February 2009

Neukom puts his stamp on Giants


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The business of baseball no longer belongs mainly to businessmen, but also to traditional baseball men. At least that’s what Bill Neukom believes.

Neukom, the Giants’ managing general partner, revealed Friday that key figures from baseball operations, including general manager Brian Sabean, vice president of baseball operations Bobby Evans and scouting director John Barr, have been attending meetings of the Giants’ investors — not just to hear more than they ordinarily might about ledgers and balance sheets, but also to impart some of their horsehide-oriented wisdom upon the millionaires. “Part of the Giants Way,” said Neukom, citing his now-familiar program for revitalizing the franchise, “is integrating the business side and the baseball side of our enterprise.”  

Neukom also pointedly mentioned the contributions of Jeremy Shelley, senior director of baseball operations/pro scouting, and baseball operations coordinator Yeshayah Goldfarb — reflecting the Giants’ increased emphasis on statistical analysis. This, too, reflects Neukom’s influence since he took over the club last Oct. 1.

“These are not just crunchers who give you some funny numbers,” Neukom said. “They know the game, love the game and have an opinion, and they stand up to Brian and the scouts and [vice president of player personnel Dick] Tidrow and say, ‘This is not the guy you want for these reasons’ or ‘this is what you might not have caught on this guy.’ “

Sabean, to his credit, has mentioned statistical analysis more than once during recent months to explain certain moves — or non-moves.

Given the state of the economy, it’s wise for anybody involved in baseball to understand more about the game’s monetary aspects. The recession, said Neukom, “is a serious matter and it’s changing the complexion of the finances of the game. We want to try to stay in front of that if we can. Be prudent.”

— Chris Haft

The Mailbag returns!

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — This has nothing to do with the Giants but everything to do with Giants fans, at least those who read sfgiants.com.

Dozens of you expressed disappointment when the Mailbag was discontinued. Mourn no longer. It shall return, except now it’ll be called the “Inbox.”

I have a few e-mails in my queue — er, inbox — which I’ll use in the next day or so to try to cobble together a reintroductory entry. Typically with the Mailbag, I’d select eight to 12 e-mails out of about 150-200. I’m hopeful that many of you will resume writing once that first Inbox (which comes with the form for e-mailing me) appears. Of course, feel free to contact me sooner.

— Chris Haft

Now we know it’s baseball season: Mays is here

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Giants were graced Monday by the arrival of Willie Howard Mays, who needs no introduction.

Mays appeared in camp to begin his annual visit. As is often the case, he avoided giving formal interviews, though he reversed roles by eagerly quizzing reporters about Giants players.

Mays, who continues to revel in the company of ballplayers, welcomed shortstop Edgar Renteria to the Giants and chatted animatedly with left fielder Fred Lewis and infielder Emmanuel Burriss.

— Chris Haft

Giants lefties are no dummies

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Giants pitchers won’t face hitters in “live” batting practice for another couple of days, but Jack Taschner and Alex Hinshaw got a head start Tuesday.

The pair of left-handed relievers, who will be called upon often against left-handed batters this season, threw their bullpen sessions with something called the “Ultimate Pitchers’ Tool” situated in the left-handed batter’s box.

The “Tool” was a plastic dummy about the size of an average big leaguer, poised in a batting stance and gripping a plastic bat. Its presence gave Taschner and Hinshaw a semblance of the challenge they’ll confront this year.

“It kind of brought me back to that scene in ‘Major League’ when Rick Vaughn takes that dummy’s head off,” Hinshaw said.

He and Taschner did nothing of the sort. Instead, each threw several darting pitches that might have handcuffed a living, breathing hitter.

Reporting Day leftovers

The world “leftovers” in the headline isn’t meant to be dismissive. After all, leftovers are usually good for a couple of days. So snack on these morsels as you wait for the Giants to officially start Spring Training:

— Manager Bruce Bochy said Saturday that players will engage in conditioning exercises at the end of workouts instead of at the beginning. “One of the primary reasons I changed it was that I want these guys to have their legs fresh as they’re going through fundamentals and the pitchers are throwing on the side,” Bochy said.

— Left fielder Fred Lewis visited Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., in December to approve baseball spikes made specially for him. Lewis underwent surgery last September to have a bunion removed from his right big toe and actually has another bunion on his left foot that hasn’t yet proved bothersome. The shoes, he said, contain a mesh material around the toes to provide flexibility. Lewis expects to be ready to play in the Giants’ Feb. 25 Cactus League opener against Cleveland, although he hasn’t tried moving side to side or cutting sharply on his feet. “I feel like a little kid in a candy store,” Lewis said. “I can’t wait to get out there on the field. I feel like I have something to prove all over again.”

