March 2012

There’s no argument: Sign Cain

Thursday, March 29

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Giants must lock up Matt Cain contractually. Period. This is beyond argument, like the virtues of dental hygiene, regular auto maintenance and the iPod. No further discussion is necessary.

We’ll discuss the issue anyway, since Giants ownership apparently needs some encouragement to act. The Giants might not realize how much they’ll miss Cain until he’s gone. So don’t let him leave. Give him the “fair value” that he wants to prevent him from becoming a free agent after this season. It’s that simple.

Managers and baseball executives drone endlessly about the value of starting pitchers who give their team a chance to win just by showing up for work on the days they pitch. Cain’s an established member of this select group. So is Tim Lincecum. And Madison Bumgarner appears poised to join the club. But Cain, the longest-tenured player among the current Giants, has maintained his steadiness longer than any San Francisco pitcher in decades. Despite being only 27, he has started 203 games, a figure eclipsed by only six Giants since the franchise moved West in 1958: Hall of Famers Juan Marichal (446 starts) and Gaylord Perry (283), the dependable Kirk Rueter (277), 1967 National League Cy Young Award winner Mike McCormick (245), the underrated Jim Barr (220) and old-school workhorse Jack Sanford (211). With the exception of Rueter, none of these men played for the Giants after 1983. In other words, disregard Cain’s 69-73 record. Pitchers like him don’t come around very often.

One of the best ways to measure Cain’s value is to consider when he didn’t give the Giants a chance to win. Being aberrations, they’re strangely easier to remember than many of Cain’s successes. Let’s see: He began 2006, his first full Major League season, with a 1-5 record and a 7.04 ERA after seven appearances. He convalesced in the bullpen for one game (a perfect two-inning stint at Houston) before one-hitting the A’s. So much for that slump. Then there was the 2008 home opener, which he lost to Greg Maddux and the Padres as he allowed five runs and seven hits and walked five in 4 1/3 innings. Another rare dud occurred on the final Friday of the regular season, when the Giants needed one victory over San Diego to clinch the National League West. Cain was shockingly ineffective against the Padres, allowing all six of their runs and nine hits in four innings. Cain recovered nicely by throwing 21 1/3 innings in the subsequent postseason without yielding an earned run.

Obviously, Cain has endured other subpar starts. But you get the point. They’re difficult to remember, largely because so few exist on his ledger. Typically, he’s a consummate competitor who makes the Giants competitive with him. Cain tends to get overlooked alongside Lincecum’s charismatic brilliance. This does not diminish Cain’s stature in the least. He’s content to be exactly who and what he is. “Here it is — go ahead and try to hit it,” he seems to say with each pitch. It’s a classically aggressive approach that works. Proof: Cain is among seven pitchers who have reached or exceeded 200 innings for five consecutive seasons. Mark Buehrle, Dan Haren, Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, James Shields and Justin Verlander are the others. Also, according to statistician Bill Chuck, Cain, Halladay, Cliff Lee and Jered Weaver are the only starters to finish
each of the previous two seasons with a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 1.1 or below.

Fans understand Cain’s significance. That’s why they demanded an accord with Cain during an online chat with Giants president and CEO Larry Baer on Thursday. Some of the fans used coarse language to accentuate their sense of urgency. They see the sellout crowds at AT&T Park and reason that the club can easily afford to extend Cain’s contract, which could cost at least $20 million annually. The franchise’s economics are much more complex than that. Still, if Cain isn’t retained, it’s easy to imagine that those sellouts will occur a little less frequently.

The Giants might not create new batches of fans if they keep Cain. But they could lose an appreciable number of them if he departs. Cain has become an essential component of the Giants’ identity: Pitching excellence. Imagine the void that would be created by the departure of Cain and Lincecum, who’ll be a free agent after his two-year contract expires. Should this be coupled with the failure of the Giants’ position-player prospects to blossom, they’d unravel into a truly sorry franchise. Don’t scoff. It happened before. Observers of a certain age recall the dismal span from Nov. 29, 1971 to Dec. 7, 1973, when the Giants jettisoned (in order) Perry, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Marichal. Granted, with the exception of Perry, who won 180 games after leaving San Francisco, these stalwarts were far past their peak effectiveness. But those guys were the Giants. Nearly a half-decade passed before the organization regained a semblance of equilibrium.

Choose your own metaphor or simile to define the importance of Cain and Lincecum to the Giants. You might think they’re like the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, Lennon and McCartney or Boardwalk and Park Place. Or you can employ plain English: They make San Francisco the envy of almost all of the 29 other Major League clubs. Together, they’re definitely Giant, as the club’s marketing gurus might say. Step One for the club in maintaining its little slice of superiority is handing Cain an oversized but legitimately earned contract. The time is now.

Chris Haft

Cast a careful eye on sensational Blanco

Monday, March 26

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Gregor Blanco deserves to be on the Giants’ Opening Day roster. Heck, he needs to be on the Opening Day roster. He’s a fearless, speedy baserunner (the second trait means nothing without the first) who provides versatility with his aptitude for playing all three outfield positions. Besides, Blanco’s a good guy who would cherish his opportunity. The comparisons between him and Andres Torres, another non-roster outfielder who boosted the Giants in 2009-10, are apt.

