How Good Is Brian Sabean?
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 30, 2005

THIS WILL BE the year when we learn how good Giants general manager Brian Sabean really is.

Unlike his counterpart with the Aís, Billy Beane, Sabean doesnít have complete autonomy on the baseball side.

Giants managing general partner Peter Magowan is an avid baseball fan who often pulls out statistics to buttress his arguments during interviews in his office. Sabean always has to keep Magowan in the loop on decisions he wants to make, whether itís signing free agents or making trades, though Iíve not heard of any proposed move that Magowan has vetoed.

Sabean also has to be aware of his budget limitations. Pursuing Vladimir Guerrero as a free agent, for instance, was never a possibility because of the cost. Sabean probably didnít even bring it up with Magowan because he knew what the answer would be.

Magowan has also set the parameters for the type of team he wants: a contending team that will keep the fans coming.

To achieve that goal, Sabean has almost always traded for veteran players, using players from the Giants minor league system, or signed veteran free agents. The rationale is obvious: Veteran players and pitchers have a major league record on which they can be judged. Itís more difficult to evaluate minor league players, and Sabean has seldom tried.

When Dusty Baker was the Giants manager, his critics claimed that he was too fond of veteran players, but the Giants lineup has remained veteran-oriented Ė and even older, this year Ė with Felipe Alou as manager. In truth, the Giants managers have been no more involved with the decision-making than the Aís managers, which is to say, not at all. Beane talks to Ken Macha and Sabean talks to Alou, but thatís a courtesy, not part of the decision-making process

Sabean's strategy has worked for the Giants, less because of his brilliance than because of Barry Bonds. Bonds is such a dominant force that Sabean could bring in even ordinary players to fit around him and the Giants would continue to win. Bondsí importance has been shown dramatically in his absence this year. Sabean strengthened the regular lineup at three positions, with outfielder Moises Alou, shortstop Omar Vizquel and catcher Mike Matheny, all of whom are having excellent years Ė but the Giants are dismal without Bonds.

SABEAN DID his best work in his first year as general manager.

Not long after taking over from Bob Quinn after the 94-loss season of 1996, Sabean traded Matt Williams and Trinidad Hubbard for Jeff Kent, Julian Tavarez, Jose Vizcaino and Joe Roa.

In another significant trade that was overshadowed by the Williams-Kent deal, Sabean traded Allen Watson and Fausto Macey for J. T. Snow, who formed a perfect symbiotic relationship with Kent. Because Kent put up much better power numbers than a team would expect from a second baseman, he balanced Snowís power numbers, relatively low for a first baseman. Because Snow was a superb defensive first baseman, he compensated for Kentís lack of range.

In midseason that year, Sabean traded minor leaguers Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, Ken Vining, Michael Carauso and Brian Manning for Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin. Foulke had had a good career since, but the Giants never regretted that trade because it was the final key for a team that won a divisional title.

The best Sabean trade, though, was probably the 2001 one in which he stole Jason Schmidt from the Pirates for minor league pitcher Ryan Vogelson and outfielder Armando Rios, who had played enough with the Giants to show his limitations. (John Vander Wal was included on the Pirates side of that trade, but he played only the rest of the season with the Giants.)

LATELY, SABEANíS touch has been less than magic.

He tied up too much payroll with two free agent acquisitions, Edgardo Alfonzo and Ray Durham. Heís been trying to trade at least one of them Ė Durham seems the most likely, if an American League club which could use him as a DH wants him Ė but itís been difficult because of those contracts.

From the start, both of these deals looked bad. Alfonzo, once a good RBI man with the Mets, had had a big falloff in his power numbers because of back problems. He hasnít gotten his power back. His offense would be fine if he were a second baseman, but at half his salary. As it is, the Giants are probably stuck with him at that salary for another year.

Durham had the reputation of being a good hitter but poor fielder who had trouble staying healthy. Thatís still his reputation. If the Giants canít unload him, Durham will no doubt exercise his player option for 2006, for another $7 million.

Sabean also signed Michael Tucker as a free agent last year, giving up a No. 1 draft pick as he did, though Tuckerís career record defined mediocrity. He picked up the perennially disappointing Brett Tomko. He extended Kirk Rueterís contract through this year. Like my friend Gary Radnich, I donít want to hear any more about Rueter taking a ďhome town deductionĒ to stay with the Giants. Who else would be stupid enough to pay this stiff $5 million a year?

Because these guys are all still here, Alou has had to use them, even if it meant holding back potentially better players. With Alfonzo on third, Pedro Feliz had to play multiple positions, instead of the one he plays best. Tuckerís presence kept Todd Linden in the minors. Maybe Linden wasnít ready, but he has an upside, which Tucker doesnít. Playing Durham at second has weakened the defense. The Giants have been bragging about their pitching prospects, but Matt Cain and Merkin Valdez are still in the minors, while Rueter remains in the rotation, and Tomko has been until this week.

And, of course, Sabean made that disastrous trade before the 2004 season, sending away Joe Nathan to get A. J. Pierzynski.

THIS YEAR, the Giants have operated under a dark cloud, with Bonds return uncertain, closer Armando Benitez recovering from surgery and Schmidt only sporadically effective.

Sabean hasnít reacted well to the changed circumstances. He traded two young pitchers, Jerome Williams and Dave Aardsma, for reliever LaTroy Hawkins, whose confidence has been shattered. He claimed Alex Sanchez off the waiver list, and Sanchez quickly showed why he was on the waiver list in the Saturday loss to the Aís, as he dropped a ball hit right at him and then ran into center fielder Jason Ellison on the next play, causing Ellison to drop the ball.

Now, Sabean is directly in the cross-hairs. What he should be doing is putting together a team that can make a serious run in 2006. But, as dreadful as the Giants are, theyíre not totally out of the race in the pathetically weak NL West; if this were English soccer, all these teams would be relegated to the second division. What if the Giants make a little run before the All-Star break? Will Sabean then make another short-sighted decision and trade away more pitching prospects?

I hope the answer to that question is no Ė but I fear it will be yes.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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