On the Sabean Extension

It’s relatively easy to objectively evaluate players. That’s not the case with managers or GMs, however — though I gave my best shot at it earlier with respect to the Bochy extension. Now, I’ll tackle the Sabean extension. The fact of the matter is, the process of an organization’s decision-making extends beyond the GM. Always. He often gets all the credit or blame for a specific move, but many decision-makers in the front office play a significant role in team moves — whether it be signings, contracts, et al.

With that in mind, let’s discuss Sabean. It’s easy to be lazy in criticizing him. Mention the Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand albatrosses, throw in a comment about his love of veteran players, and voila. In reality though, Sabean is a lot more complicated than the veteran-loving moron that some portray him as (I’ve probably done so many times in the past, admittedly). This is just an oversimplified hyperbolic image of him, and isn’t an entirely fair/accurate assessment.

As an exercise, let’s just assume Sabean was not at all responsible for signing Zito or Rowand. He has, after all, been somewhat cleared of those deals in the past. Obviously it’s quite a stretch to say he played no role (or even a minimal role) in dishing out those contracts, but that’s not the point here. If we clear him of these, imagine a Sabean sans Rowand/Zito — how does his record as Giants GM look?

On a very basic level, he seems to be incapable of putting together a good offense, which ultimately stems from a flawed approach when it comes to evaluating hitters. A look back at the hitters he’s acquired in recent years, and this becomes evident. Sabean guaranteed Miguel Tejada, a 37-year-old shortstop, for $6.5 MM in November. The original Aubrey Huff signing worked out well, but that was quite obviously just as much luck as it was Sabean, and it’s not like Huff was Sabean’s first (or even second) option. Oh yeah, and Huff 2.0 is a disaster so far. The Edgar Renteria deal was too lucrative, and though the Juan Uribe contracts were both quite successful, it (again) seems like luck played a large role. Consider that Uribe was an 80 OPS+ hitter in eight seasons prior to coming to San Francisco, but in his two seasons here, he was north of 100 (107 OPS+). It’s obviously not all blemishes here, but there seems to be a pattern. I think the two best examples of recent Sabean screw-ups in player evaluation are Orlando Cabrera and Willie Bloomquist. Cabrera was so clearly a useless player when he was acquired, and yet the Giants gave up a decent prospect in exchange for him. To nobody’s surprise, Cabrera was awful in his brief time here. And then there’s Willie Bloomquist, career 1.3 WAR — all of which came in his first two seasons, who the Giants offered a two-year $4.6MM deal. These kinds of moves/offers only reinforce that Sabean stereotype.

Then there’s the positive, of course. Under Sabean, just one year ago, the Giants won the World Series. He’s assembled a pitching staff that’s consistently great; he had plenty of opportunities to trade Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, or Madison Bumgarner for a bat, but he kept them around long enough to win a championship. He has an extensive scouting background, so it doesn’t seem too far off to give him some credit for the homegrown pitching, as well as the solid core of young hitting talent the Giants have formed in Pablo Sandoval/Buster Posey/Brandon Belt.

Unfortunately, it’ll be his task in the next few years to complement this talent with solid regulars. He’s not nearly as bad as some might say, but I can’t get around the fact that I’m just not excited about the prospect of having him around for the next few years. If history tells us anything, it’s that shopping for position players isn’t his forte.


17 thoughts on “On the Sabean Extension

  1. I’ll admit that he’s not as bad as he’s made out to be, but as a Giants fan for most of the Sabean era, I have to admit a change in the GM spot sounds better than not. I’m tired of the same old Sabean moves to get average at best position players to support a world class pitching staff. I for one would like to see some else try to take the helm before the next Zito/Rowand/Renteria//Huff 2.0/Uribe’s rejected offer (thank God he went to the Dodgers)/Pierzynski/Roberts… Sure every GM makes bad moves, but there’s something especially bad about a bad Sabean deal. Sure it’s easy to say this in hindsight, but so many of these deals just scream destined to fail… I don’t know I guess I’m just speaking out of frustration, but a year of watching Orlanda Tejada will do that.

  2. Imagine if Sabean decided to try to build offense via the draft. Take 2006. Instead of Lincecum, they may have gone for Tyler Colvin who was taken 12th. Drew Stubbs was taken 8th. In 2007, instead of Bumgarner, the Scouts had Jason Heyward pegged and nabbed him. It’s not a pretty picture to imagine if the wrong decisions had been made back then.

    It seems building an offense is a crapshoot. Ultimately it’s easier to stock up on arms that project to the major leagues. How well a young hitter transitions to top pitching is anyone’s guess. The Cardinals got lucky and nabbed Albert Pujols in the 30th round (thereabouts). The Giants have struck gold with Sandoval in the international draft. Villalona not so much. Rafael Rodriguez not looking hot.

    Then you have free agency. Is it Sabeans fault if he has to overpay to bring in offensive pieces? It’s a tough, thankless job.

  3. Brian Sabean is the most successful GM in franchise history since John McGraw. Some of you may be too young to remember this, but the Giants had losing records in 5 of the 6 seasons preceding Sabes taking over as GM. During his tenure, he has produced 11 winning seasons out of 15. The Giants have had 5 postseason appearances and been eliminated from the postseason on the final day of the season twice. They have won 2 NL Pennants and a WS Championship. Brian Sabean has a top 10 winning percentage of all GM’s in baseball since 1950.

