Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Looking Ahead: San Francisco Giants

A few quick notes:
  • The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that the A's will be building a new stadium in nearby Fremont, California for future relocation. The A's had been threatening to vacate the Oakland Coliseum (now McAfee Coliseum) for a while now, and this is nothing new. For those wondering where the hell Fremont is, it's about halfway between Oakland and San Jose. San Jose was considered to be a possible destination for the A's in the future, but I guess they literally decided to settle halfway.
    The A's are one of the few teams that can legitimately gripe about not being able to draw fans in their current stadium. The A's have been one of the best franchises in baseball since they arrived in Oakland in 1968, winning 4 World Series, making 15 playoff appearances, and suffering only 14 losing seasons out of 39. Despite this, the team has always struggled to draw. From 1972-1974, the A's won 3 straight World Series -- and their attendance decreased each consecutive year, bottoming out at less than 850,000 in 1974, second-worst in the league. They did much better in their 1988-1990 run of three straight pennants, topping 2 million fans each year (and ranking second-best in the league twice). But in the most recent run of Oakland success, things have been little better. The team did make it back to 2 million+ fans from 2001-2005, but they never ranked better than 6th in the AL in total attendance. Worse yet, the team's 2006 rebound to the division title saw the worst attendance since 2000 -- less than 2 million -- ranking them 12th out of 14 AL teams. This in spite of their winning record, postseason appearance, and the general increase in attendance at major league games across the board.
    So it may make sense for the A's to leave the McAfee Coliseum. The question now is what they will be called. It's doubtful that they will stick with "Oakland," having left town in such a fashion. The "San Jose A's" wouldn't be accurate, and the "Fremont A's" sounds like a railroad company. They may take after the Angels and adopt a double name -- The Fremont A's of Alameda County -- but I hope to God that they don't. They could just go by the California A's -- the Angels have ditched it -- but that wouldn't appeal to the local community. The most reasonable suggestion may be the "Bay Area A's" -- the Bay A's. Or they could make a killing in endorsements and call themselves the eBay A's. That's a joke, by the way.
  • Former major league pitcher Johnny Sain passed away Tuesday at age 89. Sain was a star with the Boston Braves in the late 40's, teaming with Warren Spahn to drive the team to the 1948 NL Pennant. He was later a key part of the 1950's Yankee dynasty as a role player and after his career served as a pitching coach. Sain was widely regarded as an excellent pitching coach by everyone except the managers and executives he served under. They hated him for the same reason his pitchers loved him: he was more loyal to his pitchers than to his managers. Sain showed a fantastic track record of working with pitchers in several different organizations, particularly the Yankees, Tigers, and White Sox. Sain was known for producing 20-game winners upon his arrival who mysteriously deteriorated upon his departure. He was the mentor of a young minor league pitcher named Leo Mazzone and, despite his uncomfortable status with organized baseball, is recognized as one of the game's greatest pitching coaches, getting his own chapter in Roger Kahn's book about pitching entitled The Head Game. The most insightful comments about Sain probably came from Jim Bouton in Ball Four. Bouton spoke highly of Sain, who had worked with him in the Yankee system, and watched as he was fired from Detroit in 1969 after having helped the team to the 1968 World Championship. Such is the life of a free thinker in baseball.
  • I was also remiss in not mentioning the recent passing of Joe Niekro. Niekro teamed with his brother Phil to win the most games by any brother tandem in baseball history. Joe was a staple of the good Houston teams of the 70's and 80's and had a long and successful career, winning 221 career games and finishing with a 3.59 ERA.
  • And now for the Giants. Try to restrain yourself from laughter (or tears, if you're a fan).