— Bochy named right-handers Kevin Pucetas, Joseph Martinez and Ramon Ortiz and left-hander Pat Misch as candidates to start if Martians abducted a member or two of the existing rotation (my words, not Bochy’s). Pucetas owns a 32-7 Minor League record but hasn’t pitched above Class A; Martinez led the Eastern League with a 2.49 ERA for Double-A Connecticut last year; Ortiz will prepare to pitch long relief as well as start; and Misch started 20 games in 2008 for Triple-A Fresno and the Giants.

— Bochy indicated that left-hander Randy Johnson’s training regimen will be adjusted to accommodate the 45-year-old’s history of back problems. “When you’ve been in the game as long as he has and you’ve had the success that he’s had, he has a routine and we certainly don’t want to change it,” Bochy said. When a reporter mentioned that the Arizona Diamondbacks protected Johnson last spring by prohibiting him from hitting in exhibition games, Bochy said, “We do want him to take a few swings so when he gets in a game he doesn’t hurt himself.” Bochy won’t completely baby Johnson either, judging from his response when another reporter mentioned PFP (pitchers’ fielding practice). “He’ll spend some time there, maybe not as much as a Jesse English,” Bochy said, humorously referring to the rookie right-hander who finished 13-7 last year for Class A San Jose.

— Chris Haft

Sanchez, not Lowry, has upper (left) hand

The annual Bay Area Baseball Luncheon sponsored by Comcast, which was revived Wednesday after a one-year hiatus, was more than just a promotional affair, if you’re a Giants fan. It generated a little news.

General manager Brian Sabean, who said earlier this offseason that Noah Lowry’s experience would conceivably give him an edge over fellow left-hander Jonathan Sanchez for the fifth starter’s spot, reversed his thinking during a question-and-answer session at the luncheon.

“Really, it’s the other way around. Lowry’s going to have to unseat (Sanchez),” Sabean said.

Sabean watched Sanchez throw recently in Arizona, and indicated that he liked what he saw. “He’s bigger and stronger,” Sabean said of Sanchez, who formerly could take a shower in the barrel of a .22, as the cliche goes. In fact, Sabean liked what he saw so much that the chances of trading Sanchez for a proven hitter, which has prompted much speculation this winter, appear to be more remote than ever.

“I’d have a hard time thinking we could trade this player for (equal) value,” Sabean said.

It’s easy to follow Sabean’s logic. Sanchez, 26, possesses what talent evaluators call a bigger “upside” than Lowry. That is, he’s viewed as being potentially more productive, with his fastball that exceeds 90 mph and a decent assortment of secondary pitches.

Another hint that the Giants favor Sanchez: Sabean gave him his blessing to pitch for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, if he’s selected for the final roster. “I think it’s going to do him a world (no pun intended) of good for his confidence and maturation process,” Sabean said.

But the intangibles favor Lowry. Sanchez’s toughness occasionally has been questioned; by contrast, Lowry wouldn’t flinch if he were suddenly dropped into a boxing ring with Manny Pacquiao. The man exudes confidence, perhaps more so than any pitcher on the Giants’ staff. Lowry’s also a proven quantity, having led San Francisco in wins in 2005 and 2007.

Hence, the Sanchez-Lowry faceoff promises to add to the Spring Training intrigue.

Other nuggets from the luncheon:

* Managing general partner Bill Neukom continued to hedge politely when he addressed the futures of Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy, whose contracts expire after this season. “We’ll worry about what happens after this season after this season,” Neukom said, with Sabean and Bochy seated close by.

* Sabean named left-hander Madison Bumgarner as the “leader of the class” of the next wave of Giants talent. “When this kid comes up, he’s not going to go back,” Sabean said of Bumgarner, 15-3 with a 1.46 ERA at low-Class A Augusta last season.

— Chris Haft    

Welcome to OUR world

Hi, fans and readers:

I want this to be our blog. Though I may set the agenda, so to speak, by initiating the “conversation” by writing about whatever I observe or might feel like commenting on during any particular day, I’d like this to serve as our new “Mailbag” — remember those? I won’t be able to answer every fan’s comments, obviously, and some days I might not respond to any, depending on what’s going on. But I miss the give-and-take with everybody and I’d like to revive that somewhat … and, somewhat selfishly, seize upon the chance to express myself.

That’s the introduction. Some “ball talk” will immediately follow.

— Chris Haft