The Giants are in a familiar position during the postseason — on the outside looking in. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2003 and are falling further behind, a whopping 11 games out of fourth place in the NL West this season.
Can they rebuild to get to the postseason? Not unless they realize how much the baseball landscape has changed.
The first change is in team thinking. For many years, playoff contenders were willing to trade top prospects for a player or pitcher they thought could put them into the postseason. No longer. Even the top spenders are hanging on to those prospects; Lastings Milledge has been involved in trade rumors forever, but he’s still with the New York Mets.
The Giants did unload pitcher Matt Morris for outfield prospect Rajai Davis during the season — somewhat incredibly because the Pittsburgh Pirates weren’t close to being a contender — but that was their one shot at getting a good young player. Teams certainly aren’t lining up to trade for Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia.
The Giants auditioned some young prospects during the season: Davis, second baseman Kevin Frandsen, outfielder Nate Schierholz and first baseman Daniel Ortmeier (converted from the outfield), but none of them appear to be the kind of hitter who can anchor the batting order.
There is one certainty: Unless the Giants sign a big hitter in free agency, which is extremely unlikely, their offense in 2008 will be even worse than this season, when they outscored only one team, the Washington Nationals. That was with Barry Bonds in the lineup.
The other significant change in baseball is the role of pitchers. I started covering major-league games at a time when starting pitchers were the key to success, most notably the Los Angeles Dodgers with Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen. Starters were expected to complete games or come very close, so you needed only one really good arm in the bullpen, which was Ron Perranoski for the Dodgers.
Those days are long gone. Now, teams have a five-man rotation, instead of four in the ’60s, and a good outing for a starter is seven innings. It’s become a bullpen game. It isn’t enough to have top-flight starters if your bullpen can’t follow through to win the game. Giants starters are certainly aware of that after last season, especially Matt Cain, who had a 3.65 ERA, and gave up just 173 hits in 200 innings — but finished with a 7-16 record because the Giants’ hitters didn’t score runs for him and the bullpen couldn’t hold leads.
In his time as Giants general manager, Brian Sabean has concentrated on pitching in the draft. For a time, he also put together strong bullpens, but he has lost his touch lately. So, the Giants have a strong rotation, a shaky bullpen and no hitting. Not a recipe for success.
The only way Sabean can pry top young hitters loose from other clubs is by dangling one of his top two young pitchers, Cain or Tim Lincecum, but he’s not willing to do that and other teams won’t give up much for Noah Lowry, who’s a No. 3 or 4 starter on a good staff.
So, Giants fans should prepare to see a lot of 3-1, 4-2 losses in the 2008 season and beyond — and to watch postseason baseball only on TV.