SAN FRANCISCO — After four consecutive winning seasons and two World Series titles in the last three years, the Giants have fallen from their perch alongside the Major Leagues’ elite ballclubs.
Only a dramatic reversal will enable them to finish .500 this year. As for returning to the postseason, that’s pure fantasy.
The Giants are playing without any apparent sense of urgency, perhaps because they have virtually no hope of contending in the National League West. New additions Jeff Francoeur, who reported to Triple-A Fresno, and Kensuke Tanaka might marginally improve the club’s depth. But they probably won’t accomplish more than that. Giants general manager Brian Sabean indicated to San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami that trying to upgrade the roster with major trades is pointless, since the organization lacks the surplus of prospects necessary to engineer deals. Moreover, the team’s performance doesn’t warrant acquiring a couple of handy veterans to accelerate a push for the division title.
Nor should the Giants adopt a scorched-earth policy and gut the roster. There’s always next year, and with it a fresh opportunity to compete in the always-balanced NL West. But implementing the quick fix of free-agent signings might be complicated, because the Giants’ payroll flexibility is limited. The likely departures of impending free agent Tim Lincecum (2013 salary: $22 million) and Barry Zito ($11 million net savings, if the club declines its $18 million option on his 2014 contract and pays him a $7 million buyout) will have limited economic impact, given the raises that Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo will receive.
Moreover, the potential free-agent class isn’t oozing with talent. There probably will be few helpful performers available besides Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Brian McCann and the Giants’ own Hunter Pence. The Giants might be wise to forge a deal with Pence, the intense right fielder who seems sincere about wanting to stay here.
Or they can trade him in the next few weeks, which would mark the third year in a row for Pence to switch teams before the July 31 Trade Deadline. A critical factor here, obviously, is determining Pence’s signability.
That leads to the biggest name the Giants could jettison: Lincecum. The notion of trading the charismatic right-hander sounds almost blasphemous, given his popularity and everything he has done for the franchise. But this is a business. The Giants might be able to receive a useful prospect or two in exchange for Lincecum, who has value despite his 4.61 ERA and 1.407 WHIP. At least one American League contender has expressed interest in Lincecum as a reliever, the role he filled spectacularly in last year’s postseason. It’s not known whether that team has proposed a trade to the Giants involving Lincecum. But if one club has hatched this idea, it’s likely that at least a couple of others share that thought.
The schedule offers a shred of hope. The Giants play their first nine games at AT&T Park after the All-Star break. A strong homestand could advance San Francisco to the fringes of the division race.
But the mathematics of returning to respectability — widely defined as a .500 record — are daunting. To climb to .500 by the end of the season, the Giants must finish 41-31. That’s a winning percentage of .569, a pace the Giants haven’t come close to approaching recently. Remember, San Francisco owns the Major Leagues’ worst record (17-35) since May 14.
Reaching .500 sooner would require vast improvement. The Giants would have to win 13 of their next 16 games to climb to .500 by the end of the month. Push back the deadline to Sept. 1, Game No. 136. The Giants must go 28-18 from Thursday until then to hit the .500 level.
Next, forget the arithmetic and employ common sense. The Giants have done nothing — nothing — to indicate that they’re capable of executing such a turnaround.
Their pitching staff is no longer elite. The starting rotation has become unreliable. Matt Cain, once indomitable, is decidedly vulnerable. Nobody wants to admit that Cain is injured to some degree. If he isn’t hurt, he has forgotten how to pitch. Anybody who have followed his career know that’s not the case.
Lincecum and Zito can’t win on the road. Rookie left-hander Mike Kickham has good-looking stuff but an incomplete understanding of how to use it. Only Madison Bumgarner has maintained his excellence, and he can’t do more than pitch every fifth day.
Injuries and ineffectiveness have dulled the bullpen. The Giants miss Santiago Casilla, who hasn’t quite recovered from knee surgery. Ryan Vogelsong’s fractured right hand robbed the relief corps of Chad Gaudin, who’s in the rotation. Manager Bruce Bochy thus must rely on a group that includes rookies Jake Dunning and Sandy Rosario. Both have shown flashes of competence and could turn out to be keepers. But such inexperience does nothing for a World Series title defense.
On to the offense, or lack of it. Collectively, the Giants have misplaced the situational-hitting skills that sustained them in last year’s second half. They went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position Tuesday, ending a 16-game stretch in which they hadn’t collected more than two hits in those instances. Overall, their .250 batting average with runners in scoring position actually places them in the top half of the NL team rankings. But it’s a sharp decrease from the .296 RISP average they compiled after last year’s All-Star break.
