No one respects what Brian Sabean has done during his time as General Manager of the Giants more than I have. Ive been accused by more than one person of being a Sabean apologist, looking for the bright spots in everything he has done the last 8 years. And thats fine, I freely call myself an optimist. But as I watch this team fumble and bumble and complain its way out of a division race that the rest of the N.L. West is handling like a hot potato, even Im left wondering, with the often discussed post-Bonds rebuilding impending (if not already on top of us), would the most impactful change occur at the top of the Giant management chain?
Respect For The Boss But It Only Goes So Far
Brian Sabeans career as General Manager has always been defined by one move, and one defiant statement to the fan base of the Giants. He came into the team, and traded away the most popular guy on the team for some no names. That, of course, was Matt Williams for Jeff Kent et al. Sabean then, under full attack from a fan base reeling from a last place year, defiantly proclaimed I am not an idiot, and watched as Jeff Kent blossomed into an NL MVP and borderline Hall of Famer. Even those who ripped Sabean had to admit, the deal worked out well.
That is not to say that Sabean has not been successful otherwise. He did, as is often proclaimed by himself and ownership, keep the team in more than reasonable contention every year he was here. He made other spectacular trades, both of the blockbuster variety (stealing Jason Schmidt from the Pirates) and the understated (Joe Carter in 1998, and Matt Herges in 2003) to do so. Hes won Executive of the Year a couple of times in the process.
But at some point about 2 years ago, Sabean lost his golden touch.
I dont know when or what it was. Some people point to the signings of Edgardo Alfonzo and Ray Durham to what they consider obscene amounts of money, which I disagree with. Alfonzo looked to be another Jeff Kent in waiting, and no one expected Ray Durham, who had never been on the disabled list in his career, to suddenly turn into Mr. Glass. Some point to the trade for Sidney Ponson, a deal that was controversial and while not a complete bust, did nothing to help the Giants win in the playoffs. Although I despised the trade, I at least understood what he was doing.
The Turning Point
I can say the same about the trade for A.J. Pierzynski. I saw what he was trying to do, and it made sense. He was getting depth at catcher, adding an All-Star to the lineup, and using the depth of our bullpen (Joe Nathan) and farm system (Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano) to do so. But this trade was the first of its kind for Sabean: he came out not just on the losing side of the trade, but spectacularly bad. He decided to trust the then-reliable Herges and the recovery of Robb Nen, which of course blew up in his face as Joe Nathan went on to be a spectacular closer. In Pierzynski, he got a player who became more infamous for grounding into double plays than clutch hits, and who was so mean and surly that the team released him a year later without a single thing in return. Meanwhile, Liriano, an oft-injured throw-in to the trade has emerged as one of the top pitching prospects of his level.
Realistically, the people who whine about this trade nowadays are only doing so in hindsight. We all thought Joe Nathan was good, but no one expected him to start collecting Cy Young votes. We knew A.J. Pierzynski was a (insert word I cant print here), but no one expected him to make Barry Bonds look like Mr. Congeniality. And no one expected Liriano to do anything close to what hes doing.
But thats how it turned out. For the first time in eight years, Sabean was the clear loser on a trade.
Again, I dont blame him for it, unlike most. It made sense. But ever since then, Sabean has seemingly lost his touch and made questionable decision after questionable decision. More and more, it seems like Sabean is throwing crap against a wall to see what sticks.
There was the midseason trade last year of Feliz Rodriguez for Rickey Ledee and prospect Alfredo Simon. Again, no one expected the then-.300 hitting Ledee to become one of the worst hitters in San Francisco history, but one has to ask, why did Sabean trade away a reliever when the bullpen was the biggest Giant weakness? That trade left the bullpen inexplicably a man short for nearly two weeks while the Giants carried 3 shortstops, a period during which the Giants went 3-6 and lost some serious ground in the N.L. West race.
Then there is the early season trade this year, when Sabean traded disgruntled starter Jerome Williams and top, formerly untouchable prospect David Aardsma for struggling setup man LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins has been hot and cold, most recently spectacularly cold in his return to Chicago, which seemed to shatter his so-fragile ego in such a way I doubt hell ever recover even if he sees Brett Tomkos shrink.
What may be most frustrating about that trade is that we traded two immensely talented prospects for a guy who is essentially the ever frustrating Felix Rodriguez, a thrower with no idea how to actually pitch and who will not ever, ever, and seemingly under any circumstance, throw anything but a fastball.
Even Sabeans free agent signings have to be questioned. There are no complaints about Omar Vizquel and Mike Matheny, and certainly Moises Alou has been excellent. But lets remember, Alou was the last gasp option of Sabeans. He originally wanted and offered a huge deal to Steve Finley, who is currently hitting .232 for the Anaheim Angels whom he luckily decided to play for for less money and less years for a hometown discount. Can you imagine how bad this team would be with Finley in the lineup and Moises Alou not?
The more one looks at the moves the Giants have made personnel wise, the less an idea one has of a plan, I mean, Alex Sanchez? This season, more than ever, the plan seems to remain: Step 1. Defecation. Step 2: Wall.
With Sabean clearly not making good personnel decisions lately, one would think ownership would have to consider whether or not to keep him. If only that was where the problems stopped.
The Dreaded Jimmy-Jack
Unfortunately, the problems with the Giants go further than bad personnel decisions. The players seem to be growing uncomfortably angry with team management, to the point one cant excuse it as spoiled players mouthing off in frustration.
