Hot Giants get even stronger

By Jim Callis

July 30, 2001

Riding high after a four-game sweep of the Diamondbacks, the Giants showed they were serious about contending again on Monday, an off day. San Francisco, now 2½ games behind Arizona in the National League wild-card race and four back of Los Angeles in the NL West, acquired righthander Jason Schmidt and outfielder John Vander Wal from the Pirates. New Pittsburgh GM Dave Littlefield, making his first trade, received outfielder Armando Rios and righthander Ryan Vogelsong in return.

Schmidt, 28, will fit into San Francisco’s rotation, probably into the slot of Ryan Jensen, who was demoted to Triple-A Fresno on Sunday. He has intriguing upside, though he’s coming off of surgery to repair a frayed rotator cuff last August. When he’s healthy, Schmidt can touch 95 mph and mix his fastball with a hard slider and effective changeup. This season, he has gone 6-6, 4.61 in 14 starts, striking out 77 in 84 innings. He has been getting stronger, going 3-3, 2.66 in his last six outings. Schmidt is eligible for free agency after the season.

Vander Wal, 35, had a reputation as one of baseball’s best pinch-hitters before becoming a semiregular with the Pirates the last two seasons. He hit .299-24-94 in 384 at-bats last year and .278-11-50 in 313 at-bats in 2001. Vander Wal offers lefthanded power and on-base ability, and he’ll replace Rios in San Francisco’s right-field platoon with Eric Davis.

With the Pirates in the midst of yet another disappointing season, it’s no surprise to see them shed salary. They’ll save about $1.6 million on the salaries of Schmidt ($3.2 million) and Vander Wal ($1.55 million), and they’ll get off the hook for the $1.55 million due Vander Wal in 2002. Pittsburgh not only saved payroll—Rios and Vogelsong will make about $170,000 in the final two months—but it also added a pair of potentially useful players in a deal that should benefit both clubs.

Rios, 29, had a breakout year with the bat in 2000, his first full opportunity in the major leagues. A lefthanded hitter who played mainly against righthanders, he hit .266-10-50 with a .502 slugging percentage in 233 at-bats. He wasn’t having as much success this year, hitting .259-14-49 in 316 at-bats, though like Schmidt he has improved as he has distanced himself from an offseason operation. Rios, who had Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow last October, has batted .287-7-26 with a .500 slugging percentage in June and July. He’ll slide into Vander Wal’s old lefthanded platoon role in the Pirates’ right-field mix. He could perform just as well or better than Vander Wal in the final two months of 2001, and he’s at least an equal, if not better (and cheaper), long-term option.

Less than a week ago, Giants manager Dusty Baker mentioned that though other teams were showing interest in Vogelsong and Kurt Ainsworth, San Francisco wouldn’t part with its best pitching prospects. That obviously changed, as the Giants surrendered the 24-year-old Vogelsong, who ranked right behind Ainsworth and Jerome Williams among the top arms in the system. Vogelsong, a 1998 fifth-round pick out of NCAA Division III Kutztown (Pa.), features a lively low-90s fastball among his four pitches. A starter in the minors, he has made 17 relief appearances with San Francisco since last September, going 0-3, 4.67. He spent much of this year at Fresno, where he went 3-3, 2.79 in 10 starts, with 53 strikeouts in 58 innings. His control and secondary pitches still need some work, but he’s also a candidate to immediately replace Schmidt in Pittsburgh’s rotation.