2006 W-L Record: 76-85
2006 pW-pL Record: 76-85
Runs Scored: 746 (T-9th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 790 (8th in NL)
Free Agents: Moises Alou, Barry Bonds, Ray Durham, Pedro Feliz, Steve Finley, LaTroy Hawkins, Shea Hillenbrand, Jason Schmidt, Mike Stanton, Jamey Wright

2007 Proj. Lineup:
1B -- Lance Niekro?
2B -- Kevin Frandsen
SS -- Omar Vizquel
3B -- ??
LF -- Todd Linden
CF -- Jason Ellison/Fred Lewis
RF -- Randy Winn
C -- Mike Matheny/Eliezer Alfonzo

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Matt Cain
Noah Lowry
Matt Morris
Brad Hennessey
Jonathan Sanchez?

2007 Proj. Closer: Armando Benitez

The Good News:
I'll keep this short so we can get to the fun part. And in reality, it is short. Because while the Giants do have a couple of valuable veterans and some talented youngsters, they've also got more holes than Swiss cheese and a strong chance to finish last in the NL West for the foreseeable future.
The biggest asset this team has is Matt Cain. Cain is one of the best young pitching prospects in the game, which makes you wonder what he's still doing with the Giants. Regardless, Cain (who is a spry 22) has already reached the majors and started producing. 2006 was his first full year in the bigs, and while it wasn't a rousing success, it was an encouraging season for such a young pitcher and a solid foundation on which to grow. Cain's ERA was a disappointing 4.15, and he had big control problems, allowing 87 walks in just 190.2 innings (a problem which has plagued him throughout the minors). But he also notched 179 strikeouts and allowed a reasonable 18 home runs. Cain is the ace of the Giants for the immediate future, and he can only be an asset so long as he stays healthy.
After a breakthrough year in 2005, 2006 represented a big step back for Noah Lowry, the Giants' #2 starter. The 25-year-old looked like a solid backup to Jason Schmidt, but the wheels came off in 2006. His ERA went from 3.78 to 4.74, and his strikeout rate plummeted. In 2005 he struck out 172 in 204.2 IP; in 2006, it was a bare 84 in 159.1 IP. It's very possible that Lowry was just hurting in 2006, and that's the reason for his terrible numbers. But I'm not sure if that's much comfort to the Giants; they need to see Lowry healthy and backing up Cain, because there's no one else on this team capable of giving them 200 strong innings like Lowry is.
Behind Lowry is Matt Morris. Before Morris came along, the standard salary for a LAIM (league-average innings-muncher) was $7 mil. Owner Peter Magowan and GM Brian Sabean boosted that up to $9 mil. (for which I'm sure the other owners thanked them) for Morris. I'm not sure why; maybe they thought that Morris was better than just a LAIM (despite all the evidence in recent years that he was deteriorating). As it turned out, he was worse (4.98 ERA in 207.2 IP). But considering the rest of the rotation, the Giants will live with a 4.98 ERA so long as he sucks up another 200+ innings.
