Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Power Of Expectation

The year is 2003 and expectations are high.

The San Francisco Giants, fresh off a heart-breaking loss in the World Series the year before, finish the regular season by winning the NL West by 15.5 games and with 100 wins overall.

They boast the best hitter on the planet in Barry Bonds who wins his sixth MVP at season's end and Cy Young runner-up Jason Schmidt who rips off 17 wins and an ERA under 2.40.

Without question this is a team with their sites set on a return trip to the World Series and a chance at redemption.

Things seem to be going to plan after game one of the Divisional Series with the Wild Card-winning Florida Marlins after Schmidt tosses a three-hit shutout to give the Giants a lead in the five game series.

Then, seemingly without warning, the Giants begin to fall apart. Game two sees the Giants cough up two separate leads and commit two costly errors, a theme that would ultimately be their undoing.

Game three is more of the same as Giants right fielder Jose Cruz Jr., winner of a Gold Glove in 2003, commits a terrible error in the bottom of the 11th inning with the Giants leading 3-2. His muffed fly ball leads to a Marlins rally on Giants closer Tim Worrell and makes the series 2-1 in favor of the Marlins.

As if written in some sort of sick script it's 2002 World Series goat Felix Rodriguez on the hill for the Giants when the Marlins score twice in the bottom of the 8th inning of game four which ultimately propels them to a win in the game and the series.

The Marlins will go on to win the World Series over the Yankees, making it two years in a row that the Giants will lose to the champions of baseball. A small consolation to Giants fans.

The series loss precipitates one of the worst trades in baseball history as the Giants trade relief pitcher Joe Nathan and starting pitching prospects Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano to the Twins in exchange for catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

Nathan, who was coming off two appearances in the series with the Marlins in which he gave up four hits and three earned runs in a third of an inning, goes on to become one of the most dominant closers in baseball for the Twins.

Bonser earns a starting job for one of the better teams in baseball, while Liriano becomes one of the most electric starters in all of baseball before succumbing to an injury the next year.

Pierzynski meanwhile plays one very average season for the Giants, becomes a locker room cancer and bails the very next year.

The Giants haven't sniffed the playoffs since and have suffered through several seasons of management trying to recreate the 2002-2003 magic with aging veterans and larger-than-necessary contracts.

The reason for the fall is simple of course, and the answer is expectation. So painfully close were the Giants to a World Series ring that GM Brian Sabean and the rest of the team's brain trust were basically suckered into trying to win now at any cost.

Along with the Pierzynski trade, another byproduct of the expectations was the signing of past-his-prime closer Armando Benitez and the subsequent loss of their first round draft pick in 2005.

That pick could have been used on any number of big time talents from that draft including Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Matt Garza and Colby Rasmus, all of whom were drafted after the Giants would have picked at #22 overall.

How did the Giants do in the 2005 draft? Only one of their picks, left-hander Alex Hinshaw who made his debut this year, has even made it to the major leagues. Ellsbury meanwhile is the starting center fielder in Boston, Buchholz has a big league no-hitter to his credit, Garza is proving to be a big time pickup for the first place Rays and Rasmus ranks as one of Baseball America's top 10 prospects in all of baseball.

Fast forward to today, June 4, 2008, my 28th birthday.

The Giants find themselves nine games under .500 and in third place in NL West, and all things considered I couldn't be happier. The difference? You guessed it, expectations.

The 2008 season for the Giants brought with it some of the lowest expectations in quite some time thanks to the departure of Bonds and the acknowledged rebuilding efforts of the front office.

Some were calling the Giants the worst team on paper that they had ever seen (ahem, Buster Olney), and here they sit in third place and with the fifth pick in the upcoming draft. Things are looking up if you ask me.

They have a true ace and one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game in Tim Lincecum. Solid starters behind him in Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez. Hell, even that terrible contract they gave Barry Zito doesn't bother me so much right now.

It's been a lot of fun to watch the Giants finally give some young players a shot to prove they can play in the big leagues. Players like Fred Lewis, Emmanuel Burriss, John Bowker and Brian Wilson have all been pleasant surprises and more than a breath of fresh air.

Ultimately this team may end up as the worst in baseball record-wise, but honestly I couldn't care less. Watching these kids grow together as a team and seeing them play hard and surprise a lot of people (D-Backs, hello) has made this expectation-less season already one to remember for myself and Giants fans everywhere.

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