March 2009

Guzman, P.S.

PHOENIX, Ariz. — In Friday’s second inning, Jesus Guzman, playing third base for the Giants, dropped Jermaine Dye’s leadoff smash but recovered the ball quickly, as solid infielders do. Then Guzman overthrew first base, as solid infielders don’t. Thus, two of Chicago’s three runs in the inning were unearned.

True, Guzman saved Thursday’s victory over the White Sox with a diving play to his right. But he’s clearly inconsistent afield.

And his hitting skills would atrophy if the Giants kept him on the Opening Day roster as a reserve. To repeat, he has to play, hit and improve defensively, even if the improvement is only marginal.

— Chris H. 

Guzman must find a position in minors, but which one?

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Though it’s easy and dangerous to be seduced by Spring Training performances, Jesus Guzman appears to be a truly special hitter. Whether the Giants ever manage to capitalize on Guzman’s skills, however, could become an issue.

Guzman’s defensive shortcomings have been well-documented. Simply put, he struggles with the glove, and his footwork isn’t especially precise. In fairness to Guzman, he’s only 24 and has played only 15 games above Double-A. Since he seems to be a decent athlete, spending a season in the high Minors trying to learn and master a position could benefit him.

But, assuming Guzman goes to Triple-A Fresno, which spot should he play? Do the Grizzlies oust Scott McClain from first base or Ryan Rohlinger from third? What if third baseman Conor Gillaspie, a top prospect, lands in Fresno? Second base, where Guzman has said he feels comfortable, might be a possibility. I personally think that the outfield ultimately could be a decent spot for him. Typically, infielders find it easier to adjust to playing outfield than vice-versa.

Here’s something about Guzman that concerns me: Two American League organizations, the Mariners and A’s, gave up on him. If neither system envisioned him as a potential designated hitter, which would enable him to skirt his defensive struggles, that raises some red flags.

Here’s something about Guzman I like: If he reached the Majors with the Giants, he wouldn’t let AT&T Park affect him mentally. He’d learn to use the park’s dimensions to his benefit, spraying line drives everywhere for doubles and triples and pulling home runs to left. In this respect, Guzman could be — dare I say it? — the Giants’ next Jeff Kent.

As I write this, Guzman grounded into a double play with the bases loaded and nobody out in the first inning of Friday’s exhibition against the Chicago White Sox. But that didn’t negate his remarkable output overall (.410, four homers, a team-high 12 RBIs and a .974 slugging percentage entering the game).

Guzman demonstrated his hitting skill in subtle fashion Thursday by “spoiling” a pitch — swinging at a two-strike delivery he knew he couldn’t put in play and fouling it off. Except he didn’t just nick the ball, as even accomplished hitters do. He lined it a couple of hundred feet outside the right-field foul line. The man can flat-out hit. But part of the beauty and challenge of baseball is the prerequisite that each player must possess multiple skills. Guzman doesn’t have to learn to use his glove as well as his bat, but he had better close the gap between the two, or else he’ll never be seen at AT&T Park.

— Chris Haft

Is signing Pudge really necessary?

MASSILLON, Ohio — As I finish helping my daughter Samantha celebrate her 18th birthday, I admire from afar the typically solid reporting by my San Francisco Chronicle counterpart, Henry Schulman, who confirmed that the Giants have explored signing Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez.

Pardon me for not summoning the same enthusiasm for the notion of acquiring Rodriguez. By bringing Rodriguez aboard, the Giants would be admitting that the personnel strategy they’ve considered since the 2008 season ended was flawed. It’s not flawed, if only because they haven’t given it a chance to work yet.

Rodriguez’s arrival would reflect a vote of no confidence in Travis Ishikawa and Pablo Sandoval, who likely would lose playing time at first and third base, respectively. So much for the youth movement.

It’s also quite possible that Rich Aurilia, who has been expected to back up at the infield corners, would be sent packing if Rodriguez joined the Giants. Rodriguez has had an outstanding career and might win election to the Hall of Fame, but at this point in his career it’s debatable whether he’s better than Aurilia.

