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Deadline Dealin' In a shrewd move with giant playoff implications, San Francisco snared the best available pitcher, Sidney Ponson, to fortify a starting staff full of surprises

Aug. 11, 2003
Aug. 11, 2003

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Aug. 11, 2003

College Football 2003

Deadline Dealin' In a shrewd move with giant playoff implications, San Francisco snared the best available pitcher, Sidney Ponson, to fortify a starting staff full of surprises

Last Thursday, at major league baseball's trade deadline, the San
Francisco Giants emphatically confirmed that they are not
lounging division leaders but are finely attuned to the ticking
of their biological clock. Despite holding a 12 1/2-game
advantage in the National League West on the morning of July
31--the largest margin by which the franchise had been in first
place since Sept. 18, 1917, when the Giants played beneath
Coogan's Bluff--San Francisco proved an anxious buyer by landing
Baltimore Orioles righthander (and potential free agent) Sidney
Ponson, the best pitcher among a sparse crowd on the block. "We
owed it to everybody," says Giants general manager Brian Sabean.
"This is a just reward for how hard our players fought to get us
in this position, and it's important to let them know we've got
our eyes on the prize. It's an older team, and there's only so
many opportunities to crest the wave." ¶ Surf's up in NoCal! By
acquiring Ponson, the 26-year-old native of Aruba, minutes before
the 4 p.m. deadline, the Giants, who reached Game 7 of the 2002
World Series, added a tropical islander to match 21-year-old
Hawaiian rookie righthander Jerome Williams and transformed their
rotation from a chronic question mark into a potential playoff
exclamation point. Anchored by Jason Schmidt (11-4, 2.44 ERA at
week's end), Ponson (14-6, 3.77 with the Orioles) and Williams
(5-2, 2.82) while it awaits the return to health of lefthander
Kirk Rueter,

This is an article from the Aug. 11, 2003 issue Original Layout

San Francisco's staff has the horses for another World Series
run. "This move is outstanding," says 36-year-old centerfielder
Marquis Grissom, part of the graying offensive cast that
surrounds the rotation. "It makes us so much more secure. That's
what good teams do, they go and get somebody even though they're
12 games up."

Through the exigencies of the seller's market Ponson, a career
underachiever distinguished by his standing amongst the Dutch
aristocracy (he was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
in April), became, after a hot first half, the most prized player
available. In desperate need of a starter, San Francisco mulled a
swap of rookie righthander Jesse Foppert for Toronto Blue Jays
righty Kelvim Escobar, but Sabean ultimately switched his focus
to Ponson and obtained him for lefthander Damian Moss and
righthander Kurt Ainsworth, plus Class A lefthander Ryan
Hannaman. It was a hefty package, with the Orioles exacting the
maximum toll from the vulnerable Giants after Rueter was
scratched from his scheduled Thursday afternoon start at Wrigley
Field with a strained shoulder. (He was placed on the disabled
list the next day.)

"We were in an exposed situation with [Rueter] on Thursday,"
Sabean says, "but I had six different scouts saying Ponson was on
the border of electric. We do play in a great pitcher's park, we
play great defense, and Ponson's a ground-ball pitcher. You have
to be opportunistic. It was a steep price, but we feel he's worth
it."

This season Sir Sidney (who was scheduled to make his first start
for San Francisco on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates)
enjoyed the finest four months of his frequently maddening
(55-59, 4.60 ERA) career. In a nutshell, he has improved because
he has been keeping his mid-90s fastball down. From 2000 to '02
Ponson's ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio was 1.27 and he allowed
1.29 home runs per nine innings; in '03, through Sunday, those
numbers were 1.61 and .61. That performance not only ensured
Ponson a tidy payday this coming winter--he rejected Baltimore's
three-year, $15 million offer, saying "it wasn't even a
proposal"--but also made him a Giant.

Last season the Giants had the league's most reliable starting
five in Schmidt, Rueter and righthanders Russ Ortiz, Livan
Hernandez and Ryan Jensen. The quintet made 158 of the club's 162
starts and accounted for almost 70% of its innings pitched. By
the middle of April three fifths of that group had vanished,
Ortiz and Hernandez having been shipped to the Atlanta Braves and
the Montreal Expos, respectively, in off-season trades and Jensen
having landed on the DL with a muscle strain in his back. Yet at
the trade deadline, manager Felipe Alou's patchwork
rotation--which had included 10 contributors, among them rookies
Ainsworth, Foppert and Williams, who combined for 39 starts--had
generated results similar to last year's. Through July 31 this
year's starters had logged 5.9 innings per start with a 4.00 ERA,
struck out 6.3 batters and allowed .85 home runs per nine
innings; last year's group, at the same point, averaged 6.2
innings with a 3.96 ERA, with 5.7 strikeouts and .84 homers per
nine.

