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Giants Baseball

Instead of Something Old, Something New

This past week, the Giants did something they haven't done in a very long time: they brought a young position player up from the minors to fill a hole in the lineup -- and they did it at the right time, not five years later.

That player is Kevin Frandsen, a 23-year old second baseman, who sports a .330 career minor-league batting average in 172 games, reasonable plate discipline and good speed. His lack of power means he's not the best prospect in the world, but he's a better idea than having Jose Vizcaino play second base for a month.

At any rate, it's not surprising that Ray Durham's hamstring took him to the disabled list and created the hole in the lineup. It's just the Giants' response that's out-of-character. In the past, they've have done nothing to make sure they could keep winning when the increasingly-fragile Durham missed his annual 20-40 games.

Now, in an almost Moneyball-style transaction, they've filled second base with a young, cheap player who's already 80% as good as the starter. The short-term benefits are obvious: in Durham's absence, the Giants won't lose a game in the standings as they did in the past when they resorted to pseudo-major-leaguers like Neifi Perez, Deivi Cruz and Brian Dallimore.

And in the long-term, the benefits are even better: the Giants have finally developed a position player. If everything goes well, then for the next five or six years, they'll have the freedom to use their free agent money to fill one less hole in the lineup. And maybe, just maybe, they'll be a serious playoff contender after Barry Bonds retires. You can always hope…

On the other hand

It may not sound like it, but Frandsen's a real bright spot among the players the Giants have developed in recent years. Lance Niekro (612 OPS) and Pedro Feliz (576 OPS) are hurting at the plate, Noah Lowry still hasn't pitched 2 innings on the season, Matt Cain has a 5.48 ERA (despite throwing hard) and the unlikely Taschner-Munter relief combo has been horrible. The second choices -- Brad Hennessey and Kevin Correia -- don't look that bad on the surface, but Hennessey has walked nine batters in 19 innings while striking out just five, and Correia still walks somebody every inning.

Is this surprising? For the most part, these guys were never very good prospects. Lance Niekro, with his major-league parentage, is a feel-good story, but he has no business playing first base in the majors. The Giants would be much better off playing the younger and more-talented Todd Linden or Dan Ortmeier at first base.

For the fourth year in a row, Feliz's continued presence in the lineup mystifies me. In the last few years, on-base percentage has become overvalued in the majors; Feliz's is a miserable .288 for his career. His plate discipline is atrocious, so bad that you only need to watch one at-bat to see just how bad he is, and he grounds into double plays at the highest rate in the majors. At 31, he's not young either, and looks to be in the midst of a long and unproductive decline. Reasonable men can disagree on the value of a great many things, but Feliz, whose production is so obviously negative, is not one of them.

Of the young pitchers, much was expected of Lowry and Cain (and not so much of the others). Lowry's injury is just one of those things that happens to young pitchers (and old pitchers, and pitchers in-between.) So we'll have to hope that this isn't something that he'll have to deal with for the rest of his career, like Josh Beckett, Rich Harden or Mark Prior. But his production this year will be reduced substantially.

Cain is a slightly different story -- his 2006 season thus far (5.48 ERA, 3HR, 8BB and 17K in 23IP) is not at all unexpected given his 2005 season in AAA (4.39 ERA, 22HR, 73BB and 176K in 146IP). But Cain's brief 2005 major-league callup, where he had similar peripheral stats to 2006 but somehow managed a 2.33 ERA, created unreasonable expectations for him through no fault of his own. He's only 21, so if he can stay healthy, his future looks bright, but no one should have ever expected him to dominate the majors this year.

Overall, Frandsen, Lowry and Cain are the only young players in the organization who have any business being regular players now or in the future. And their contribution to the Giants record might very well be less this year than what former Giants farmhand Francisco Lirinao does for the Minnesota Twins. Liriano, if you recall, was packaged to the Twins in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski.

Such are the risks of running a haphazard farm system and consistently trusting veterans over youth -- the Yankees and Red Sox, for all their risk aversion and need for veteran dependability lest they be crucified on talk radio after a three-game losing streak, were able to work Robinson Cano, Chien-Ming Wang, Jon Papelbon and Kevin Youkilis into key positions in the last year. The Giants, who are just 179-169 since the start of the 2004 season, clearly couldn't afford to take such chances…Once we look at the situation on the other hand, it looks like the Giants will have a long, losing road back to respectability post-Bonds.