Back in 2009, both Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy signed contract extensions. It seems like an unremarkable piece of ephemera now, but back then it was a huge deal. The Giants were never going to win the World Series, see. Certainly not with either of those two guys. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever. The pitching was an exciting strength of the team, but it was time to let other people figure out how to take the next step.
That opinion looks dumb in retrospect, and that's being kind. But even though I was spitting fire with my hot takes and laying a foundation of stupid in the process, I wasn't alone. Over 1,700 people voted in a poll at the end of the article, and only 28 percent of the voters were happy with Sabean coming back. Skew for the Internet and the general lunatic fringe, and let's just guess that about half of all Giants fans were upset that Sabean was coming back.
Bengie Molina really was the cleanup hitter, remember.
A little over five years later, and we have two people who wrote a book about front offices taking the time to rank the 25 best general managers in baseball history. Let's see what they have to say about the person ranked #14:
Sabean won his first pennant by building around an aging but still potent Barry Bonds and then three World Series championships by restructuring his team around a young core with undervalued pickups. As much as any modern GM, he represents a successful bridge between the old and new approaches.
Brian Sabean, considered by an impartial observer to be one of the very best GMs of all-time. Go ahead, email this to your past self and see what you guess could possibly make this happen.
I don't know ... three championships in five years?
Your past self is a real smartass, you know that? But smart. And right. Even before 2014, though, there was an element of In Sabean We Trust creeping up on us. It was unexpected. One minute, Jose Guillen was intentionally acquired to play baseball for the Giants roster, and the next minute it makes perfect sense to suggest Sabean is one of history's best GMs. What a ride, baby. What a ride.
We've all learned something. I can boil it down to two easy lessons:
Sabean's ability to acquire ancillary players has always been underrated
Even if you don't slather Sabean with the Zito contract, he still has a spotty record with semi-premium to premium free agents. Edgardo Alfonzo was a bust, as was Aaron Rowand. Dave Roberts never made sense. The Giants almost signed Alfonso Soriano, but only because they missed out on Carlos Lee. Whenever ownership gives Sabean a little scratch, the results can be a little frightening.
That's probably the fault of the free agents, though. Not the individual free agents, but the collective idea of Free Agents. Most of them are going to disappoint, regardless of GM. Teams that build exclusively through those deals are almost never going to succeed.
A couple of hits there, some internal development there, and then it starts coming together. Sabean's teams weren't much without Barry Bonds, and they weren't much without Buster Posey, but that's something we should expect from any GM. Along the way, while he was waiting for stars and finding himself incapable of buying them, he did a fine job polishing up unwanted and undervalued players. Marquis Grissom stands out as the perfect example: He was a flawed player who wasn't going to cost a lot of money, but he was a part of the furious mixing-and-matching that Sabean does when he's looking for the right pieces.
Eventually, once Sabean got his stars, he could mix and match with a little more certainty. The problem wasn't that Bengie Molina was the catcher, it was that he was the cleanup hitter for a team that finished with fewer than 100 home runs. The hitters failed to develop around the mix-and-match players -- that's partly Sabean's fault, partly player development's -- so the mad scientist permutations kept happening.
If Sabean doesn't have a star like Bonds or Posey, his free agent and trade acquisitions are underwhelming. If he has a star like that, his moves are inspired and useful. He shares this trait with about 29 current GMs, and yet it was so easy to ignore the solid acquisitions that did work (Juan Uribe) to focus on the ones that didn't (Miguel Tejada). Over the years, though, the Uribes have outnumbered the Tejadas. It helps that more help has come from the farm in the past few years, limiting the mix-and-match risks Sabean needs to take. Yet another thing he shares with 29 other GMs.
If the Rays pick Buster Posey, none of this is written
"You know, let's go with the Florida kid."
All it would have taken is one member of the Rays' front office or ownership group to utter that sentence. There's no three in five years. There's probably no two in five years, and there's probably no one in five years. Everything here is as fragile as another team preferring one amateur over another at just the wrong time.
That's not to take anything away from Sabean. It's just how baseball works, deceives, lies, and rewards. There's some comfort with Sabean now, the warmth of knowing that he'll try for a Pat Burrell, Marco Scutaro, or Jake Peavy when he needs to. But the precarious nature of the draft, especially at the top, means that it's almost impossible to separate the results from the process, at least from the outside. The Rays were run by geniuses? Probably, but it sure helps that the Rockies weren't enamored of Evan Longoria.
For us to evaluate GMs, we have to assume 500 things and invent 500 others. If the Phillies fall in love with Boof Bonser, maybe the Giants and Chase Utley have a beautiful friendship for 10 years. If the Angels love Jason Grilli, maybe Troy Glaus is playing for the good guys in 2002. Why should those alternate histories reflect on Sabean? They can't. They shouldn't. Indirectly, though, all of it would have been a part of how we judge the GM of the Giants.
It's unfair and imprecise, but it's all we've got. We know that the Giants wanted Michael Wacha instead of Chris Stratton in the 2012 draft. What happens if Wacha isn't pitching against Travis Ishikawa, or if his presence on the roster allows the Giants to feel comfortable without Tim Hudson or ... what a mess. Evaluating GMs is like trying to take exactly five grams of corn syrup out of one can of Coke. I don't know how to do it. Maybe some fancypants chemists do, but I don't ...
Brian Sabean: one of the best GMs of all time. Sounds crazy. But you know it isn't. Unless it is? Man, that Michael Tucker thing. Orlando Cabrera actually happened. But so did Marco Scutaro. I don't know, man. I don't know. We wouldn't be having this conversation, if not for the last five years, but I guess that's the point. Let's be thankful for our very own Schrödinger's GM, except the cat tends to shower us with golden trophies instead of dying.