Might as well spend a bit of time talking about the Giants, as All-Star Fever hits San Francisco.
First, a statement of my basic set of assumptions. While it has been shown that in most cases, one individual player is not worth as much as people think (it's common to hear people say "he saved the team ten wins with his glove," for instance), Barry Bonds is such a remarkable baseball player that he is an outlier … he makes more difference than people think, not less. The specifics for the Giants are this: they have done well over the past decade, but far and away the primary reason for this is Barry Bonds. Duh, I know, but because he is an outlier, that statement is less obvious than it seems. Others get lots of the public credit for the team's successes, but I give that credit mostly to Bonds. The primary recipient of the public praise (in the past … their current problems have resulted in a decline in his reputation) is General Manager Brian Sabean. I contend that Sabean had little to do with the acquisition of Bonds, so he shouldn't get credit for Barry. I further contend that while Sabean has his strong points, they tend to be old school in an era of new paradigms, so that his strong points become less useful with each passing season. Therefore, I have always been suspicious of Sabean … that's not true, I think he does a bad job … even though a team he put together came closer to winning a World Series than any Giants team since 1962.
OK, there's a summation of my biases. What's up in 2007? Is the team performing as expected, better, worse, different? And what does this tell us about their future?
First, to get the obvious out of the way: things aren't going well. Their current winning percentage is their lowest since 1996, and they are in last place. The year 1996 is significant, because the next year was Sabean's first as general manager, and that year the Giants won their division, starting an eight-year run of winning seasons that included four trips to the postseason and one trip to the World Series. It is that record on which Sabean's reputation rose: he took a bad team, the story goes, and turned them into winners. The bloom is off that particular rose, though, since 2007 looks to be the third straight losing season for the club, and Sabean's job is reported to be on the line.
What was expected in 2007? Partly, your expectations revolve around your opinion regarding the value of keeping Barry Bonds on the team. Since Barry makes a lot of money, some argue that the team is wrong to spend so much on an old guy when they could get two or three good younger players for the same amount. There are two problems with this theory. First, Barry is still performing as well or better than all the other guys at his position … he may cost a lot, but he still gives value, even at his advanced age. Second, the theory assumes that Brian Sabean would get some good talent with the money he saved on Bonds, while Brian's track record suggests otherwise … while he doesn't do too badly at evaluating pitching, his idea of a good hitter is very much old school, behind the times, and thus poor relative to his peers.
Anyway … the 2006 Giants were mediocre. Their bullpen was OK, and they had a couple of good starters, but they lacked depth in the rotation, and their offense was filled with old guys, some of whom were over the hill, others who had never really made it up the hill in the first place. Since the Giants had some potentially good pitchers in the organization, the strategy seemed pretty clear: gradually work those younger pitchers into bigger roles on the major league club while weeding out the bad old hitters and making moves to both improve the offense and make it younger.
The plan has not been a total bust. Some of those younger pitchers are indeed showing promise, and while mega-bucks starter Barry Zito was not worth anything near what Sabean paid for him, the guy he essentially replaced (Jason Schmidt) has fallen victim to injuries. The pitching is better now than it was last year, and there is every reason to believe that improvement will last into at least the near future.
Ah, but the offense. It's almost exactly the same as in 2006. Last year, the Giants had Barry Bonds, two other aging but effective hitters, and a bunch of crap. This year, they have Barry Bonds, one aging but effective hitter, and a bunch of crap. Their offense is still too old, and the hitters' skills are still too old school (I might as well be specific on this point at least once: Sabean tends to sign hitters who have proven veteran status with decent numbers in categories like RBI, but who don't draw many walks and thus don't get on base very often, on-base percentage being perhaps the single most important step between what was considered good back in the day and what is considered good under the new paradigm).
The Giants have been unlucky this year … they've scored more runs than they've allowed, suggesting a team that should thus win more games than they lose. The improved pitching is the reason they're better this year than last, despite the W-L record. They have indeed taken steps in the right direction, as far as pitching goes. But they are stagnant on offense, not because they have Barry Bonds (he remains far and away their best offensive player), but because Brian Sabean doesn't know what the fuck he is doing when it comes time to get hitting talent.
So, to the questions I asked earlier. How are they performing? The pitching is better, the hitting is the same, their luck is bad, their record is poor. What does it mean for the future? The pitching looks good, so if they can improve the hitting, they will be contenders very soon.
Which leads to the most important question of all: is Brian Sabean the right General Manager for what this team needs? Clearly, the answer is no. The area that needs the most work is the area where Sabean is at his worst. He is not the worst GM in the game, and he could be a good fit for a team just shy of contention that needed one or two players to put them over the top in 2008. But the Giants need a GM well versed in contemporary baseball analytics, they need an entire team in the front office of people who understand the new paradigm, they need, in short, the anti-Sabean. I can think of a couple of candidates … Jonathan Bernstein, a poli-sci professor in Texas and a long-time Giants fan, would be great filling an analyst role, although he kinda already has a job. Jacob Jackson has the best solution, though: a man named Paul DePodesta. You can read Jackson's thoughts in his piece "The best unemployed GM in baseball." DePodesta is available, he knows what he's doing … what the heck, he was even fired by the Dodgers (and replaced by a Sabean protégé), which would make his successes with the Giants that much more enjoyable. If Sabean's replacement is at the level of a DePodesta, the Giants will rise again, sooner rather than later. If they hire the usual hack, or even worse, if they keep Sabean around, they won't be winners for a long time to come.