Apparently it’s Brian Sabean Week here on Paulie Unfiltered. We’re celebrating, of course, Sabean’s ranking as the 14th-greatest baseball GM of all-time by Mark Armour and Dan Levitt. Much of the Sabean talk here has been filled with love, which is pretty good seeing as how, once upon a time, I described Sabean as…ahem…not “so much incompetent as he is just flat out insane”. So, yeah, I’ve changed my tune a bit on the man over the years. Multiple World Series victories will do that.
A few days ago, I wrote up a frightfully overlong post about Brian Sabean and how he is now generally seen as one of the better baseball general managers in the game’s long history, and how the Madison Bumgarner pick in 2007 was the turning point in the general perception of Sabean. Now here’s another frightfully- or, horrifyingly, to be more exact- overlong post about some of the big moves he’s made over the years. Sabean has never been shy about making a big trade or free agent splash in order to improve the team. Some have worked out swimmingly. Others…not so much.
Sabean’s resume includes: three World Series championships, four pennants, five division titles, and seven postseason appearances. That’s a record of success any GM would kill for. Any general manager who has been at the helm that long with that and with that many postseason appearances has certainly made some terrific moves. However, anyone holding the position for so long is also going to make some stinkers. No one is perfect. Hell, even Branch Rickey made some bad moves once in a while (when he was running the Cardinals, he traded away Johnny Mize for a pile of not much).
So let’s have some fun. Let’s look back at Sabean’s career with the Giants and pinpoint some gems, and also some real stinkers. Here are the five best moves that Brian Sabean has made, as well as the five worst. All in my not-so-humble opinion, of course.
One brief qualifier: I’m giving more weight to moves that had a direct effect on the team’s playoff chances, whether that effect was positive or negative. For instance, Neifi Perez as the starting shortstop in 2004 was a major reason that the Giants missed the playoffs that year, so that was a bad signing. Much worse, for example, than Dave Roberts, who wasn’t good but didn’t hurt a playoff run because the Giants were bad in 2007 and 2008 when Roberts was on the team.
I’m also staying away from moves that have been made in the past two years, because we aren’t 100 percent sure how they’ll turn out. The story hasn’t fully been told, to put it another way. The Hunter Pence trade looks terrific now, but there’s still time for Tommy Joseph to turn into a Hall of Fame catcher or something. Likewise, Madison Bumgarner’s contract extension looks like a jaw-dropping steal of a deal for the Giants right at this moment, but it isn’t out of the question that (God forbid) something will happen and Bumgarner won’t even be worth $12 million in 2018. So we’re sticking with the trades and signings in which we’re pretty sure the final chapter has been written.
Traded Steve Reed (and Jacob Cruz) to Indians for Jose Mesa, Shawon Dunston, and Alvin Mormon (1998)
An absolutely mind-boggling, pointless midseason trade that may have prevented the Giants from taking the NL Wild Card in ’98. The Giants hit a cold streak right at the trade deadline that year and Sabean made a series of trades to try to relight the fire under the players’ rear ends. He brought in Ellis Burks from Colorado and Joe Carter from Baltimore, and those deals worked out pretty well (Carter went on a tear in the season’s final two weeks). Unfortunately, he also traded his setup man with a 1.48 ERA for Jose Mesa, which was just an absolute disaster.
Reed, a side-arming righty, had been lights-out in the first half acting as the setup guy for Robb Nen. The Giants essentially replaced him with Mesa, who had worn out his welcome in Cleveland after coughing up a ninth inning lead in Game Seven of the World Series the year before. Neither Dunston nor Mormon brought anything to the table, but they were more or less net zeroes. Mesa had a flat out negative effect on the team. Within two weeks of joining the Giants, he had already walked in the winning run in two games. He was so unreliable that Dusty Baker’s unwillingness to use him led to this disastrous (and pivotal) game against the lowly Diamondbacks where Nen was forced into a two-inning save situation, and he subsequently ended up blowing the game.
There was just no reason to make this trade. It reeked of a trade made just to shake things up. Reed fell apart after joining Cleveland, but he didn’t pitch as bad as his ERA indicated there and he may not have imploded if he’s stayed in the NL. Dunston was washed up and Mormon was one of the worst pitchers I’ve ever seen. Mesa, meanwhile, was a player with all kinds of baggage and a history of blowing up in big situations (a kind of precursor to Armando Benitez, in fact). Why trade for a guy like that? This trade didn’t cost the 1998 Giants the Wild Card (which they lost in a heartbreaking tie-breaker game against the Cubs) all by itself, but it definitely played a major role in that team’s demise.