There is some hope in the case of prospect Jonathan Sanchez. 24-year-old Sanchez rode his fastball quickly up the minor league ladder, reaching the majors last year in less than three full seasons of pro ball. His big-league audition was forgettable (4.95 ERA, 23:33 BB:K ratio), and Sanchez will probably need more time in the minors (he only spent 23.2 innings in Triple-A before his promotion). But with the cupboard so bare, he could just as easily be pressed into duty as a 4th or 5th starter.
In the bullpen the Giants can only hope that the volatile Armando Benitez is healthy again, as he's still slotted into the closer's role. They could also hope for him to grow antlers and become a moose.
The lineup looks like the morning after at the frat house. A few bare survivors are left to look around and say, "Where did everybody go?" The Giants still have Mike Matheny, which isn't good news, but they think it is, so I'll mention it. They've got Lance Niekro to play first base. Niekro has shown a little power, but otherwise hasn't yet translated his minor league success to the majors, which is disappointing at age 27 (he turns 28 in January). I honestly don't have a clue who the Giants will play at third. They'll either re-sign Pedro Feliz or ask 42-year-old Matt Williams how serious he is about staying retired.
At shorstop, the Giants do have Omar Vizquel, who is moderately productive (295/361/389). They need somebody to get on base now that Barry's gone, and although Omar isn't the second coming of Ozzie Smith, he's not hurting anyone either (0 FRAA in '06 -- dead average, despite the Gold Glove). At second the Giants have one of their few prospects. Kevin Frandsen got a cup of coffee in the majors last year after showing great plate discpline and a high batting average in the minors. He doesn't have any power and isn't much more than average defensively, but the Giants could do worse than to have a poor man's Luis Castillo (sans the SBs) at second. Baseball Prospectus 2006 refers to him accurately, I think, as a "future starter, not a future star."
In the outfield . . . hello (hello . . . hello). Is anybody there (there . . . there)? Echo (echo . . . echo)! The Giants gave Randy Winn a big contract extension so he could hit 262/324/396 and be one of the worst-hitting right fielders in the game. Winn's not really that bad, but he's never going to hit like a corner outfielder, and he's also not going to get any younger (33 next year).
If the Giants don't resign Bonds or get a free agent, the outfield will be very bare indeed. Early candidates for left and center field are Todd Linden and Jason Ellison. Ellison can handle center defensively, but can't hit. The Giants will likely have to live with it, unless they decide to go with young Fred Lewis (a former center fielder whose bat looks ready for the majors). Linden will probably get the left field job due to solid minor league credentials and some good work in the majors. Linden has seen short work late in the season for four straight years now but -- as you know -- the left field job was taken. Considering the money that needs to be spent elsewhere, the Giants might as well just give Linden the job and save some money, for once.
Just think -- the Giants were a below-average offensive team before they set off the free agency frag bomb in the clubhouse.

