When Brian Sabean took over as the Giants’ General Manager back in 1996, he almost immediately became public enemy number one by the Bay by trading away the beloved Matt Williams for a trio of perceived nobodies (one of those perceived nobodies, of course, was Jeff Kent). When those nobodies played key roles in the Giants’ division title the very next year, and after Sabean heisted Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez from the White Sox at the trade deadline, he was hailed as a genius.
From that point forward, Sabean rode an endlessly turbulent wave of public opinion, rising to great heights in the 2002 World Series, bottoming out in the unwatchable 2007 season, and cresting in the 2010 World Championship year. One year fans and writers would consider him one of the shrewder front office minds in baseball, the next they’d accuse him of being an antiquated hack riding the coattails of Barry Bonds. Sabean is currently the longest-tenured GM in the game. When you’ve been around for close to 20 years, you’re going to make some stinker moves. Once upon a time, Sabean was maybe the most despised front office person in baseball, at least by his own fanbase. For a few years, it seemed (to Giants fans, at least) that all of his moves were stinkers.
Oh, how things have changed. Sabean is now almost certainly going to waltz into the Hall of Fame, with a body of work and a success record that most general managers would kill for. And it’s funny, because in an alternate timeline that came very close to being the real timeline, his future place in Cooperstown was derailed by a left-handed collegiate hitter from Idaho.
Let me take you back to a very dark time in Giants history, back to the year 2007. The Giants had just come off of a second straight losing season, having finished 2006 at 76-85 (shockingly, Shea Hillenbrand wasn’t the hero we deserved, or needed). The team’s strategy of surrounding the almost-finished Barry Bonds with veterans in their mid- to late-30’s was proving to be a dubious one. By the time the 2007 amateur draft rolled around in June, it was clear that the 2007 season was going to be another lost cause, and the team’s third straight sub-.500 finish (it turned out Dave Roberts wasn’t the hero we deserved, or needed, either).
In 2004 and 2005, the Giants intentionally punted their first round picks, electing to spend money, again, on veterans to complement a Bonds-centric lineup rather than on signing bonuses to unproven high schoolers or collegians. The players whom the Giants gave up said draft picks to sign? Michael Tucker and Armando Benitez. Tucker was all right, and generally inoffensive. Benitez…well, he didn’t work out so well. As it turned out, giving away the rights to potentially high-upside youngsters in order to sign one vanilla corner outfielder and one belligerent clubhouse cancer wasn’t the best way to build a competitive team.*
*In the 2005 draft, because of the awful Benitez signing, the Giants had to surrender their pick at number 22 to the Marlins. The Red Sox picked 23rd and took…Jacoby Ellsbury. D’oh! In 2004, the Giants’ pick at number 29 went to Kansas City as compensation for Michael Tucker (ugh). The Giants theoretically could have had Gio Gonzalez or Huston Street, both of whom got taken just a few picks later. Yeah.
The man behind all of this was the team’s General Manager Brian Sabean. At this point in time, Sabean may have been the most-maligned GM in baseball, especially by the stathead community, who considered him something of a luddite. Fans were sick of the veteran-centric method of team-building and wanted some damned youth injected into the franchise. From about 2006 to 2008, the “Fire Sabean” screeching rose to ear-shattering decibels. It was clear that surrounding Bonds with washed up Rich Aurilia and washed up Ryan Klesko wasn’t going to get the team to the World Series, and fans were getting sick of wags yucking it up that the Giants should be sponsored by Fixodent. To make matters worse, Sabean’s reputation as an anti-stats guy was directly at odds with the “saber-revolution” then in full swing, and fans were clamoring for a more progressive-thinking GM to come in for a rebuild. I should know. I was there, and I was on the front lines of the legions of fans who wanted Sabean out.
In 2006, the Giants finally ditched their questionable draft strategy (or non-draft strategy) and took Tim Lincecum, a tiny pitcher with a violent, totally unorthodox delivery and hellacious stuff, with the 10th pick. It was a prototypical high-risk, high-reward pick (which obviously turned out extremely well). It was an outside-the-box-type of move that was not at all typical of the decisions that the Giants’ brain trust was making back then, and fans liked it.
When the 2007 draft rolled around, the Giants again had the 10th overall pick. This time, though, fans wanted a hitter. The team hadn’t developed an All-Star-caliber bat since Matt Williams, and fans in the Bay were sick of watching Pedro Feliz and a lineup full of geriatrics struggle to plate runs at AT&T Park. They wanted a hitter, a true franchise cornerstone. No more Tony Torcato or Lance Niekro. We wanted the real thing.
What hitter did they want, specifically? That’s right, Beau Mills, the lefty-hitting slugger from Visalia who had destroyed opposing pitching at Fresno State. Judging from the numbers, he certainly looked like the type of high-power, high-OBP guy that the Giants so desperately needed in the middle of their lineup as the team transitioned out of the Bonds era. There was a general buzz of excitement about Beau Mills: Future Giants All-Star.
So with the 10th pick in the draft the Giants took…some high school pitcher from South Carolina named Madison Bumgarner. Wait, what? Yeah fans were outraged. Just check out some of the comments here, as a starting point. Believe me, the sentiment in that thread is just the tip of the iceberg. No one in Giants-land really knew who Bumgarner was, and at that point I don’t think they cared. The not-so-lovingly dubbed “lunatic fringe” wanted Mills, dammit. Instead they got yet another pitcher, and how many damn pitchers do you need anyway?