Rodriguez is 37. He hit all of seven home runs in 398 at-bats last year with the Tigers and Yankees (Aurilia, also 37, homered 10 times in 407 at-bats). How anybody can believe that he’d suddenly regain power while playing in AT&T Park is behind me. Moreoever, since recording a .510 slugging percentage in 2004, Rodriguez has slipped in that category each year, to .444 in 2005, .437 in 2006, .420 in 2007 and .394 last season. The trend is obvious; his career is headed in one direction. At least Ishikawa and Sandoval have youth and a modicum of talent on their side.

Anywhere from six to 16 years ago, the Giants shouldn’t have hesitated to pick up Rodriguez if they had a chance. Now, they shouldn’t hesitate to run from such a deal. I’ve consistently given club management a break when considering their player moves, but this one ranks right down there with the proposed Tim Lincecum-for-Alex Rios trade in Dec. 2007. How can the Giants possibly think that Rodriguez can significantly help them?

— Chris Haft

An ode to Dave Roberts

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Dave Roberts’ value cannot be measured by statistics.

Roberts is that rarest of ballplayers: Somebody who’s good for the team even when he’s not playing. Unfortunately for the Giants, that was all too often over the last couple of years, partly explaining why they released Roberts on Thursday.

Sentiment is a luxury the Giants can’t afford. Eugenio Velez is proving capable of handling the backup outfielder’s role Roberts would have occupied. Velez also switch hits, plays second base and is faster than Roberts. As Giants general manager Brian Sabean said, “I told him [Roberts] we’re on a path to get younger and healthier. Right now that’s not on his resume.”

Still, as Roberts prepares to clean out his Scottsdale Stadium locker — his gear remained in it after he departed Thursday; he had mentioned dropping by one more time to bid goodbye to players he had missed — it’s only right to salute a truly fine individual.

Aaron Boone, another player I’ve known whose character eclipses his statistics, said upon being traded from the Reds to the Yankees that in the end, the relationships a ballplayer forges within the game are the richest assets he derives from it. Certainly a guy can feel fulfilled by making a lot of money or winning a World Series ring. But baseball, which throws disparate men together for 200 or more days a year, forces you to bond. Pity those who are incapable of forming or unwilling to relish those bonds. The best things in life, after all, are free.

Roberts knows this. So he savored the people who surrounded him. He offered a hello and a big smile to anybody who crossed his path, whether it was a clubhouse attendant, a reporter or a teammate.

On the Giants, he was closest to fellow veterans Randy Winn and Rich Aurilia. They were dubbed the “Rat Pack,” owing to the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin-Sammy Davis Jr. triumvirate of the 1960s (no, we’re not forgetting Joey Bishop or Peter Lawford, but let’s face it, the others were the Big Three). But Roberts didn’t confine himself to any clique. When Emmanuel Burriss, Rajai Davis or Velez showed their inexperience on the field, Roberts counseled them afterward, doling out fatherly advice on how to avoid repeating such transgressions. When Matt Cain had endured one luckless defeat too many, Roberts was there to remind him that there was nothing wrong with him and assure him that he’ll ultimately be rewarded. This might sound like self-evident stuff, but it’s easy to lose perspective under the pressure big leaguers face. Roberts was always willing to offer that perspective in a patient, understanding, caring package.

During Barry Bonds’ final ascent to the home run record in 2007, Roberts tirelessly answered reporters’ incessant questions about the slugger. Roberts didn’t do this to win points with the media or seem better than the other players. He did this because he knew the media’s demands wouldn’t subside, and by answering a question here or a question there he could spare teammates some of the hassle. In short, he took one (in this case, hundreds) for the team.

I’ve been blessed to cover baseball for most of my career since 1991, and when I grope through my memory for other players who possessed the same intangible worth that Roberts brought the Giants, I find few parallels.

There was Casey Candaele, who everybody thought was too small, too slow and just not physically gifted enough to play Major League baseball. His mere presence (never mind his outrageous sense of humor) inspired teammates to give their best.

There was Pete Harnisch, who pitched only every five days but provided influence constantly. Like Candaele, Harnisch had a stiletto-sharp wit that he could use to motivate, ridicule, or lead his teammates. I also remember how he literally gave up a start toward the end of the 2000 season with Cincinnati so Ron Villone could get a shot at his 10th win. Not only did Villone reach double figures, he also struck out 16 in a 150-pitch complete game that remains one of the most stunning efforts I’ve seen.

