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Giants' Baseball

Chronicle Watch

After weeks of banality, there's finally some interesting Giants coverage in the Chronicle -- this tribute to the Giants farm system, which shrugs off criticism of the minor league teams. Oddly reminiscent of the "look at the scoreboard" trash talk heard in recreational sports leagues across the country, Brian Sabean says "At the end of the day, the final report card's at the major league levelů[we've] finished first or second every year since '97." Here's what Sabean's talking about, MLB's winningest teams since 1997.

The Giants have won a lot of games and they've been to the playoffs four times in the last seven years, but it's not clear to me that Sabean continues to perform better than other general managers. Since neither the Giants nor most of the teams on this list have won a World Series recently, we can only consider how efficient they've been at winning. The average cost of a win has gone from $469,000 in 1997 to a peak of $876,000 in 2003, and through 2001, Sabean was getting his wins cheaper than the rest of the majors.

Oakland is in there just to show you how good Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane have been over the years. Among good teams, only Oakland (by a large margin) and Houston (by a small margin) have spent less than the Giants since 1997. At any rate, while Beane got better, it looks like Brian Sabean has lost his magic since 2001, rising into the top third of spenders this season if we extrapolate out to 162 games.

So what happened to make the Giants so much less efficient? First, Sabean overpaid for players who were past their prime (Kirk Rueter, Edgardo Alfonzo, Robb Nen, even Ray Durham) or not that good to begin with (Felix Rodriguez, Jason Christiansen, Neifi Perez). These long-term contracts tied up half the Giants payroll in 2004, leaving a gaping and marginally-productive hole in the lineup.

Second, Peter Magowan then cut off Brian Sabean, keeping the payroll flat in 2004, after it had doubled in the previous five years. This left Sabean unable to sign any good players in the off-season, and resigned the Giants to being less productive than the previous year.

Third, other teams have become smarter, while Sabean hasn't changed his strategy. MLB's average salary dropped between 2003 and 2004, the first such decrease since the owners colluded against free agents in the mid-1980s. Major league teams became much more interested in the cost of players, and to a lesser extent (among Billy Beane-trained GMs) the value of players. When Sabean signed Edgardo Alfonzo to a 4-year, $28 million deal that pays him more as he gets older, he certainly wasn't anticipating a drop in Alfonzo's value. And he definitely didn't think about the economics of playing Pedro Feliz at third base for one-tenth the cost.

This brings us full circle to the minor leagues and Brian Sabean's contention that first round draft picks (and minor leaguers?) are too unreliable to bother trying to sign. Never mind that all of the Giants best prospects are first-round draft picks. Never mind that Sabean didn't seem to pay much attention to reliability when he signed Neifi "Whiffle Ball Bat" Perez and other aging players to over-valued multi-year contracts. Never mind that Oakland and Minnesota and even Texas and Florida have shown that you can win cheaply by making effective use of your farm system. Baseball teams now understand that (unless you're the Yankees) you can't solve your problems by just throwing money at aging players. Owners pushed GMs to do more with less money, and many were up to the challenge. But Brian Sabean's 2003-4 offseason performance suggests that he still overvalues bad players. Expiring contracts will free up $15 million for the Giants at the end of this season -- it remains to be seen if Sabean can put that money to effective use like he did in the late 1990s.

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