Friday, January 28, 2011

Is the Giants' offseason uninspired for a reason?

Over the past three or so months, I’ve come across a lot of Giants fan backlash when one of two things was said: either they were lucky to win the World Series in 2010, or that their likelihood of repeating next season is remote. Why is that?

Bill from The Platoon Advantage recently tweeted that he also finds Giants fans especially touchy these days. I agree. And what we decided, in 140 characters or less, was that this is mostly typical for a fan base that’s just won a championship. I’d also like to add that, just maybe, waiting 52 years for that right may exacerbate or extend this typicality.

I’d like to first say that I’m not going to spend a great deal of time discussing whether or not they were lucky to win in 2010. But what I will say is that they were lucky to win to a degree. That’s always the case. You need to stay healthy. You need to play well at the right time, i.e. to get hot. And it helps, when at certain times during a game, series and season, the ball falls your way. The best team doesn’t always win, though they often do. But you can also say they often don’t. If you don’t agree with that, you unfortunately don’t understand baseball.

I’m one of the biggest Giants fans you will ever meet, and I simply don’t care how they won the World Series. Well, I do. I do because it felt very much like destiny, like something else was at work. But when it comes down to it in a conversation of whether or not they were lucky, I care only about the facts. They were a good team. They had outstanding pitching. They won the World Series. That’s good enough for me.

But can they repeat? One such instance of fan irritability was a reaction to Jeff Passan’s piece: Timid offseason will make Giants’ repeat tough:

“Win a World Series and, in most cases, the upgrades are more painting the trim than redoing the master bath. And so went the offseason of the San Francisco Giants, whose general manager, Brian Sabean, rested on his championship while the rest of the league tried to play catch-up.

Sure, a few transactions came across the champs’ wire. Take the Miguel Tejada signing, a Sabean move if ever there were one, for he is friend, rescuer and savior to the wizened and past-his-prime ballplayer. What other GM would’ve given $6.5 million to a sub-.400-slugging, 37-year-old, wasn’t-a-shortstop-three-years-ago-and-sure-ain’t-one-now shortstop? An unemployed one.

And yet Sabean has carte blanche for the time being because his ownership group will soon get oversized rings to show off for the rest of their lives. Granted, most of the credit goes to the scouting staff that dropped in his lap Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner. Sabean’s contribution to the Giants’ rotation, the eminently vulnerable Barry Zito, is owed $64.5 million for the next three years.


At this point, only a fool ignores the fact that the Phillies are a far superior team than the Giants. San Francisco outplayed Philadelphia last October, no question, but to conflate fleeting glory with long-term viability is fallacious. Though the Giants remain capable of defeating any team in a short series because of their pitching, they’re simply not a team that’s built to survive a season, and it took an epic Padres collapse and underachievement from the Rockies and Dodgers to do so last year.

If Pablo Sandoval’s weight loss isn’t a ruse and if Belt is the sort of potent bat scouts think he can be, suddenly the Giants’ fortunes change. Great pitching is the fulcrum of success. A dangerous offense makes that team a viable threat to Philadelphia, even with Juan Uribe’s departure leaving brutal defense across the diamond.

The Giants’ run in 2010 was magical, something a devoted city and passionate fan base deserved. Barring something big – and the Giants seem to be done with this offseason after arbitration crushed any hope at a similar payroll as last year – it’s also a championship that won’t be repeated.”

Along the way, Jeff also sprinkled in the fact that the Rockies extended their two best players (Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez), and the Giants would be smart to do the same with one of theirs: Buster Posey.

What I really would like to do in this space, instead of siding with one of the angry Giants fans or the Jeff Passan’s and Dan Szymborski’s and Rob Neyer’s, is to present an argument that maybe everyone is a little bit right, for now. Which is ultimately the case anyway, since we won’t know for sure until next July at the soonest or what’s more probable: next October?

We must first understand that while the most often stated goal in Spring Training is to win the World Series, the actual goal is to just make the playoffs. Because once your foot is in the door, you’ve got a shot. And a shot is really all that you need.