Individually, numerous players are is struggling to some degree. Sandoval is batting .140 (8-for-57) since returning from the disabled list. Pence is in an .098 skid (5-for-51) over his last 13 games. Gregor Blanco is in a .136 tailspin (6-for-44) spanning 12 games. Fellow outfielder Andres Torres’ past nine appearances have yielded a .154 average (4-for-26).
Monday, the Giants’ pitching excelled but the offense floundered. Tuesday, the offense improved while the pitching regressed. Wednesday, nothing went right. The Giants insist that they get along great, and that’s the way it seems when reporters are allowed in the clubhouse. But they can’t coordinate their efforts on the field.
That’s a glaring sign of a poor team. At the current rate, we’ll see more in the next couple of months.
— Chris Haft
Tuesday, July 2
CINCINNATI — Ideally, the Giants will demonstrate their championship resilience Wednesday and recover from the no-hitter Homer Bailey dealt them by thrashing the Cincinnati Reds.
In reality, it hasn’t happened that way.
The Giants lost their previous four games on days after they were no-hit. They averaged a little more than nine hits in those games, a healthy number. But the all-around performance was missing, something with which this year’s Giants are quite familiar.
It’s worth noting that one of the Giants who excelled when they last won following a no-hit defeat will be on the premises Wednesday at Great American Ball Park. On Sept. 26, 1986, the day after Houston’s Mike Scott dominated them, they downed the Dodgers, 3-0. Mike Krukow smothered L.A. on three hits through eight innings for his 19th victory. Maybe he should perform some sort of good-luck ritual before settling into the broadcast booth.
Speaking of luck, I’ve been extremely fortunate to witness five no-hitters. Of the previous four, I was a spectator at two: Ed Halicki, Aug. 24, 1975 against the Mets and Jerry Reuss, June 27, 1980 for the Dodgers over the Giants. I worked (that term “worked” is used loosely; I gladly would have paid to be at the park) the other two: Jonathan Sanchez, July 10, 2009 against San Diego and, of course, Matt Cain’s perfect game last June 13 against Houston.
I have to echo Giants manager Bruce Bochy in pronouncing Bailey’s effort the most overpowering, though Cain (14), Sanchez (11) and Halicki (10) exceeded Bailey’s total of nine strikeouts. With that 97-mph fastball, Bailey looked like a frickin’ monster.
Each one occupies a special place in my memory. Halicki’s ended with the crowd in sheer delirium, partly because the Giants weren’t very good then and we had little to cheer about. The weird thing about Reuss’ game was the unusual heat that enveloped Candlestick Park that night. The enduring images I have of Sanchez’s no-no include Aaron Rowand’s leaping catch at the center-field wall in the ninth inning and Randy Johnson, hands stuffed in his
jacket, loping toward the on-field celebration as the last Giant to leave the dugout.
I could say a lot about Cain’s perfecto, since it occurred so recently, but I’ll distill my recollections into two words: Gregor Blanco.
— Chris Haft
Thursday, May 16
DENVER — Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford displayed his Gold Glove-level skills again Thursday, making a highly difficult play on Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon to record a sixth-inning out during the Giants’ 8-6 victory over the Rockies.
Blackmon hit a low-trajectory bloop to Crawford that prompted him to break in for the ball. Suddenly he stopped and played the ball on a hop — though he had to reach for it with his bare right hand to do so. The ball very nearly skipped past him for a base hit.
Crawford grasped the ball smartly and threw out Blackmon, who has decent speed, at first base.
Asked to rank that play alongside his other examples of defensive artistry, Crawford said in his understated fashion, “It’s up there.”
He also admitted that the ball fooled him somewhat. “Off the bat I was going to catch it. I thought I was going to have time to get under it and catch it. But by the time I ‘broke down,’ [terminology for slowing up slightly to make a play — it can be baseball, football or basketball] I had to react to it. With that spin, it was kind of typical for it to bounce off to the right.”
One more Crawford tidbit, this on the Giants’ 10-game winning streak against the Rockies:
“It’s kind of weird, because they’re a good team. They have good arms and a lot of good bats, obviously. To win 10 straight on them is a pretty good accomplishment for our team.”
— Chris Haft
Early Friday, May 10
SAN FRANCISCO — Forced to work the bullpen overtime due to the starters’ inability to last deep into games, the Giants might consider adding another reliever from Triple-A Fresno before Friday night’s rematch against the Atlanta Braves.
Asked about the possibility of such a move, manager Bruce Bochy said during his postgame news conference Thursday, “Right now there’s no plans, but we’ll talk about it once I’m done here.”