Traded Zack Wheeler to Mets for Carlos Beltran (2011)
This trade still has its defenders, who mostly argue that the Giants were in go-for-it mode and thus were justified in mortgaging part of their future starting rotation for Beltran. I don’t agree. With Buster Posey done for the year, the Giants just weren’t playoff material, and they were lucky to even finish above .500 (their win-loss record by run differential was 80-82). Even with Beltran, their offense was awful and I don’t know how anyone could have believed at the time that they could survive in the postseason, much less catch the Diamondbacks or Cardinals. Beltran was amazing in the 44 games that he played for the Giants, but he missed three weeks in August, which should have been a surprise to absolutely no one, as Beltran’s two previous seasons had been riddled with injuries. Even with Beltran raking, the Giants never seriously threatened for a playoff spot down the stretch.
The Giants (justifiably, in my opinion) didn’t have much intention of re-signing Beltran that offseason. One problem: a clause in Beltran’s contract stipulated that the Giants couldn’t offer him arbitration before he became a free agent, meaning that they weren’t entitled to a compensatory draft pick when Beltran signed with St. Louis. Ouch. Meanwhile, think of how spiffy the Giants’ rotation would look right now with Wheeler in it.
Traded Bill Mueller to Cubs for Tim Worrell (2000)
Worrell was a fine reliever for three seasons in San Francisco. He played a key role as setup man for Robb Nen for the 2002 pennant winners, then saved 38 games for the 2003 division winners. However, when the Giants traded away Mueller, their popular regular third baseman, it set off a chain reaction that directly led to the Giants missing the playoffs in 2001. That they traded him for a good, but certainly not great, reliever just stings.
The Giants felt that they could afford to trade Mueller at that point because they had a (presumably) perfectly good third baseman already on the roster in Russ Davis. Davis served as a bench guy the year before, but had hit for some pop in past years as a starter with Seattle, and Mueller lacked the kind of power generally desired out of a corner guy. I guess the Giants figured they wouldn’t lose much in the transition.
They figured wrong. Mueller later busted out with a monster 2003 season where he hit .326/.398/.540 for the Red Sox, but no one could have foreseen that, and he never would have put up those numbers playing in AT&T Park. What was shortsighted was the assumption that Davis was any kind of passable option as a regular third baseman. When the 2001 season began, Davis had a career .309 OBP, which was doubly atrocious in that era of wacky video game offense. Mueller, on the other hand, had a lifetime .370 OBP when he was traded away.
Mueller was also a very good fielder. Davis, as the Giants soon found out, was such a disaster in the field that he was more or less unplayable, which is funny, because come June of 2001, Davis wasn’t playing anymore; he was released after the Giants finally tired of his fielding atrocities. The Giants then settled for a combo of Ramon Martinez and Pedro Feliz to play third base over the rest of the season. Martinez wasn’t much of a hitter and had more value as a utility infielder, Feliz wasn’t ready for prime time at that point, and the position was basically a dead zone all year.
Why does that matter? Because the Giants missed the playoffs by two freaking games. The Giants that year got a 73-homer season from Barry Bonds, a 37-home run season from Rich Aurilia, and a typically awesome season from Jeff Kent, and yet somehow they only ranked fifth in the NL in runs scored. That’s two historically-great seasons and one All-Star season from a middle infielder, and they can’t make the playoffs. I mean, how does that even happen?
Well, it happened because third base, catcher, right field, and center field were utter black holes for most of the season. Granted, the Giants rectified the mistake by trading for David Bell the following season, and they actually got Mueller back at the end of 2002. Is it unreasonable to think, though, that Mueller’s glove and his .370 OBP hitting in front of Bonds, Aurilia, etc. would have added two more wins to the 2001 Giants? Probably not.
Signed Armando Benitez to three-year, $21 million deal (2005)
Following the 2004 season it didn’t seem even remotely possible that a player could ever be more hated in San Francisco than A.J. Pierzynski, but somehow Benitez pulled it off. One other underrated and awful side effect of the Pierzynski trade is that it led directly to the Benitez signing, which was a flaming disaster before the ink was dry on the contract.
To get Pierzynski, the Giants traded away Joe Nathan (for more on this, see below), a perfectly good closer candidate (for just how good, again, see below). As a result, the bullpen in 2004 was a now-legendary clusterfuck, and it was the reason the Giants missed out on October baseball that year (well, that and Neifi Perez). This led Sabean to panic-sign Benitez, who had just posted an obviously flukey 1.29 ERA with the Marlins the previous year. Benitez had been run out of New York on a rail for repeatedly choking in big moments, but apparently Brian Sabean forgot all about that.