Many, including me (and Jeff, and Rob, and Dan), have been quick to point out that Sabean’s objective to keep the status quo has been uninspired. And on the surface, that’d probably be a fair statement if not a wholly correct one. But allow us to widen our aperture.

What if Brian Sabean doesn’t think doing this gives him the best shot at repeating as World Champions in 2011? Has anyone considered this, that his timidity was intentional? Until recently, I hadn’t. But while reading through (the very talented) Jeff’s piece, I came up with another theory. Stick with me.

The cost of the Giants’ 2011 rotation is $45 million. If you throw in Brian Wilson, that group of six pitchers (when there will be six more, albeit cheaper ones, and an additional thirteen hitters) will cost San Francisco $51.5 million. That’s nearly 50% of their entire salary. In 2012, that number will balloon to over $65 million, at least – I’ve plugged in only a $1.2 million raise for Sanchez and $2 million for Lincecum in 2012, modest (read: unrealistic) figures to be certain. Unless the ownership is willing to continue to hike payroll, this is unsustainable. In case anyone forgot, I brought up this very subject, i.e. the cost of the Giants’ rotation, last offseason while this blog was just getting its legs.

By doing very little this offseason, if Sabean has done nothing else, he’s bought himself some time. You might say he’s reduced his long term risk. You can sit and argue that he should have went out and improved his left field situation by signing Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford, or even some cheaper and lesser player, but those two came with enormous price tags. And while that may have been doable by moving around some salary for the first couple of years, I must return to the fact that the Giants’ payroll as currently constructed simply can’t hold that burden.

The key to the re-signing of Aubrey Huff for $22 million, which is not an insignificant sum, isn’t the dollar value but the number of years: two. The same can be said for Tejada: one year. Pat Burrell, while clearly not the greatest of options for left field, re-signed for just $1 million and one season. But even if he only holds up for a couple months of half a season, Brandon Belt may fall in to fill the void. Belt may fall short of filling that void, but these are the types of risks even contending teams take going into a season. The Rays will do it with their shortstop Reid Brignac, the Braves with first baseman Freddie Freeman, and the Phillies with Domonic Brown.

With these short term commitments the Giants have given themselves precious wiggle room to decide what to do with their revered rotation -- who to trade and who not to, should they have to make that terribly difficult decision. This is not to say the Giants have punted 2011 for long term success. Here’s the other piece of the puzzle. The Giants’ division, the National League West, has afforded Sabean this flexibility.

Every team in the American League East has to keep a constant eye on the rearview mirror, more so than the other five divisions. Even taking just the National League, the East got better in that the Braves went out and got Dan Uggla and were a pretty good team to begin with. The Phillies went out and got Cliff Lee. In the Central, the Brewers scooped up one of the best arms in the AL, Zack Greinke.

But what about the West? The Diamondbacks remain talented, but neither Rome nor a quality pitching staff was built in a day. The Padres had a nice offseason but took a huge hit in terms of their prospect for contention in 2011 by shipping Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. The Rockies have done little more than what the Giants have, to this point, which is to keep status quo. Sure they locked up what should be a perennial (even if the voters miss it) MVP candidate in Tulo and another very talented player in Gonzalez, but beyond that they’ve done very little. And the Dodgers underperformed last season, but they plan to either platoon Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames in left field or let Tony Gwynn Jr. play brilliant center and flail at the plate, moving Matt Kemp to right and Andre Ethier to left. But both plans have obvious flaws.

The point is: the West is still eminently winnable for the Giants, even if they run out a team in 2011 that is uncanny to the aging roster that brought home the first title to The Bay in 52 years. They may lose a tire along the way, but such is baseball. For a team to become a continuous contender in this league, it must find a way to balance the present with the future (ask the Rays), with payroll being the most important constraint (unless you’re the Yankees).

