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The Story Of A Champion

The story of a champion is often written, but how often do you hear about the inner workings of an also-ran? It's easy to smile at your own brilliance when you build your team by trading your spare parts for a superstar, but how often do you hear about the guy who was on the other side of that deal, the guy who bought high and sold low? This is his story…

For Brian Sabean, it couldn't get much higher than October 26, 2002. He put together a Giants team that finished 95-66 and then beat perennial front--runners Atlanta and St. Louis in the playoffs. The Giants were up three games to two on the Anaheim Angels and they had just made the score 5-0 with eight outs left to win the World Series. 1995 draft pick Russ Ortiz was on the mound and had scattered just two hits over six and a third innings. And then? Ortiz gave up two singles and was replaced by Felix Rodriguez. Rodriguez then gave up a home run to Scott Spiezio. Rodriguez was quickly replaced by Scott Eyre and then Tim Worrell. Worrell gave up a home run to Darin Erstad to start the eighth, and then two singles. A Barry Bonds error moved the runners up one base, and the unstoppable Robb Nen came in -- and -- gave up a two-run double to Troy Glaus, and the Giants were down 6-5. As with the Red Sox in '86, Game 7 was an afterthought – the monumental collapse was already complete.

Instead of a World Series winner, the Giants became an also-ran. Despite the team's success, it had a lot of holes, and there were some serious decisions to be made. Let's start with the mildest decision -- turfing 34-year old Jeff Kent and his mustache and giving a 4-year $28-million contract to Ray Durham, three years Kent's junior. Kent ended up signing with the Astros for $17.5 million over two years. I'm going to use Win Shares to quantify their performance since then:

Durham: 16 (2003), 20 (2004)
Kent: 20, 23

Kent was better than Durham in 2003-04, but his contract was more expensive. On the other hand, the Giants are stuck paying a declining Durham more than $15 million in 2005 and 2006, while they would have been free of any obligations with Kent already. This is absolutely the first rule with players over 30: unless they're superstars, don't sign them to long--term deals.

At third base, the Giants had a 30-year old incumbent (David Bell) and a 28-year old bench player two years removed from hitting 33 home runs in AAA but with holes in his swing (Pedro Feliz). Sabean wisely dumped Bell, but unsatisfied with Feliz, opted to sign 29-year old Edgardo Alfonzo to a four-year, $26 million contract. Alfonzo had put together a nice walk year with the Mets, but was having trouble staying in the lineup and had batted just .243 the year before. Undeterred, Sabean tied up considerable payroll, but since then:

Alfonzo's OPS: .725, .757, .773
Feliz's OPS: .793, .790, .755

Feliz is the new Tony Batista, which is not measurably better than Alfonzo these days, but he is going to make all of $6 million dollars over the life of Alfonzo's contract. That's basically a dead loss of $20 million dollars, which was easily predicted (even by most people at the time) and could have bought many, many things on the open market. Two things came into play here: one, which I've already discussed, is Sabean's willingness -- no, it's more of an unrelenting obsession -- to sign aging middle-of-the-road free agents., and the second is that Sabean can't even be bothered to analyze a player's prior performance: in 2000, Feliz hit .298 with 34 doubles and 33 home runs in AAA. Not a particularly high average, but that's a lot of power. Is it such a shock then that Feliz his .276 with 22 home runs in the majors in 2004? A GM worth his salt would have been able to get this production out of Feliz much earlier.

Another choice was in the rotation -- who among Kirk Rueter, Livan Hernandez and Russ Ortiz should stay with the team? Ortiz was 28 and had, despite serious control problems, pitched OK in three of the previous four years with the Giants. Hernandez was 27 and had piled up an indifferent record with the Giants, and had acquired a number of negative tags -- lazy, not clutch in the playoffs, etc… Rueter was 32 and had pitched no better than the other two, and he was starting to drop to historic lows with his strikeout rates. Said Sabean: "these guys are overpriced. We can better spend our money elsewhere." Makes sense to me: trade all three of them, right? And so out went Ortiz, and out went Hernandez (and $3.5 million towards his salary), and…back in came Rueter, re-upped for more than $25 million. Since those fateful days in 2002, here's how they're done each year in terms of pitching runs above replacement level:

Ortiz: 68, 60, 13
Hernandez: 88, 91, 35
Rueter: 32, 44, 15

Replacement level is basically how good the guy in AAA is who steps in to warm the job of an injured major leaguer and pitches 10 innings here or there with an ERA of 7.00. Over 200 innings, 90 runs is in all-star territory while 50 runs is mediocre. No one could have reasonably predicted that Hernandez would bust out like he did, but it was obvious that both he and Ortiz would be better than Rueter. 10 pitching runs are worth roughly one win, so with Ortiz, the Giants would have won three extra games each of the last two years -- and with Hernandez, they would have won six. But Rueter is such an all-around great guy, and so he stays…

Speaking of great guys, how about A.J. Pierzynski? Yorvit Torrealba is wondering aloud what he needs to do to get some playing time around here. After caddying for Benito Santiago in 2002 and 2003 and posting a .723 OPS in limited playing time, he assumed that he would get the starting role in 2004. Not so -- Sabean decided that Torrealba's hitting was too weak and traded Joe Nathan and two prospects for A.J. Pierzynski. The damage in 2004:

Pierzynski: 13 win shares
Nathan: 16 win shares

Aside from the fact that Sabean got rid of a relief pitcher he really could have used in order to fill a hole at catcher that didn't exist, not so bad. Except then Sabean released Pierzynski, while the Twins still have Nathan, along with Pedro Liriano (115 Ks in 96 IP in AA and AAA this year) and Boof Bonser (93 Ks in 92 IP in AAA). "Hm," says Sabean, "I could have used one of those."

So Torrealba can be forgiven if he thought he'd get the starting role in 2005, but oh no, it wasn't about to happen. The Giants brought in, at great expense, Mike Matheny, who's the 34-year old owner of a career .636 OPS. Last year, Yorvit (career .721 OPS) didn't get the job because Manager Felipe Alou said he couldn't hit. Now hitting doesn't matter because Matheny calls such a great game that it makes the pitchers that much better. Anyone else notice that the Giants pitching staff is giving up over 5 runs a game this year?

Individually, none of these moves are deadly. The Giants managed to win 100 games without Robb Nen, after all. But taken together, in 2005, they're a disaster. The Giants spent $100 million where they could have spent less than $50 million, they mis-used major-league caliber players like Feliz and Torrealba (among many others), they gave away top prospects and ended up with nothing in return, and then -- and then! -- they decided that they won't negotiate with any of Scott Boras's high-profile clients, who typically include the top free agents in any given year. Why not negotiate with them? Could you possibly get taken for more of a ride than with garbage signings like Rueter, Matheny and Alfonzo?

The Yankees can shake off bad deals like this, but not everybody can eat $50 million or more in payroll and come out with their heads above water. For years, Brian Sabean led a charmed life, pulling off blockbuster deals with one of the highest payrolls in baseball and watching Barry Bonds kicking ass all over the league. But it became no less a house of cards than Enron, no less an enterprise that mortgaged its entire future to cover bad decisions in the present. Would you give up your first round draft pick in exchange for Michael Tucker? Brian Sabean says draft picks are too expensive, but the A's drafted Huston Street 40th overall in 2004, and he's already closing games for them. The alternate strategy is the one employed by the Giants, who, minus a closer in 2005, traded Jerome Williams and David Aardsma for LaTroy Hawkins, who hasn't shown the consistent ability to be a good relief pitcher.

No sense in beating a dead horse any longer. In 2005, Barry Bonds crashed down to earth and Brian Sabean's string of always being right (lucky?) ran out. Some people out there say that now he needs the chance to prove that he can rebuild the team by developing players through the minor leagues and with clever trades. But that makes no sense: he wrecked this team himself. It wasn't bad luck that made the Giants bad. It was blowing millions of dollars on mediocre free agents that did the trick. In any other business, a manager who presided over the collapse of an enterprise would be out on the street. Actually, with all of the corporate malfeasance going on these days, he'd probably get a huge bonus and lay off his employees instead. And if Sabean were able to lay off his mistakes -- Alfonzo, Durham, Rueter -- then he would indeed be a good manager. But he signed them to guaranteed contracts and can't get rid of them. The Giants dug themselves a deep hole through their strategy of overpaying for players over 30, but Bonds was good enough to keep the team from falling into that hole. But we now know Barry Bonds won't play forever, and the Giants need a GM with a coherent post-Barry strategy.