; RP - Dustin Hermanson; OF - Ricky Ledee; OF - Dustin Mohr; C - A.J. Pierzynski; INF - Cody Ransom
PROJECTED LINEUP: Ray Durham (2B); Omar Vizquel (SS); J.T. Snow (1B); Pedro Feliz (LF); Moises Alou (RF); Edgardo Alfonzo (3B); Marquis Grissom (CF); Mike Matheny (C)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jason Schmidt (RHP); Kirk Rueter (LHP); Brett Tomko (RHP); Noah Lowry (LHP); Jerome Williams (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Armando Benitez (RHP)
MANAGER: Felipe Alou
With an incredible total of 258 homers and 544 RBI in the last five seasons, Barry Bonds has carried the San Francisco Giants on his back. However, the BALCO scandal, his distaste for the media and a knee injury have gotten the better of baseball's only seven-time MVP, wearing down the 40-year-old to the point where his team is left in peril entering the 2005 season.
Baseball's best player will be absent from the opening day lineup for the first time in his career, as Bonds enters his 20th season. Possibly the best slugger ever, he's sidelined indefinitely following arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in mid-March. Bonds indicated he may not be back until mid- season or maybe until 2006.
With Bonds in the starting lineup last year, the Giants were 83-56. Without him, they went 8-15 and noticeably an entirely different squad. There's also numbers to prove that.
When you have a player like Bonds, who really is the entire franchise, one has to consider how the Giants will be able to pull through at least the first part of the 2005 campaign. Consider these stats. Last season, Bonds had 45 homers, 101 RBI, a major league-record 232 walks and scored 129 times. That's nearly 25 percent of the team's homers, 12.5 percent of the RBI, 33 percent of the walks, and better than 23 percent of the club's runs.
The Giants barely missed the playoffs last year, finishing two games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and a game in back of Houston for the wild card spot. If not for Bonds and his historic home run chase, the Giants wouldn't have been a second-place team.
The hope for the Giants getting back to the playoffs rests more now on the shoulders of rightfielder Moises Alou and righthander Jason Schmidt. Alou joins his father, manager Felipe Alou, following his free-agent signing to the tune of $13.25 million over two years. Schmidt will try to follow-up on his second straight sparkling season, as he's gone 35-12 since the start of 2003.
Perennial Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel adds solid defense up the middle, while Armando Benitez provides the Giants finally with a steady closer. Catcher Mike Matheny takes over behind the plate, as he was inked to a three- year, $10.5 million package in December.
Last season marked a resurgence for first baseman J.T. Snow, but what 2005 will bring is anybody's guess. He batted a career-best .327 with 12 homers and 60 RBI in only 107 games. He missed more than a month of action following arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Without Bonds, Snow will be expected to pick up much of the offensive load, and if he can carry some success over from last season, the Giants may be in good shape with their No. 3 hitter. The left-handed hitting Snow batted an astounding .361 with runners in scoring position last year. Now the bad news....Snow has a nagging back problem that could hinder his production at the start of the season.
Second baseman Ray Durham has proven to be a decent lead-off hitter the last two seasons for the Giants, although he's also been slowed by injuries. In fact, a right groin strain has limited his play during spring training. In 120 games last season, he batted .282 with 17 home runs, 65 RBI and 10 stolen bases.
Vizquel, a winner of nine Gold Glove awards, is coming off one of his best offensive performances in years after hitting .291 with seven homers and 59 RBI for the Indians. After spending the first 16 years in the American League, Vizquel now gets an opportunity to extend his career by three seasons in the NL. To spend $12 million on improving the defense up the middle may be OK for this season, but the Giants could be regretting this contract in three years.
With Bonds sidelined, Edgardo Alfonzo won't have to platoon at third base with Pedro Feliz, as he moves to left field. Alfonzo has been behind the eight ball each of the last two Aprils with a combined .195 average in those months. The slow start and back problems, combined with the Giants committed to giving him $13.5 million over the next two years, have left the team searching for solutions at third base.
Matheny isn't known for his offense, and that's why he's been a No. 8 hitter most of his career. The Giants didn't sign him for his bat, but for his ability to call a good game behind the plate. He's a three-time Gold Glove winner, including the last two years.
Feliz has started in 359 games in his career, but only 11 of them have come in the outfield, and that occurred during the 2003 season. Now he has the task of not only replacing Bonds, but also hitting clean-up. Known more as a solid utility player, Feliz is coming off his strongest offensive season with 22 homers, 84 RBI and a .276 average. However, his judgment of the strike zone is poor, as he fanned 85 times and walked 23 times last year, nearly a complete opposite of what Bonds offers.