    As for the current state of the team, the Giants have one of the better homegrown core’s of young talent in the game with more on the way in the pipeline. They have an excellent scouting/drafting team. Supported by an excellent fanbase, solid ownership and the best home ballpark in the game, the Giants are as well positioned for the future as any team in baseball.

    Yes, Brian Sabean has made some mistakes, but overall he’s been a solid GM. I am very happy his contract was extended. I don’t want him going anywhere. The odds are that any replacement GM would not be as successful.

    • Dr. B, you definitely stick to your guns as a Sabean supporter and I commend you for that. Particularly in light of your analysis. I’m a bit concerned about the status of the farm at the moment. You may have noticed that Joe Panik is already the #2 or 3 prospect in the system. Francisco Peguero is about as high and he avoids the BB like the proverbial plague. With Wheeler gone, there are no top flight arms in the system. Here’s hoping Surkamp becomes Kirk Reuter redux. Also hoping Tommy Joseph can be a useful trading chip, perhaps for Carlos Quentin if the other Carlos doesn’t come by the bay.

      • Brian Sabean has been criticized mercilessly for failing to develop position players. He brought in a hitting oriented scouting director and now people are ringing their hands because there are not pitchers in the system.

        It would be more accurate to say there are no top flight arms in the upper minors. The Giants have arms, but they are in the lower minors right now.

        I’m not sure having Joe Panik as #2 in the system is necessarily an indictment. Dude has awesome BB and K rates. If he can stick at SS, he’s a pretty darn good prospect. No way the Giants should trade Tommy Joseph for Carlos Quentin. He has potential to be a lot more than a trade chip. The Giants had another guy in their minor league system just a few years ago who was allergic to walks too. Remember his name?

        The system definitely took a hit with with Wheeler trade. Did anybody see what Mike Newman said about him in yesterday’s Fangraphs chat? He’s in the top 5 pitching prospects he’s EVER scouted! On the other hand, the same scouting team that found Cainer, Timmy, MadBum and Wheels can find the next great pitching prospect too. Who knows, maybe his name is Kyle Crick or Adalberto Mejia or Kyle Blackburn!

      • I did see that comment about Wheeler. But you know what they say about pitchers: one day striking hitters out, the next day the arm falls off and gravy spills out.

  4. He built a great core of players we have now and brought us the likes of Jason Schimdt, Nen, Kent (HOF), and some other great players. But being a GM as long as he has you’re going to have mistakes.

  5. Easy to evaluate players? If you mean easy to pour over saber metrics, I agree. GM’s evaluate on levels that most fans can’t contemplate. It’s a three dimensional puzzle that is constantly expanding and retracting, and unless you’re the Yankees, you have to make the money fit. I have no doubt that Sabean has forgotten more about baseball than his fire breathing detractors have ever accumulated. BTW, Thomas Neal hasn’t been a decent prospect for quite a while, he’s now pretty much a roster filler at triple A.

    • For the record, the key word there is “relatively.”

      Whether you believe it’s an accurate assessment or not, Thomas Neal was in Baseball America’s Giants’ top ten prospects. Orlando Cabrera wasn’t even worth trading a prospect like Ydwin Villegas.

  6. Good article. I’m not a Sabean apologist, but I think he was not far off when he made the “lunatic fringe” comment a few years ago. I’ve commented in his defense several times on Fangraphs and Pro Sports Daily (I’m Sabean Wannabe).

    The Sabermetric crowd only considers stats and never any other details, like organizational philosophy and who sets it, economic factors, etc. Check out this link on wikipedia, it gives a decent summary of Sabean’s career. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Sabean

    Here are my thoughts. Sabean immediately turned around a moribund franchise and delivered 8 consecutive winning seasons. So many good acquisitions (Kent, Snow, Burks, Schmidt, etc). The most important factor there is the momentum going into the new stadium.

    By the time Kent left after the 2002 season, the organizational philosophy was “Build around Barry”. How much is Sabean to blame for organizational philosophy? Who knows, maybe Sabean wanted to go young, but like all of us, we do what our bosses tell us to do. Thus the reliance on veterans. And back then, free agent contracts were not all that ridiculous. They got a 3.2 WAR out of Reggie Sanders for $1.75M. I don’t blame them for going for a sure thing like that instead of millions on unproven talent. Now, free agent contracts have gotten so ridiculous that building through the draft makes more sense.

    Here’s another factor. The Giants just couldn’t start rebuilding in 2004/2005, the stadium was still too new. They had to try and keep a competitive team on the field no matter what. They had to make sure coming to the Giant’s games became ingrained in the public’s mind.

    And lastly, the Giants (for many reasons) make moves that are not only with baseball in mind, but with marketing and PR in mind. Thus, the Barry Zito “Face of the Franchise” signing. Rowand was a move also motivated by marketing and baseball.

    One of the biggest rants is that the Giants “don’t play the young guys”. Yet, no one can ever point out anyone who the Giants didn’t play who went on to do well elsewhere. Frandsen, Bowker, Ishikawa, etc. have been unable to keep jobs in baseball. The better argument is that the Giants have been unable to develop young position players so they have options other than veterans (until recently with Pablo, Posey and Belt/Brown on the horizon).

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