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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Claim Check: Could the Giants Land Heath Bell?

The Giants made a significant move today, claiming Heath Bell off of waivers from San Diego.

Let me clarify that: it’s significant in that it blocks Arizona and Philadelphia from getting a shot to trade for Bell. Chances are slim that the Padres would ship their closer to the Giants, since their asking price would likely be more than San Francisco is willing to pay. It’s a pipe dream, and we should get the notion of Bell joining the Giants out of our heads right now. It’s not going to happen.

Unless, of course, it does happen. Now I’m confused.

The Padres tried hard to move Bell before the non-waiver deadline but couldn’t find a team to pay their asking price; instead, they ended up moving Mike Adams to Texas instead. It was widely assumed that San Diego would offer Bell arbitration and let him walk in the offseason, taking draft pick compensation in return. Bell threw a wrench in those plans the day after the deadline, however, when he told a reporter that he fully intended to accept San Diego’s arbitration offer and stay with the team for at least another year. Bell seems to genuinely like playing in San Diego, so there’s no reason to believe he’s playing some kind of leverage game with his comments.

This puts the Padres in a tough position. If they offer Bell arbitration, he’s almost guaranteed to accept it and would be awarded somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million for 2012. That’s a huge amount of money for a low-payroll team like the Padres to pay, especially for a closer. If they don’t offer him arbitration and let him walk in free agency, they get nothing in return and run the risk of alienating their fan base even more this winter. If they offer him a multiyear deal, then they have more money and years tied up in a closer who’ll turn 35 next year. None of the options sound all that appealing from the Padres’ standpoint.

Enter the Giants. With both Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo hurt, the back end of the bullpen is in dire need of an arm. Bell remains one of the top closers in the game and would easily slide into the 9th inning role until Wilson was healthy again. This is more than a blocking move, in my opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Giants aggressively pursue a trade with the Padres.

The Padres, for their part, would be smart to at least listen to the Giants’ offers and perhaps lower their asking price for Bell. Knowing that Bell would accept arbitration takes away a lot of their leverage, since they won’t have the draft pick compensation to fall back on. If they can get a decent group of prospects from the Giants- no elite players like Gary Brown, mind you- they may seriously consider trading their closer. Plus, there's nothing preventing them from bringing Bell back in the offseason as a free agent if they ultimately decide they're willing to pay him.

On their end, the Giants could sweeten the pot by agreeing to not offer Bell arbitration in the offseason. That'd make it easier for the Padres to bring Bell back to San Diego if they’re so inclined without them losing a draft pick in the process. San Francisco could offer an attractive package of players- maybe starting with Dan Runzler, for example- without giving up another “untouchable” prospect. They have the means to get a deal done if they push hard enough.

The Giants made it clear that they’re going for it this year when they made the Carlos Beltran deal, injuries be damned. Losing Wilson and Romo is yet another big hurdle for the team to overcome, but adding a closer of Bell’s caliber would go a long way in helping them get through September. Cody Ross was a waiver claim last August and helped push the Giants to the World Series; this year, it very well could happen again.

And if Bell happens to hit a few home runs off of Roy Halladay this October, even better.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Trolling the Waiver Wire

August transactions in baseball are always interesting. Players pass through waivers, players get pulled back from waivers, players get claimed, and some even get traded. For me, it’s much more intriguing than the non-waiver deadline in July because of the gamesmanship involved. Does a team claim a player just to block another team from getting him? Will a claimed player make an impact, like Cody Ross did? There are a lot of possibilities.

The Giants are in a slightly different position: since virtually everyone on the roster is injured the team needs an influx of healthy bodies, and soon. There are a few players who have reportedly cleared waivers and can be traded freely who may provide some help for the Giants. Let’s take a quick look at some of the names:

Johnny Damon, OF, Tampa Bay: Damon has cleared waivers, and a number of local radio hosts have floated his name as a potential acquisition for the Giants. He’s currently sporting a .262/.315/.396 line, getting most of his at bats at DH, with 10 HRs and 51 RBIs. Damon doesn’t have many years left in his career. He isn’t an ideal fit for the top of the order since he never walks, and has been relegated to the DH spot because of his defensive deficiencies in the outfield; in other words, he seems like a perfect Giant and I fully expect him to be in San Francisco by the end of the month. Oh, and he has extensive playoff experience, which we all know is something Brian Sabean covets. Damon makes a lot of sense as a Giants’ target, whether you like it or not.

