How Sabean Uses Draft to Build the Giants (Final)

The implications of the results I have found on drafting on the Giants draft strategy and on how Sabean builds the Giants.

Because it looks like drafting is more miss than hit for any team who regularly competes for a playoff spot, as shown in my last article, teams should try to optimize their team-building behavior to account for that. As noted in the last article, one way would be to save the bonus money paid that 1st round draft pick in the 21-30 range by signing at least a useful free agent who would cost you that draft pick. In essence, you sign a free agent instead of signing that draft pick, directing budget money normally used for the farm system and drafting into the MLB player payroll budget. And getting a useful player (at minimum; you can also use the money towards a star or good player as well) for certain, instead of buying a lottery ticket and seeing what you get in 2 to 6 years.

The other part of the player procurement equation is the annual amateur draft. How should knowledge that the odds are against you in the draft affect how you draft? How should that affect your overall strategy for staffing your team? I will try to examine these questions for the Giants and Sabean.

And Did I Mention Pitching?

It is widely known that the Giants have emphasized pitching, pitching, and more pitching via the draft. It was no different in 2003 or 2004. 2003's draft had 30 pitchers and 22 position players selected, with their first pick a high school player (Craig Whitaker), a move that some analysts strongly recommend against, but which didn't turn out too bad when the Giants picked Jerome Williams and Matt Cain. 2004's draft had 31 pitchers and 18 position players selected, with more pitchers overall despite picking position players with their first three picks.

For most prospect lists during the Sabean era, pitchers have made up a large percent of the Giants list, boasting mainly one or two position prospect on the verge but never making it. This year, however, there could be up to four of them, depending on the list – Nate Schierholtz, Fred Lewis, Eddie Martinez-Esteve, and perhaps Travis Ishikawa - versus the much larger crop of top pitching prospects that the team has, headed by Matt Cain, Merkin Valdez, David Aardsma, and Brad Hennessey. This marks a slight change in draft philosophy highlighted by 2004's drafting of position players with their first three picks.

Pitching as a Priority

Defense, as any sports fanatic knows, is the key to becoming a champion. Dan Fouts and Air Coryell couldn't win it all; Joe Montana with the West Coast (Hello! Bill WALSH) offense only won it all when they had great defense anchored by Ronnie Lott. Don Nelson and Run TMC couldn't run their way to a divisional title, let alone a championship; for all the offensive magic of Michael Jordan, his championship teams were also know for their strong defense.

This is true also in baseball. One-dimensional offensive teams don't win it all. It can when it is coupled with strong pitching and strong fielding (i.e. strong defense) that teams become champions. For example, the Giants great offenses of the 1960's could never get over the hump and overcome the other teams who had a better blend of offense and defense (i.e. pitching and fielding). Roger Craig and Al Rosen finally brought the Giants back to the playoffs with good pitching and fielding as well as offense.

Pitching beats hitting, said Yogi Berra, and vice versa. Great pitching usually trumps good hitters as good hitters can usually be shut down. Great hitters usually trumps good pitchers as well. However, in a short series, when a dominant starter can go 2-3 times, their teams can become champions, while the great hitter still needs to depend on the rest of the team to drive in runs and to keep runs from scoring. This we Giants fans sadly found out with Bonds in 2002

For all the mind-bending stats that Barry put up in 2002 in the post-season, he couldn't win it all. While long ago the Dodgers first rode Koufax's and Drysdale's, then later Hershiser's, coattails and more recently the D-Backs rode Johnson's and Schilling's coattails to world championships. And now you can throw in Schilling's, Martinez's, and Lowe's performances for the Red Sox in 2004.

Then again, there must be a balance or you may lose a lot of 1-0, 2-1 games. Or you may end up with a 27-10 Steve Carlton but a 59-97 Phillies team. But a balancing act is hard to achieve as any baseball fan knows. And especially so in baseball, where dynasties are short-lived and far apart in time. How best to achieve this balance?

"Fra-gee-ley." It Must Be an Italian Player

Fragile. That is a label that no player wants. But in baseball, that label applies to a whole class of players: pitchers. They are essential for baseball and yet so hard to find and so hard to keep healthy. Besides catchers, they are the position most likely to break down with age, usage, or both. They are so special, there is a surgery named for one of their brethren that everyone knows: "Tommy John" surgery. And this surgery is not just for old, over the hill pitchers. The Giant's former top prospect, Kurt Ainsworth, had that surgery done on him when he after his freshman year in college and another former top prospect, Jesse Foppert, recovered from it last season after getting it at age 23, though he still needs to test out his arm in competition.

If pitchers are that fragile, does it make sense to throw a lot of guaranteed money at them in general? Would it also make sense to sign them as free agents when you don't know the medical history of him to long-term guaranteed contracts as well? Would it not make more sense to stock your farm system with cheap replacements so that when pitchers go down or leave via free agency, you just bring up the next one?

