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Quality Backups

Pedro Feliz drew two walks in his first four games, which puts him 36 games ahead of last year's pace. Moises Alou and Barry Bonds are out, and yet the Giants don't look that horrible while they're beating up on the defenseless Colorado Rockies, do they? To paraphrase Crash Davis, do you know what the difference is between a .500 team and a pennant winner? Two lousy wins a month.

Even without Bonds, we won't be able to see how bad this team is until they're five games back in June and even then, it'll still seem like they can come back and pull it off. For the Giants to stay in contention without Bonds, they will have to play en fuego, which is a technical term that means above their 90th percentile of ability. At the track, longshots like that pay 10-to-1.

This is not to say there's nothing they can do about their situation. One hole, for example, is at right-handed backup first baseman, since J.T. Snow hits so poorly against lefties. Right-handed power-hitting first basemen who can fill this slot in an emergency are a dime-a-dozen. The Giants even have one, without the major-league family name, in minor-leaguer Mike Cervenak. So who gets the start against the Rockies' Jeff Francis? Lance Niekro. He's only got 10 major league at-bats, but we can get an idea of Niekro's abilities by looking at his dad Joe's and his uncle Phil's combined hitting: a .164 career average with 8 Home Runs and 55 walks in 2862 plate appearances.

Now, the younger Niekro isn't quite that bad a hitter, but he has very little power for a guy who's 6'3", 210, and very poor plate discipline. Given the ages and injury histories of the Giants' starters, somebody should have gone out and picked up an appropriate bench player. Failure to do so could cost two wins they can't afford to give away. I also don't see why Jason Christiansen is even on the roster, though I suppose 35-year old middle relievers who pitched 17 good innings in 2001 are harder to find than you'd imagine. And after watching Neifi Perez dig a hole all of last year, I shouldn't be surprised that the Giants roster is so poorly constructed.

What can we say about the A's? Barry Zito has been historically roughed up. It's pretty rare that a former Cy Young winner has an 11.57 ERA, even if only after two starts. The A's are still better than the "Giants without Barry", though not as good as the Giants with him. And when one player goes down, like Bobby Crosby did with his cryptic rib injury, they've got someone like Marco Scutaro or Kirk Saarloos ready to step in at 80% of the productivity of the starter. That sounds pretty good compared to starting Lance Niekro and Jason Ellison in place of Bonds and Alou.

But the increasing efficiency of the market for on-base percentage has made it tougher to find quality backups on waivers, which has eaten into the A's slim margin for error. Playing a full season with Scutaro starting at short or Charles Thomas in the outfield will cost them their shot at the division title. On the other hand, the A's are so overstocked in the bullpen that they almost certainly will deal from it by mid-season to fill a hole.

The Giants optimist says: Bonds will be back soon, and his hitting will propel the Giants ahead of the Dodgers in the standings and the A's in the hearts of fans. The Giants pessimist says: the Giants will never free themselves from the pit of injuries and will battle for fourth place with the Diamondbacks. The A's pessimist has already said his piece: the A's were doomed in 2002 without Jason Giambi. I'm placing the same bet as last year: Dodgers and A's to win their respective divisions.