Angel Pagan, OF, NY Mets: Another outfielder who’s cleared waivers, Pagan is having a down year but could provide the spark at the top of the lineup that the Giants are missing without Andres Torres. Overall Pagan is hitting .253/.317/.368 with 24 steals, and he’s hit for a .327 clip this month. The Mets are likely to non-tender Pagan in the off season and may be open to moving him now and getting something for him; the Giants, on the other hand, may be wary of acquiring another outfielder from the Mets.

Bruce Chen, SP, Kansas City: Chen is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career and at age 34 he doesn’t fit into the Royals’ long-term plans. He’s never been a very impressive pitcher, but he can eat innings at the back end of the rotation and would benefit from a pitcher’s park like AT&T. With both Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito missing significant time, making a deal for a veteran starter seems like something Sabean would love to do. I’d be shocked if they were comfortable going with someone like Dan Runzler in that role down the stretch. Chen may not scare anyone (and, well, he may not be that good), but he's a left handed arm who can get you 6 innings every 5th day. And he's a veteran.

Chris Capuano, SP, NY Mets: Another in a parade of Mets who’ve cleared waivers, Capuano fits the mold of veteran starter the Giants are likely seeking. He’s pitched reasonably well this year, posting a 4.38 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 139.2 innings, and would provide another LH arm in a rotation that’s short two of them. The DBacks are supposedly interested in Capuano, so the Giants may step up their interest to keep him from going to the team they’re chasing. He's a slightly better option than Chen if the Giants go the trade route.

Not exactly a stellar list, but each player can help the Giants in some way. There are other players out there who I’d love to see the Giants go after, but until they’ve cleared waivers there’s no sense in speculating. For now, this is what we have to work with.

Your 2011 San Francisco Giants: Picking at Scraps.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reasons for Optimism in a Sea of Despair

Last night’s game was the kind of game that makes you want to punch things. Other people, walls, TVs, cats… it doesn’t matter what it is, you just want to punch something. Hard. Repeatedly.

Playing in Atlanta has been hard enough for the Giants over the years, so losing a game where they had a 9th inning lead is especially tough to take. When coupled with the fact that it seemed to kill all of the positive momentum the team had built after winning the series in Florida, it’s even worse. Giants fans have been struggling to be optimistic lately, and last night’s game didn’t help matters. It’s the kind of game that can make you feel like it just isn’t their year.

It reminded me of another game in Atlanta nearly 14 years ago (check out the box score here). The Giants, who were locked in a tight division battle with the Dodgers, took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the 9th only to see the Braves come back to win on a Fred McGriff walk off homer off of the late Rod Beck. It was a crushing loss, one that knocked the Giants further behind the Dodgers and seemed to destroy their chances of winning the division.

But it didn’t: the Giants would go on to sweep the Dodgers in a 2-game series at home, rode the momentum to a stunning division championship and completely forgot about the meltdown in Atlanta. While not nearly the same scenario as today- that team had Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent in the middle of the lineup, after all- it does serve as a reminder that one horrible loss doesn’t mean the season itself is lost.

The 2011 Giants find themselves 2.5 games behind Arizona with a month and a half to play. Last night (and the last few weeks) aside, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their chances to win the division. Let’s go over a few:

Pitching: The Giants have a better pitching staff than Arizona by far, from top to bottom. The DBacks’ rotation depth took a hit with the recent injury to Jason Marquis, and they weren’t that deep to begin with. The Giants have the better rotation and the better bullpen; Arizona might have a stronger offense, but the Giants’ starters have the ability to shut them down. The Giants’ offense may not scare anyone, but neither does Arizona’s pitching. That’s an important factor.

Schedule: After they’re done in Atlanta, the Giants have a parade of meatballs lined up on their schedule: Houston, San Diego, Houston again, and Chicago. The DBacks on the other hand start a daunting east coast swing today in Philadelphia, followed by a trip to Atlanta, capped off with a trip to Washington where the Nationals actually have a winning home record. When the Giants are done in Atlanta, they play teams with sub-.500 records the rest of the way save for 6 games against Arizona. If the Giants can’t take advantage of their schedule, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.