Benitez blew lots and lots of saves with the Giants (here’s a good rundown of the gory details), and his general belligerence and tendency to shift blame to teammates after his blown saves didn’t help his cause from a PR standpoint. The fans just hated him, and with good reason. He’ll go down in the books as one of the most despised Giants ever, even moreso than Pierzynski, which is really an Olympian-level feat. By the time the Giants mercifully dumped him back on the Marlins halfway through 2007, Benitez had racked up a 4.10 ERA with the team (and a 5.18 FIP!) and fourteen blown saves in less than three seasons. Not exactly Mariano Rivera. To quote a regular commenter of the era on McCovey Chronicles: “In Soviet Russia, save blows Benitez.”
Traded Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to Twins for A.J. Pierzynski. (2003)
Well, we’ve finally arrived at this one. There was a period of time where this terrible trade was viewed as one that would set the Giants’ franchise back a decade. As I wrote in an article for Bay Sports Net last year, that obviously wasn’t the case. Still… Nathan went on to save 375 major league games, and was one of the best closers in baseball from 2004 to about 2009. Liriano, like so many young pitchers, fell victim to arm problems, but he still had a couple of All-Star level seasons in him. So, yeah, the trade sucked for the Giants.
As I concluded in that referenced article, this trade did clearly cost the Giants a playoff berth in 2004, but that’s probably it. They weren’t making the playoffs as constructed, even with Nathan, from 2005 to 2008, and you can even circuitously argue (enough to make your head spin) that they would have been just good enough with Nathan in those years to not draft Tim Lincecum or Buster Posey, and thus no rings.
Which of course doesn’t make this any less of a silly, stupid trade. The Giants thought they were getting a .300-hitting catcher in his prime. Instead they got a card-playing, crotch-kicking malcontent who wore out his welcome in a month. For an All-Star closer and a borderline All-Star starter (on his good days), the Giants got one year of league average production at catcher, which could have come from Yorvit Torrealba for free.
Honorable Mention: Traded Jerome Williams and David Aardsma to the Cubs for LaTroy Hawkins (2005)
To this day, I don’t get it. I hated this trade when it was made, and it’s long been sort of a Captain Ahab-style of obsession of mine, even though Aardsma and Williams didn’t exactly go on to light the world on fire. The thing is, Williams and Aardsma both still had some upside, so to trade both of them for a middle reliever who contributed very little for half a season was beyond ridiculous. The results of the trade didn’t turn out to be too terrible, which is why this only merits an honorable mention, but the thought process behind the trade was mind-boggling. It’s the kind of thinking that gets Jeff Bagwell traded for Larry Andersen.
Aardsma did save 69 games in 2009-10, so he could have been a functional reliever for a few years, or at least a decent closer when the Giants were fucking about with Brad Hennessey in the ninth inning. Williams was only 23 when they traded him. Maybe there was some behind-the-scenes stuff going on with the Big Pooka (he did have conditioning issues), but I can’t believe the Giants just gave up on him that early. Granted, he never turned into anything worthwhile, but sticking with Williams for another year and trying to iron out whatever problems he was having seems like a more worthwhile endeavor than watching Hawkins give you middle relief work that you could get on the waiver wire.
So that was fun. I mean, those were some pretty bad moves. I don’t know why it’s so fun to tear down baseball executives for awful moves they make, but it’s always entertaining, in a sick way, even if it’s happening on our own team. I guess three World Series wins are a powerful antiseptic. Anyway, here are Brian Sabean’s five best moves in the 18 years at the helm of the Giants. Ahhhh, good moves. So refreshing.
Traded Shawn Estes to Mets for Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Desi Relaford, then traded Relaford to Mariners for David Bell (2002)
For those who haven’t fallen asleep in the meantime, remember a few paragraphs up where I mentioned that the 2001 Giants missed the playoffs because they had holes all over the diamond? Well, these two trades effectively patched two of those holes and played a large part in helping the Giants get to the World Series.
Bell wasn’t an All-Star by any means, but he was a great fielder and he hit 20 home runs. He was a godsend compared to the dreck the Giants had to deal with at third base the previous year. Shinjo couldn’t really hit at all but he was an elite-level fielder in center, probably the best the Giants have seen since the opening of AT&T Park. Kirk Rueter probably has Shinjo to thank for his career-best 3.23 ERA that season. The Giants later went for offense by trading for Kenny Lofton at midseason, but Shinjo (along with free agent signee Reggie Sanders) played a big role in solidifying the team’s outfield defense, which wasn’t great in ’01.