The Bad News:
The Giants are losing a lot of free agents and, consequently, have a lot of money available in the offseason. You could look at this as a positive. But that's like telling a homeless person that at least they don't have to worry about mortgage payments.
Let me illustrate the folly of the Giants. The Giants won the pennant in 2002 with a very old team that was heavy on offense. They were able to scrape by with the pitching of guys like Livan Hernandez, Russ Ortiz, and Kirk Rueter, but this was not a team built for the long term, especially when ace closer Robb Nen suffered what turned out to be a career-ending injury. Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow, and Reggie Sanders were all getting old and there were no heirs apparent to replace them. Benito Santiago was coming off an unlikely age 37 season that was most likely fueled by steroids, and God knows who else on the team was using artificial means to extend their careers.
GM Brian Sabean was faced with a crisis. The Giants had been one of the NL's best teams in recent years; they'd never won less than 86 games in the past six years and had made three postseason appearances. They were a team that was built around one man -- Barry Bonds -- who was almost single-handedly responsible for their success. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that Bonds was worth 10-12 wins over replacement level. That means that without him, the Giants weren't contenders at all. Sabean had to start planning for Life After Bonds.
Instead, Sabean blew every bit of money he had leveraging the Giants' entire future on winning it all right away. Sabean exacerbated the team's problems by filling the roster with even more aging, high-risk, expensive players. In the 2003 offseason, he added Edgardo Alfonzo (29), Jose Cruz, Jr. (29), Neifi Perez (29), Ray Durham (31), Marquis Grissom (36), and Andres Galarraga (41). The pitching staff was filled with the same group of marginal players as before, with the exception of emerging ace Jason Schmidt.
But Sabean made those guys look like babes in arms compared to the fleet of geriatrics he would import in the seasons to come. The Giants won 100 games in 2003, thanks almost entirely to Bonds and Schmidt; Durham and Cruz were the only ones of the above free agents to help the team, and Cruz would be gone after the season.
Therefore, Sabean decided to keep going all-or-nothing for his team in the 2003-4 offseason. He signed Deivi Cruz (31) and Michael Tucker (33) for reasons that escape most mortals. He signed free agent Brett Tomko (31) for the starting rotation, apparently concluding that he didn't have enough marginal, below-average guys out there already.
But the worst move Sabean made was a trade. It is already becoming known as "The Trade," and will soon rank even with -- and perhaps even surpass -- historically awful trades in the vein of Brock-for-Broglio, Robinson-for-Pappas, and Bagwell-for-Andersen. All of those trades were more defensible than the one Sabean made. Sabean traded away star setup man Joe Nathan and included in the deal a hot young pitching prospect named Francisco Liriano, and another named Boof Bonser. Mind you, the Giants just didn't have good pitching prospects -- or good pitchers, for that matter -- so why did he feel the need to get rid of that which they needed most? What possible legend, what superstar, could be worth giving up such important young players? Who could Sabean get in this trade?
He got a grumpy catcher named A.J. Pierzynski -- for only one year, because Pierzynski pissed off everyone so much that the Giants flat-out released him the following December. Since then, Joe Nathan has rivalled Mariano Rivera as the game's best closer (the Giants haven't been able to fill the role since Nen's 2002 injury), Liriano emerged as perhaps the game's best young pitcher, and even Boof Bonser made it to the majors as a guy who could contribute. The Giants, meanwhile, were scraping together anything they could from guys like Brad Hennessey just to fill out the starting rotation. They also spent a good deal of money on free agent pitchers like Matt M0rris and Armando Benitez, neither of whom had a fraction of the value of a guy like Liriano. (As if that weren't enough, Pierzynski signed with the White Sox in 2005 and won the World Series).
But I get ahead of myself. Having missed the playoffs in 2004, Sabean became increasingly desperate and essentially flushed the team's 5-year plan down the tubes with a series of signings that had virtually no upside. Sabean signed brittle, punchless catcher Mike Matheny (34) to an improbable 3-year contract (Matheny hit 242/295/406). They signed the equally overrated Omar Vizquel (38) to another silly 3-year deal (271/341/350 for Omar). They signed 32-year0ld Armando Benitez despite the fact that he was clearly coming off of a career year; they were rewarded with 30 innings and a 4.50 ERA(Benitez would top that with an incredible 38.1 innings the following year). Sabean continued to insist upon signing offensive players while still tolerating the embarassing antics of pitchers such as Hennessey (4.64 ERA) and Kirk Rueter (5.95), who combined for 39 starts that year. The only good move was getting the still-productive Moises Alou (38) for just two years -- although Alou played just a little more than 200 games in the two seasons.

