On Thursday, March 3rd, the Giants will take the field in the first of 29 Spring Training games this spring. Compared to other exhibition seasons, there don’t seem to be a lot of questions surrounding the team, and the only issues would appear to be the much discussed ones of old age and Barry Bonds’ health. But that’s just the surface that the national commentators are looking at. Giants fans will find that there’s plenty to keep an eye on in Arizona.
TOP 5 QUESTIONS FOR THE GIANTS IN SPRING TRAINING
1. How healthy is Barry?
Yea, okay, it’s the easy one to ask, but that is only because it’s truly important. Barry is, after all, coming off of two knee surgeries, one fairly recent. He’s already played catch in the outfield and faced live pitching from new closer Armando Benitez, and he’s so eager to get back onto the field that trainer Stan Conte has had to try and keep Barry from doing too much. But for Barry, the truth will be when he starts playing in games, which may not be for a couple of weeks. Keeping an eye on his swing and his ability to move in the outfield will be important. As for how distracted he might be from certain scandals, well, no Giant fan should be worried about that. It’s not like there weren’t these rumors last year, nor other things the past couple of years and 13 seasons that should’ve distracted him as well. There’s no reason to see any change in Barry’s focus on the field.
2. Who is going to round out the bullpen?
Benitez may have been the big name acquisition to help the ‘pen, but just as important is who’s going to fill the open spots in the bullpen. Going into the season, five spots are filled: Benitez, Matt Herges, Jim Brower, Scott Eyre and Jason Christiansen. At least one spot remains open, and more likely two should the Giants go with 12 pitchers. And to fill that one or two empty spots are a bevy of qualified and interesting candidates:
• Jesse Foppert – Felipe Alou has stated that Foppert is a lock to break camp with the team, if only as a long reliever, but Alou has changed his mind on preseason proclamations before. There are few doubts that Foppert has the stuff to pitch in the majors now, or that he’s ready to. The biggest question the Giants will have to decide is if it’s better for Foppert to pitch in the majors as a reliever, or work as a starter in Fresno.
• Brad Hennessey – Another starter who is currently locked out of the Giants’ rotation. A few scouts feel that Hennessey might be better suited as a reliever, particularly as a setup man with his plus slider. With stamina issues lingering after Hennessey’s surgeries and with the rotation looking crowded now and in the future, the team may see if Hennessey would go better that way. There’s no doubting Hennessey’s intensity or commitment to the game, and that may be an even greater asset from the bullpen. But then, the Giants may have him get adjusted to relieving in the minors, if that’s what they want, or they may have him start in Fresno.
• Wayne Franklin – Franklin resigned with the Giants with a minor league contract despite having a 2004 that was best forgotten. His 6.40 ERA was hurt by 2 starts where he gave up 8 runs in 6.2 innings, but his stints as a reliever were not great, either. Franklin’s case is hurt by having 2 lefties on the roster ahead of him. One of his best attributes, his versatility as a starter or reliever, is a bit of a non-issue with the Giants since at least Foppert, and possibly two or three other options are probably ahead of him. If Franklin can become more effective, however, he might be effective as trade bait, for teams in need of a lefty reliever or a swingman.
• Jeff Fassero – Hey, a Giant older than Barry! Fassero, who’s now 42, had a 5.46 ERA in 2004, but that was partially attributable to trying to be a starter for longer than he should’ve been, and partially because he was a Rockie. Fassero’s attitude was a problem in Colorado, though, and as a lefthander, he faces the same problems that Franklin does.
• Tyler Walker – Walker, a SF native, put together a solid season in his first full major league season last year, and his stretch with a 1.93 ERA in his last 11 appearances has not been forgotten by the Giants. He could continue to improve, too. But, unlike a lot of his competition, he doesn’t have a high ceiling and doesn’t have any roles he’s expected to grow into outside of the one he filled last year: a solid middle reliever.
• David Aardsma – The future of the appointed closer of the future seemed to get farther away as Aardsma’s control, velocity and secondary pitches all deteriorated after his pro debut in 2004. The future got put off even further after the Giants signed Benitez. That doesn’t mean Aardsma’s a bust. However late last season, Aardsma’s mechanics picked back up, and his slider returned. If he can combine that with control of his fastball, all he’ll need is experience. And while the future with him closing may be a few years off, most good closers start out as setup men. With Aardsma’s stuff, all it may take is a strong spring for him to grab one of those spots.
And all of that doesn’t include longshots like Al Levine, top prospects Matt Cain and Patrick Misch, or any other surprises. Either way, the way the bullpen situation shakes out will be both very interesting and very telling as to how the season might go for the relievers.
3a. Will there be any crack in the playing time door for Pedro Feliz?
Check just about any one of those fantasy publications that rates players (outside of certain Saber-geek publications that think On-Base Percentage is the holy grail of the stat line), and they all say that Feliz is someone who is ready for and/or deserves a starting job. But Edgardo Alfonzo and his contract is embedded at Feliz’s natural position of third, and fan favorite J.T. Snow just can’t be let go of at first. The Giants made a much ballyhooed announcement that they were going to get Feliz 600 AB’s, but the question remains where? About the only thing Feliz is assured of is playing first against most left handed pitching.