Meanwhile, Estes never ironed out his control problems and completely imploded after leaving the Giants, posting a 5.37 ERA in 2002 and beyond. Hilariously, Dusty Baker’s love affair with him very nearly derailed the Cubs’ division title hopes in 2003 (Baker was the Cubs’ manager at that point, and his insistence on keeping Estes in the rotation, despite an ERA near 6.00, was baffling, to say the least). Relaford spent a few more years in the big leagues as an interchangeable utility guy on bad teams, so Sabean basically got two key pieces of a World Series team for table scraps.
As an aside, I think a lot of Giants fans fail to truly appreciate exactly how good that 2002 team was. I would argue that it was the best team of the Sabean era (at least so far). They won 95 games, which is more than any of the three World Series-winning teams won in those seasons. They had the run differential of a 98-win team, which was the best of any of the four playoff teams that year. They led the National League with a 110 OPS+, were tied for third with a 109 ERA+, and by the time the playoffs rolled around it was pretty clear they were the best team in the National League.
I think that the general lack of recognition of this team’s greatness is the result of A) the team winning the Wild Card instead of the division, B) the fact that they never led the division, at any point, after the middle of May, and C) a general perception, then and now, that this was Barry Bonds and the seven dwarfs, but they were a much more complete team than that*
*For a truly Bonds-centric team, you only need to fast-forward one year, to the 100-win 2003 team. That team was basically a mediocre lineup and not-so-great pitching staff anchored by Bonds and an all-world season from Jason Schmidt. In contrast to the 2002 team, their Pythagorean win total was much worse than their actual win total (93 expected wins, 100 actual wins).
Traded Joe Fontenot, Mike Pageler, and Mike Villano to Marlins for Robb Nen (1997)
What is the combined major league pitching line for Mike Pageler, Mike Villano, and Joe Fontenot? Zero wins, seven losses, 6.33 ERA. That was all Fontenot, in eight starts with the gawdawful 1998 Marlins. The other two guys washed out of the minors. This was during the Great Wayne Huizenga Fire Sale of 1998, of course, when the Marlins were giving away star players like kittens, but give me a break. They couldn’t have netted at least one quality major leaguer for their closer?
Nen turned into arguably the best closer in Giants history, saving 206 games in five seasons, with a 169 ERA+ and 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings. He had the coolest hop/skip/jump motion to the plate ever, and his slider was something out of a Lovecraft short story. He also shagged his arm trying to get the Giants a title in the 2002 postseason, an act of self-sacrifice that makes him an inner circle Good Giant.
Traded Allen Watson and Fausto Macey to Angels for J.T. Snow (1996)
J.T. Snow’s best year as a major league came in his first season with the Giants, when he hit .281/.387/.510 with 28 home runs, 104 RBIs, and 96 walks. While his power fell off a cliff following the 2000 season, he had an .807 OPS in nine seasons as the Giants’ regular first baseman. He had his bumps in the road, like when Andres Galarraga was brought in to platoon with him…twice…because he wasn’t hitting. However, everybody loved his glovework at first base, and he was one of the more popular players with the press and the fans.
Macey never amounted to anything and in fact he was back in the Giants’ organization just one year later. Watson went from interchangeable back-end starter to interchangeable LOOGY, so no big loss there, either. Snow’s acquisition was the second-most-important move (behind the Jeff Kent trade) that started the late-90’s Giants renaissance.
For what it’s worth, Snow ditched switch-hitting before the 1999 season and became left-handed-only (he really was useless as a right-handed hitter). To this day, without looking it up, I can still remember the two pitchers Snow hit a home run off of right-handed as a Giant: Lance Painter and Carlos Perez. I can name the first left-handed pitcher he homered off of as a left-handed batter: Scott Sauerbeck. Yet I can’t remember the names of half of my co-workers. I don’t know why this is, but it is.
Traded Ryan Vogelsong and Armando Rios to the Pirates for Jason Schmidt and John Vanderwal (2001)
Sabean should have been put on house arrest for this utterly criminal steal, where he yanked an ace right out from under the Pirates’ noses. This was smack in the middle of the Cam Bonifay/David Littlefield years, when the Pirates were making more bad decisions than a drunk college freshman on Bourbon Street, but in fairness to them, Schmidt had never shown any indication that he was going to break through and become an ace. Only when he started working with Dave Righetti and perfected his killer changeup did he become a dominant starter; he never would have become an ace with Pittsburgh. That’s certainly an indictment of the Pirates’ organization at the time, but it’s also an early example of the Giants’ strong work developing pitchers.