The 2004 Giants had fallen to 91-71 and missed the playoffs, despite an absurdly great season from Barry Bonds: 362/609/812. If the Giants only won 91 games with the modern Ted Williams, what would they do without him? They found out in 2005 with Bonds injured: 75-87 and 3rd place in the worst division in baseball.
Did Sabean try to salvage something for 2006? Not really. He stayed the course (and I fully intend the disastrous connotation now connected with that phrase). He traded the worthless Edgardo Alfonzo to the Angels for 41-year-old center fielder Steve Finley. Despite making $8 million in 2006, Finley wasn't nearly as wretched as he had been in 2005; he was merely awful (246/320/394). Having traded for Randy Winn (32) during the 2005 stretch run and seeing Winn hit far over his head, Sabean rewarded him with a silly contract extension. Winn, the young buck of the team, hit 262/324/396.
For the pitching staff, Sabean saw the gaping hole in the back of the rotation (and noted that ace Schmidt was a free agent in a year) and signed mid-level starter Matt Morris to a 3-year, $27 million deal. Morris (31), who had been regressing for years, rewarded Sabean with a 4.98 ERA in 207.2 IP.
These advances got the Giants one game in the standings, finishing at 76-85 -- still 3rd in the NL West.
The Giants, a 76-win team, will be losing most of their productive players to free agency. They're losing their starting first baseman (Shea Hillenbrand), second baseman (Ray Durham), third baseman (Pedro Feliz), left fielder (Barry Bonds), and center fielder (Steve Finley). They're losing sometime-outfielder Moises Alou, ace pitcher Jason Schmidt, 5th starter Jamey Wright, and relief pitchers LaTroy Hawkins and Mike Stanton.
If we use Baseball Prospectus' WARP1 statistic, we can determine how many wins the Giants are losing. Assuming that the Giants replaced all of their free agents with replacement-level players (which isn't too far from the truth), they will lose about 32 wins. This would put them at 42 wins (or so).
Now, realistically speaking, the Giants aren't a 42-win team. They've got the money to replace these guys with better than replacement-level players, and have some guys within the organization who will produce. But if you are ever -- under any circumstances -- looking at an offseason where your team is starting out with less than 50 wins -- you have failed.
It always amazes me that people consider Brian Sabean to be a great General Manager. I wonder what possible criteria they could be using to measure such a thing. You could credit Sabean for the Giants' rise in the mid-90's, but you would also have to give him equal credit for their fall. And it would be too kind to Sabean to give him credit for each of the Giants' 95 wins in 2002; that's inaccurate. The Giants, from 1993-2006, were primarily a team composed of one or two superstars who carried a sub-par team. The biggest superstar was, of course, Barry Bonds. Sabean wasn't responsible for bringing Bonds to San Francisco, although he was responsible for keeping him there through 2006 (at least). I don't consider this so much a stroke of genius on Sabean's part rather than the recognition that you don't let the second coming of Ted Williams get away, even if he does use steroids, cuss people out, and cost a bundle. The Giants have a very weak farm system, which has been exacerbated by the Giants' inability (and possible unwillingness) to deal with the amateur draft at all. One commentator I read tried to spin this as a positive for the team; he claimed that Sabean realized he wasn't very good at drafting players and therefore decided not to waste money on it. I guess this is smart, in a sense, but I understand that there are people in this country who are good at drafting young talent, and that they will work for American currency. If you're bad at drafting talent, you don't just accept that and continue blindly on -- you try to improve. Especially if you're a rapidly aging team that desperately needs some cheap, productive players to come along. Sabean's poor drafting record must be held against him, especially since it fuelled his need for expensive free agents to fill every hole on his team.
The vast majority of the credit due to the Giants for their 1993-2004 success goes to Barry Bonds. Other, smaller, portions go to players like Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow, Jason Schmidt, and Russ Ortiz. Does Sabean get the credit for bringing some of these players along? Yes, absolutely. But saying that someone did a few things right is no defense of their performance; you have to judge, on balance, whether the good decisions outweighed the bad. And in Sabean's case, the good decisions have far outweighed the bad. Not only that, but his reckless commitments to old players have doomed the team to non-contention for two or three years at least. He's found himself dead last in a division full of young talent, ranking even behind the Padres, who have managed to survive without an incredibly fruitful farm system by simply making good decisions more often than bad.
It is for this reason that Sabean's reputation as a great General Manager is shocking to me. But it's also a lesson: it tells us that General Managers are judged by far too many irrelevant criteria, and not enough by the direct consequences of their actions. Every article I read discussing Sabean's positive attributes as a GM may be true enough on its own; he may be a jolly fellow who has a good "baseball knowledge" and "knows how to run a team." But if these attributes fail to produce a winning team -- nay, if they produce the exact opposite, we can't really call them assets. If they don't help him win ballgames, they're not really that important, are they? There's a lesson here about baseball reporters and the inaccurate prism through which they reflect the game.
Sabean's reign as Giants' GM may look like a rise and fall, and it is. But it must be clear that we cannot blindly give Sabean credit for the rise. In fact, it can be demonstrated (as I have above) that Sabean was far more directly resp0nsible for the fall than he was for the rise. This is not to unfairly tag Sabean as the figurehead of the front office; Giants' owner Peter Magowan deserves a fair share of responsibility as well, as does Sabean's entire staff, for failing to head off problems in a timely manner or prevent them from reaching crisis proportions.
But if the captain must go down with the ship, so must Sabean go down with the Giants. And it will be a long, hard road down.

Offseason Game Plan:
And find someone who can handle the amateur draft if you can't.
And don't get an overrated lineup butcher to manage the cl--oops.

No comments: