It’s that time of year again. The time where teams evaluate their place in the standings, decide if they are buyers or sellers and make moves accordingly. The Giants, as the recent Shea Hillenbrand acquisition proves, fall into the buying category. After a weekend that saw the Giants take three out of four from the Padres, they are only a 1/2 game out of first place in the tightly contested NL West and only 1 game out of the wild card lead. It’s safe to say the team is right in the middle of a playoff race.
With the July 31 trade deadline fast approaching, San Francisco figured to make some moves in preparation for the playoff run. While winners of five of their last six games, the team is not without its needs. The Giants have been in win-now, worry-later mode for quite some time now. With a roster full of aging stars, Barry Bonds being the integral part, San Francisco looks to again sell the future for a chance to win with the veteran team currently assembled.
While nearly every trade rumor never comes to fruition, there had been plenty out there regarding the Giants before the team traded Jeremy Accardo for Shea Hillenbrand and Vinnie Chulk. The most obvious and glaring need was first base. After all, the Giants have had just nine home runs from their first basemen this season, leading to the recent demotion of Lance Niekro to Triple-A. While the Giants say they are not giving up on Niekro, his .249/.288/.376 line seems to have given them reasonable doubt about his future as a regular. Enter Shea Hillenbrand.
First, let’s examine the many other names who were mentioned as possible targets before the Giants brought in Hillenbrand. The Pirates’ Sean Casey was reportedly atop their list, and it appeared to be a good fit, given that Casey has hit very well in San Francisco, 45-for-96 (.469), during his career. Phil Nevin and Todd Walker of the Cubs had also been indicated, as was Ryan Shealy, the 27-year-old Rockies farmhand whose path is blocked by Todd Helton. Another option could have been Javy Lopez, who could play first base and serve as a backup catcher. Another name was Jose Vidro, who could have shifted to first base this year and then move back to second next year as a replacement for free-agent-to-be Ray Durham. Vidro drew significant interest from the Giants earlier this week but that interest waned in part because of Vidro's recent hamstring problems.
With all of the aforementioned options being good, not great replacements, Hillenbrand seems to be as good as any. Unfortunately, August (708 OPS) and September (710 OPS) have traditionally been Hillenbrand’s worst months during his career, so huge numbers shouldn’t be expected. Still, he’s a clear upgrade over Lance Niekro and Chad Santos. While Hillenbrand won’t be winning any Gold Gloves soon, his defense will be less of a problem at first base than when he was playing third. As far as his character issues, Hillenbrand never seems to be a problem when he plays, and he's going to play an awful lot now. For a team that deals with the constant distractions that Barry Bonds presents, Hillenbrand poses no threat in that department.
Giving up Jeremy Accardo, especially when the Blue Jays had very little leverage considering Hillenbrand was designated for assignment and it was no secret he was being shopped around, is something Giants fans hope won’t come back to bite them. Accardo has a nice fastball-slider combination, but he’s struggled ever since manager Felipe Alou decided to use him in both games of a doubleheader on July 3 and then again the following day. While Accardo’s future is brighter, at least for this season, Vinnie Chulk could match Accardo’s production.
I’ll be the first to question GM Brian Sabean’s moves, especially after every dominant outing by Joe Nathan, which painfully reminds every Giants fan of what could have been. So while giving up a right-handed reliever with electric stuff is obviously worrisome, Sabean’s track record has more hits than misses when it comes to giving up prospects. Kurt Ainsworth never panned out. Jerome Williams is still failing to reach expectations. Jesse Foppert is nowhere to be found, and five years ago this month, the Giants got Jason Schmidt for a package of young talent that included pitching prospect Ryan Vogelsong, who is still in Triple-A.
Whether this move is enough to put the Giants over the top and win the division remains to be seen. Most likely, another deal would be best. While Armando Benitez has seemingly rounded into form, his 20/14 K/BB ratio is shaky. Brian Wilson and Jonathan Sanchez have pitched well, but both are young and unproven, not an ideal mix during a pennant race. Their depth isn’t great either, so more bullpen help would seem to be the Giants’ number one priority as of now. With the way the roster is set up, San Francisco might as well go ahead and try for immediate success and worry about the consequences later. It’s been their motto for a few years, and there’s no reason to stop now.
One possible target the club could seek to acquire is Pirates’ left-hander Mike Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who has a 2.57 ERA and an impressive 45 strikeouts in 42 innings, would be a welcome addition to the Giants’ pen. Another team reportedly interested in Gonzalez is the Dodgers, so this acquisition could prove twice as important.
Sure, it may seem like the Giants don’t have much left to offer in return, with the farm system limited, and the big-league roster old, but other teams will be looking to dump salary, and GM Brian Sabean has deftly executed such moves in the past. Although some might view the shallow farm system as good news, as there is no Francisco Liriano-type that Sabean can give away.
Bottom line, the NL West is going to be won by the team that is most aggressive in the trade market. With every team so close in regard to talent, one move here or there could easily be the difference maker. The Giants struck first by acquiring Shea Hillenbrand, but the team shouldn’t stop there.
Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for any complaints, questions or preferably, compliments..
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