So it looks like Brian Sabean is going to be around for another season. Given that the Giants had finished with a losing record for four straight seasons coming into 2009, we should probably assume that the primary reason Sabean will return is that he is being rewarded for their good 2009 season. This ignores the part where those four losing seasons were also a part of his legacy, but let’s pretend he was given a clean slate for 2009. Did the team’s accomplishments make us optimistic about Sabean and the Giants’ chances in 2010?
The 2008 Giants parlayed average pitching and awful hitting into a 90-loss season. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award, Matt Cain once again pitched well but got little support from his offense, and the bullpen was decent enough. Omar Vizquel was laughably awful at the plate, and his replacements, who included such immortals as Ivan Ochoa and Brian Bocock, were even worse. Emmanuel Burris looked like Honus Wagner compared to his teammates, but he had no power and was only good if Vizquel was your marker of success. Jose Castillo at 3B had shown no ability to hit at the major league level in four previous seasons … Sabean signed him up and Jose managed more than 400 plate appearances before the team finally accepted their mistake and waived him. Aaron Rowand, turning 30 and coming off his best season (and only good season of the past three), was given a pricey and lengthy contract and was, perhaps predictably, mediocre. A bunch of lesser hitters manned 1B, which is the easiest position on the roster to fill … if your firstbaseman can’t hit, you’ve really got a problem, and the Giants haven’t had a good hitter at first in five years … FIVE YEARS where they were unable to fill the easiest of spots.
The road to success in 2009 (and beyond) was clear. The pitching looked OK, and Sabean moved early to bolster the bullpen, grabbing Affeldt, Howry and Miller. He added Randy Johnson to the rotation … Johnson was very old but could still pitch, and was a reasonable one-year stopgap. If Jonathan Sanchez could turn a corner and Barry Zito could be at least average, then the pitching, already OK in 2008, might be a real plus in 2009.
Which left the offense, which clearly needed lots of work. The biggest off-season signing was Edgar Renteria. On the one hand, Renteria was a five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover; on the other hand, he was coming off a crummy year at the plate, and he was turning 33 in 2009. He was a likely improvement over Omar Vizquel, but not much else could be expected of him. Pablo Sandoval would be around for a full season … he solved the 3B problem, and also filled in at 1B and made a few starts as a catcher. They also signed Juan Uribe, an infielder who could hit the occasional homer but was otherwise weak. At catcher, and at 1B, and at 2B, and at all the OF positions, they went with what they had, which hadn’t been much good in the first place.
Sandoval was a revelation, and Uribe had his best season. Overall, though, the offense was just as bad as the year before, and this was not surprising, since they didn’t do much other than accept Sandoval as a regular and grab an aging Renteria to plug in at short. Renteria was terrible … basically, everyone except Uribe and the Panda was terrible (Andres Torres had a nice season when he played, but he missed a lot of time due to injuries).
Seeing that the Giants needed help on offense … one must ask why it took so long to come to that conclusion … Sabean traded for a 2B and a 1B. At second, he got a former batting champion who was an average hitter overall, and who was injured at the time … he had two extra-base hits and two walks in 25 games before having surgery. At first, he grabbed a guy who could hit lefties quite well, solving about 1/3 of the problem at that position … of course, he bombed, hitting only .239. Meanwhile, Lincecum and Cain were good as ever, Sanchez threw a no-hitter and started looking like a potential stud, Zito recovered some of his old skills, late acquisition Brad Penny pitched well, and the bullpen was terrific. The team finished in third place out of five teams, and had a winning season for the first time in five years.
So … does the above mean that Sabean merits a contract extension, on the basis of how the team did in 2009? He gets some credit for the pitching … Lincecum, Cain and Sanchez come from the Giants’ farm system, Penny helped near the end. You can credit him for Zito, too, I suppose, since he wasn’t too bad this year, but still, Sabean is also responsible for Zito’s overall mediocrity as a Giant and for Zito’s outrageously large and long contract … I don’t think even Brian Sabean wants to take “credit” for Zito at the point.
Sabean also gets credit for the team’s offense. They sucked in 2008 … he made some moves … they sucked in 2009. And it’s not clear how much better they will be in 2010. Sandoval will still be good, Uribe will come back to earth, Buster Posey will be fine if they let him play, and a lot of the veterans of recent years will be let go, replaced by either young Giants (and most of the good ones are already up) or free agents (the money should be there, thanks to the departure of those old guys). This is crucial, though: Sabean has never, in his long career, shown much aptitude for identifying good hitting talent. He came into 2009 knowing that the hitting needed to improve. Despite the full-season emergence of Sandoval, the hitting did not improve.
You could admit that Brian Sabean has some important skills as a GM, and still realize he’s the wrong guy for the Giants at this point in their evolution. The pitching is there, the hitting is not, and Brian Sabean doesn’t know a good hitter from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s smelly ass. He gets credit for some of the young studs on the current team, but he is also the same guy who openly and purposely blew off top draft picks. He’ll have money to spend in 2010, but he doesn’t know what kind of hitter to spend it on, so that’s money he will more than likely waste.
What the team needs from a GM right now is pretty obvious. It’s the same thing they’ve needed for some time, at least since the old-school notions of player evaluation gave way to the new paradigm of analysis. They need a general manager who can make use of all the tools of modern baseball analysis, who can go out and find any dumb fuck who can play first base and hit for at least the league average. They need someone who isn’t impressed because a player is old, who sees beyond batting average and W-L records, someone who understands the value of that most basic of offensive statistics, on-base percentage. They most definitely do not need someone whose idea of fixing an offense is to sign Edgar Renteria, Freddy Sanchez and Ryan Garko, who thinks an Aaron Rowand in his 30s is worth tens of millions of dollars, who will in all likelihood sign Bengie Fucking Molina and his worst-in-the-entire-league OBP to a contract extension. In short, they need the anti-Sabean.
Unfortunately, they’re going with the exact opposite of the anti-Sabean: Sabean himself.