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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Neukom, Optimism Out; Baer, Pessimism In

In a stunning development, the San Jose Mercury News is reporting that Giants managing general partner Bill Neukom is out, being replaced by Larry Baer.

What does this mean for the Giants? Bad news, man… bad, bad news.

Reports are that Neukom is being forced out by the Giants’ board because he dared to spend the extra money the team made from last year’s phenomenal championship run, rather than hoard the money away for a “rainy day” as the article put it. Let me get this straight: the Giants’ board doesn’t want to spend the money they’re earning from fielding a winning team, so they’re forcing out the one guy who does want to keep spending and keep putting winning teams on the field. That makes... well, that doesn't make any sense at all.

Baer is a holdover from the Peter Magowan era; an era defined by teams that were just good enough to contend but never spent enough money to get them over the hump. With Baer in charge, is that the kind of team we can expect the Giants to field from now on? In a word, yes. If Neukom is being forced out because he spent too much money, the ownership group obviously is going to replace him with someone who’ll spend more to their liking. Baer is that puppet, err, man.

I’m immediately worried about the Giants long and short term future. With the contracts of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum coming up soon, you have to wonder if the Giants will do what it takes to retain their homegrown World Championship core or let them walk to the highest bidder. To keep all of the key pieces, payroll will have to rise well above $120 million and something tells me this ownership group isn’t too keen on a number in that price range. I fear we’re heading backwards, back to the era of teams in the $90-$105 million payroll bracket with the explanation that they have a ballpark to pay for and have to keep costs low... basically, back to the era of Peter Magowan. And forget about signing a free agent like Jose Reyes or Prince Fielder; instead, get ready for more players like Ray Durham or Michael Tucker.

Neukom was also a key player in developing the Giants’ minor league system, installing what’s become known as the “Giants Way” and placing a greater emphasis on the draft. In the Magowan era, which Baer is a product of, the draft was secondary and the minor league system was used as a means to trade for veteran players. The Giants would routinely sign Type-A free agents (Tucker, Armando Benitez, etc.) and lose their first round picks in the process as a way of avoiding paying huge signing bonuses to amateur players. With Baer in charge, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see the Giants revert back to that formula.

This is a shocking day in Giants history, and sadly I also think it’s a dark one. Bill Neukom was a true baseball fan and ran the team like one; he talked about wanting to win, and backed up his talk by spending the money necessary to do so. Larry Baer is a businessman first, and his main concern will be the ownership group’s bottom line. The days of putting the success of the baseball team ahead of the size of the ownership group’s bank accounts are sadly over.

It was 52 years before the Giants won a World Series in San Francisco; will it be 52 years before they win another one? If you’d have asked me that question a week ago, I would’ve laughed. Now? I’m not so sure.

At least we’ll always have 2010. Thank you for that, Mr. Neukom. You got a raw deal.

And I really, really hope Tim Lincecum thinks pinstripes make him look fat.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Season on the Brink

“Must win” has become such an overused term that it doesn’t really have meaning anymore. When games in April and May are called “must win” it seems silly; when the term is applied to games late in the year, it seems obvious.

Forget all that, though. These next 3 games with the Diamondbacks are must win games. Must. Win. As must win as a series can be. The entire season hinges on this series, and that isn’t hyperbole. If the Giants lose even one game, they’re in even more trouble than they are right now.

The Giants are 6 games behind Arizona with a month left to play. It’s incredibly easy to say that the season’s over and it’s time to start looking towards next year; you could say it’s the most likely scenario. But there’s a small glimmer of hope that the Giants can still win their division and get the chance to defend their World Series title next month. Small, yes. But it’s glimmering. I swear.

Am I being overly optimistic? Probably, but there are a few reasons why I think the Giants could make this a race down the stretch:

- Cure for Cancer: Cutting the two-headed monster of Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada (Rowada) was the best decision Brian Sabean has made all year, albeit one that was made a few months too late. Both guys had chips on their shoulders because of their lack of playing time, and both guys let everyone in the clubhouse know how unhappy they were every chance they got. That can wear on a team over the course of a season, especially when the complaining is coming from more than one player. Getting rid of two guys who’d become clubhouse cancers is a major step in loosening up a team that has looked and played tight over the last month. Plus the less guys on the team with personal agendas, the better.

- Reinforcements: Pat Burrell is back and with him comes the threat of someone who can actually hit a home run every once in a while. Brett Pill gets a chance to prove if he can hit at the Major League level. Darren Ford and Emmanuel Burriss both provide late inning speed on the bases. Brandon Crawford can save runs with his glove. Even Mark DeRosa is finding ways to contribute.

The roster needed a jolt, and since no trades were made last month the jolt has to come from the Giants’ system. The players they added aren’t difference makers, but they can all help in various ways to make the Giants a more dangerous team.

- Pitching: Simply put, the Giants still have better pitching than the Diamondbacks. That doesn’t matter much when the offense is impotent, but the fact remains that the Giants have the better staff top to bottom. If they continue pitching to their ability and the offense manages to string together some hits… it’s almost too tempting to think about.

I’m not a Pollyanna here: I know the Giants are hanging on by a thread, and I know they’re going to need a lot of things to break their way in order to overtake the Diamondbacks in the division. I also know the odds are stacked against them because of injuries and poor play. Their chances are slim.

I also know that stranger things have happened in baseball. Larger leads have been lost, and teams have managed to come back from impossible odds. It’s even happened to the Giants: in 1998, a Cubs outfielder (Brant Brown) dropped a routine flyball in left during a late September game that helped the Giants force a one-game playoff for the Wild Card. The Giants were all but dead in the WC race, but a red hot last few weeks of the season (and a dropped flyball) put them right back in it.

There’s no Brant Brown on the DBacks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t blow this lead. The Giants are 6 games out and have 6 games left with Arizona. Their collective fate is still in their hands, even if it’s seemingly slipping through their fingers. It all starts tonight.

Still… if only they’d have won some of those must win games back in April. Things would’ve been a whole lot easier right now.