Keep in mind also that Moneyball was still very fresh in everybody’s minds, so whenever a team took a high school pitcher with an early pick, it was generally shat on by a large segment of the Internet. “TINSTAAP!” was shouted every time there was even a hint of a rumor that some team was going to take a high school pitcher with a top ten pick. With this pick, the anti-Sabean sentiment was about to escalate to levels unseen since the Williams/Kent trade. Flash forward to 2014, and I think it’s safe to say this pick turned out okay.
I guess the point of this little 700-word trip down memory lane is that, about 98 percent of the time, fans just don’t know what in the hell they’re talking about. Mills was a good college hitter who would most likely have been limited to first base in the majors. He basically would have had to hit like Prince Fielder to justify taking him with the tenth pick. He didn’t; he’s been out of professional baseball since 2012 and he never sniffed the majors after being taken 13th in that draft by Cleveland. Even with hindsight being 20/20 and all, we probably should have known better.
Bumgarner, as you may have seen or heard, just completed one of the greatest postseason pitching performances in the history of baseball, and basically won last year’s World Series by himself (he had a central role in three of the Giants’ four World Series victories, which is practically unheard of for a pitcher these days). Wrap your brain around this: Without Bummy, the Giants absolutely don’t win the World Series in 2014, they very likely don’t win it in 2012, and they maybe don’t even win it in 2010 (Bumgarner saved the team at midseason from the ten-car pileup that was Todd Wellemeyer).
And to think it could have been Beau Mills. For shame.
What Giants fans (and many others, really) failed to realize was that Bumgarner was a high-upside, projectable pitcher with a big frame and who, perhaps most importantly, hadn’t had his arm stretched to the limit by some jerkoff college coach with no accountability. Here’s a pre-draft scouting report on him. Notice the term “strong-bodied” and “good poise” in there and then recall again what he did in the playoffs after throwing 217 innings in the regular season. It’s like that report was written by Nostradamus.
So fans are dumb, yours truly included (or make that, yours truly especially). What’s the point of all this? Oh, yeah…that Brian Sabean is the 14th-greatest GM of all time. Authors Mark Armour and Dan Levitt are revealing, one-by-one, their ranking of the top 20 general managers of all time as a preview to their upcoming book (if Branch Rickey isn’t number one, it’ll be a ’69 Mets-style upset). Last week Sabean showed up sitting pretty at number fourteen. All. Time. If that statement were to have been made on this exact date in 2008 it would have been dismissed as utterly ridiculous, and the authors would have been accused of blasphemy or excessive drug abuse.
That’s what three World Championships will do, of course. The Giants successfully rebuilt their franchise with some truly great draft picks and amateur free agent signings (don’t forget Panda!), and they became competitive faster than anyone would have expected. At the end of 2007, pundits were talking about something like a four-year rebuild plan, and only after a complete teardown. Just two years later, though, the Giants won 88 games and had shed their pretender status for good. The architect of this (as it turned out) incredibly successful stealth rebuild effort was initially regarded as the absolute wrong man for the job. Yet here we are in 2014, and Brian Sabean is the man at the helm of the most successful period in San Francisco Giants history.
Not all of the credit for the three championships falls squarely on him, of course. The team’s scouting department has proven to be one of the best in the biz. The Giants have generally been able to keep their pitchers healthy, which is probably a ringing endorsement of their player development strategy and minor league coaching staffs. Bruce Bochy, of course, was nearly flawless in the team’s three World Series trips. It also helps that Buster Posey looks like he’ll turn into the decade’s best catcher.
From 2005-ish to 2011, I (somewhat intermittently) ran a blog called Give ‘Em Some Stankeye (look, it’s still there!). The reason I started the blog was because I was really, really pissed when the Giants blew the 2004 season and I needed some mouthpiece with which I could vent my outrage. I said a lot of pretty nasty things about Sabean back then. Hell, I even had a tag designated just for my rantings about some of his moves that I hated.
A lot of the invective lobbed Sabean’s way from my direction was pretty mean-spirited but it was hardly exclusive to my little blog. In fact, by Internet standards and in terms of the torrent of shit Sabean was getting from other Giants blogs at the time, it was pretty tame. Still, I kind of read that old stuff and cringe. When Sabean was a scout with the Yankees in the early-90’s, he played a large part in drafting or signing Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada. Those guys were pretty good. They played on some Yankee teams that were pretty good, too. So, naturally, as a drunken 22-year-old college student ranting on the Internets in my underwear in between watching reruns of Ren and Stimpy, I felt that I was qualified to write over and over again that the man didn’t know what the hell he was doing.
Maybe you want to argue Sabean isn’t one of the 20 greatest general managers in the history of baseball, and that might be fair. What we can all agree on though is that he didn’t deserve the amount of scorn heaped upon him by writers, fans, pundits, and drunk KNBR callers (and one KNBR host, in particular, who one year decided to pepper his Sabean criticism with some misguided, racially-tinged remarks) back in the mid-aughts. He’ll get the last laugh, though, because after three championships in five years, his ticket to Cooperstown has basically been punched. And I can’t help but laugh at the fact that, if all of us angry Giants fans (definitely me included) had had our way back in 2007, Beau Mills would be curse words and we’d still be waiting for that first San Francisco championship.