The precariousness of the staff, however, caused concern. "We've
been winning ball games, so nobody looked into that instability
too much," Schmidt says. "The reason it was addressed now is that
the playoffs are not a time that you put rookies out there to
learn."

Schmidt, 30, knows well how a midseason deal can jolt a career:
In July '01 he was a middling Pirates starter when, facing free
agency, he was acquired by the Giants at the deadline. "It was
like I started my career over again," he says. A power pitcher
prone to surrendering fly balls because he uses his heater as his
main pitch, Schmidt has thrived in roomy Pac Bell Park,
particularly since he signed a four-year, $30 million deal in
December 2001. Through Sunday, in 60 starts as a Giant, he was
31-13 with a 3.07 ERA.

Williams, with stuff just as potent as Schmidt's, possesses a
fluid motion and a diverse menu. His bread and butter is a
low-90s fastball that he can cut or sink; it's the pitch that
initially lured scouts to his hometown of Waipahu, a
working-class community tucked alongside Pearl Harbor on Oahu. In
the 1999 draft San Francisco made Williams the 39th pick--the
highest a Hawaiian had ever been selected. When Williams flew to
California to sign his contract, it was his first trip to the
mainland. Culture shock didn't fully set in, though, until he
reported for short-season Class A ball in Keizer, Ore. "I went
there with shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops," he says, "and it
was nice weather, until seven o'clock, and then I was like,
Where's a jacket?"

Equipped with his fastball, a slider and a sharp, high-70s
curveball that he'll occasionally dial down to a high-60s
floater, Williams precociously climbed the Giants' minor league
ladder. This season he's added a modified circle change, gripped
with the thumb underneath the ball and thrown, with four fingers,
primarily to lefthanders. He also displays a mature mound
presence. Says Schmidt, "Some guys miss with a pitch and start
cussing themselves out. The majority of guys in the big leagues
don't do that, and Jerome doesn't do that."

That maturity has its roots in hardship and loss. A few years ago
Williams's father, Glenn, an Army veteran, hurt his neck while
working in maintenance at the Pearl Harbor base--an injury that
still plagues him--and was forced to retire. In 2001 Jerome's
mother, Deborah, a native Hawaiian, died of breast cancer at 46.
Jerome wears a necklace of puka shells she gave him.

Last month Glenn visited San Francisco and saw Jerome pitch
professionally for the first time. Glenn stayed for a two-week
home stand. "He was always coming down to the clubhouse, saying
'Who's this? Who's that? Can I meet him?'" Jerome laughs. "It was
like, C'mon Dad, chill."

Cut Glenn some slack: San Francisco is exciting and
playoff-ready, hence Sabean's decision to purchase present
security with future promise. San Francisco's offense hinges on
the production of aging veterans, in particular leftfielder Barry
Bonds (.330, 34 homers and 71 RBIs at week's end), who at 39
remains one of the game's dominant run producers--but for how
much longer? After Bonds, the Giants' three best hitters are
42-year-old first baseman Andres Galarraga (.311), Grissom (.310)
and 38-year-old catcher Benito Santiago (.285).

At an average of 31.48 years, San Francisco is the fourth oldest
team in the majors, behind the New York Yankees, the Seattle
Mariners and the Braves. Because of the Giants' aging corps, the
window of opportunity will open no wider for them. "No doubt,"
says Grissom, when asked if the collection of older players adds
urgency. "I'm not the oldest guy in here, but I ain't young
either. This move shows that we're serious now."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO PRIZE CATCH Ponson's big year made him attractive.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO HAWAIIAN PUNCH The 21-year-old Williams has blown away hitters and wowed teammates with his composure.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO ABOUT SCHMIDT Alou (above, left) and pitching coach Dave Righetti have seen their ace continue to flourish at Pac Bell.COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN (SCHMIDT) [See caption above]
"That's what good teams do," says Grissom. "They go and get somebody
even though they're 12 games up."