Giants’ dynasty is coming undone
The notion lingered on that November night, as the Giants celebrated their first world championship since the Polo Grounds: They can do this again.
The rotation was so great, so young and so affordable. They had Buster Posey, who caught every inning of every postseason game, to anchor the lineup and defense. They had Brian Wilson, who threw the final pitch of every October round. They had a giddy and enthusiastic fan base, eager to hand over fistfuls of cash for the privilege of soaking in the best game-day atmosphere in baseball.
Indeed, the people are coming. The Giants have welcomed a sellout crowd to AT&T Park for every home game this season.
But there is no dynasty for them to see.
Baseball empires are notoriously arduous to build. And now it’s apparent that the Giants — in their present state — lack the suitable bricks.
The rival Dodgers are at a low ebb — to say the least — leaving the Giants with a supreme opportunity to assert themselves as the preeminent National League West team of the young decade. Instead, they are faced with a series of grim realities:
• The Diamondbacks lead the NL West by six games.
• The Diamondbacks, under probable NL Manager of the Year Kirk Gibson, have swiped away the title of “division’s hungriest team.”
• The Diamondbacks, not the Giants, might have the best rotation in the NL West by 2013 — if not sooner.
The Giants took a faceplant almost immediately after acquiring Carlos Beltran from the Mets last month. In their first 31 games after the trade, the Giants went 11-20. The Houston Astros had the same record during that time, and the Astros are by far the worst team in baseball this year. That is no way for a defending champion to play.
If the Giants’ sense of pride has been injured, they ought to channel their frustration in a constructive manner — by punishing the baseball. But they have refused. During this crucial month, they have scored the fewest runs of any team in the major leagues.
This is not the fault of any one person. The Giants would be a much different team — and very likely a first-place team — if Posey, Wilson and Freddy Sanchez were not on the disabled list. General manager Brian Sabean, who made so many celebrated moves last year, acquired a veteran who was presumably the best available slugger. But Beltran’s power has disappeared, at least partially because of a troublesome hand injury.
In the end, though, the reasons matter less than the result: The Giants, by virtue of their talent and financial resources, had a first down at the enemy 40 when the season began. But here comes the punter.
Momentum clearly belongs to the Diamondbacks, and it might be some time before they give it back. While Giants fans are left to wonder what will become of Posey after his catastrophic ankle injury, the Diamondbacks’ franchise player, Justin Upton, is now a true superstar.
Upton is proving he is a leader and winner at the tender age of 24. Consider all the ways the right fielder impacted the Diamondbacks’ 9-4 win over the Rockies on Tuesday, their eighth in a row: In the third inning, with a runner at third and one out, he gave himself up by hitting an RBI groundout to the right side. In the fifth, he leaped over the wall in foul territory to retire Troy Tulowitzki. In the eighth, he struck an enormous home run to center.
Is Upton going to win the NL MVP award? Probably not. But he absolutely belongs in the discussion.
For the Diamondbacks to become a true powerhouse, they will need to increase their payroll in the coming years. Improved attendance would go a long way toward making that happen, but so far there has been none of the rambunctious support the Giants enjoyed toward the end of last year.
Even during a season in which the Diamondbacks hosted the All-Star Game, their average attendance ranks third from the bottom in the NL — behind non-contenders like Houston, San Diego and Pittsburgh. Despite the winning streak, Tuesday’s crowd was announced at 20,231. The Diamondbacks’ telecast ran advertisements for $5 seats in what has been a largely empty upper deck.
Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, general manager Kevin Towers (with help from immediate predecessor Jerry Dipoto) has built an excellent pitching staff at low cost. Arizona has the fifth-best ERA in the majors since the All-Star break, and three key starters — Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Josh Collmenter — won’t hit free agency until sometime in the middle of this decade.
The bullpen is much improved, too, with closer J.J. Putz returning next year and setup man David Hernandez under club control for several seasons after that. Towers is so pleased with his depth that he wonders if a left-handed reliever might be the only item on his pitching shopping list this off-season.
And for all the justifiable excitement surrounding this year’s first-round pick, Trevor Bauer, he isn’t the organization’s only promising young starter. In fact, Bauer’s immediate path to the big leagues is blocked by rookie left-hander Wade Miley, who improved to 2-1 with a 3.94 ERA in Tuesday’s victory — on the same night Bauer endured his worst game as a pro (1-2/3 innings, 10 earned runs) at Class AA Mobile.
Towers said during a Tuesday telephone interview that both Bauer and fellow Mobile starter Tyler Skaggs “could pitch here effectively right now.” Patrick Corbin and Jarrod Parker, also at Double-A, might not be far behind. But the Diamondbacks won’t need them, as long as Miley continues pitching as he has. Bauer could indeed be a September call-up — he is on the 40-man roster — but Towers indicated he is unlikely to start in the majors this year.
The Diamondbacks’ pitching depth recalls, well, the Giants of several years ago. The Giants still have the best pitching staff this side of South Philly, but the clock is ticking on them, with Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and the mercurial Jonathan Sanchez set to become free agents after next season.
The myth about last year’s Giants was that they won with pitching alone. They didn’t. They were successful because home runs by Posey, Pat Burrell, Juan Uribe and, later, Cody Ross enabled them to win low-scoring games. Take away the power, and you are left with the frayed nerves of a pitching staff that has been operating with no margin for error.
Once their title defense comes to a merciful conclusion — and the Diamondbacks could effectively end it by winning this weekend’s series in San Francisco — the Giants should resolve to make a serious run at Prince Fielder. After all, they must do something to keep up with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the newest hegemon of the National League West.