SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Ask virtually any executive, manager, coach or scout in Arizona about who has the best teams, and the answers are inevitably the Angels and the Giants. But San Francisco must make do without Barry Bonds for the time being, and as the Giants found out last season when they won 18 of the 46 games Bonds missed, that is no easy task.
With Barry Bonds sidelined, Pedro Feliz is expected to be the Giants' regular left fielder.
"We got off to a terrible start last year and were eight games under .500 [16-24] in late May [the 20th, to be exact]," said Giants manager Felipe Alou. "We can be better than that this season. We just have to pull together without Barry. He's a great player and probably influences the outcome of games more than anyone, but this is a team with a lot of depth.
"Before spring training, I worried about getting Pedro Feliz enough at-bats. Now he can play left field. Michael Tucker, who was a starter for us last season, can play some. I think we're better prepared [this season] to survive a few weeks without Barry than in the past."
Giants owner Peter Magowan believes his team has four players Feliz, Deivi Cruz, Tucker and Yorvit Torrealba "Who could start for many other teams. For us, depth is extremely important because we play so many games, which requires recovery, and all our travel."
Much has been made of the age of this Giants team, which with Bonds in the lineup averages 36.5 years old.
"The age sounds high, but I don't think we are old players," said center fielder Marquis Grissom. "We're experienced. We won't make a lot of mistakes, and there are a lot of guys here who know how to win. We didn't have a Moises Alou before. Think about what he means."
"One of the biggest factors is the defense up the middle and what it means to our pitching," said pitching coach Dave Righetti. "Adding [catcher] Mike Matheny and [shortstop] Omar Vizquel makes a huge difference to this team."
Few newcomers have made a bigger impression on their new teams than Matheny and Vizquel.
"Omar is still a master, and he's taken such great care of himself he looks 30," said first baseman J.T. Snow. The entire coaching staff raves about Matheny's presence and leadership, which has earned him the reputation of being an elite handler of pitching staffs.
I don't think we are old players. We're experienced. We won't make a lot of mistakes, and there are a lot of guys here who know how to win. We didn't have a Moises Alou before. Think about what he means. ”
— Marquis Grissom, Giants center fielder
The Giants believe their rotation of Jason Schmidt, Brett Tomko, Kirk Rueter, Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams will be better than some people think. They all throw strikes, they can lean heavily on Matheny and their inner defense is vastly improved. And having Armando Benitez as the closer puts Jim Brower, Matt Herges, Tyler Walker, Jason Christiansen and Scott Eyre back in their normal roles in the bullpen.
"What we have this season is some outstanding young pitchers who can help us down the line," said Alou. "Jesse Foppert has come back from surgery; he could help us now out of the bullpen, or as an emergency starter. Merkin Valdez is starting to get it. And the best is Matt Cain. He could be really good."
No player, even Albert Pujols, influences the outcome of a game in which he plays more than Bonds. So even if, as Alou believes, Ray Durham and Edgardo Alfonzo have better seasons, Moises picks up some of Barry's slack and the defense of Vizquel and Matheny help the pitchers, it will be interesting to see what life without Bonds will be like.
If Alou can get enough rest for his other players, and if they stay in the race until Bonds returns, having a rested Barry come September and October might turn out to be in the Giants' long-term best interest.
Around the majors
• Oakland's massive restructuring in the offseason has thus far gone over well this spring. While Barry Zito is throwing as well as he did in 2002 and Rich Harden has looked like a serious Cy Young Award candidate, Dan Haren has also been outstanding. Kiko Calero, Juan Cruz and Huston Street have also had very good springs.
Thus, the questions for the A's rotation revolve around Joe Blanton's holding down the fourth spot and the fifth hole. Dan Meyer, acquired from the Braves in the Tim Hudson trade, has not had a good spring, so Seth Etherton and 36-year-old Japanese right-hander Keiichi Yabu could open the season in the rotation.
The Red Sox have embarked on an exchange program with the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks that recently allowed two of their minor-league hitters to go to Japan and work with the great Sadahara Oh.
Boston's field coordinator Craig Shipley sent Double-A Portland manager Todd Claus and Pacific Rim scouting coordinator John Deeble to Japan along with minor-league outfielders David Murphy and Justin Sherrod for 11 days to work with the Hawks. Murphy and Sherrod worked within Oh's hitting program.
"John and I were in Japan last summer and felt this was something worth exploring," says Shipley. "The discipline and work habits are remarkable, and I think apply to playing winning baseball. It's nothing for them to have a 45-minute infield drill involving every infielder and outfielder and not see a ball bobbled, a cutoff man missed or any mistakes. And if someone does make a mistake, you hear the reaction from the crowd.
"This was just the beginning of an exchange program where they will (also) send players to our spring training. We thought a lot about who we wanted to send and decided on the two outfielders who we thought could benefit the most.
"Murphy (a 2003 first-round draft pick who hit .261 with four homers in an injury-plagued 2004 for Class A Sarasota) has a good swing, he just needs to have a better approach, and I think it helped him. Oh is remarkable. In this country, it would be as if Babe Ruth were still alive."
• Fans come up to GM Billy Beane during games this spring and have pleaded with him not to trade Eric Byrnes, which he's not going to do right now.
• Cincinnati is calling around in an attempt to acquire pitching. There are the rumors of the Mets and Nationals' being interested in acquiring Willy Mo Pena. The Reds also told the Astros they would move Junior Griffey to Houston for four top prospects.
• The 'Stros right now plan to open the season with Willy Taveras in center field and Craig Biggio at second base, which means Chris Burke will either go back to the minors or stay in the majors as a utilityman/left fielder.
