Ranking every single general manager in baseball is an act so callous only a cranky blogger like myself could do it. Those more qualified bloggers, like Tom Tango or David Pinto, are far too professional to undertake such a petty and useless exercise. If Tango were to do it, perhaps he would create a metric for measuring every trade, draft pick and free agent signing relative to free agent value, thereby arriving at a cumulative total of value won or lost. Such a metric would have its limitations, but would provide a base of objective value upon which to pile the subjective invective of the critic.
No such statistical work here; this is not a sabermetrics blog any more than it is a blog about Lastings Milledge. No, do not expect comprehensive analysis of every move each GM has made, or even most of the moves he has made. Rather, I will attempt to assess the general strategy and execution of each GM, as best as I understand them. Will the list be passed around front offices? Will the world carefully dissect my rankings? Will heads roll? Of course not. But I can tell you one thing: this list is better than the one in Forbes, where Brian Sabean is ranked fourth.
I first announced my plan to rank every GM in baseball over two weeks ago. Since then, one GM (Wayne Krivsky) has already been replaced (with Walt Jocketty), Bucs Dugout started a bunch of polls on the subject, and Jon Heyman asked, 'which baseball GMs are just pretenders'? But the series of posts to come here will not only criticize the bad ones; it will praise the good guys too.
Brian Sabean is not a good general manager, no matter what anyone says. Still, he was once considered a top GM, responsible for assembling Giants teams that finished either first or second in the division from his first year, 1997, to 2004-- a span of eight years. That is no small achievement. In 1996 the team went 68-94, but in '97 they won 90 games. How did he do it?
First, he replaced 1B Mark Carreon and his inadequate .317 OBP with JT Snow, acquired for pennies on the dollar from the Angels. Snow went on to have his best year ever in '97 and a long and respectable career for the Giants. Then he traded star third baseman Matt Williams to the Indians for cheap, useful young players Julian Tavarez, Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent. The Giants had young Bill Mueller waiting to take over at third, and Vizcaino and Kent represented solid upgrades over the current options at their positions, with the added bonus of significant upside. Kent quickly realized his potential and become a perennial MVP candidate, winning the award in 2000.
But how much credit can one give to an executive who over his 11-year reign has done nothing to ensure long-term competitiveness for his team? Sabean is a very unique general manager in that his entire job has been to assemble role players around a guy who is quite possibly the best baseball player ever: Barry Bonds. That Barry Bonds was so astoundingly good that he could carry a roster of aging scrubs long past their primes, is a testament to Bonds' supreme ability and unnatural career path, not Sabean's skill as a general manager. How could he have known that Bonds, who was already turning 32 in Sabean's first year as general manager, would sustain an amazing level of production through age 35, and then instead of slowly declining, become a significantly better player than he had ever been for four more years, through age 39? Sabean could not have anticipated this; no one could. He was just lucky that Bonds' insane career path masked a continually flawed and uninspired player acquisition and roster construction strategy. It is no accident that when Bonds lost most of 2005 to injury, the Giants finished under .500 for the first time since 1996.
Sabean made bad free agent signings, bad trades, and bad decisions all around. Of course, in eleven years that's bound to happen, but Sabean has had more than his share. Everyone knows about the trade of Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser and Joe Nathan for average catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Otherwise Sabean has not been burned terribly by the prospects he likes to deal for veterans. He prefers to pay free agent value or higher for his old players. I'm too lazy to count how many 32-to-36 year olds on the verge of breakdown Sabean has signed to long term deals, but he has taken it to a new level in the last few years. The team is now a catalogue of ancient players and bad contracts: 36-year old former infielder Rich Aurilia plays first base. For some reason 40-year old Omar Vizquel was given a one year extension last year despite the team's obvious non-competitiveness. Equally mystifying is the deal given to Aaron Rowand, a good enough player but with no purpose on the Giants, who also have long-term deals with unremarkable 30-something Randy Winn and equally boring 36-year old Dave Roberts, both signed through 2009. Why?
Sabean is stuck in Bonds mode, where he could afford to give family-friendly deals to guys like Winn and Roberts, 3rd-to-4th outfielder types with little power and not enough plate discipline to compensate for it. In the 2006/07 offseason the end of the Giants' competitive streak had come and the Bonds era was almost over, but Sabean proceeded to hand out contracts to Bengie Molina, Aurilia, Roberts, Ray Durham, Ryan Klesko, Steve Kline and Pedro Feliz, all thirty-somethings who were not going to help the team be competitive in 2007. Sabean also brought back Bonds, knowing only one way to win: just put a bunch of known quantities out there with Barry Bonds. Unfortunately, it was much too late for that.
The biggest offense of that offseason, however, will be felt for many years to come. That was the signing of Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract, the most money ever given to a pitcher at that time. Sabean wasn't the only one vying for Zito's services, but he was clearly the most enthusiastic. The nature of bidding wars is that the team that wins often overpays; we call this the winner's curse. However, when a team (like the Mets trading for Santana) benefits more than the other bidders because of a unique situation such as being on the edge of contention, they are justified in overpaying. This was not the case with the Giants and Zito, nor was it the case with every other veteran they resigned that offseason.
As you're probably aware, Zito was no ace last year and is terrible this year. He has already been moved to the bullpen. Lookout Landing recently remarked, "Barry Zito's contract is the worst contract ever signed in baseball history." That's bad.
Today's Giants are laughably bad, almost guaranteed to be the worst team in baseball despite a roster full of old players and two great young pitchers in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. It's fine to have a bad team; the Devil Rays were miserable for a few years while Andrew Friedman fixed the organization; the same cannot be said for the Giants. Last year's free agent signings and this year's signing of Aaron Rowand to a long-term deal mean that Brian Sabean and the Giants either don't realize that they need to rebuild and ship out all their veterans or they don't care and just want to pretend that they are competing so they can make a little bit more money. That's lazy and irresponsible.
In a predictable turn, the Giants' old and feeble players cannot play on the field consistently, so this year they have been forced to play minor leaguers who are far too young for the major leagues. Normally it would be wise for the Giants to go young and strengthen the organization over the next few years by obtaining prospects in return for their established veterans, but by using players who are far too young for the major leagues they are stunting the development of those players and further compromising the organization's future. When they hold onto every one of their veteran players for too long it's funny, but when they embarrass their young players and themselves by promoting them well before their time, it's almost criminal. With Barry Bonds gone from San Francisco, Brian Sabean's smoke and mirrors show was destroyed, an incompetent general manager revealed. Inexplicably, last year he was able to trade Matt Morris and his entire contract to the Pirates for Rajai Davis-- not that it matters who it was; giving him away would have been a great move-- but that was more about the even greater incompetence of Dave Littlefield than the smart maneuvering of Brian Sabean.
Even though every move he makes seems to hurt the team, the Giants signed Sabean to a two-year extension in 2007. Take a long draft, San Francisco. You're the laughingstock of the league.
PLEASE VOTE in the poll to the right. Your vote will "help decide" the focus of the next piece in this series.