Front and Center

This offseason has been a pleasant surprise. The Giants had a gaping hole at shortstop, and the ostensible solution was just a year removed from A-ball. The bullpen needed a couple of arms. The rotation was 80% set, but an additional starter with upside wouldn’t have hurt. There was a huge and obvious need for several power bats. Brian Sabean was able to solve all of these problems without hurting the team’s minor league system. Yep. He solved them all. There isn’t something up there that he didn’t fix. Nope. Moving on….

So is this a new Sabean? A new era? The Giants have been aggressive in the Dominican Republic, they haven’t shied away from high-priced demands in the amateur draft, and they haven’t locked themselves into ridiculous contracts (since the last one, at least). It all seems so…functional. I’m quietly impressed.

I’m not ready to proclaim my unwavering support for Sabean, though. There are a lot of reasons – habit, logic, Jose Mesa-related night tremors – but I’ll just focus on one today: center field. This dark and confusing obsession of Sabean’s has been…dark and confusing. The Giants have repeated the following pattern a few times now:

"Here, have some money to play center field!"

"Gee, thanks! Oh, I forgot to tell you, I can’t really play center field."

"Whoops. No biggie! We’ll just make a trade or give a free agent some money!"

Marvin Bernard was the first. In the beginning of the 2000 season, the Giants signed Benard to a three-year extension. Whoops. It turned out that the new park had a ton of outfield, and Benard just wasn’t a good defender.

Randy Winn doesn’t quite fit the above pattern, but he was a part of one of the most baffling and far-reaching decisions of Sabean’s career. The Giants traded for Winn, and started him in center. Then they decided that Winn a) couldn’t handle center field defensively, and b) had enough of a bat for right field, so they signed Winn to a lucrative extension. Now that Randy Winn was a non-center fielder making a good amount of money, the Giants decided they needed a "real" center fielder. They threw money at two awful options – Juan Pierre, who was never good enough to play center, and Gary Matthews, Jr., who was coming off a career year in his 30s. Mercifully, both players are now other team’s problems, but the Giants’ third choice was Dave Roberts, who did sign. Here’s a funny little snippet from the original Roberts-to-the-Giants article:

Although scouts believe Roberts is best suited to play left field, he will roam in center for the Giants unless they can trade for a truer center fielder (Vernon Wells or Andruw Jones, for instance).

Everyone knew that Roberts wasn’t a good centerfielder. Certainly he couldn’t have been enough of an improvement on Winn that it justified an additional $18M expenditure, right? Ugh. Even worse, Roberts forced Winn to stay in right field, which meant the Giants weren’t going to acquire anyone to play right field, where power is readily available. That’s how you build a team that can’t crack 100 home runs. Nothing against Winn, but his ultimate value to the team would have been better realized in center.

Once it was clear that Roberts wasn’t a good defensive center fielder, the Giants decided that they absolutely could not be without a good defensive center fielder. So they committed $60M to Aaron Rowand, who was a good defensive center fielder. Emphasis on the past tense, "was." Rowand drank from the same celebratory champagne flute as Barry Zito, apparently, because somewhere between his old team and his new team, he lost a chunk of his value. I can almost forgive Sabean for this one, as Rowand was once highly regarded defensively by stats and scouts alike. Still, the Giants already had Winn, and they’re now without a good defensive center fielder. Again. Unless you count Winn, of course.

Long story short: I have no idea how Brian Sabean evaluates center fielders. He thought Juan Pierre was a viable option, but Randy Winn was always out of the question. Marvin Benard and Dave Roberts were a-ok to lock in, but Randy Winn was always out of the question, to the point where a five-year/$60M contract was preferable to Winn in center. Until I’m reassured that Sabean has any idea what constitutes a good or bad center fielder, I’ll be wary of the New Sabean. Every time I think that I could be fine with Sabean constructing future rosters, I think "Gary Matthews, Juan Pierre, and Dave Roberts," and I get over it.

So I’ll just wait for the inevitable Rowand-to-right field move, followed by a five-year deal to Nate McLouth.

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