Giants may have tipped balance

Giants may have tipped balance

If the 2006 National League West is anything remotely close to the 2005 National League West, it shouldn't take much to tip the balance of semi-power. Matt Morris might be more than enough.

The San Francisco Giants announced Monday that they had signed the veteran right-handed starter to a multi-year contract, reportedly three years for $27 million. At first glance, it's a good move. After a longer look, it's an even better move.

The overwhelming plus in the Giants outlook for 2006 will be the return of Barry Bonds to something like full health. There is no overstating how much of a difference Bonds could make. But there still has to be somebody reliable to get the other guys out.

That's where Morris comes in, every fifth day. He's a proven winner. He is 101-62 lifetime. He has won at least 14 games in five straight seasons. At 31, he is hardly aged. He has been known to pitch and pitch competitively even when he is not completely healthy. And as a bonus, he will be reunited with catcher Mike Matheny, with whom he did his best work when both played for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The one trait that all five teams in the NL West shared last season was that none of them had anything like enough pitching. The Giants just took a huge stride in the right direction. They were 75-87 last season and there were plenty of alibis available: an onslaught of injuries, no Bonds, etc. But even at that, they were merely seven games off the just-barely-above-the-water-line pace set by the division-winning San Diego Padres.

The Giants are automatically better if Bonds is able to walk around the block. Anything beyond that is a bonus. But adding a pitcher of Morris' stature gives them an ultimately reliable starter to plug in at or near the top of the rotation. If Jason Schmidt returns to form, and the young starters continue to develop, this would be a rotation in which the questions have turned to answers.

The Giants have taken other steps to remedy their pitching shortcomings. Last season, they finished 12th in the NL in team ERA at 4.33, a particularly troubling number considering that the Giants play the home half of their season in a relatively pitcher-friendly facility.

There are pitching questions elsewhere but the Giants have been attempting to answer them. They lost reliable lefty setup man Scott Eyre to an exceptionally generous contract offer by the Chicago Cubs. But they got back a left-hander with a longer track record of success, Steve Kline, in a trade with Baltimore for LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins, after a disastrous stay with the Cubs, was not able to completely regain his best level with the Giants.

Kline had a bad first half in 2005 with the Orioles, but over the years he has been one of the most reliable, and durable, bullpen lefties in the business. Back in the National League, he may be just what the Giants needed. And again, he is another pitcher who has worked exceptionally well with Matheny as his catcher.

The Giants also reacquired Tim Worrell, who was coming off a lost season in Philadelphia, which was at least partially salvaged with a series of solid performances late in the season after he went to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Worrell did the best work of his career as a setup man with the Giants, including the 2002 World Series season. And, only two years ago, filling in as a closer, he was commendable and more with 38 saves. The Giants are convinced that the quality of his work with Arizona is what they can expect from him next season.

In any case, the Giants, under general manager Brian Sabean, have been an astute organization. And this offseason, they have been astute enough to realize that even the return of Barry the Great will not solve all of their problems. Their acquisition of Morris proves conclusively that the 75-87 record ought to be seen as an aberration, not a trend.

The NL West should be tougher next season, in part because how could it be anything else? But the Giants, by acquiring Morris, have just taken a major step toward making themselves the class of the competition.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.