With right-hander Santiago Casilla nursing a sore right knee and sidelined for at least another day or two, the Giants’ bullpen contingent is essentially a man short. George Kontos and Chad Gaudin pitched two innings apiece in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to Atlanta. Jose Mijares consumed two innings on Tuesday. And Mijares came back Thursday to pitch two-thirds of an inning, throwing more pitches in his stint (23) than Gaudin did in his much longer outing (15).
If the Giants were to add a 13th pitcher, they’d likely option outfielder Francisco Peguero back to Fresno and recall right-hander Jean Machi, who sparkled in a recent big-league stint.
Leftovers from Thursday:
— Marco Scutaro lengthened his hitting streak to nine games. He’s batting .515 (17-for-33) with eight runs scored in this stretch.
— Four of Buster Posey’s five home runs have come at AT&T Park. That contrasts with last year, when Posey amassed 17 of his 24 regular-season homers on the road.
— Giants pitchers matched a season-high with 14 strikeouts.
— Has anybody noticed how well Atlanta catcher Brian McCann hits at AT&T Park? In 23 games by the Bay, McCann’s batting .329 (28-for-85) with three home runs and 15 RBI.
— Chris Haft
Wednesday, May 1
TEMPE, Ariz. — Jeremy Affeldt threw approximately 25 pitches Wednesday morning during what appeared to be a pleasantly uneventful appearance in an extended Spring Training game.
This was expected to be Affeldt’s final step in his recovery from a strained right oblique. Assuming he continues to feel comfortable after this outing — the next day is always a critical period — the left-hander likely will be activated from the disabled list before Friday’s series opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park.
Assistant athletic trainer Anthony Reyes and strength and conditioning coach Carl Kochan were present to supervise Affeldt. Neither general manager Brian Sabean nor any of his top assistants appeared to be on hand, perhaps reflecting the organization’s confidence in Affeldt’s health.
Facing a squad of Los Angeles Angels farmhands, Affeldt faced seven batters and allowed two singles, neither of which was particularly hard-hit. He coaxed four ground-ball outs and recorded one strikeout.
An amusing moment occurred when Affeldt threw a curveball to the second man he faced. The batter leaned away from the pitch to avoid being hit, but the umpire called it a strike. Staring at the umpire, the hitter exclaimed “Wow” — perhaps in disdain over the ump’s call, or possibly in amazement over the movement of Affeldt’s curve.
Afterward, Affeldt met with Reyes and Kochan for an extended conversation. The topic appeared to be Affeldt’s pitching motion and how it affected his afflicted side, judging from his pantomiming of his delivery.
— Chris Haft
Tuesday, April 30
PHOENIX — Though the Giants’ 2-1 victory Tuesday night over the Arizona Diamondbacks was merely regular-season game No. 27, it evoked indelible postseason memories.
The exchange between Pablo Sandoval, who hit the game-winning, two-run homer in the ninth, and Hunter Pence, who offered encouragement to the Kung Fu Panda, has been heard before — not verbatim, but the script sounded similar. And those previous dialogues occurred in two of the Giants’ biggest postseason triumphs.
Flashback No. 1: Game 5, 2010 World Series against the Texas Rangers. Edgar Renteria sensed that he has a big hit left in his 34-year-old body, and whispered to a teammate or two that he would hit a homer in a crucial situation. We all know what happened: Renteria hit the three-run homer that accounted for all of San Francisco’s scoring in the game that clinched the long-awaited World Series title for the Giants. “I told you he would do it!” center fielder Andres Torres shrieked after Renteria connected.
Flashback No. 2: Game 5, 1989 National League Championship Series vs. Chicago: Though the Giants owned a 3-1 Series lead, this one almost had the feeling of a Game 7. The Giants did not want to travel back to Wrigley Field for the series’ final two games. Fortunately for the Giants, they had Will Clark. As Cubs closer Mitch Williams warmed up in the eighth inning before trying to protect Chicago’s one-run lead, Kevin Mitchell said to Clark, “We have to get this done.” Clark’s reply: “It’s done.” His two-run single up the middle came next.
— Chris Haft
Saturday, April 13
CHICAGO — Buster Posey’s hitless streak lengthened to 10 at-bats after he went 0-for-2 in the Giants’ 3-2 victory Saturday over the Chicago Cubs. He’s batting .211 overall.
But the National League’s reigning Most Valuable Player exudes no panic.
Asked whether the timing of his hitting stroke is flawed, Posey replied, “I think it’s some of that. Some of it is making sure I get good pitches.”
Ah, the tried-and-true Ted Williams theory: Get a good pitch to hit.
