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Giving Brian Sabean credit where credit is due

The editorial staff over at El Lefty Malo bring up an interesting point: if Brian Sabean built an offense in a forest, would anyone be there to give him credit if the team didn’t ground into a double play? Or something. From Lefty:

The staterati are starting to notice. FanGraphs gives a shoutout to Aubrey Huff today. BP's Jay Jaffe has the Giants ranked third in this week's hit list, and Rob Neyer admits he's been wrong about the Giants.

Nowhere in those above-linked articles will you find a glimmer of admiration, however grudging, for Brian Sabean.

Then I feel bad for falling into the same trap. Juan Uribe? Doing well, but he’s only on the team because no one else would give him a two-year deal, and he’s only starting because Edgar Renteria is made of graham crackers. Andres Torres? Great so far, but that’s like giving Pat Gillick credit for Brady Anderson’s 50-homer season. Aubrey Huff? A fair gamble when the only alternative was Travis Ishikawa, but there’s a reason no one else w...

Now I feel bad. There a lot of Sabean acquisitions who are hitting. Why do I feel the need to rationalize away each one? Then I remember Aaron Rowand, and I get irrational with my rationalizations. Anyone who thought Rowand was an offensive centerpiece is a blind squirrel, and Aubrey Huff is a pecan pie. Fair or not, and it really isn’t fair, I’m going to use the Rowand deal -- and the horrific near-acquisitions of Gary Matthews, Jr. and Juan Pierre in the previous offseason -- to dismiss every subsequent move that works out for Brian Sabean.

I sincerely believe that Sabean doesn’t know what makes a good offense. You can counter with the 30-somethings who are having sensational seasons out of the blue this year, but I can counter with the dozen 30-somethings who didn’t have sensational seasons over the past five years. After a string of losses at the roulette table, double zero has come up a couple of times. That doesn’t mean that Sabean has figured out the game, nor does it mean that playing against the house was ever a good idea.

Where Sabean legitimately doesn’t get enough credit is for the pitching staff. There are ways to rationalize this away, too -- Sabean wasn’t the one who told the Mariners to draft Brandon Morrow instead of Tim Lincecum, Sabean probably wasn’t the scout who gave Matt Cain a glowing recommendation, Sabean wasn’t the scout who thought Jonathan Sanchez was worth a late-round flier -- but those rationalizations are far more strained. The organization provided Sabean with good arms. Sabean didn’t screw it up. That gets far less credit than it should.

It has to be tempting to trade young arms. Sabean had success getting rid of prospects in the past, and he was struggling to build winning teams. He probably had a lot of offers for Cain, Sanchez, and Lincecum. Tempting offers. Offers for legit hitters, and all Sabean had to give up were unknown quantities. But he didn’t.

Here’s where you bring up Francisco Liriano. But for all of the Joe Fontenots and Jason Grillis given up in deals, there was bound to be one that would blow up in Sabean’s face. Liriano was a skinny teenager who couldn’t stay healthy enough to pitch more than 100 innings for any of the Giants’ minor league affiliates. Maybe 1% of the pitchers who fit that thumbnail description ever pan out. I still don’t blame Sabean for thinking Liriano had more value as a trade chip than he ever would as a major leaguer.

But in 2005, when the Giants were miserable and Bondsless, I’m sure there were a lot of hitters he could have had for a 20-year-old right-hander doing well in AA. In 2008, when the Giants were again miserable, and Sabean wasn’t sure if he was going to have a job after the season, he probably could have flipped an intriguing, live-armed lefty for something that would have superficially helped the offense in the short term. And when Tim Lincecum had all of the buzz he deserved, Sabean could have traded him for a youngish, corner outfielder. When the Giants figured that Barry Zito was going to take up a rotation spot for the next seven years, Sabean could have figured that one of the young pitchers was a little more expendable.

He didn’t.

So I might not be ready to accept Sabean’s ability to evaluate a hitter -- I really, really, really think that Aubrey Huff intrigued Sabean mostly because Huff had 85 RBI last season -- but it’s time to give Sabean credit for the deals he didn’t make. It’s time to realize that the Liriano/Nathan deal was an exception, not the rule. Sabean trades a lot of young pitchers, but he usually keeps the ones who eventually contribute to a major league team. The 2010 Giants would be a steaming pond of disaster if Sabean didn’t have that kind of self-control.