Can newcomers Oliver, Trillo lift Giants above middle of pack?
Even with the addition of former National League batting champion Al Oliver, who will play first base, the San Francisco Giants still look like a team that will finish somewhere in the middle of the NL West this season.
What you have to wonder is why San Francisco didn't try harder to re-sign free agent first baseman Darrell Evans, now with the Detroit Tigers. It was Evans who led the Giants last year in home runs with 30 and game-winning hits with 15.
While no one is questioning Oliver's ability to consistently produce between 175 and 200 hits a year, Al's total of eight home runs in 1983 (down from 22 the previous season) doesn't say much for his power. And by trading for Oliver instead of holding onto Evans, the Giants gave up Fred Breining, a solid right-handed pitcher who is expected to go immediately into the Montreal Expos' starting rotation.
San Francisco will also have another former Montreal player in its starting lineup in free-agent second baseman Manny Trillo. Manny is a great glove man and , playing alongside shortstop John LeMaster, should give Manager Frank Robinson one of the best double-play combinations in the National League. Prior to joining Montreal in time for last season's stretch drive, Trillo hit .272 in 89 games with the Cleveland Indians.
Although the feeling is that Joel Youngblood is more outfielder than third baseman, Youngblood is expected to remain a member of the Giants' starting infield. Joel is a tough out who surprised with 17 home runs last year after hitting a total of only 15 in four previous seasons. Youngblood also led all of Robinson's regulars in hitting with a .292 average.
The bulk of San Francisco's catching will probably be handled by Bob Brenly, who worked 104 games a year ago and Steve Nicosia, a 1983 late-season pickup from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Currently the Giants plan to go with an outfield of Jeff Leonard in left, Chili Davis in center, and Jack Clark in right. Leonard had his best season ever in the majors last year with a .279 average, 21 homers, 87 runs batted in, 26 stolen bases, and 17 assists.
Jeff, who probably protects the strike zone as well as anyone in the National League, attended the same Philadelphia high school (Overbrook) as former pro basketball standouts Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Hazzard, and Wally Jones.
Davis, who looked like a diamond in the rough when he hit 19 home runs and drove in 76 runners as a Giant rookie in 1982, crash-landed with such force last season that he hit only .233. Robinson returned him to the minors for a short period to work on his batting stroke.
More recently, Davis was part of a package deal that San Francisco was trying to put together with the Chicago Cubs that would have brought first baseman-outfielder Bill Buckner to the Giants. Anyway, at this point Chili has to show some offense right away or probably lose his starting job.
Even though Clark is one of the most feared hitters in the National League, Jack and management have never agreed on how he should be handled or the Giants should be run. Clark has consistently been a tougher critic on Robinson and the team's front office than most Bay Area sports writers.
With all that two-party friction, it's no wonder that Jack periodically asks to be traded. This winter the Giants reportedly made their strongest effort yet to accommodate Clark, but were unable to get the player they wanted in return.
One thing San Francisco shouldn't have to worry about is its pitching staff, including a bullpen that posted 47 saves last year, only one behind co-league leaders Atlanta and Houston.
Robinson is not alone in feeling that the Giants have the best late-inning relief unit in right-handed Greg Minton and left-handed Gary Lavelle, who combined for 42 saves in 1983. Also expected to see regular action out of the bullpen will be Renie Martin, Andy McGaffigan, and Randy Lerch. The Giants are also high on rookie right-hander Mark Grant, 10-8 last year with Shreveport.
Robinson, who prefers a four-man starting rotation, will go with righ-handers Mike Krukow and Bill Laskey, plus left-handers Atlee Hammaker and Mark Davis. Hammaker, whose 2.25 ERA was the best among Giant starters in 1983, also led the team in complete games with eight.
Partly because of an imaginative marketing program and partly because San Franciso will host the 1984 major league All-Star Game on July 10, Giant season ticket sales are already up 30 percent.