The year was 2002; the National League West showed that it was a force to be reckoned with. The first place team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, had won the World Series in the previous year and returned with much of that strength to finish with a 98-64 record, which was enough to win the division over the San Francisco Giants, who finished only two-and-a-half games behind, managing to grab the NL Wild Card spot. The Giants went on to defeat the Braves in the Divisional Series, then triumphed over the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, both of which were huge surprises to all of baseball. San Francisco allowed the World Series to slip through its fingers, yet impressed many in doing so. Even the third place team did well; the Los Angeles Dodgers finished with a 92-70 record, the tenth best in the Major Leagues. Things looked bright for the Rockies, who appeared to be setting up with a bright fusion of youth and veteran talent, and the Padres, who had begun to make competitive moves and had a new ballpark on the way. The National League West was going to be a dominant division in the coming years. Fast forward to 2005, when baseball fans everywhere sneered at the pathetic state of the National League West division, which was won by a team that barely had a winning record; all teams can attribute their failures to a fair share of injuries and an impressive number of inexperienced youth filling in out of desperation and sadly, need. Coming into the off season, these teams knew what they needed to do in order to bring themselves and the National League West back to dominance, where they were in 2002. One of these teams was the San Francisco Giants, a team that was forced to push young prospects into everyday Major League roles. By doing this, they were able to step back and evaluate the talent in place, allowing them to go into the off-season knowing exactly what they would need to acquire in the upcoming winter: an impact left-handed hitter, a left-handed first baseman, a left-handed middle reliever, a starting pitcher, a backup utility infielder, and a backup catcher. For them to once again become a team of prowess they would have to find the right pieces to fill the holes; they did this, for the most part, and had a productive off-season, making some creative, under-the-radar moves. Brian Sabean (Giants’ General Manager) did a good job to get rid of both weaknesses and high-paid players in order to obtain what the Giants needed; he was able to make a couple of unbelievably favorable trades and decent signings. They definitely could have done better, but at the same time could have done a lot worse.With last year’s absence of star slugger Barry Bonds, the Giants searched high and low for an impact left-handed bat. First, they called upon Todd Linden, a 25-year old right fielder who was showing signs of greatness in Fresno, the team’s AAA affiliate, where he led the Pacific Coast League in numerous offensive numbers. When he was promoted, Linden put up pedestrian numbers and was sent back down after “getting his cup of coffee”. Next, they called upon another right fielder, five-tool prospect Dan Ortmeier, who hadn’t played a game above the AA level. Although he showed some flashes of ability, Ortmeier didn’t provide the Giants with the left-handed bat that they needed so badly. Coming into the off-season, they had many options to turn to through free agency; unfortunately, the market for power hitters was extremely high, as it always is. With the number of holes the Giants needed to fill, it would better suit them to unload a large contract through a trade in order to obtain the big bat that they needed; with this in mind, the Giants shopped third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo around, and successfully found a buyer. On December 21st, the Giants traded Alfonzo to the Angels for Steve Finley, a 40 year-old outfielder who is coming off of a disappointing 2005 season. This brilliant move not only provides the Giants with something they needed, but it unloads a disgruntled, overpaid and under performing Alfonzo, only costs the Giants’ payroll a net increase of $500,000, and frees up the third base position to Pedro Feliz, who led the team in Runs Batted In last year, despite limited playing time. Finley comes to the Giants as a player who has torn up the National League West pitching throughout his career. Although he will back up Barry Bonds, Randy Winn, and Moises Alou, Finley should get plenty of playing time off the bench, filling in for 41 year-old Bonds, 39 year-old Alou, and 31 year-old Winn. With a high possibility of injuries and Bonds and Alou sitting out often, he will see plenty of playing time. The Giants will see the tremendous value of this addition late in the season, when one of their outfielders is tending to an injury.
With Lance Niekro coming up last year and proving that he could hit at the major league level, the Giants had one piece of the first base puzzle solved. However, the departure of J.T. Snow created a hole on the left-handed side of the plate. Niekro is not capable of handling the duty by himself, as he struggled mightily against right-handed pitchers; this is the primary reason for the Giants’ need of a left-handed hitting first baseman. There were many free agent possibilities, including Daryl Ward, Tino Martinez, Erubiel Durazo, and Travis Lee, among others. In a hasty move that seemed to be made primarily for economic reasons, they signed 36 year-old Mark Sweeney, agreeing to pay him $900,000 for each year in a two-year contract. Sweeney is a veteran that can play the corner outfield positions and is a decent hitter. He hit .294 with eight home runs, despite being faced with limited playing time in a pitchers’ park; Sweeney is somewhat of a bargain. However, given the amount of spending room the Giants have, a better move could have definitely been made. A bigger power hitter, like Daryl Ward, could have easily been obtained, but the price may have been too high and the desire too low for someone splitting time. This move should not be criticized for being a bad one, only for being slightly inferior to what could have potentially been done.
