After yesterday’s dreary loss, the time has come for Peter Magowan to make a change. Watching the Brewers, the Brewers(!?), trot out one good young player after another, while our team of “veterans” continued to collapse under the weight of their own inability is particularly galling. The Brewers have been a laughingstock for almost two decades. There is no reason the Giants shouldn’t have just as many good young players as one of the worst teams in all of baseball the last twenty years. Magowan needs to wake up.
Brian Sabean has failed. He has failed for going on five full years now. He has failed to draft or develop one single position player (other than Pedro Feliz, who, let’s face it, is one of the least efficient hitters in all of baseball). He has traded away good to great pitchers and gotten back nothing in return. He has signed free agent after free agent, and been wrong way more than he’s been right. He has assembled a coaching staff that seems to add little to the team he’s assembled. He has a pitching coach who appears to be coaching his pitchers to avoid the bat, a strategy doomed to failure in today’s climate of “grind-out” at-bats. He has a manager who has no flair, no style, no nothing. And he has a team that is so bland, so featureless that they have become an afterthought a third of the way into the season. What do the Giants do? Are they a tough-out kind of team? No. Are they young and fast? Ha. Are they balanced? No. Are they patient? No. They all have one thing in common, they are classy, old-school, veterans. They don’t show up the opposing pitcher, they don’t argue with the umpire, they don’t trash talk, or get in fights, or act the asshole. Of course, they also don’t win. They hit lots of singles, get virtually no walks, give the opposition no tough AB’s, have no power, no speed.
This is the worst Giants team since before Bonds arrived. This is a team of bench players. A team of bench players that Sabean went out and got. I want to drive this point home, because it is a double-edged sword. Brian Sabean woke up this off-season and said, “I want to give Dave Roberts $5 million this year to be my leadoff hitter.” He said, “I want to give Rich Aurilia $3.5 million this season to be my first baseman.” He thought, “My best option at second base is to pay Ray Durham $7 million this season.” And worst of all, he looked at his roster, stocked with only one real asset, starting pitching, and decided, “Let’s give $126 million dollars to a starting pitcher who does only one thing really well, he never misses a start.”
The one side of the sword is that he had to do those things, which were terrible. The other side of the sword is this:
Sabean had to do these things, these terrible, misguided, doomed to failure things, because he had already failed. He had decided that it was a poor allocation of resources to sign draft picks and develop players through the minor league system. He had decided that the best way to keep the big club competitive was to draft tons of pitchers and trade them for major league position players, as your needs developed. This approach has failed, and is so obviously flawed, that it is difficult to imagine that anyone could sell such an approach to an owner. It is an approach that has no precedent. It’s safe to say that no GM — in the history of baseball — has ever used it and succeeded. And that includes Brian Sabean. The obvious flaws are so debilitating that I cannot believe I am writing about them. It’s as if Sabean decided to swim under water, all the time, without scuba gear.
First, it makes it impossible to develop an organizational approach to hitting. By stocking your roster with players who came up through twenty different teams; your hitting coach spends most of his time trying to learn each players swing, approach, strengths and weaknesses. Your lineup then becomes 8 guys doing their own thing, and building that lineup becomes even more challenging because of that lack of knowledge.
Second, it means that you are always dancing on the razor’s edge of potential disaster trades, like the Nathan and Liriano for Double Play AJ deal. The list of ex-Giants pitchers making a splash in baseball is long, and seems likely to get longer. The pressure on you and your coaching to staff to recognize who among your prospects looks good enough to trade, but not too good, becomes enormous. If it isn’t obvious, let me spell it out, evaluating major league talent is exceedingly difficult. The strategy of using your pitching assets to acquire hitting assets is fraught with danger, because, while you’re trying to use the good but not too good pitchers to get hitters; your trading partners are trying to give you hitting prospects that are also good, but not too good. Therefore, your talent evaluation skills must be very, very good. You have to have a system, and it must be replicable.
Replicable. This is the third and most important flaw in Sabean’s approach. Your evaluation skills must work, again and again, or you will be unable to field a competitive team. You must give away good talent, (but not too good), and you must get back good talent (hopefully, very good talent), over and over, year after year. In other words, you have to fleece your trading partners, again and again. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that to do this is highly unlikely. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it is impossible, really. Even if you could do it for a year or two, you would eventually empty the barrel. To plan to do it, to build your entire organizational system on the premise that you can do this is patently absurd, and doomed to failure. It puts enormous pressure on you to have a strategy for evaluation that is scientific, precise, and based on knowledge that is mostly available to you statistically, because it’s impossible to see every player throughout the entire minor and major league system on every team.
As you might have guessed, I don’t think that Sabean has a system like that. I don’t think he even has a system, per se. Well, no, that’s not entirely accurate. He does assign value on what he wants in position players. It’s a poorly thought out value system, but it is a value system. He values defense and experience. Those are the things he seeks out, as you can see by the players he goes out and gets. Roberts is a good defensive centerfielder. Matheny saved a hundred runs a season with his work behind the plate, as did JT Snow at first. And veterans are consistent, which he clearly values as well; although, for the most part, the guys he’s gotten have been consistently mediocre.
Problem is, Bill James has already clearly — and accurately — explained what is and isn’t valuable, and he did it 20 years ago; and it isn’t defense, and it isn’t consistency, and it isn’t being classy. General managers should be seeking hitters who get on-base and hit with power, and he should evaluate these hitters on a sliding scale based on their age; with the youngest being the most valuable. That’s it. That’s James’ thoughts on acquiring players in a nutshell (if I may be so bold as to distill the best baseball writer ever). Defense is overrated, difficult to analyze, and offense is the name of the game.
20 years after James, with the Oakland A’s fielding young, quality hitters year after year, with the Twins and the Red Sox and the Yankees demonstrating — for going on a decade now — that James was right; Sabean is still in the dark. And so are the Giants. At 30-40, the Giants will need to win about 60 of their last 90 games to make the postseason. Is there any Giants fan out there who honestly believes this club can do that?
More importantly, is Sabean the man to lead this team forward? Has he done anything to earn that role? No and no. Magowan needs to find a new GM, and give that GM the freedom to get the two real hitters his team needs to ride his fine young starting pitchers to the postseason next year; and start developing an organizational approach to hitting, to offense, and to building a team. Sabean needs to go, and he needs to go now, before he trades the wrong pitcher for another Michael Tucker/Shawon Dunston/Mark Sweeney/Ricky Ledee.