The Giants are doing better than I expected this season, and yes, Brian Sabean deserves some credit. You don’t think that’s the end of this post, though, do you?
Joe Sheehan said it best in his excellent newsletter (worth the subscription): “I can't say enough about the Giants, who finally have an offense to match their starting rotation. It took a mix of luck (Andres Torres), moves I hated that worked (Aubrey Huff) and Brian Sabean getting out of his own way (Buster Posey) to build it.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Sabes, to be sure. Even Brian would admit that Torres is a delightful surprise, and it’s hard to congratulate him for Posey’s play when Sabean wasted a few months with Bengie Molina before he finally got around to putting Buster where he belonged. But it’s Aubrey Huff I want to look at, especially given today’s acquisition of Jose Guillen.
At the start of the season, Sabean had constructed his usual lineup of old guys. He re-signed Molina (35), and filled the infield with Huff (33), Sanchez (32), and Renteria (33). In the outfield, there was Torres (32) and Rowand (32). Mark DeRosa (35) was to be the utility guy who could play anywhere.
Some of these players crapped out. Molina was predictably awful until he was shipped off. Sanchez, whose one v.good year was four years ago, missed the first part of the season, and has now compiled an OPS+ of 70 in his first 99 games as a Giant. Renteria is injured most of the time, and not hitting when he is healthy. Rowand continues his downward slide … he’s fallen so far, he isn’t a regular any longer, even though he’s making almost $14 million this year (and has two more years to go at $12 million/year). DeRosa hit .194 in 26 games before going on the DL the rest of the season.
This is not a success story. But, of course, I’m leaving out the good parts. Torres is gradually convincing us he is not a fluke. Huff has been the team’s most valuable hitter. And recent acquisition Pat the Bat Burrell (33) has been a mind-blower.
Is there anything we can learn from this? I think there is. I have a tendency to dismiss all of Sabean’s old guys, because he seems like such a poor judge of hitting talent (look two paragraphs earlier). But I think there is a pattern to his success stories. The crapped-out players have something in common. Molina spent his prime years with the Angels. During those years, his OPS+ was 84. He isn’t a good hitter. As is typical of many Sabean signings, he had a couple of decent years that convinced Sabes to grab him; as a Giant, he posted an OPS+ of 88. No surprise at all.
Sanchez made his reputation by leading the league with a .344 average in 2006. He was a bit above average the next year … had his worst year in 2008 … then got off to a nice-enough 2009 at the age of 31, which convinced Sabes to grab him (yes, a pattern emerges). Even with his peaks as a Pirate, he only managed an OPS+ of 99 with them … he was never a great hitter, and he was very likely past his prime when the Giants got him. He was also injured, and he hasn’t hit well as a Giant. He’s been worse than his career totals, but then, he’s in his 30s.
Renteria had a decent time in St. Louis (6 years, OPS+ 97), had a late resurgence with the Braves, and sucked at age 31 with the Tigers, at which point Sabean decided the sucking was temporary. Renteria hasn’t hit as a Giant (two years, OPS+ 72), but as with Sanchez, he wasn’t a big bopper in the first place. Both of them were good players in their prime, but not great players.
Rowand had one v.good year with the White Sox (5 years, OPS+ 104) and another with the Phillies (2 years, OPS+ 108), after which Sabean gave the 30-year-old OF a 5-year deal worth around $60 million. Rowand hasn’t been much good as a Giant, but again, what do you expect from a good-not-great hitter in his 30s? DeRosa … I’ll give Sabean a rest on this one, no one said DeRosa was great in the first place.
That leaves Huff, and now, Burrell. How are they different from Brian’s flops?
Aubrey Huff is a good hitter. He spent his first, prime, years in Tampa Bay, and posted an OPS+ of 116. He went to an awful Oriole team in his early-30s, and had an OPS+ of 112. Sent to the Tigers last year in August, he bombed, hitting only .189. He had 117 plate appearances. Now, I didn’t much like the Huff signing, although the price ($3 million for one year) was reasonable … like I said above, I tend to hate all of Sabean’s Old Guys. But Huff really was the “proven hitter” Brian loves to talk about. He had a bad 40 games in Detroit, and he is 33 years old. But unlike Molina and Sanchez and Renteria and Rowand, he had a good career as a hitter behind him (his defensive reputation was awful, and it is true that I am ignoring defense here, but none of these guys are winning Gold Gloves any more).
Pat Burrell is a good hitter. He spent his first, prime, years with Philly, compiling an OPS+ of 119 over 9 seasons. He also did something so few Giants not named Bonds do … twice he walked more than 100 times in a season. He then went to Tampa Bay and sucked. They released him, the Giants grabbed him … even I liked this move, because Tampa is paying the salary, so it was a no-lose move. Burrell has been the team’s best hitter since joining the club. Surprised? Yes. But, like Huff, and unlike Molina/Sanchez/Renteria/Rowand, Pat Burrell had a good career as a hitter behind him.
I still think the strategy of lusting after aging hitters with weak gloves is a poor one. But I need to reconsider … at the least, look at each case individually. Hindsight is 20/20, but I should have been at least a bit more optimistic about Huff and Burrell.
Having said all of this, there is only so much space for DH-quality fielders on an NL squad (Huff has delighted fans with his defensive play, but we don’t want to go too far with that). The question then becomes, is Jose Guillen a good idea? His career as a hitter is closer to Rowand than to Huff or Burrell … he had a few very good years in his prime, but his career OPS+ is a boringly average 99. He’s cheap … KC is paying most of his salary … but (and let’s hope this never happens), if the Giants want to get these guys in the lineup, we could see an outfield of Burrell-Rowand-Guillen, with Pablo at third and Huff at first. I know I wasn’t going to talk about defense, but yeccch. I think the most we can hope for is that Guillen doesn’t play much, and maybe hits a game-winning homer once.