Unfortunately for the Giants’ bullpen, workhorse Scott Eyre, who became a free agent, signed elsewhere to a lucrative contract that the Giants could not match. With only a few decent left-handed relievers on the market, the lefty middle relievers were looking for–and receiving–lots of money; most notably veteran B.J. Ryan, who signed to a five year, $47 million dollar contract. Once again, the Giants would have to test the trade market and would again come out on top. They sent LaTroy Hawkins, a right-handed reliever, to the Orioles (along with $900,000), receiving excellent southpaw Steve Kline in return. Not only does this remove Hawkins’ hefty contract, but also a pitcher who is unstable mentally and blows lots of leads; he is absolutely awful in pressure situations. Kline comes to the Giants with some of the best numbers out of all left-handed relievers and is a guy who knows how to work out of jams, something he may see a lot of with Felipe Alou at the helm. This move sets up the bullpen very nicely, with Kline, Fassero, and Taschner making up the lefties, and Benitez, Munter, Accardo, Walker, and Tim Worrell, who the Giants signed to fill the void of Hawkins, on the right side. This bullpen, which has its share of youngsters and veterans, could very well be one of the best in baseball in coming years, something the Giants have been missing all along. Acquiring someone as good as Kline for someone as unstable as Hawkins is something that no Giants fan could have ever imagined.
The biggest need for the Giants, coming into the off-season, was a starting pitcher. With last year’s struggle, the Giants saw Noah Lowry blossom into a decent pitcher, also seeing that 21 year-old Matt Cain and 25 year-old Brad Hennessey were ready to take their places in the starting rotation. With Schmidt, Lowry, Cain, and Hennessey in place, and Kevin Correia still not adequately prepared to become the fifth starter, the Giants keyed in on free agent Esteban Loiza, a veteran right-hander who is coming off of a solid season. They lost a bidding war for him to the A’s, and then turned their attention to Matt Morris, a 32 year-old who seems to be at the tail end of his career. The Giants were able to snatch him from many other teams and sign him to a three year, $27 million dollar contract, something which was probably a bit too high for Morris, who is coming off of a year in which he had a 4.11 Earned Run Average. However, with the number of other teams trying to get Morris, his value skyrocketed; the Giants couldn’t afford to lose out on another big starting pitcher. This move could pan out to be a bad one or could be just the thing Morris needs to rejuvenate his career; one or another, for the time being, the rotation has been solidified.
The Giants had put the major pieces in place and now needed to decide on some bench players. The could go in two directions- either seize a free agent utility infielder, or call on prospects Angel Chavez and Kevin Frandsen to handle the backup duties. They chose to take the more safe option in signing former Giant Jose Vizcaino, who can play every infield position. This move is a better one than promoting Chavez and Frandsen, as they are inexperienced at the big league level and Vizcaino is a veteran presence who won’t crack under pressure when pinch hitting or being put in as a defensive substitution. Vizcaino should see quite a bit of time at third base, shortstop, and second base, with a possibility of playing a little at first base. This move also saves multiple roster spots, because of Vizcaino’s versatility. San Francisco couldn’t have made a more ideal move in this case.
Coming into the off-season, many felt that the Giants were in need of a backup catcher. Mike Matheny is certainly not injury prone, but anything can happen, especially at catcher. After trading Yorvit Torrealba last season, the Giants promoted Yamid Haad, who, simply put, was horrible. He was designated for assignment and 25 year-old Justin Knoedler was called up to San Francisco, where he went one-for-ten at the plate. Many felt as though he, too, was incapable of hitting at the highest level and the year’s stock of free agent catchers was (and still is) rich. Despite this, the Giants announced that Knoedler would handle the backup duties. They will regret having done this if Matheny gets injured and Knoedler has to play for an extended period of time.
After an injury-plagued 2005 season, the Giants were forced to turn to prospects to take the reins; in doing so, they were able to evaluate what they had, and knew exactly what they would need in the upcoming off-season. At the end of the winter, they felt as though all of the needs had been addressed. But were they addressed well? The Giants made some excellent moves that saved them money, but definitely could have done better. Their two trades, Alfonzo for Finley and Hawkins for Kline, were both great ones, and their signings were decent. Not getting a backup catcher could really hurt them, this is the only thing they did completely wrong. With the pieces now in place, the determining factor for the 2006 season will be their ability to stay healthy. After having made these moves, the Giants look like they’re geared up to make a run at the division title, with a crack at the World Series. They will hope for better results this time around.