Posey added, “I feel like I’m close. It’s just a combination of a few things.”
The Giants catcher certainly has earned the benefit of the doubt. As we have seen, Posey’s capable of prodigious outbursts that end slumps. Last year he was hitting a pedestrian .250 after seven games. Then he went 11-for-20 in five games, four of which were multiple-hit efforts, to lift his batting average to .386.
Bear in mind that Milwaukee is the Giants’ next stop. In seven career games at Miller Park, Posey’s batting .500 (12-for-24) with six home runs and 15 RBIs. Just approaching those numbers will help Posey escape his tailspin.
— Chris Haft
Tuesday March 26
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Marco Scutaro again demonstrated Tuesday why he’s a thinking man’s ballplayer.
Whether he’s outsmarting pitchers or anchoring the defense, Scutaro is one of those rare performers who proves that the brain is a player’s sixth tool. He did this again in Tuesday’s third inning against the San Diego Padres, when he drew a walk and, on the same play, suddenly dashed to second base unchallenged.
Scutaro explained simply that he ran a little harder than usual to first base and noticed that San Diego’s middle infielders were paying less than full attention to him. He noted that he successfully executed this maneuver (officially, a walk plus a stolen base) in 2002 and in 2009.
Aware that reporters would eagerly spread word of his daring baserunning, Scutaro said with mock indignation, “I don’t know how many years it’s going to take me now” before he can catch another set of infielders daydreaming.
Damaso Blanco, a former Giants infielder who’s now a Venezuelan-based baseball broadcaster, said that he had seen two other players achieve this baserunning feat: Tomas Perez, a former utility infielder, and Omar Vizquel, who needs no introduction. I always considered Perez to be a handy player, whereas Vizquel’s baseball instincts are virtually unmatched. Though this was just an exhibition game, it was still a suitable venue for greatness to unfold. Because, make no mistake, this was a great play.
— Chris Haft
Thursday, March 21
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — This was a great day to be Ryan Cavan.
An infielder in the Giants’ Minor League system, Cavan was informed Thursday morning that he would join the group of farmhands reporting to Scottsdale Stadium to serve as potential extra players for that night’s San Francisco-Colorado Cactus League game.
Except Cavan wasn’t an extra.
Marco Scutaro’s back felt stiff, and manager Bruce Bochy urged his second baseman to take it easy. This cleared a path for Cavan to enter the lineup.
Bochy might as well have been a zookeeper letting the caged animals run free.
You see, Cavan isn’t just employed by the Giants. He loves them. Born in San Mateo and residing in Belmont, he frequently took the short ride north to Candlestick Park to watch the Will Clark-era Giants. San Francisco drafted Cavan, a graduate of Menlo School who proceeded to the University of California at Santa Barbara, in the 16th round in 2009.
“It’s been awesome to be a part of the Giants organization,” Cavan said.
Never more so than Thursday.
Told by a Giants beat reporter that he would be starting, Cavan wasted no time trying to make an impression. He singled home Francisco Peguero with the Giants’ first run in the second inning, and he accounted for their final run by launching a majestic eighth-inning homer. Reliever George Kontos alertly obtained the home-run ball for a
It mattered not one bit to Cavan that this was just an exhibition game. As far as he was concerned, he was playing in the big leagues with the Giants. This was a dream fulfilled.
“You definitely want to display your talent, when you get an opportunity, and you want to show that you’re ready,” Cavan said. “I wanted to play as hard as I could tonight and display my ability.”
— Chris Haft
Wednesday, March 13
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Hensley Meulens has used his considerable language capacity to its fullest during the World Baseball Classic.
Meulens speaks five languages fluently — Dutch, English, Japanese, Papiamento and Spanish. The Giants hitting coach has used each to varying degrees in the past few weeks while managing the team representing the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Classic’s semifinals.
As Meulens explained during his Wednesday visit to Giants camp while his ballclub enjoyed a day off from practicing in the Phoenix area, the team has several players hailing from the island of Curacao, where he was born. Papiamento is the most widely spoken language there.
One of the pitchers performing for Meulens is Orlando Yntema, a native of the Dominican Republic whose father was born in Curacao. Yntema hears from Meulens in Spanish.
When the Netherlands played first-round games in Japan, Meulens felt compelled to speak to people there in their native tongue.
Of course, Meulens converses with the team’s Dutch representatives in the manner to which they’re accustomed.
Finally, English happens to be what Meulens and his squad most commonly speak. This reflects the universality of the language.
“I didn’t want guys to be speaking something they didn’t understand,” Meulens said. “So we try to speak English all the time.”
— Chris Haft