Giants come away with prized starter in Ponson

By Will Kimmey

July 31, 2003

With a 12½-game lead in the National League West, the Giants didn’t need to make a trade to get into the playoffs. But general manager Brian Sabean still made a move to improve his team’s playoff rotation, winning the bidding war for Sidney Ponson on Thursday by sending Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and high Class A lefthander Ryan Hannaman to the Orioles. Ponson is the first 14-game winner before the deadline to be traded since Denny Neagle in 1996, and the pickup is a coup worthy of Sabean’s Jason Schmidt acquisition two years ago.

In the short term, San Francisco will put Ponson into Moss’ rotation slot, as Ainsworth was lost for the year in May with a fracture on his scapula, the bone that stabilizes the shoulder joint. Though Ponson was the best pitcher on the market, the Giants could wind up paying a lofty tariff for a rental player if Ponson can’t help the team get back to the World Series and he opts not to sign with San Francisco when his one-year, $4.25 million contract expires at season’s end. Then again, Schmidt was a pending free agent when the Giants picked him up.

Ponson, a 26-year-old righthander, entered the season with a 41-53, 4.74 career mark and questions about his durability and conditioning that left many scouts wondering if he’d ever become the type of pitcher his stuff indicated he could be. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound righthander has answered the bell in his contract year, however. Ponson has gone 14-6, 3.77 in 21 starts and ranked ninth in the league by holding hitters to a .673 on-base plus slugging percentage. He has allowed 147 hits and 43 walks while fanning 100 in 148 innings. Ponson works with a 92-94 mph fastball and a slider he has greatly improved over the last year. He also has learned to pitch down in the zone more, allowing him to keep more balls from leaving the park (one homer per 14.8 innings in 2003, compared to one every 6.7 innings previously).

Ainsworth, a 24-year-old righthander, has ranked among the Giants’ top pitching prospects since they selected him 24th overall out of Louisiana State in 1999. The Giants shipped Livan Hernandez to the Expos in March to make room for Ainsworth in the rotation, and he went 5-4, 3.82 in 11 starts before developing pain and soreness in his right shoulder on May 30. In late June, the Giants said that Ainsworth likely was out for the season. He has the stuff and command to succeed with a solid five-pitch repertoire, including a 92-94 mph fastball, a 90-mph sinker, a slider, curveball and changeup. He had Tommy John surgery while at LSU and missed a month last season in Triple-A with a pulled back muscle. His return to health ultimately will determine how well the Orioles fared in trading their best pitcher. In 19 big league appearances over the last three years, he has gone 6-6, 3.56 with a 66-40 strikeout-walk ratio and .257 opponent average in 94 innings.

Moss, a 26-year-old lefthander, came to the Giants along with stud minor league righthander Merkin Valdez in the December deal that sent Russ Ortiz to the Braves. After leading all National League rookies in ERA (3.42) and going 12-6 in 2002, Moss was just 9-7, 4.70 in 21 games (20 starts) this year despite moving from a hitter’s park in Atlanta to the pitcher-friendly confines of Pacific Bell Park. His strikeout-walk ratio is the culprit, as Moss has issued 63 walks against 57 strikeouts in 115 innings. Opponents also were hitting .273 against him, with lefties teeing off at a .342 clip. Moss gets plenty of movement on both his high-80s fastball and changeup, but tends to nibble too much instead of challenging hitters—leading to high pitch counts and too many walks. He also uses a looping curveball. In 59 big league games, he has gone 21-13, 3.89. He’s making $1.55 million this season and will be arbitration-eligible afterward.

Hannaman, 21, was a 2000 fourth-round selection out of an Alabama high school. Mostly a position player in high school, the Giants put Hannaman on the mound after seeing his lively mid-90s fastball and tight slider. He improved more than any pitcher in the organization last year, going 7-6, 2.80 with 145 strikeouts and 46 walks in 132 innings for low Class A Hagerstown. Things haven’t gone as well for Hannaman in 2003. He went 4-4, 4.74 at high Class A San Jose, with a 77-32 K-BB ratio and .260 opponent average in 63 innings, before hitting the disabled list with a strained biceps in June. He has made four rehab appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League affiliate and was expected to return to Class A soon. Hannaman projects as a starter if he can develop a more consistent delivery and refine his changeup. Otherwise he could end up a late-inning reliever with his fastball-slider combo.