Pitching Ben Berry Berry Good to the Giants

Whether or not this focus on pitching is their strategic intent or just the way the Giants' drafts have worked, I wondered what are the positives and negatives of such a strategy if implemented. Frankly, focusing on pitching as an advantage seems to work out very well, thank you very much.

It is obvious how such a policy would work. You have all your scouts focus on pitchers and know the pitching prospects much better than the competition. Come draft day, you draft more pitchers than position players because 1) you've focused mainly on them and know them best, 2) you want more of them, and 3) your focus gives you more experience in evaluating pitching talent in subsequent drafts, building an advantage in scouting over time in evaluating pitching talent. Practice makes perfect. It also helps the Giants that Dick Tidrow, a good pitcher in his day, is in charge of player personnel for the Giants.

In addition, SBC Park is a well known pitchers park (though it wasn't in 2004). The Giants may as well work to this advantage by focusing on pitchers. This is not a new concept. There have been many teams shaped with their home park characteristics in mind. Whitey Herzog got speedsters and defenders tailor made for Busch Stadium's plastic turf. The Yankees and Giants used to look for lefty power hitters to take advantage of the short line down right field at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds. And I would be remiss if I ignored the hated Dodgers and their pitcher's park and how Koufax and Drysdale worked so well together there.

Another benefit to focusing on drafting pitchers is their stated intention, which I heard once on a talk show, to not tie pitchers necessarily to starting or relieving. Rather, when they are ready for the majors, the need of the club will dictate their role. Thus, for example, Russ Ortiz, a closer while in the minors, became a starter when he was brought up. Meanwhile Rod Beck, a starter in the minors, came up and became the closer. Joe Nathan was a starter in his first stint with the Giants then became a great reliever. More recently, Kevin Correia, who had done well as a starter for the Giants in 2003, is now being tried out in relief, David Aardsma was evaluated as to becoming a starter, and Merkin Valdez could still go either way. Presumably such a policy would require the Giants to actively monitor and prepare pitchers so that they can do either role when they need their help. Versatility and flexibility is sought so that any pitching needs at the major league level can be fulfilled.

This also vastly improves the prospects of trading to get someone. Pitchers represent about 50% (12-13 pitchers) of the roster of a team while a position player can fill maybe 8-12% (2-3 roles) of the roster of any team. Therefore having prospect pitchers to trade increases the odds of finding another team willing to trade with you. In addition, most teams are usually looking for a pitcher or improvement on a pitcher (remember, pitchers are injury prone), but not all of them are looking for a particular position player to upgrade. This has worked out over the years as Sabean has been able to flip pitching prospects left and right to get Major Leaguers.

In addition, once this strategy is going full speed ahead, there will be, hopefully, a large and constant crop of minor league pitchers maturing and advancing to the majors. If realized, the Giants will be able to afford to let go of higher priced pitchers via trade or free agency and replace them with younger and cheaper pitchers internally who are equally skilled or close enough. That time appears to be approaching now, with Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry targeted for the rotation and Brad Hennessey, Jesse Foppert, and David Aardsma competing for a spot on the 25 man roster, plus Matt Cain, Merkin Valdez, Pat Misch, and Alfredo Simon appearing to be about a year or two away.

Another advantage to a strategy like this is that developing players, even for those drafted from the 21th pick to the 30th pick, is pretty much a crap shoot, as I went over in my last article. As a result, you may as well concentrate on pitching so that your team is always stocked with pitchers, seeing as how they make up about 50 percent of the roster. In other words, if you are going to win the lottery (i.e. finding a useful or better player in the amateur draft), you may as well win with something that can be most easily tradeable, like a pitcher.

More importantly, hopefully you are fully stocked at the key pitching positions: starting three, closer, and set-ups. With a constant stream of talent coming in, the bar will be raised over time, the standards set higher, as the Giants' pitching staff collectively improves each year. And as mentioned above, you can easily replace free agents and injured players when they occur.

Is This The Giant's Strategy?

As far as I can recall, there has not been any conclusive statement by Sabean or Magowan that this is their strategy, but I haven't heard every interview they have ever had. The first clear statement that it is came from a recent Baseball America article (February 14, 2005) on the Giants efforts to develop hitters. John Manuel quoted a member of the front office as saying, "You can always sign hitters. Position players are always available in free agency. But you can't always find quality pitching, so we focus on developing pitchers." In addition, there has been some historical evidence that existed to support that this is their strategy.

First and foremost are their draft results. Year after year, the Giants have drafted a preponderance of pitchers over position players and draft more pitchers early in the draft. Some also may note the Giants has a preponderance of top pitching prospects versus top position players. They have drafted a number of position players in the first three rounds with little results at the major league level. However, they have been much better at drafting and developing pitchers with potential, which is more than we can say about the position prospects.