• The Astros' fifth-starter battle seems to be between Brandon Duckworth and Tim Redding, who are both out of options, but if 25-year-old righty Ezequiel Astacio keeps pitching well he may fill the spot. If Duckworth or Redding doesn't grab the spot, Astacio could go to Triple-A New Orleans for a couple of starts, then be ready when the Astros need a fifth starter sometime after the first week of the regular season.
• As former Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew prepares to either take Arizona to the last moment before signing or re-enters the draft, he has signed to play in the independent Atlantic League. Jered Weaver, who was drafted by the Angels and remains unsigned, might do the same thing. Some feel Weaver will revisit his position with the Angels, but only if he accedes to what the Angels are willing to pay, because when GM Bill Stoneman says no, he means it.
• Washington has been talking to Seattle about the possibility of acquiring Pokey Reese, who has had an injury-riddled spring. The Mariners' interest in trading Reese will depend on how much confidence they have in Jose Lopez's being able to be the every day shortstop.
• Milwaukee had team executive Lee Thomas look at Byung-Hyun Kim on Sunday, as the Red Sox keep trying to move the pitcher. Boston is willing to pick up the $6 million salary due to Kim in 2005 if it can get a mid-level prospect in return.
• Speaking of prospects, one Mariners official speaking about right-handed pitcher Felix Hernandez: "He throws 95 [mph] with a 65 [on a scale of 80] curveball, has poise and command. He's really special, and he's 18." It has yet to be determined whether Hernandez will start the season in Double- or Triple-A.
• Seattle has been looking around for more pitching, both for its rotation (with Joel Pineiro still sidelined) and its bullpen, where Eddie Guardado has had varied physical problems.
• Jeremy Reed has had a solid spring and is set to be the Mariners' center fielder. Count on the 23-year-old to be a leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year award. If Reed, who had a 66/58 walk/strikeout ratio in Triple-A and Seattle last season, goes on to win the award, it would mean that Long Beach State roommates won it in consecutive years, as Reed's roomie Bobby Crosby was the AL's top rookie in 2004.
• The Rangers have been given clearance by ownership to eat Chan Ho Park's contract, if they decide he can't help them this season. That's $14.72 million for 2005 and $15.99 million for 2006.
• The Mike Sweeney-to-Texas rumors keep cropping up.
• Grady Sizemore has shown the Indians that he is ready to play in the majors, but whether he opens the season depends on Juan Gonzalez's health. If Gonzalez can open the season in right field, Sizemore will play every day at Triple-A Buffalo. The Indians sent right-handed reliever Andrew Brown acquired with Franklin Gutierrez from L.A. last spring for Milton Bradley down to the minors, but after the impression he made, throwing 95-97, expect Brown will be back at some point during the season.
• The balance of the AL Central seemingly makes for an interesting race between the Twins, Indians, Tigers and White Sox. But the other teams in the division are worried that Detroit owner Mike Ilitch is going to take his payroll to $100 million in 2006.
• But, hey, one opposing club official says, "the way Magglio Ordonez is swinging the bat and moving around in right field, it appears [his signing] may be a better gamble than anyone else thought." Gamble? The Cubs were runners-up to Detroit's five year, $75 million deal, and the Cubs offered one year with an option.
• The Brewers are still looking for young pitching. Jose Capellan has not had an eye-opening spring, Ben Hendrickson has been disappointing. But their young position players are really good. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has been outstanding, drawing comparisons from infield coach Rich Dauer to Alan Trammell. Dave Krynzel has taken the center field position. And second baseman Rickie Weeks, first baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Corey Hart have convinced the staff that they are close to being major-league ready. But the Brewers need help in the pen, where Mike Adams likely will close, and the rotation after Ben Sheets, Doug Davis, Wes Obermuller (the world's greatest hitting pitcher, 15-for-39) and Chris Capuano.
• Continued praise for the impact of Ray Miller on the Baltimore pitching staff: "[Daniel] Cabrera is throwing 97 with angle and a changeup," says an opposing GM. "He looks outstanding." Ditto Erik Bedard, whose changeup keeps improving to go with everything else he throws hard.
• Oakland is disappointed that one of its 2004 first-round picks, catcher Landon Powell, is out for the year after undergoing knee surgery. But one of the shining lights of A's camp is another catcher, second rounder Kurt Suzuki from Cal-State Fullerton. "He can catch, run, hit and is going to be ready quickly," says one A's coach. One scout added that he's seen Suzuki throw out all three runners who have tried to steal on him.
• The Angels are extremely impressed with shortstop Maicer Izturis, acquired from Washington in the Jose Guillen trade this past offseason. "This guy is an outstanding defensive player at short or second," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "I would have no fear playing him every day. He moves the ball around and can hit." The younger (by six months) half brother of Gold Glover Cesar (the Dodgers' shortstop) hit .338 with 57 walks and 30 strikeouts at Triple-A Edmonton. Boston tried to deal for him after the Angels got him from Washington, but GM Bill Stoneman would not budge.
• Byron Browne, Jr. was once one of Milwaukee's most promising pitching prospects, but he blew out his arm in March, 1998, and was out of baseball by 2000. Now, the son of the former Phillies, Cubs, Cardinals and Astros outfielder has a promising career as an actor. Browne is in Jamie Foxx's next film, has two other credits and is occasionally in "The Young and the Restless." That's a long way from playing in the minors with Jeff Cirillo and Geoff Jenkins, among others.
Maybe it's something about being a Brewer. Mark Ciardi got suspended in Denver after being sent down by the Brewers in 1987, went on to a modeling and acting career and now is a movie producer, with "Rookie" and "Miracle" two of his major film successes. No, Ciardi and Dave Schmidt, the former Red Sox catcher who wrote and produced "Racing Stripes," did not oppose one another in the minor leagues.