Guys are heating up: The Giants’ batters have been hitting a lot better lately, with guys like Nate Schierholtz, Aubrey Huff and Cody Ross finally starting to hit like the Giants need them to. Brandon Belt may finally see regular playing time, which can only help the offense going forward. With their pitching the Giants are a team that only needs to score 3-4 runs per game to have a legitimate chance to win, and they finally look like an offense that can provide that on a regular basis. For now.

Experience: It’s cliché as cliché can be, but the Giants have been there before. They went through a hard-fought division race last year and know how to handle the pressures that come with it. It’s unlikely that they’ll press or get too down, considering they know how to deal with the ups and downs of a stretch run. The DBacks are going through their first such race, and may not react the same way as the Giants. You never know.

So in spite of what happened last night, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Giants’ chances. One game won’t wreck their season, even if it feels like it. There are good things to hang onto, and they can turn around their season starting tonight.

Except… well, Jonathan Sanchez is pitching. Hide the cats.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Honestly, I can’t remember a worse homestand than the one the Giants just completed. I mean, I’m sure there were  others during the lean years between ’05-’08 which were just as bad, but none of them stick out quite like this one.

This wasn’t the kind of homestand a contender is supposed to have. The Giants went 3-7, losing every series and looking completely inept on offense in the process. Shockingly, that wasn’t even the worst of it: over the course of the homestand, the Giants lost Carlos Beltran and Nate Schierholtz to injuries, sent Brandon Belt down for yet another useless stint in Fresno, activated Mark DeRosa for some reason, and saw Jonathan Sanchez fully embrace his awful side. It wasn’t a very fun 10 days.

There were a few silver linings to be found, though. Aside from an out-of-character performance from Ryan Vogelsong, everyone in the rotation not named Sanchez looked very good. Pablo Sandoval continues to hit. Aubrey Huff seems to have found his swing for the time being. Mark DeRosa’s wrist didn’t implode in a couple of at bats. Progress.

There’s not enough silver lining in the world to make Giants fans feel better after this disaster, though. The Giants are in dire straits right now, and there’s not a whole lot of help to be found. The Beltran trade, as of this moment, hasn’t paid the immediate dividends the team thought it would. He was a disappointment with the bat before he got hurt, and now a lingering hand/wrist issue threatens to sap whatever power he had left. The bottom of the lineup is a mess, and by “bottom” I mean from the 5th spot down. Cody Ross can’t hit. Orlando Cabrera is being Orlando Cabrera.

It’s a historically bad offense right now, by far the worst offense I can remember (and I remember 1996). A hot Huff and a healthy Beltran will help, but the contributions from other spots in the lineup that the Giants were getting last year from guys like Juan Uribe and Pat Burrell are sorely missed. There’s no power to be had, no threat of a big hit, no threat of anything. There’s just desolation and hopelessness. That may be a little strong, but hey, they just lost a series to the Pirates.

I could fall back on my “the Giants aren’t supposed to be an offensive juggernaut” line, but that feels hollow right now. They don’t have to be a juggernaut, but they do have to score. Their pitching can be all-world- as evidenced by the utter domination of the Phillies from Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner- but it’s not going to matter if they don’t get any run support (as evidenced by the losses to the Phillies for Cain and Bumgarner). Something’s got to give.

It’s not like the Giants don’t have options. They could recall Belt and stick him in left field for the time being, if only to get his bat in the lineup on a daily basis. They could give Brett Pill, who’s destroying Triple A pitching, a chance to show what he can do on the MLB level. They could go crazy and call up Gary Brown from San Jose. They could release DeRosa just to improve fan morale. They could do a lot of things.

I’m not saying the season is over, by a long shot. With their pitching the Giants will always be contenders, but they need some kind of support from their offense to repeat as division champs. Maybe it’s just a cold snap that the hitters will rebound from. Maybe this daunting road trip to the south will be what they need to turn this thing around; maybe they’ll respond to the pressure. Or maybe they’ll be 6 games out of first place by the time they get back home.

I’m going to predict that the Giants have a winning road trip. Why? I have no idea. I’m just whistling past the graveyard.