Marquis Grissom is a defensive liability in center field, but his power numbers have climbed late in his career. He had 22 homers and 90 RBI, along with a .279 average last year, and could be placed in a platoon situation in center with Michael Tucker.
If Alou can give the Giants his production from last season (.293, 39 HR, 106 RBI) when he was in a Cubs uniform, it would make some fans forget about Bonds' absence. However, his range in the outfield has diminished and now he's moving to right field, where he was last a regular in 2001 with Houston. Alou has proven one of the tougher players to strike out, as he ranked 17th in the NL last season in walk-to-strikeout ratio (68-BB, 80-SO).
One downfall could be the starting pitching. Aside from Schmidt, who went 18-7 with a 3.20 ERA last season, it seems the Giants are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. Can southpaw Kirk Rueter, who had a losing mark last season, return to his form from 2001-2 when he won 14 games each of those years? The back end of the rotation, which features righthanders Brett Tomko, Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams doesn't put a lot of fear into opponents.
Schmidt's 225 innings and 251 strikeouts marked a career-high last year. He rebounded nicely from elbow tendon surgery last winter to make 32 starts. Don't be shocked to see his ERA dip more this season, as his ERA was 3.47 in the Bay Area, compared to 2.87 on the road. The righthander's strikeout-to- walk ratio was 3.26:1 and he can consistently last seven-plus innings, giving the team a real workhorse.
A corner nibbler, Rueter didn't get many calls his way last year with 66 walks and just 56 strikeouts in 190.1 innings. The lefthander is one of the better fielders for a pitcher, but it remains to be seen if he'll last the entire season in the rotation, as Brad Hennessey, Merkin Valdez and Jesse Foppert are fighting to work their way back onto the staff from the minors.
Brett Tomko's 4.04 ERA doesn't illustrate how he finished last season, with a 1.48 ERA over his last six starts. The righty employs a variety of good pitches, including a slider, changeup, curve and fastball and will likely be placed in the No. 2 spot behind Schmidt at some point this year.
Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams will be at the back of the rotation. Lowry, a 24-year-old lefthander, has been highly-touted and has a solid fastball and changeup. Williams, a 23-year-old righthander, is becoming more of a ground ball pitcher, but will have to work on lowering his ERA (4.25) from last year.
Benitez was signed to serve as the closer, after the Giants thrust Matt Herges and Dustin Hermanson into that role last year due to Robb Nen's career-ending shoulder injury. Herges returns to his spot as the main set-up guy and puts less pressure on Scott Eyre and Jim Brower. Matt Kinney and Kevin Correia will work in long relief.
Benitez got a huge payday in the offseason with a three-year, $21 million package. He collected a career-high and club record 47 saves in 51 chances last season for the Florida Marlins. The 32-year-old Benitez went 2-2 with a 1.29 ERA, while holding opponents to a .152 batting average in his only season with the Marlins. The righthander's 47 saves were also tied with St. Louis' Jason Isringhausen for the most in the National League. Benitez allowed only a .139 batting average over his last 32 appearances and five runs over his final 34 2/3 innings.
Yorvit Torrealba returns as the back-up catcher, while Deivi Cruz and Brian Dallimore give the Giants some depth in the infield. For the most part though, San Francisco has one of the weaker benches in the majors. Outfielder Jason Ellison is likely to make the squad as the final outfielder and can be an asset defensively and as a pinch-runner, as he stole 48 bases over the last two seasons at the Triple-A level.
The difference between the Giants and their NL West opponents is age. San Francisco has one of the oldest lineups in the majors with only one player under 30 and that's Feliz, who hits that mark on April 27. Even without Bonds in the lineup, age gets to be a concern for managers and GMs, as nagging injuries are more likely. Vizquel, Snow and Grissom are all 37, Alou is 38 and Matheny (34), despite his solid defensive skills, has shown signs of wear.
Also, the Giants have literally no speed. In fact, they were ranked last in the majors last year in stolen bases, but Bonds almost single-handedly carried the Giants into the playoffs.
Will San Francisco's pitching and the fringes of the lineup hold up over a 162-game season? Bonds enters the season with 703 homers, 11 shy of equaling Babe Ruth for second-place all-time and 52 behind Hank Aaron. Still, Bonds has been dealing with criticism most of his career, but now the rest of his team will be under the microscope every night. Bonds' injury doesn't mean the Giants can't win the NL West. There's no one dominant team in the division, but the rotation will have to step up. Schmidt can't carry the load by himself, but if the Giants can remain within striking distance by the All-Star break, the return of Bonds could propel them to a third playoff appearance in four years. That's a big if.