It’s Been a Long Year… Already
by Richard Van Zandt,
March 30, 2008

Hope springs eternal. It’s a timeless phrase; one that never seems to be truer than it does in baseball at this time of the year. As March fades into April and baseball season begins anew, all 30 teams are full of hope that this year will be the year they win it all. Pumping up the fan base, grand superlatives are tossed around so freely by the media so that even Jamey Wright could seem like a Cy Young candidate. It doesn’t matter which team is your favorite (yes, you too, Royal and Pirate fans), if its spring, you have reason to be optimistic. Unless of course, if you’re a San Francisco Giants fan in 2008. In that case, well, it’s been a long year…already.

Without even leaving the starting gate, the Giants – expected by most to finish in last place in the NL West – have already given their fans plenty of reason to grumble.

Gone is Barry Bonds and his 761 career home runs as well as his shot at reaching 3,000 hits wearing the Orange and Black (he stands just 65 hits shy of the magic mark), not to mention his 1.045 OPS and team-leading 28 jacks from 2007. Taking his cleanup spot in the lineup is catcher Bengie Molina, who sports a career .309 OBP and a .411 lifetime slugging percentage. This from a team that was second to last in runs per game in the National League last year.

And a look around the diamond offers several other reasons to get discouraged as well, as if their 9-23 spring record – worst in baseball – with an astounding 40 errors wasn’t reason enough.

On the mound, ace Barry Zito made 5 spring starts and posted a 10.31 ERA, pitching 18.1 innings and allowing 23 hits and 13 walks while striking out only four. Now I’m not one to put much stock in spring training numbers, but for a pitcher signed to a $126 million contract and coming off a disappointing season in which he went just 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA, that’s not terribly inspiring.

Also, Kevin Correia – slated to be the fourth starter with Noah Lowry out for at least the first month of the season – has a 5.66 ERA with 28 hits allowed in 20.2 innings. He was even skipped a start due to a “cranky” shoulder. And fifth starter Jonathan Sanchez has been even worse, posting 7.23 ERA while allowing 35 hits in 23.2 innings. He surrendered six runs, including a go-ahead three-run home run, in a final tune up on Sunday against Oakland.

And new closer Brian Wilson, while impressing with his newfound control (1 BB in 11.2 IP) has been uncharacteristically easy to hit, allowing 17 hits and recording a 6.17 ERA this spring. Batters hit .327 against him.

At shortstop, third-year pro Brian Bocock will get the Opening Day assignment with Omar Vizquel rehabbing from arthroscopic knee surgery. Bocock, 23, hit .220/.293/.328 at Class-A San Jose last year and supposedly is valued for his defense, despite having committed 31 errors in 126 games last year in the minors. Vizquel, who turns 41 on April 24, is expected back possibly as soon as the team’s home opener on April 7, so Bocock, who finished the spring hitting .183, won’t be around long. Nevertheless, the club’s alarming lack of depth at this key position has already been exposed.

When camp opened, it was a possibility that the team would keep both Guillermo Rodriguez and Eliezer Alfonzo as backups to Molina behind the plate. Rodriguez, however, was optioned out after going just 2-for-17 (.118) and Alfonzo, who won MVP honors in the Venezuelan winter league after clubbing 22 home runs, was cut after collecting just four hits in 44 at bats (.091). Baring a last minute addition off the waiver list from outside the organization, this means that the team will go with their third choice, 7-year minor league veteran Steve Holm, who sports a career line of .240/.329/.387. He has never played above Double-A ball.

His role could become even greater depending on the health of Molina. The Giants starting backstop played in just 13 games this spring after missing time early due to calf problems.

The fan base had hoped that 26-year old Kevin Frandsen could wrestle the second base job away from 36-year old Ray Durham, but those hopes were dashed when Frandsen ruptured his Achilles tendon. Frandsen will be out a minimum of five months. Durham hit just .196 with a .598 OPS after June 1 last year, yet has at least given fans some hope he could rebound with his .442/.528/.628 spring line.

26-year old Dan Ortmeier was supposed to represent the team’s newfound commitment to developing youth, but he slumped his way out of the starting first base assignment for at least the opener. 36-year old Rich Aurilia instead slides over from third to make the start after the club’s commitment to youth fails to last until Opening Day.

That leaves Jose Castillo, picked up off the waiver line earlier this spring, as the club’s Opening Day starting third baseman. Castillo was the Pirates’ starting second baseman for most of 2004-06 and has played just 34 games at third in his big league career. He sports a less-than prolific .256/.297/.380 career line and was beaten out for the third base job in Florida by Jorge Cantu. At least at the age of 27, he’s not yet another over-30 starter.

Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t at least a few reasons for optimism. Second-year starter Tim Lincecum, for instance, posted a 1.63 ERA this spring and struck out 16 in 11 innings over his final two spring starts, including 5 hitless innings with 9 K in his final outing. And Matt Cain struck out 14 batters with just 3 walks in his final 10 innings of spring work. Both pitchers are just 23-years old.

Additionally, the speedy Eugenio Velez was the camp sensation and emerged as potentially the surprise player of the year in the National League. The only question is whether the ancient mariner favoring Giants will give the 25-year old Velez enough opportunity to play. Velez hit .286/.340/.417 while leading the team in at bats (84) and stole a major league best 16 bases this spring after stealing 118 the past two seasons in the minors.

And hopefully, manager Bruce Bochy’s enthusiasm about Fred Lewis (Bochy stated in May of ’07 that Lewis had a chance to become a “special player”) will translate into more playing time for him and less for Dave Roberts. Lewis does something so few Giants these days do: He gets on base. Lewis has a career .379 major league on-base percentage to go along with a .377 minor league mark, and this spring he reached base at a .381 clip.

Unfortunately, unless the team can find someone to take veterans Roberts and Durham along with their cumbersome contracts off their hands, these exciting young players are likely to languish on the bench in what has become recent true Giants fashion.

Of course, spring stats and records should be taken with a grain of salt. Boston for instance, won’t be expected to match their 8-12 spring mark during the regular season while the A’s (18-8) won’t replicate their March success. But what you see is likely what you’re gonna get with these Giants. The starting pitching isn’t deep and has many questions. The bullpen returns nearly intact from last year, when they were awful, and the lineup is possibly historically weak.

The organization promised their fans more emphasis on youth, and to that end, fans have yet to see that commitment. Will this change as the season progresses? Will young players like Ortmeier, Velez and Lewis get a chance to prove themselves, or will Sabean and crew show reluctance once again to let the kids play? If they do get to play, will they get pulled at the first sign of a slump?

All of that is yet to be seen. How many games the Giants win (or maybe more pertinently, lose) won’t be known for months. What is clear is that the 2008 season is going to be a long one. In fact, it’s been a long year…already.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at