Longtime Giant Kirk Rueter, a quiet guy who doesnt like making waves, was the one to voice the real concerns this past week. Though he got himself misrepresented as saying Start me or Trade me, the focus of his statements were on the way management was handling things. "I don't know if the whole atmosphere is conducive to performing," he said. "Even if nothing is going on (with a trade), there's still a situation here where they go, 'Hennessey, if you have a bad start, then Woody's going to go back in the rotation. If Woody has a bad start, Hennessey's going back in.' These guys are young. I don't think it's fair to them."
Hes not the only one. The fans have grown tired of what they have called the Jimmy-Jack, referring to the team yanking a player from one role and placing them in another, often frequently, and motivated by the drop of a hat. These comments were echoed by the departing Jerome Williams, who bashed the team for losing faith in him. Hard to imagine why he thought that, when he had perhaps the best start in the first turn of the rotation, and suddenly found himself in the bullpen, and then found himself in the minors when he was still being affected by that little skip in the rotation only 3 starts later. Thats just one month. And it was his being upset at the team for that which prompted the horrible trade of Williams and Aardsma, both untouchable the season before, for an overpaid and often ineffective setup man.
Williams, Rueter, Brad Hennessey, Kevin Correia, Brett Tomko, and Jeff Fassero have all found themselves at the mercy of the Jimmy-Jack this season alone, and thats just the guys in the majors. And last year, the tweaking of top prospect Merkin Valdezs role dropped his performance from top of the line to middle of the pack, if not worse, all in the name of trying to help the bullpen (again, just depleted by the inexplicable trade of Felix Rodriguez).
And that isnt the end of the staffs woes with management. For the second straight year, Alou is apparently using his trips to the mound to change pitchers as a substitute for his morning jog. He changes pitchers so often that Speedee Oil Change centers (who have a contract to have a quick ad spoken with each pitching change) may consider getting out of their advertising contract because its getting too expensive. All this culminated in Felipe Alou using 5 pitchers on Monday in Chicago in just one inning, one short of the record. Whats worse, only 2 of those pitchers faced more than 1 batter: Hawkins, who gave up a hit to a runner who eventually scored, and Tyler Walker, who gave up the hit that scored him.
Jason Schmidt said after the game, The next thing you know, everybody is out there, but that's part of playing in Frisco." Even if it was a joke, it gives you an idea of how pitchers see the way they are handled by this management.
Felipe Alou would tell you that he changes pitchers often because of how badly theyve thrown (great way to encourage your guys, by the way), but frankly, hes not even giving these guys, most of whom were performing well since late June, the chance to suck. By Wednesday, he was left with a bullpen of tired arms that predictably, gave up another lead and lost the game.
Wheres The Coaching?
Meanwhile, one has to ask, what is going on with this team? When they win, things look alright. But when they lose, the other team doesnt beat them, they often beat themselves. Not only has it been a tired bullpen lately, but a defensive ineptitude that is killing them.
Im not saying that this is a team that needs to be on the field at 6 oclock every morning taking fielding practice thats just Alex Sanchez but it doesnt take a professional scout to see that this team is not playing hard. Defensive miscues, missed signs, and all the mistakes one would normally attribute to a lack of concentration have plagued this team.
And then theres what appears to be a lackadaisical attitude by the coaching staff towards these players. Hitting coach (one of them, anyways) Jim Lefevre has noted that he doesnt often approach players, indicating that they know what theyre doing wrong when theyre doing something wrong.
Just because this team is a veteran team doesnt mean they dont need coaches. No one is bothering to teach Pedro Feliz how to recognize and lay off breaking pitches. It appears that no one is even trying to teach Hawkins how to throw any other pitches (no one did it to Felix Rodriguez, either). And is it too much to ask someone take Alex Sanchez into the outfield to teach him how to catch the ball and hit the cutoff man? Tom Hanks? Anyone?
And in nearly every game, it seems the Giant starters pitch count reach 100 by the 5th inning leading to early fatigue and an early yank, while whomever ever the Giants are facing are cruising along comfortably. Is this because the Giant pitchers arent throwing strikes, or more likely, the Giant hitters are chasing the ball when the other pitcher throws it out of the strike zone?
Is This Who The Giants Want To Rebuild Under?
Now, Im not trying to disparage Sabean and Felipe Alou. Both are great baseball men. But at the risk of sounding like Im saying What have you done for me lately, well, what have they?
Sabeans player movements the past couple of years have been a definitive backwards motion. Felipe Alou, meanwhile, has succeeded in bringing the Giants a negative reputation for how they handle pitchers. Together, theyve alienated one of the young stars, a fan favorite, to the point they were forced to dump him for a mere fraction of his value, gotten a second player to imply hed prefer a trade, and alienated two other starters enough that they have made questionable comments over the season. Theyve been openly criticized for their handling of young players. The managers own son has criticized the team for a lack of chemistry, a charge that Felipe dismissed.
And all the time, the boos get louder and louder at SBC Park with every miscue, mistake, missed opportunity and every pitching change.
Is this who Giants fans want rebuilding this team? Is it who ownership wants?
Im not saying that a change needs to be made now. The trade deadline is mere days away, and Sabean has talked big about making acquisitions not just for this season, but for the future. And despite losing 2 out of 3 in a series against the Cubs most fans believe the Giants couldve swept, the Giants remain a tantalizing 7.5 games out of first place.
But if Sabean and Felipe cant find some way to turn this team around, it might be time for Peter Magowan to try and do it himself, by giving this team a change in leadership.
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