Questions For Sabean, Righetti
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 19, 2006

HIS IS A critical time for two important members of the Giants organization, general manager Brian Sabean and pitching coach Dave Righetti, with their reputations on the line.

When Sabean took over as general manager for the Giants before the 1997 season, replacing Bob Quinn, he was a breath of fresh air. Quinn had been the old style GM, a man who knew everybody in baseball (his dad, John, had been a general manager before him) and who made traditional deals with no eye on the future. Under his guidance, the Giants had slipped from a San Francisco record 103 wins in 1993 to a sad-sack 68-94 team in ’96.

Sabean knew big changes needed to be made. When I sat with him in his box at midseason in 1996, before he had been officially named to replace Quinn, he told me, “We’ve only got four (legitimate) major leaguers out there.”

He knew the Giants had tied up too much of their payroll in two players, Barry Bonds and Matt Williams. Though Bonds was the older of the two, Sabean thought he was the one to keep, and he was spectacularly correct. His first trade involved the popular Williams and, though the trade was sharply criticized by most of the media and fans, you know how it turned out.

Sabean knew how to put together a team, even if it was in unorthodox form. He traded for J. T. Snow, a great defensive first baseman with marginal power for that position, but Snow and second baseman Jeff Kent made a great combination. Because Kent’s power numbers were off the chart for a middle infielder, Snow’s figures were acceptable, and Snow’s range in the field compensated for Kent’s relative lack of range.

Just before the trading deadline in July, 1997, Sabean made a big trade to bring in pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin which put the Giants over the top as they won the NL West.

Stealing Jason Schmidt from the Pirates in 2001 was a great move, and the team he put together just missed winning the 2002 World Series.

Since then, it’s been mostly downhill. Key players like Ellis Burks and Kent have left. Bringing in Edgardo Alfonzo at double what he was worth was disastrous. He hung on too long to Snow and Kirk Rueter, nice guys who were no longer effective, and he grossly overestimated what Brett Tomko could do.

Sabean has emphasized pitching in the farm system, which was smart, and the system has produced two good ones in the last two seasons, Noah Lowry and Matt Cain, who came up in the second half of the 2005 season and showed why everybody was raving about him.

But the Giants haven’t had similar success with position players. Pedro Feliz, who will be the regular third baseman with Alfonzo gone, is the best player who’s been produced, but Feliz is an undisciplined hitter. Todd Linden looks great in Triple-A but hasn’t produced on the major league level. Lance Niekro looked like a solid hitter at first, but the longer he played, the worse he looked, which is not a good sign.

Sabean has also traded away pitching prospects for pitchers who have come and gone without contributing much, like Sidney Ponson and LaTroy Hawkins. (Picking up Randy Winn, a move about which I was skeptical at the time, turned out to be a very good pickup.)

Meanwhile, the team has gotten older and older as the Giants have pursued their Bonds Uber Alles plan. When Bonds missed most of last season, we saw how bad – and boring – the rest of the team is.

SABEAN HAS MADE one other interesting decision, hiring Felipe Alou as manager when Dusty Baker left for the Chicago Cubs.

At the time, it seemed a near-perfect move. Alou had a good reputation from his previous managerial jobs, and he had a tie to the Giants, for whom he had played in their early years in San Francisco. He was the one man they could have hired who could have blunted the unhappiness of many (though not all) fans because Baker seemed to be virtually pushed out the door by owner Peter Magowan.

The bloom is off the rose with Alou, though. His bullpen was in rebellion against him in the second half of last season because he wore everybody out, bringing in pitchers for one batter. He managed as if he were in the last week of a tight race, when every game is very important. In fact, though, the Giants were well off the pace, even though it only took 82 wins for San Diego to win the NL Worst.

Then, Alou completely blew his cool when Larry Krueger talked of “brain dead Caribbean hitters” on KNBR. Although the thin-skinned Magowan was originally happy to see Krueger lambasted, eventually even Magowan and the Giants management were embarrassed by Alou’s continued rant and multiple references to Satan. But, because the Giants had earlier signed Alou to a one-year extension, they’re stuck with him through the 2006 season.

Which brings up an interesting question about Righetti’s future. At one time, it was assumed by those around the Giants that he would follow Baker as manager, at least in part because of his local ties; his father, Leo, played shortstop for the minor league Seals and Dave is a San Jose native. He was passed over for Alou, probably because Sabean sensed a looming public relations disaster with the Baker departure. Since then, some questions have risen because of his work with the pitchers, so his ascension to manager next season is by no means guaranteed.

It’s not always clear how credit or blame should be assigned to a coach, but Righetti deserves at least one gold star for his handling of Schmidt, who went from being a thrower to a complete pitcher under Righetti’s tutelage. He seems to have worked well with Lowry, who struggled early last season but then made some changes – which I’m sure were suggested by Righetti – and was a better pitcher in the second half.

But there has been a steady stream of young pitchers – Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams, Jesse Foppert, Merkin Valdez, David Aardsma, Damian Moss, Kevin Correia, Ryan Jensen, Brad Hennessey – who have shown flashes of ability but never really developed in a Giants uniform. (Correia and Hennessey are still on the Giants roster and will be competing for the fifth starter role.) Is that Righetti’s fault, or were they simply overrated? None of the pitchers who were traded away have done much since they left, either.

This year, Sabean added a solid veteran pitcher, Matt Morris, for the middle of the rotation, but there are still questions. Schmidt fell off sharply last season from his near Cy Young year in 2004. Was that a one season fall or a sign that he’s on the downward slope? Is it fair to expect Cain to be a solid starter in his first full year?

THE BIG question, of course, is Bonds, and how much he can play. He showed in September last year that he can still be a powerful offensive force, but for how many games? If he can play in even two-thirds of the games, the Giants should be favorites to win their division. There’s not much to beat there.

The future is much more problematical. If Sabean doesn’t work on making the farm system more productive, the Giants will drop off to last year’s level when Bonds retires. If that happens, the question may not be whether Righetti will become the next Giants manager but whether he’ll even want the job.


BLOGS: In mentioning blogs I like, I omitted the collegiate sites, TheBearInsider (Cal) and TheBootleg (Stanford), which are both excellent.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this section by mid-afternoon today.

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