Second is the Giants free agent policy. For the most part, the position players were mainly acquired via free agent signings. However, during the Sabean era, there has been only one big free agent pitcher signed to a multi-year big money contract, and just this off-season, in Armando Benitez. All of the other signings of pitchers were of a pitcher who was a member of the team prior to signing. All pitchers given long term contracts, except Benitez, have been Giants employees long enough for the Giants to evaluate them and decide whether they are worth keeping.

Sabean and the Giants Farm System

The Giants farm system under Sabean, as any knowledgeable Giants fan would know, can only be charitably called unsuccessful. It has been an almost total failure in developing players for the Major League roster. No position player has been developed under his watch, though a number of players in the system when he joined has had at least limited success at the major league level, such as Aurillia (via trade), Mueller, Benard, Martinez, Feliz, and Torrealba. His only successes in the draft are Jerome Williams and perhaps Jesse Foppert and Noah Lowry, if they continue their limited success thus far. The only saving grace is that he was able to leverage prospects in trades to get players like Robb Nen, Livan Hernandez, and Jason Schmidt.

To be fair, however, the farm system before Brian Sabean came along was in shambles so he didn't have much to work with. J.R. Phillips, Shawn Estes, and Joe Fontenot were the #1 Giants prospects in Baseball America the three previous seasons before his first full season as GM. And the horrors of the Number One draft pick extended all the way back to 1988 the last relatively good #1: Royce Clayton. After him and until Sabean: Steve Hosey, Adam Hyzdu, Steve Whitaker, Calvin Murray, Steve Soderstrom, Dante Powell, Joe Fontenot, and Matt White. And those were our #1's! You can just imagine how good the players drafted after them each year were. No wonder the farm system was crapola when Sabean took over.

Sabean's Successful History of Player Development

But what many Giants fans don't know is that Brian Sabean was a big cog in the rebuilding effort of the Yankees in the late 1980's and early 1990's. The Yankees were not developing many players when Sabean took over, which led to a streak of four losing seasons and six seasons fourth or lower in a seven team division. He was the director of scouting and head of player development from 1986 to 1992, before joining the Giants.

He was in charge of the drafts that led to the team the Yankees developed for the mid-to-late 1990's run that won all those World Series. He was the one in charge when many of the Yankees' homegrown talent were signed: Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza, and Andy Pettitte. In addition, other players were drafted under his watch who had extended useful MLB careers, including Scott Kamienieki, Hal Morris, Turner Ward, Kevin Maas, Gerald Williams, Brad Ausmus, Pat Kelly, Russ Davis, Deion Sanders, Fernando Vina, Andy Fox, J.T. Snow, Russ Springer, Sterling Hitchcock, Brian Johnson, Carl Everett, Ricky Ledee, Shane Spencer, John Wasdin, and Mike DeJean.

So Why Has the Giants Farm System and Drafting Stunk Under Sabean?

One thing I realized from trying to analyze this is that Sabean inherited the scouting staff that contributed greatly to this horrible draft record previous to Sabean taking over. As noted above, the Giants prior to Sabean picked Steve Hosey, Adam Hyzdu, Calvin Murray, in the three years prior, all marginally able to play in the majors. And they were their top picks!

Thinking about that more deeply, I assume that part of Sabean's slow start was because when a GM takes over, he cannot just start by firing every scout the Giants had and then replace them efficiently and effectively. He would have to replace them over time with attrition, both via bad scouts leaving us and good scouts leaving their current team to join us, and Sabean "gently" suggesting that others seek employment elsewhere. All this while trying to assess whom is a good scout and a keeper and who needs to move on.

So perhaps it took time for attrition and new hires to come in before the scouting started reflecting the expertise that Sabean showed when he was the head of scouting and player development for the Yankees in the early 1990's. That could explain why the initial drafts under his command for the Giants did not go that well. And given how the odds are against you in the draft in terms of actually finding even a useful player after the 20th pick overall, you need to have good scouting in order to improve the odds of finding good prospects no matter which pick in the draft you end up with, whether high or low.

In addition, given that the drafts have gotten better over time, especially once we reached the 2000's, I would have to think that he has his crew fully in place by now and productive. So while he still has a lot to prove in this area for the Giants, right now it appears to at least be going in the right direction, which I will get into in more depth in the next section. Furthermore, it does not make sense that someone who clearly has a talent for evaluating players, as shown by the trades that he has been involved in for the Giants, would flop on the other hand in evaluating players when drafting them. Any failures there would indicate that there is a problem with the flow of information going in to Sabean for the draft. That flow of information appears to have gotten better in the 2000's, as we will next examine.

