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Bay Area Baseball

Buy High, Sell Low

Just three years removed from Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, the Giants finished the 2005 season 75-87. An astute San Francisco Giants fan might ask, "How did we get here?" Let's take a look at some of the highlights of Brian Sabean's "rebuilding" strategy, starting with the best moves:

2B – Ray Durham signed. Jeff Kent allowed to sign with Houston.
Net Wins*: -6.1 Net Salary: -$2.7M

The Giants just couldn't get along with Jeff Kent. That's too bad, because they would have had two extra wins a year with him at 2B over Durham. Not that signing Durham has worked out badly. Not at all -- he's the Giants' second-best hitter. But Kent would have made the difference between missing and making the playoffs in 2004.

P Jerome Williams and P David Aardsma traded to Chicago Cubs for P LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins traded to Baltimore for P Steve Kline.
Net Wins: -1.5 Net Salary: +$5M

This is the epitome of selling low. The Giants branded Jerome Williams with the scarlet letter "A" -- for attitude -- which made it that much easier to ship him away for nothing in particular. But that wasn't a low-enough return on their investment, and so they traded even further down to acquire Kline, and sent Baltimore cash to sweeten the deal. If Williams flames out in Chicago (not very likely for a 23-year old pitcher with nearly 400 major-league innings under his belt) then the deal won't hurt the Giants that badly. But right now it looks like just another attempt to stock the rosters of other teams with good young players.

12/17/2002 – Russ Ortiz to the Atlanta Braves for Damian Moss and Merkin Valdez.
2/19/2003 – Kirk Rueter signed to contract extension through 2005.
Net Wins: -4.9 Net Salary: +$1.5M

The Giants decided that they couldn't keep all of their starting pitchers. Wisely, they chose to keep Jason Schmidt. Unwisely, they chose Kirk Rueter over Russ Ortiz. Ortiz's future performance wasn't great – and he didn't come cheap. But Rueter was so much worse. Again, this was predictable -- Rueter was 32 years old, had one good season out of five, and a declining strikeout rate. Ultimately, the Giants paid more money for poorer performance.

3B – Edgardo Alfonzo signed. David Bell allowed to sign with Philadelphia.
Net Wins: -3.1 (Giants gets less) Net Salary: +$8.7M (Giants pay more)

Even at the time, everyone knew the Giants overpaid for Alfonzo, who was coming off a big year in his walk season. Not that Bell would have been a great choice (the Giants also let the then-unimpressive Bill Mueller leave the same year) -- he's a year older, and had an injury history that was no better than Alfonzo's. But Alfonzo's 4-year $28-million deal will go down as one of the worst contracts in Giants history because he provided neither peak value nor long-term value, and lost his job to Pedro Feliz. The best solution at the time would have been to play Feliz, who was coming off a 33-homer season in AAA, and not break the bank for a mid-range free agent. Too creative for the Giants?

3/24/2003 – Livan Hernandez to the Montreal Expos for Jim Brower and Matt Blank
Net Wins: -15.3 Net Salary: -$10M

An out-and-out salary dump, Brian Sabean was so desperate that he sent $3 million to the Expos to take Livan Hernandez off his hands. Who could have known that Hernandez would become one of the best pitchers in the majors?

11/14/2003 – Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano to the Minnesota Twins for A.J. Pierzynski.
Net Wins: -10.6 Net Salary: +$0.96M

A.J. Pierzynski's tenure with the Giants started with accusations of laziness and ended with an unceremonious release to avoid arbitration. His next season ended with a World Series ring. This trade continues to pay dividends for the Twins, with Joe Nathan dominating in the bullpen and Liriano and Bonser finally moving into their rotation after amazing minor league careers. This is already the worst deal of the bunch and in two years, it might be the worst deal in Giants history.

Overall: Net Wins: -41.5 Net Salary: +$3.5M

Wow. Five deals. They cost the Giants extra money and more than 40 wins in just three years. Is that even possible? When you want to know how a team can go from almost winning the World Series to 75-87 in just three years, look no further.

Is there a lesson here? (Of course there is, I wouldn't ask if there wasn't!) First, everybody has budget limitations. Even the Yankees, who have Bubba Crosby penciled in as their 2006 centerfielder. So don't sign players on the wrong side of 30 to multi-year contracts. That seems obvious, but the Giants just signed the oft-injured Matt Morris to a long-term contract. If they had more money, they'd give out more bad contracts.

Second, make use of cheap in-house talent. Feliz, making the major-league minimum, had played better than Alfonzo. The now long-gone Yorvit Torrealba, also making the major-league minimum, was better than the even further-gone A.J. Pierzynski. And as the Giants hunt around for a starting pitcher this offseason, the Minnesota Twins have Francisco Liriano and possibly even Boof Bonser in their rotation, while Jerome Williams figures to start for the Cubs. It's not like one trade went badly -- they all did, and the level of risk was well-understood at the time they were made. A major-league GM has no excuse for making these mistakes.

Is there a consolation? Only that the NL West is so weak that the Giants actually have a shot at the playoffs in 2006. The Padres mix bad deals with good, former Giants Assistant GM Ned Colletti is remaking the Dodgers in the image of the Giants by signing old free agents, Colorado is a basketcase, and Arizona is stuck under numerous disastrous signings of their own. At some point though, one of these teams will actually right its ship. It just doesn't look very likely that the Giants will be that team.

*"Net Wins" is Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player