Roberts has been the same way, always there for others. It’s no surprise that he was a championship-winning quarterback in high school — playing the most important position in the ultimate team sport. He’s no longer a Giant, and he might have trouble finding a Major League job. But any team that picks him up ought to hold onto him. He’s a winner in a profound sense of the word.

— Chris Haft  

Thoughts from Giants 10, Dodgers 8

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Barry Zito owns a 5.79 ERA after two Cactus League starts, but so far this spring he has looked more assertive on the mound than he sometimes has during his two seasons with San Francisco. That’s no accident, Zito said after he lasted 2 2/3 innings in the Giants’ 10-8 exhibition victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Glendale.

“Personally, I’m on a mission to trust myself and let it fly,” Zito said. “I’ve done that for two games.”

Other highlights from the Giants’ third Cactus League victory in four games:

Catching prospect Buster Posey not only collected his first two hits of the spring but also collected his first RBI with an eighth-inning infield single.

Dave Roberts collected his first hit of the spring with an excellent at-bat in the eighth inning. A left-handed batter facing left-hander Brent Leach, Roberts worked the count to 3-2 before stroking a bases-loaded single that extended the Giants’ lead from 7-6 to 9-6.

Left-hander Alex Hinshaw took his first step toward salvaging what has been a rough spring by pitching 1 1/3 innings for the save. After stranding a runner on first base while recording the eighth’s inning final out, Hinshaw survived shortstop Juan Uribe’s dropped pop-up to strike out Chin-lung Hu and leave runners at the corners.

Has anybody noticed that the Giants have 14 home runs in eight games?

— Chris Haft

Non-roster sleepers awaken Giants; injury updates

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jesus Guzman and Andres Torres almost surely won’t make the Giants’ Opening Day roster. But they’re starting to show that if the Giants ever need them during the season, they’ll be ready when they show up.

Guzman, 24, is the more well-known of the two, although “well-known” isn’t a term commonly associated with non-roster players. Guzman commanded some attention in the offseason by hitting .349 with 13 homers in 61 games and driving in a Venezuelan Winter League-record 67 runs for Caracas. That earned the third baseman league Most Valuable Player honors. The Giants are his third professional organization.

Torres, 31, is a switch-hitting outfielder who has spent 11 years in professional baseball, including fractions of the 2002-05 seasons with Detroit and Texas. That’s the profile of a baseball journeyman.

Except that neither he nor Guzman have looked like journeymen so far in Cactus League games. Guzman ricocheted an eighth-inning RBI triple off the right-field fence Sunday, and Torres has made two excellent plays in center field in recent days. Torres also scored twice in the Giants’ 5-2 victory Sunday over Milwaukee.

Manager Bruce Bochy was especially impressed with Torres: “Those were impressive jumps he gets to the ball, and he has pop from both sides of the plate. He’s interesting.”

“Interesting” can lead to a mid- or late-season callup under many circumstances.

As for the injuries, outfielder Nate Schierholtz is expected to be sidelined for two to three days with back spasms. Those, said Bochy, could be related to Schierholtz’s tight hamstrings.

Left-hander Noah Lowry didn’t throw over the weekend, as expected, but could resume tossing sometime this week.

Good news & a surprise for Giants’ Flannery

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Being the bearer of good news was nice. But in this case, it also was a little unsettling.

Saturday, I congratulated Giants third-base coach Tim Flannery on being named to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes’ Hall of Fame, which I learned when a co-worker forwarded me a story on the subject. I also wanted to ask Flannery a few questions about it for either a short article or a blog entry like this one.

Flannery just stared at me. “I had not heard anything about it,” he said.

Well, now he knows. For the record, Flannery’s 1994 Quakes club finished 77-59 — despite, as he told me, losing their first 11 games of the second half. He said that they collected back-to-back hits only once during that stretch. “We thought it was going to be a tough, long summer,” Flannery said.

Flannery’s club, which won the only California League championship in Quakes history, included Derrek Lee, who was part of Rancho Cucamonga’s charter HOF class in 2007.  “He grew into a man that season,” Flannery said of the future Chicago Cubs All-Star first baseman.

Lee, then 18, played third base that year. “He could pick it,” Flannery said. “That’s why he’s such a great first baseman.”

— Chris Haft