In 2004, the Giants’ season ended again in heartbreaking fashion, this time a bit sooner (but still late) on the last day of the regular season. As the Giants were eliminated from extra baseball – the scoreboard at Chavez Ravine happened to be the bearer of bad news – a disappointed Barry Bonds left the game early, grabbed his bats, and headed down the tunnel to the clubhouse. He’d had one of the greatest offensive seasons in history and it wasn’t enough to get to October. It was as painful as the day earlier, when Steve Finley had crushed their chances of the western-division title with a decisive walk-off grand slam.
The look on his face was and is unforgettable, a bitter representation of defeat. Not just of the battle, but of the war. Bonds must have known right then and there that his chance of making it back to the Fall Classic was gone; his career had slipped by without winning it all. At least there would be 755 to chase.
Unfortunately, the Giants and Brian Sabean didn’t know what their otherworldly slugger did. They’d won 91 games in 2004, finished a game out, and went looking to improve the team and make it back.
In 2005, they went out and got Omar Vizquel, Mike Matheny, closer Armando Benitez and, most notably, Moises Alou. The results were mixed, to say the least.
After a fantastic season in Florida the year before, Benitez blew out his hamstring in April. He’d never pitch well for the Giants, miss a ton of time to the DL, blow a lot of saves, and ultimately be traded back to the Marlins for Randy Messenger in May of 2007.
Unfortunately, Alou dealt with injuries as well and only played 123 games. When he was on the field, he was very good. He hit .321/.400/.518 for an OPS+ of 138. But even worse than Alou’s limited playing time, Bonds only played 14 games (all in September) following knee surgery. He was his (not quite so) usual self, hitting five home runs in 52 plate appearances with a line of .286/.404/.667 for an OPS+ of 174. It wasn’t enough and the Giants finished with just 75 wins and in third in the NL West.
In 2006, the Giants were still supposed to contend. They signed Matt Morris but later sent him to Pittsburgh for Rajai Davis and a player to be named later (PTBNL) when they weren't contending. They also acquired Mike Stanton to close for a minor leaguer. But Bonds only played 130 games, Alou 98 and Ray Durham 137. That was trouble, because they were the only offense the Giants had to speak of. The acquisition of Shea Hillenbrand for an interesting bullpen arm in Jeremy Accardo didn’t do anything to bolster it. He was having a decent season in Toronto, but it didn’t continue in San Francisco as his average on balls in play (BABiP) went from .312 in Canada to .268 in the states.
They won 76 games to cap their second-straight losing season. Their once-great slugger was fading away. So, the Giants finally got the picture. They let their free agents walk, hung on to their own draft picks and collected those that came from the teams scooping up Stanton, Alou and Schmidt. They packed it in and prepared to watch the stadium fill, despite not competing, while Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron on his way to 762.
What, that’s not exactly what happened? A guy can dream, I guess. Let’s try that again.
They won 76 games to cap their second-straight losing season. Their once-great slugger was fading away. They decided to usher in a new era with the 2002 AL Cy Young award winning Barry Zito, signing him away from the A’s for seven years, $126 million. But, the A’s witnessed his declining skills and gladly took the draft pick. Luckily, though, the Giants did let Stanton, Alou and Schmidt walk, taking a few draft picks of their own. And that draft had some stars.
The Giants’ first-round draft pick was protected – this is a key that I'll cover later – and it only cost them a second-rounder (in addition to the truck-load of cash, that is). The A’s took Sean Doolittle with their supplemental pick. He’s still bouncing around in their minor leagues. With the second-rounder, they grabbed Grant Desme. Desme had a couple of injury-riddled seasons before breaking out in 2009. He then walked away to pursue a higher calling.
But it’s worth noting that the Marlins’ young slugger Mike Stanton (who has tremendous raw power at such a young age) was still available for the pick, as well as Atlanta first base prospect Freddie Freeman, who will be taking over full-time in 2011. You don’t know who the Giants would have liked, but it’s worth pointing out anyway.
But let’s get into the good stuff now. It’s mostly good, anyway.
With their protected first rounder (10 overall*), the Giants selected a big, projectable, left-handed starter out of a North Carolina high school. His name was Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner overpowered the Sally league in his first season, making the opposing batters look like children while throwing 141.2 innings with a strikeout rate of 10.4 per nine and a ridiculous strikeout to walk ratio of 7.81. His 1.46 ERA was unbelievable, netting him the MiLB Pitcher of the Year award, and justifying his status as the ninth best prospect going into 2009 according to Baseball America.
*Though it’s tough to have any regrets, and I’m confident the Giants don’t have any, Jason Heyward was still available and ended up going at 14 to the Braves.
In 2009, he again pitched very well in Advanced Single-A, but his diminished velocity upon promotion to Double-A raised concerns, though the overall results were still very encouraging (1.85 ERA over 131.1 innings, despite his strikeout rate dipping to 6.3 and strikeout to walk ratio to 2.71). It was enough to drop him Baseball America’s standings (number 14 overall).
In 2010, his velocity was still a question mark as he struggled in spring training. He lost the fifth-starter role out of camp to Todd Wellemeyer and struggled in Triple-A before putting his mechanics back together and re-joining the team mid-season. The rest is history: a 3.00 ERA over a half-season of starts and a couple of impressive postseason starts to help the Giants capture the World Series. The seven-inning gem against the Rangers in the World Series on Halloween will never be forgotten by Giants fans, regardless of where his career goes from here. And it still remains very bright indeed.