So it’s worth pointing out that Brian Sabean’s apprehension this offseason may not have been misguided but prudent. I’m not saying I’m right. But I think it’s worth discussing. And I’ll bet there will be a handful of people in the Midwest wishing John Mozeliak had done the same before signing Matt Holliday if Albert Pujols finds himself somewhere other than St. Louis in 2012.
A year ago I probably never would have guessed I'd be giving Sabean so much rope, but he's earned it. At least until (when and if) he hangs himself.


  1. LOTS of good stuff here.

    First off, yes the Giants were "lucky" in the playoffs, and yes this is pretty much always the case. In a short series with two teams that are roughly even which pretty much all playoff teams are, for example this years Al and NLCS series teams had winning percentages of .599, .568, .586 and .556 so the one that catches the breaks tends to be the one that wins as this is not a large enough sample to eliminate that.

    The fact that luck was involved to me takes nothing away from the Giants Championship. They were still a very good team. They were not a hitting juggernaut but they still held their own and were great at run prevention.

    The team wasn't perfect and had flaws and that is part of what adds the greatness of the victory as a fan but I can see how other people point those out and gets on your nerves. It is like someone making an underhanded comment about your GF or wife it strikes a nerve.

    I have to say that I am on the same page there.

    The second part this is a new line of thinking that I hadn't pondered and you make a good point. Honestly I too don't feel like going out and not making a big move was a bad thing.

    I think that on paper this team has the potential to win 90+ games and get into the playoffs again where anything can happen.

    To a certain extent you can say that maybe Sabean has learnt his lesson about signing players to long term big money deals as he hasn't committed to anything longer then 2 years since Rowand (if memory serves me right I didn't look that up).

    That has been good for flexibility with a huge portion of money committed to Zito and Rowand, another long term deal blowing up and his hands are tied until these come off the books.

    So again good points and great perspective as always.

  2. interesting article. but unlike you, I though passans piece was awful and nationally baised/still in shock the giants were champs.
    i get so sick of this "the giants squeaked into the playoffs talk" we had the 2nd BEST RECORD IN THE NL. not the 4th. as far as the phillies giants comparisons, the giants have a much better bullpen, something that is essential in the not too concerened if the phillies win 5 more games again in the reg season bc of some extra hitting because all that matters is the playoff series, and the giants advantage in the bullpen is undeniable. although if pablo is 09 pablo, derosa is healthy and belt is what scouts say, the werth-less phillies lineup could start to look pretty similar to the giants, although if dominic brown is a star that may change.

  3. even if the padres didnt collapse the giants still would have been the wild card team....

  4. sabean has done a great job this offseason. i would like to hear one thing the giants should have done differently. the only thing i can think of that wouldve been better is trading for jason bartlett. but sabean tried to do that and obviously he decided the price was too steep. the giants head into 2011 with a dominant stafff(obviously) a great bullpen (and dominant closer) and maybe the DEEPEST team of position players in the league. 14 potentially starting caliber players for 8 spots. its a mix of quality veterans and young players with huge upside. 7 of the 14 (posey,huff,belt,pablo,derosa,burrell,
    ross) have realistic 20 hr power this year, and two more (torres, rowand) could hit 20, depending on playing time and other factors.

    As a diehard giants fan i couldnt be happier with the off season or more excited for this season to begin. once again, to me its almost impossible to argue the giants are not easily a top 5 team in the MLB heading into 2011. and thats without expecting a 300 20 100 year from either pablo or belt, which i think is pretty likely for ONE of them.


    bryce, oakland

  5. For the record, I'm not concerned about the Phillies either. I think I've made that pretty clear. They're out of division, so ultimately unimportant until a theoretical playoff series.

    And I do agree the Giants' offense has upside to being above average. Of course, it has the downside of being bad, too. I feel the same way about the Phillies lineup, which is getting much older. I mentined this at least once or twice in previous articles.

    Right or wrong, one option that MAY OR MAY NOT have been a better route to success in 2011 would have been to let Huff walk, replace him with Belt, and sign a more formidable left fielder. If Huff looks old and struggles, that'll be the case. If he continues to be a very good player, it will not be. Time WILL tell.

    Thanks for commenting and reading. I owe everything to you, the reader.