Schmidt is one of my all-time favorite Giants. In 2003 he was unhittable all year and probably should have won the Cy Young. He started the All-Star game and was the first Giants pitcher seemingly in eons not to mess himself pitching in the Mid-Summer Classic. When he left and signed a four-year deal with the Dodgers, he immediately shagged his arm, turning the contract into one of the worst in baseball history. So he was still helping the Giants as a sleeper agent even when he was wearing a rival uniform. Brilliant!
As for the guys the Giants gave up in the deal…well, you know all about Ryan Vogelsong. He eventually became a good pitcher, but not for another ten years, and not until he had wandered in the wilderness for years before signing a minor league deal to return to the Giants. Rios blew his knee out in his second game with the Pirates and his power evaporated the following year. Among the many, many terrible moves the Pirates made from about 1993 to 2007, this trade ranks among the worst.
Traded Matt Williams (and Trenidad Hubbard) to Indians for Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, and Julian Tavarez (and Joe Roa) (1996)
A franchise-altering trade if there ever was one, except none of us thought so at the time it was consummated. Not by a long shot. Sabean was famously raked over the coals by fans and the press when he made this trade in his first offseason as GM, but we really should have known better. Williams was due $7 million (a lot back then) in 1997 and was due to become a free agent after the season. He was pretty good for about three more seasons after the trade but got old quick and was basically done as a feasible regular by 2000.
Kent, of course, turned into a borderline Hall of Famer and won the 2000 MVP award, but forget about that for a second. Here are the 1997 WAR totals (Baseball Reference WAR, that is) of the players involved in the deal (uh, except for Trenidad Hubbard and Joe Roa, who were eminently forgettable):
That’s 6.8 WAR for the Giants players, for those who don’t feel like mathing. The Giants would have come out ahead on this trade even if it had been just for Kent straight up, but the fact that they also got two other very useful parts makes the trade Sabean’s masterpiece. Vizcaino played good defense and solidified shortstop for a year before joining the dark side and signing with the Dodgers. Tavarez had two solid years as a rubber-armed, groundball-happy reliever before going on to become a world-renowned asshole. The trade propelled the Giants to the 1997 division title and kicked off the Bonds/Kent glory days that saw the team make the postseason three times from 1997-2002 and come damn close again in 1998.
Honorable mention: Signing Ryan Vogelsong to a minor league deal (2011)
It’s that man again. Ten years after the Giants traded him away for Jason Schmidt, they threw Vogelsong a “why not?” spring training invite and it paid huge dividends. Vogelsong was slotted into the rotation when Barry Zito got hurt in April of 2011 and never left. He won 27 games in his first two seasons back with the Giants and played an instrumental role in the 2012 World Series run. In fact, he probably saved the Giants’ season with his performance against the Reds in Game Three of that year’s NLDS. Even in 2014, when he wasn’t nearly as effective, he munched 184 innings of league-average ball, which generally costs $8-$10 million these days. As a free find, it’s hard to do much better than this.
Addendum: Why the Barry Zito signing is not one of Brian Sabean’s five worst moves.
I might as well head this off at the pass. When comprising a list of Sabean’s worst player transactions, his signing of Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million deal would probably be ranked right at the top by a whole lot of people. Not me. Why? Is it because I’ve just decided to be a contrarian dick?
Well, to me it’s hard to see what exactly the Zito contract cost the Giants (well, other than a whole lot of cash). In 2007 and 2008, even if Zito had pitched like Clayton Kershaw, the Giants were still going to be bad. In 2009, Zito was actually pretty good, even though nobody realized it, but the Giants were sunk that year by a terrible offense. It wasn’t Zito’s fault, or the fault of the $18.5 million in Zito’s pocket.
In 2010 the Giants won the World Series (though Zito was left off the playoff roster). In 2011, Zito missed most of the year with injuries but, as you might recall, a much larger problem was that Buster Posey had his knee blown up and missed most of the season. In 2012, the Giants won the Series again, with Zito beating Justin Verlander in Game One. In 2013, they were going to be terrible regardless of what Zito did.
The Giants definitely didn’t get full value for their money in this, but I still don’t think signing Zito was one of Sabean’s five worst moves. The Giants didn’t mortgage any part of their future with the signing, they didn’t miss out on a playoff spot because of Zito, and the signing obviously didn’t have any long term negative effects on the franchise’s championship hopes. Hell, they may not have won it all in 2012 if Zito doesn’t inexplicably shut down the Cardinals in Game Five of the NLCS. Zito threw roughly 185 innings with an average-ish ERA in most years of the deal. I can think of a few big dollar pitchers who couldn’t even manage that. The signing gets pilloried because Zito wasn’t a star, but the Giants were hardly throwing money into a sinkhole. It wasn’t a good move, obviously, but the Zito contract wasn’t nearly the albatross many fans and sportswriters make it out to be.