At 22, the Giants selected Tim Alderson. They received this first-round pick from the Los Angeles Dodgers who handed over their pick for the right to sign Jason Schmidt. Schmidt was a power arm for the Giants and a Cy Young candidate each season after they stole him from Pittsburg. He had the original power changeup as coined by Mike Krukow, while Lincecum carries the fire currently. After the Dodges got him, he was hurt and threw 43.1 innings with an ERA of 6.02. They paid him $47 million for three years for that performance.
Meanwhile, Alderson pitched nearly as well and at a higher level (Advanced Single-A, San Jose) than Bumgarner in 2008. he won California League Pitcher of the Year honors with a 2.79 ERA in 145.1 innings. It earned him the number 45 spot on Baseball America’s pre-2009 top prospects list.
Unfortunately, Alderson struggled after an early promotion in 2009 to Double-A. He was still promising enough at the time for the Giants to flip him straight up for Freddy Sanchez. Alderson didn’t appear on the pre-2010 top prospects list for BA and has struggled mightily ever since. A wonderful article (ESPN Insider) by Tim Keown came out in February which chronicled his struggles that sadly happen to be so familiar for young pitching prospects. Alderson will look to get back on track in 2011.
Sanchez came over to San Francisco with a bum knee and didn’t do much if anything in 2009 as the Giants faded down the stretch. Things didn’t look much better before 2010 as he needed labrum (shoulder) surgery in addition to the knee troubles, this after signing a two-year pact for $12 million. But, he returned in May and had a couple of hot streaks that were good enough to keep his bat above water (98 OPS+), which happened to be particularly welcomed given the sink-hole the position was for the Giants in 2009. He also played great defense down the stretch and especially in the World Series. His stamp on the 2010 World Series title became official when he doubled off of Cliff Lee three-straight times to begin his series, a record.
The Mets signed Moises Alou and gave up their 29 overall pick. The Giants took toolsy Wendell Fairley. He’s done little ever since. With the addition supplemental pick (number 32) the Giants swiped high school shortstop Nick Noonan. Noonan has had a few lackluster seasons so far and the Giants recently moved him back to shortstop, where if he can play well enough defensively his bat profiles better. These picks both seem like busts, one for sure, but Noonan’s star isn’t quite dead yet. It’s dimming.
At 43 overall the Giants took Jackson Williams. He was the supplemental pick the Giants got when Schmidt went to the Dodgers. He’s considered a major league catcher defensively, but his bat is so bad he never made it past Triple-A. In fact, his best OPS (.707) came in 2007 when he was 21 and not young for short-season class-A ball. That pick was a bust. He makes Eli Whiteside look like Albert Pujols.
Finally, the Giants took another high school prospect at number 51 with Charlie Culberson. They received this pick when Stanton signed with the Reds. Culberson toiled in his first three seasons. After his first full season in the Sally League (Low-A), he was asked to repeat following his .609 OPS season. He followed that up with a miraculous improvement… his OPS jumped one point to .610. Still, the Giants pushed him to Advanced Single-A and he broke out somewhat in 2010 with .797 OPS and 16 home runs. He followed that up by hitting extremely well in the Arizona Fall League and even received pretty high praise from scouts including ESPNs Keith Law.
Somehow, he’s resurrected his career with his bat and is actually considered to have a decent shot at becoming a solid regular offensively. Unfortunately, his glove remains a huge question mark. He played second and short in 2007 and 2008 and kicked the ball all over the field, doing his best Brooks Conrad impression before Brooks Conrad became Brooks Conrad. He committed 17 errors in 2007 and 35 in 2008 for an execrable fielding percentage of .901. For 2009, they moved him to third and it did nothing to improve the frying pan he brought to the field. He committed 40 more errors for a worse fielding percentage of .900.
Along with his hitting turnaround in 2010, though, he picked it cleaner too. He moved back to second and posted a much-improved .975 fielding percentage. He’s still not considered to have a plus glove, but the improvement has been drastic and I’ve even read more than a few tweets this spring pointing out several excellent plays he’s made in the field. Just maybe, the best is yet to come.
The Giants have come an awful long way since that 2006 offseason, starting with a draft that netted them Bumgarner and Sanchez (via Alderson). What’s more, Culberson is a top-ten Giants prospect to keep an eye on.
It was a strange sixth-month period. It was pretty bad with the Zito signing, but it wasn’t all that bad when the draft rolled around. The Giants picked up two players (one eventually) that helped tremendously in the World Series run, and have a prospect in the minors that might still pan out. What’s more, one of those picks (Bumgarner) may have a lot of very good and cheap years ahead of him. And a month before that draft, the top pick in their 2006 draft made his major league debut. His name was Tim Lincecum.
I may retell a few more of the drafts, but this is just one that shows the amateur draft saved the Giants (and Brian Sabean’s job). It's a microcosm of their past few years, where they've done very poorly in terms of their big free-agent signings (though they've done much better with scrap-heap and cheap singings, such as Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell) while knocking it out of the park in the amateur draft, thereby tremendously mitigating the former shortcoming.
Stats throughout are from FanGraphs and Baseball-reference