Two Trades To Get the San Francisco Giants Back on Track
The Orange and Black seemed to be an impact hitter away from serious contention for a playoff spot, and perhaps even a shot at giving the West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers a run for their money.
Just a week later, however, the landscape is much different.
The Giants have dropped four of their five games since the break, including two of three to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park, and the first couple of a four-game tilt in Atlanta. They've plated just nine total runs in those five contests, dropping the most recent pair by a combined score of 19-to-4.
Meanwhile, the Rockies have won four of their last six contests, en route to a 1.5 game edge over San Francisco in the Wild Card race. Colorado has averaged more than six runs a game over the past week, its lineup firing on all cylinders.
These two National League West rivals, heading in opposite directions of late, will meet in a three-game set at Coors Field during the coming weekend. Unless the Giants find a way to right their ship, that series could seal a disastrous road trip and send Bruce Bochy's squad into a tailspin.
Unfortunately, the fix for the Giants no longer seems to be just a single impact hitter to pair with Pablo Sandoval in the heart of the order. The team now has other glaring holes to take care of, and it may require a few separate trades to patch them.
General manager Brian Sabean certainly has the trade chips needed to acquire talent, and to a lesser extent the financial flexibility. However, Sabean and managing partner Bill Neukom have shown a reluctance to dig especially deep into the Giants' highly-rated farm system.
Top pitching prospects Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson are deemed untouchable. Catcher Buster Posey is expected to take over for Bengie Molina, who is a free agent after the season. And, lefty Jonathan Sanchez is no longer a candidate to be traded, because Randy Johnson will miss at least another month with a shoulder injury.
Meanwhile, with rookie Ryan Sadowski's magic wearing off, the Giants may now be forced to search for a veteran pitcher for the back of their rotation, in addition to a powerful bat to add to the middle of their lineup.
Thus, Sabean and Neukom are tasked with striking a delicate balance between competing in 2009, and retaining the talent necessary to build a Pennant contender for the next decade.
Matt Holliday and Roy Halladay are not the answers, for while they might accomplish the former, they'd certainly detract from the latter. Conversely, standing pat would be a devastating blow to a formerly dejected fan-base that has recently been aroused by the team's first half success.
The most prudent solution, then, is to acquire useful players who come with neither the production nor the price-tag of stars.
It's not a foolproof strategy, to be sure, and Brian Sabean has previously shown an aversion to trading for expiring contracts. But there are some "rental" players who are worth a gamble—a far more sensible gamble, in fact, than the boom or bust options mentioned earlier.
Supplanting the back of the rotation is the easier task, with several capable starters on the market. Two right-handers, in particular, seem to fit the mold well.
One is Cleveland's Carl Pavano—signed to a one-year, $1.5 million deal loaded with performance incentives—who has been much better than his 5.13 ERA suggests. The 33-year-old's bloated .340 BABiP suggests that he has been rather unlucky throughout the first half. A solid 77-to-20 K/BB ratio, 47.4 percent ground-ball rate, and 3.59 fielding, independent ERA portend much better things in the summer, assuming that Pavano can stay healthy.
The other is a familiar face now with the Padres: Kevin Correia. The Giants soured on Correia after a rough 2008, but he has shown much better command this season, and been rewarded with vastly improved numbers. Correia has a 4.34 ERA over 19 starts in 2009, but he has allowed more than three earned runs just once in his last nine starts. With only $750,000 owed to him in 2009, Correia is among the most affordable players available.
Neither Pavano nor Correia should cost more than a "B-" prospect, yet both could add stability to what is currently a rocky rotation. With Johnson on the disabled list, the Giants' rotation is heavily reliant on Jonathan Sanchez, who has little besides his no-hitter to prove that he isn't the second coming of Oliver Perez.
If Sanchez regresses, Bruce Bochy's modus operandi would essentially become "Lincecum, Cain, and pray for rain." That won't get the Giants into the playoffs, and the potential benefits of adding Pavano, Correia, or another veteran arm outweigh the risk of wasting a middling prospect from a rich farm system.
Bolstering the offense, on the other hand, will require more creativity.
Sabean is rumored to have looked far and wide for a middle-of-the-order hitter, but the price-tags have so far been outrageous, and the market is only beginning to develop as the non-waiver trade deadline draws near. There also aren't many bats available who perfectly match San Francisco's needs.
The Nationals' Nick Johnson is one possibility, but he's more of an on-base guy than a slugger. Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez would greatly improve the Giants' production at second base, but he also isn't the cleanup man they seek.
Rather, the Giants need a versatile player with power.
Ideally, it would be a hitter without a severe platoon split, who could play and produce daily regardless of whether a southpaw or northpaw is on the hill. There is one available player whose résumé meets those criteria.
That player is the Nationals' Josh Willingham.
The 30-year-old Willingham, a right-handed hitter, is batting .283/.406/.537 this season, the best of his career. He has mashed 17 doubles and a dozen homers, produced against both lefties and righties, and has been remarkably consistent after a slow start. There is little in his batted ball numbers to suggest that his performance during the first half of the season is a fluke.
Willingham has primarily been used in left field in Washington, but he can play either outfield corner, both infield corners, and even catch in a pinch. He is not a superb defender at any position, but is passable at all of them.
Willingham is also not a "rental", because he's under team control through the 2011 season. He is earning $2.95 million this season, his first year of arbitration, and figures to be in-line for a significant raise.
The price-tag for Willingham will be higher than for players who will become free agents this winter. However, the Nationals—building for 2012 and beyond—need as much young talent as they can get, and may also be looking to save money in the interim, so Willingham should be available for the right return.
Even with Bumgarner, Alderson, and Posey off the table, the Giants have more than enough talent to interest Washington's temporary general manager, Mike Rizzo.
Some combination of pitchers Henry Sosa and Kevin Pucetas, outfielder Roger Kieschnick, and other younger, high-ceiling prospects should be enough to convince Rizzo to pull the trigger.
And, there may even be enough talent left over for Sabean to rejoin the race for Freddy Sanchez, or consider adding depth to the bullpen.
The Giants' play over the past week should have signaled to the folks upstairs that it's time to make a move, or two, or three. Adding Pavano or Correia and Willingham would go a long way toward restoring the Giants as the Wild Card favorites, and it can be done without mortgaging the team's future.
The good news is that Sabean has the chips to make a deal.
The bad news, time is running out.
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