So why hasn’t Blanco established himself after 11 professional seasons, which included a year and a half with Kansas City, an organization starving for dynamic offensive talent? I asked this question of a well-respected scout shortly before I went on the disabled list with a frighteningly infected right arm. The scout’s views were unsurprising but instructive.

Mentioning that he frequently saw Blanco play over the years and respected his ability, the scout said, “Some guys get labeled.” So it was with Blanco, 28, who’s widely regarded as too good for the Minors but not quite adept enough for the Majors — a “4-A” player.

Check the numbers. Blanco owns a respectable .367 Minor League on-base percentage (all statistics courtesy of Baseball-reference.com). Though he has trimmed his strikeouts, he still has gone down on strikes 973 times in 4,924 plate appearances in the Majors and Minors — too many for a guy who ideally should be a contact hitter.

Blanco was a pacesetter in Atlanta’s minor league system from 2001-2007, leading his teams in some statistical category or another. He spent the entire 2008 season with Atlanta, started 113 games and compiled a respectable .366 on-base percentage, due largely to 74 walks. But the rest of his statistical line (.251 batting average, 52 runs, 19 extra-base hits, 99 strikeouts, 13 steals in 18 tries and a .309 slugging percentage) was unremarkable. Befitting his 4-A label, Blanco divided the next two seasons between Triple-A and the Majors — until last year, when he languished in Triple-A with the Royals and Nationals organizations.

None of Blanco’s perceived flaws has been evident this spring. That prompted the scout’s second warning: “A lot of guys get exposed.” That is, the more they play, the more their weaknesses show. They’re better off occupying the bench, playing in short bursts until their usefulness wanes. Consider Torres. He finished 2009 with a .876 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in only 170 plate appearances. Torres followed that with an admirable .823 OPS in 570 plate appearances during the magical 2010 season. But he struggled mightily last year, hitting .221 with a .643 OPS.

Another factor to keep in mind is the level of competition. This is only Spring Training. Blanco’s batting .352 with a .871 OPS; if he makes the team, merely approaching those figures during the regular season will be a monumental challenge.

Blanco won’t have to. He can provide speed, adept defense and energy off the bench late in games when he doesn’t start and flurries of competence when he does. Manager Bruce Bochy, who’s skilled at coaxing maximum production from his personnel, can be counted on to use Blanco wisely.

That’s assuming Blanco makes the 25-man active roster. The scout didn’t offer an opinion on this subject, but he weighed in on the Giants’ top decision-makers who could determine Blanco’s fate.

“Brian Sabean and Dick Tidrow are smart,” the scout said, referring to San Francisco’s general manager and his chief assistant. “They know what they’re doing.”

Chris Haft

Martinez cherishes time with Giants

Sunday, March 4

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Five minutes of waiting in the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse stretched to 10, which soon became 20 or 25. “He’s in the weight room,” a D-backs media relations official informed me.

Despite having been unproductive for about a half-hour, I felt strangely pleased. This was the Joe Martinez I knew, always diligent.

If you’re reading this, you probably remember Joe Martinez. At 26, he entered Spring Training 2009 mostly unheralded but pitched his way onto the Giants’ season-opening roster. Not only that, but he also won the opener at AT&T Park with two innings of relief in his big league debut against Milwaukee.

It helped that Martinez was diligent, earnest and seemed like the kind of guy you’d let your daughter date. When he made the team, it brought to mind the saying that good things happen to good people.

Then, in the finale of that Milwaukee series, with the Giants leading 7-1, Mike Cameron hit a line drive that struck the right side of  Martinez’s forehead. Martinez weathered a concussion and three hairline fractures, bringing to mind the saying that bad things occasionally happen to good people. Martinez recovered and rejoined the Giants in August. The following year, he and outfielder John Bowker were traded to Pittsburgh at the Trade Deadline for lefty Javier Lopez.

Martinez, who’s currently competing for a spot on Arizona’s pitching staff, appeared in five games for San Francisco during the hallowed 2010 season. So, yes, he got a World Series ring. He knew it was coming; a Giants official had contacted him to ask him his ring size.

Martinez was busy pitching for Cleveland’s Triple-A Columbus (Ohio) affiliate when The Ring came — and all that it represented along with it. Selected by San Francisco in the 12th round of the 2005 draft, Martinez treasures his five-plus years in the Giants organization.

“I loved it,” he said. “Obviously I look back on a lot of fond memories and good relationships with people there, not just players, but also staff, pitching coaches, even some front-office people.”

Of the 2010 club, Martinez said, “I felt like I was a part of that team, even for the small part that I played. They made me feel like part of the team, even though I wasn’t always in the big leagues with them. I’m happy they won. I wish I could have been there with them.”

Finally, Martinez insisted that he doesn’t dwell on the Cameron incident.

“It really doesn’t bother me when people mention it,” Martinez said. “I’m OK. I don’t have any lasting effects from it, as far as I know. The way it happened kind of sticks in people’s mind because it looked bad. It looked worse, thank God, than it was.”

Chris Haft

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