Sabean's Draft Record

So how good has Sabean been in the draft with the Giants? As I noted in my first article, Sabean has not done that poorly compared to other top teams during the same time period. But the sad fact still is that Sabean has had a poor overall record with the Giants drafting and developing major league talent so far and in particular position players. But there has definitely been a sharp jump in the quality and quantity of key prospects over the years.

1997 and 1998 should be considered total failures, while 1999 can be seen as the first signs of Sabean's ability to draft well. Jason Grilli and Scott Linebrink as the best of the bunch in 1997. Tony Torcato, Nate Bump, Chris Magruder, Ryan Vogelsong, and Cody Ransom were the best of the bunch in 1998. Just one really useful major leaguer in the whole bunch so far in Scott Linebrink, though Nate Bump and Ryan Vogelsong have also been getting shots the past couple of years. Kurt Ainsworth and Jerome Williams lead the list in 1999, with Jack Taschner as a prospect with some shine to him still, but that's still it. But then poor again as 2000 netted us Boof Bonser, Lance Niekro, Erick Threets, and Jason Ellison, though Ellison is currently the top favorite to make the team as 5th outfielder.

2001 is when Sabean's scouting organization appears to hit stride as they picked up Brad Hennessey, Noah Lowry, Todd Linden, and Jesse Foppert in the first four picks, plus Justin Knoedler and Scott Munter. It gained a big head of steam in 2002 with Matt Cain, Fred Lewis, Dan Ortmeier, and Kevin Correia in their first four picks, plus Travis Ishikawa and Joe Bateman in later picks. 2003 keeps it going with David Aardsma, Craig Whitaker, Todd Jennings, Nate Schierholtz, and Brian Buscher in the first five picks, plus Pat Misch, Marcus Sanders, and Mike Mooney. And 2004 appears productive based on very early and limited professional baseball performances for Eddy Martinez-Esteve, John Bowker, Clay Timpner, and Garrrett Broshius in the first four picks, plus Kevin Frandsen, Jeremiah Luster, and John Acha.

So while he didn't have much success early on, he has had good to great hits since 2000 including Williams, Foppert, Lowry, Valdez (can't trade for him without good scouting), Hennessey, Cain, and Aardsma. There were also minor hits with potential like Linden, Ortmeier, Lewis, Schierholtz, Ishikawa, Whitaker, Martinez-Esteve, and Simon, all of whom are still at least a couple of years away but at least look good right now. He has come a long way from Joe Fontenot as his top prospect to successively now, Williams, Foppert, Valdez, and Cain as #1's in the Baseball America list. There is a definite uptrend and, possibly and hopefully, soon a pitching staff manned by a mix of Williams, Lowry, Foppert, Hennessey, Cain, Valdez, Aardsma, Correia, Misch, Simon, and Whitaker.

My Final Thoughts

As shown above, the Giants farm system has been horrible under Sabean, but at least it was able to initially produce enough intriguing enough prospects over the years to enable us to trade up for more valuable major league players. In addition, in the last few years, the level of prospects has taken a big jump upward in potential, if not yet actual production, both for pitchers and position players. The next couple of years will show whether or not Sabean has brought his talent for player evaluation that he demonstrated in New York into the Giants farm system.

What this crapshoot of a draft goes to show is what I think is the best method for rebuilding a team: the way of the "phoenix". My theory: totally burn down the team and get very high draft picks for a few years, which greatly improves your overall talent in your farm system with some good to star players. For example, the 70's Giants were mediocre and stayed mediocre with mediocre picks. On the other hand, the 80's crashed and burned finally during the mid-80's, getting the high draft picks that allowed us to get Will Clark, Robbie Thompson, Matt  Williams, and Royce Clayton. But it is no panacea either, the Giants got good early draft picks in the 1990's as well but did nothing with them (Joe Fontenot, Matt White, and Jason Grilli), you still need good scouting plus a modicum of luck.

But crashing and burning is not an option when you have Barry Bonds on your roster (though it did happen in the mid-1990's, just before Sabean took over, so it is not automatic that a team with Barry Bonds will win). And it is definitely not an option when you have a $200M SBC Park construction loan hanging over your head, you need people coming to the park and helping to pay for that loan. And Sabean has been able to keep getting talent for the team via good trades using prospects intially in his reign and via free agent signings more recently.

Now we will need to see if he is able to get talent to the MLB level on a consistent basis for the Giants via the draft. Thus far, the results are underwhelming but improving and encouraging and, to my eyes, ready to burst forth and blossom into a team built internally rather than via free agency. I believe that he will be vindicated as the current crop of prospects mature and develop into the next generation of the Giants A.B. (After Barry).

Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown for bringing the combination of power and speed to the game.Please feel free to comment on his blog,, if you have a question or comment on this article.

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