The Giants' general manager has taken criticism over the years, but here he is in the World Series again
Brian Sabean has taken a lot of flak over the years. Some of it was deserved. He did, for instance, author the pathetic Giants' offenses of the mid-aughts, teams entirely reliant on a 40-and-older Barry Bonds. When Bonds was gone, first through injury (2006) and then when his deal ran out (2008), things were much worse. The 2008 Giants scored four runs per game if you rounded up, and the 2009 iteration hit the same, minus the rounding. This is also the same Sabean who forfeited draft picks like they meant nothing, and did so in order to get players like Michael Tucker into a Giants uniform.
Those two items (as well as his obsession with older players) have tended to overshadow all of the positives from his career, though. Sabean never won a title with Barry Bonds in town, but they did reach one World Series, in 2002. It's not as if his Bonds-era clubs were comprised entirely of him, either, as Sabean brought plenty of talent to town to complement the best player in the game: Jeff Kent, Reggie Sanders, Jason Schmidt, Ellis Burks, Kenny Lofton, and others. While they traded away tons of pitching prospects, most of them failed to produce, while the players the Giants brought back performed well. San Francisco finished in first or second place in the NL West in eight-straight seasons under Sabean -- that's a solid start to a career as a general manager.
The issues came after, when Sabean continued to focus on veterans, and not always the correct ones. Tucker was an issue, as Sabean gave him a deal before the Royals could even offer him arbitration. In the 2005 draft, San Francisco didn't pick until the fourth round: they gave up their first-round pick to sign closer Armando Benitez, their second-round selection for Mike Matheny, and their third for Omar Vizquel.
In a way, it was hard to fault Sabean for punting draft picks, considering how most of his first-rounders had turned out to that point. In the first round, from 1997 through 2003, Sabean's Giants selected Jason Grilli (who never pitched for the Giants and is now a reliever), four players who never left the minors, Nate Bump, Tony Torcato, Jerome Williams, Kurt Ainsworth, Boof Bonser, Todd Linden, Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessey, Matt Cain, Craig Whitaker, and David Aardsma. If you're having a hard time remembering who any of those players are besides Cain, don't worry -- that's the point. You can almost see why Sabean, whose front office failed over and over again in the first round, decided to use all of his resources on veterans.
That plan, combined with producing essentially Matt Cain and nothing else from first-round selections over a seven-year stretch, helped bring the Giants down from their early success. They finished in third through fifth in the NL West from 2005 through 2009, with a winning record in just one of those years. They scored 657 runs that season, but fantastic pitching led them to a positive run differential despite the lineup's best efforts to make baseball unwatchable.
During that time of fruitlessness in the majors, though, the Giants all of a sudden began to draft well. Tim Lincecum fell to 10th in the 2006 draft, and the Giants snagged him. High schooler Madison Bumgarner was selected in the same place, one year later. The Giants had the fifth pick in 2008, and took backstop Buster Posey. If you're going to discredit Sabean for his prior draft problems, he deserves credit for either learning from his mistakes, or figuring out who in his front office knew what they were talking about. Cain, Lincecum, and Bumgarner make up the core of the Giants' rotation, while a former Giant draftee, Ryan Vogelsong, also takes up a spot.
With a core in place that's been made up of more than just aging Barry Bonds, Sabean could get back to doing what he does best: finding complementary talent. In 2010, that meant picking up Pat Burrell when the Rays were sure he was finished. It meant plucking Cody Ross from waivers in August. Those two hit like crazy to propel the Giants into the postseason and to a World Series victory, but no one is perfect: Sabean also tried to make Jose Guillen useful again.
What's amazing about the 2012 squad is that it doesn't look anything like the 2010 one. Sure, the rotation is similar -- swap Vogelsong in for the departed Jonathan Sanchez -- but otherwise, there's little here that resembles the previous champs. Pablo Sandoval (signed as an amateur free agent back in 2003) and Posey remain in the lineup, but otherwise, who are these people? Just 11 Giants on this year's World Series roster were on the team from two years ago, and then there's also Barry Zito, who wasn't on the playoff roster last time out, and is now starting Game 1.
Once again, Sabean tinkered until the team was just right. Bringing in Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera through trades in the off-season proved to be huge, with Pagan one of the club's best hitters, and Cabrera dominating the NL before his season ended with a PED suspension. Brandon Belt, another homegrown player, has hit about as well as Pagan, with a 124 OPS+. It was felt that Belt was jerked around between the majors and minors, between starting and the bench, but the extra time to develop his approach has paid off to this point. Marco Scutaro was brought in from the Rockies after a horrific stint in Colorado, and just won the NLCS MVP after hitting .362/.385/.473 as a Giant.
Pushing the right buttons has become something of a Sabean trait, and while he has his oddities that get in his way, he generally does well. In his 16 seasons as GM, the Giants have posted winning records a dozen times. This is the third World Series on his watch, and he won the second after the Giants were in San Francisco over 50 years without a title. He seems to have learned from some of his most glaring mistakes, with a new emphasis on drafting a core rather than dealing away or ignoring picks and prospects. Whether the Giants win or not, it's hard to ignore that Brian Sabean just might know what he's doing.