In the meantime, opportunities for Feliz to get time may appear. Alfonzo has shown a disturbing trend for slow starts, but Feliz didn’t have the track record to truly take the job, and Alfonzo’s also always heated up after June to get his job back. Meanwhile, Snow had a career year in ’04, but it’s no sure thing to repeat. If either Alfonzo or Snow struggle early, playing time may start to get consistently split. In the meantime, Feliz may get more time in the outfield than last year, with two aging guys out there that he might get a day or two a week in left or right.
3b. Will Feliz put his foot in that door and force it open?
Feliz appears to have reached his upside as a player. Chances are that he will always be a .270 hitting power hitter who has the power to hit 25-30 home runs a year, and barely maintain an on base percentage above .300. Not that that isn’t a valuable role player, even on a championship team, but his game does have some flaws (like the inability to take breaking pitches) that might keep him from overtaking with Alfonzo or Snow entirely or permanently in a position battle like this. At 30, it’s time for Feliz to move beyond reserve roles. Can he?
4. Will any Giant outfielder from the farm system ever break onto the Giant roster?
The outfield consists of Bonds, Moises Alou, Marquis Grissom and Michael Tucker. Dustan Mohr was summarily dismissed in the offseason, opening the door for one of the Giants’ long suffering outfield prospects to win the low pressure 5th outfield spot. The front-runner is Jason Ellison. Ellison’s main asset is his defense. He was the best defensive outfielder in the Pacific Coast League last year, is a natural center fielder, and can play the corners as well. The downside is that he has questionable offensive ability for the major leagues. He hits for average and can draw a few walks, but he’ll have to prove he can do it in the majors. The first place he can try is at Spring Training. However, don’t count out Tony Torcato and Todd Linden. Torcato can hit, but is not a sharp defender. He can only play the corners, and the Giants don’t exactly need more sub-standard defenders. Linden, meanwhile, is a switch-hitter who is still trying to prove he can hit consistently from both sides of the plate. His defense isn’t terrible, and he has played center adequately in Fresno, and his switch hitting is a boon off the bench.
Then again, the aforementioned Feliz may be considered the de facto fifth outfielder, and the Giants may use that last spot for a deserving pitcher or extra infielder.
5. Who’s #2?
Some people seem to make such a big deal about having an unbeatable #2 pitcher to be a successful playoff team that you think he has to be better than the staff ace. However, having a second dominating pitcher is a boon, and while the Giants have a solid staff with a ton of upside, they don’t have a clear #2 pitcher.
On one hand, you’ve got Brett Tomko, a pitcher who everyone has agreed has the stuff to be a dominating pitcher, but hasn’t yet put it together for an entire season. His stretch to close the season, stepping in as staff ace after Jason Schmidt got hobbled with a groin injury, was beyond expectations, but now he seems to be fueling such expectations for all of 2005.
Then again, there’s the veteran Kirk Rueter. After two sub-par seasons, some fans have lost some faith in him, but Rueter knows pitching like no one else, and still can come through in the clutch. In 2002, he emerged as a key starter for the Giants in the playoffs, though he took some lumps in the NLDS against Atlanta, he was the only starter to start 2 games against St. Louis, including 6 scoreless innings in the clinching game, 4 innings in emergency relief in Game 7 holding Anaheim scoreless for a comeback that never came around. The Giants may find themselves putting themselves in his hands again.
And there’s Jerome Williams, who may be ready to fulfill the predictions that he may become the next Doc Gooden. Williams took some lumps from injuries, stamina issues and the league adjusting to him a little. This year, he’s come into spring after a solid offseason workout regimen that’s kept him in shape, he’s healthy, and he’s ready to go. Jerome may be the underrated pitcher from the Class of ’03 (that included Brandon Webb and Dontrelle Willis), but this year could become the year he shines.
Whichever pitcher shines in ’05, chances are they will be getting off to a strong start in Spring Training.
MOST INTERESTING PLAYER TO WATCH WHO WON’T BREAK CAMP WITH THE BIG LEAGUE TEAM – MATT CAIN
If you’ve been paying any attention to the Giants and their minor league prospects, then you’ve heard about Matt Cain. Almost every major listing has him as a Top 10 prospect in all of baseball, some have him as high as the Top 3. He’s showed no ill effects from his stress fracture of 2003, and only showed stamina issues which aren’t unusual for a pitcher who threw twice as many innings in a single season as he had in all his previous pro seasons before. Cain is reportedly intensely competitive, and he will likely put his all into his first chance sharing the stage with the major leaguers. Giants fans should look very closely at his Spring Training appearances, if for nothing other than to get a taste of the talent to come.
Thursday, March 3rd – Starting: Brett Tomko; Relieving: Brad Hennessey
Friday, March 4th – Starting: Noah Lowry; Reliving: Jesse Foppert
Saturday, March 5th (2 Split-Squad Games) – Starting: Jason Schmidt(Game A)/Jerome Williams(Game B); Relieving: Merkin Valdez(Game A)/Kevin Correia(Game B)
Sunday, March 6th – Starting: Kirk Rueter; Relieving: Matt Cain
Only a limited number of games will be broadcast in any form in the Bay Area. Here’s your quick list to see what you can tune into, and where.
Radio – KNBR or your Giants radio network affiliate – March 3rd, March 5th, March 6th, March 9th, March 12th, March 13th, March 19th, March 20th, March 21st, March 26th, March 27th.
TV – March 8th (on ESPN), March 16th (on ESPN2)