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Brian Sabean at the GM Meetings one more time

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Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in!

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

MLB’s offseason began on Monday, which means that the Giants are entering it without a formal general manager handling the day to day responsibilities and setting team priorities between now and Spring Training. That’s a rare occurrence for this particular franchise, but that doesn’t mean there are no hands on the steering wheel.

Brian Sabean has come out of semi-retirement to handle those daily operations until a new GM is hired. We don’t know when that will be — although Jon Morosi’s tweet yesterday regarding the team’s possible interest in Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi indicates that the team is “not yet close to announcing” their new hire — so, for now, it falls on Sabean’s shoulders to guide the team through the next bit of the offseason schedule. Is it possible the Giants go GM-less through the rest of the month? Anything’s possible, I say. Here’s the general offseason calendar through November:

  • On Monday, teams gained an exclusive five-day window of negotiation with their own free agents. Only the Giants can work something out with Hunter Pence and Derek Holland.
  • Today (Halloween): it’s the deadline for players with opt-out clauses. If Mark Melancon wants to forego the final two years and $28 million left on his deal (of which he still has a full no-trade clause), then today’s the last day to make a decision. Or, he could just wait to be traded to the Cubs.
  • Saturday, November 3rd (5:00 PM Eastern): Qualifying Offer deadline. This year’s total QO is $17.9 million. The Giants have only four free agents: Hunter Pence, Derek Holland, Gregor Blanco, and Nick Hundley. Players have until November 13th to accept or reject. No need to worry about either deadline.

Now, here are some dates where having an interim front office feels odd, but also telling:

  • Next Monday-Wednesday, November 6-8, will be the General Manager meetings in beautiful Carlsbad, CA, home of LEGOLAND.
  • Tuesday, November 20th is the deadline to set 40-man rosters ahead of the Rule 5 Draft, which takes place December 13th.
  • Friday, November 30th is the deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

The GM meetings are where GMs gather to talk about current issues facing the game, meet and greet new faces — the Mets’ GM Brodie Van Wagenen gets to grin and grip with all the front office people he’s never had to negotiate with — and start talking trades and free agency (if Clayton Kershaw opts out today, what ripple effect might that have on Patrick Corbin, etc.?). Brian Sabean will no doubt be doing some reconnaissance here, getting to know a bit better some people on Larry Baer’s interview list, but also seeing if there are people he gets along with more than others.

There’s also the very real possibility that this will be his final GM Meeting ever. That’s an odd thing to type but feels more likely than unlikely. Forget that most of the GM fraternity has changed over the past decade (gotten younger, become more analytics-driven, more internationally-oriented, etc.) — Sabean has graduated from GM elder to GM emeritus. He’s had his time and walked away. But now he’s back. Perhaps for the last time.

What are the odds that he’s just going to pal around with Dave Dombrowski all three days? They’re the same age and represent, roughly, the same general mindset behind baseball. Not quite kindred spirits, but certainly peers, and their teams have won the first- and second-most World Series this century. They seem like they’d be quite a pair.

Even though the Giants have money to spend, they are in a situation where it might be difficult to add players. Top of the market free agents don’t want to play in San Francisco, middle of the market free agents will accept a grotesque overpay for the privilege, and the Giants have the market cornered on lower-end free agents. But if they did make a big move of some kind, it would complicate a hiring by virtue of making the new GM less able to make moves of their own (either by tying up payroll or simply going with players who might not fit the new front office’s direction). So, the likelihood of Sabean laying the groundwork for a free agent signing seems very, very small.

What about trades? That’s a stronger possibility. He could gather intel just as much as provide it to other teams and would-be candidates. He could simply be there to tell all the GMs and would-be-Giant-GMs that they won’t entertain offers for Bumgarner until the trade deadline. But teams and the Giants have thoroughly scouted each other over the past few years, so it seems unlikely that people don’t know the score either way. A new GM might change the composure of those dealings, but it’s hard to fudge the facts: everybody knows the hand the Giants hold in terms of organizational depth.

This trade groundwork affects the 40-man and arbitration-eligible players because it’s hard to know what a new GM might want to do in terms of protecting players and tendering contracts. If Sabean is the one who winds up making these moves, then it proves once and for all that the team is willing to just play out 2019 as a full-on transition year. The new front office will be tasked with making a bunch of internal changes and maybe some moves on the margins, but Bruce Bochy will be allowed to manage the team he’s basically managed the past few years and simply run out the rest of his deal.

I don’t know if that’s the smartest way to handle a non-rebuild rebuild because it has the effect of slowing the rate of change and unavoidably labeling the franchise as being in “tank mode” — not making moves to change a decaying roster is virtually the same as liquidating it for spare parts to hasten losing and improving draft status — so I want to give Larry Baer the benefit of the doubt here.

It also seems a little bit cruel to make Brian Sabean run this part of the marathon one more time when he isn’t even going to stick around to see how it all plays out. Of course, I’m over-dramatizing his pending role reduction, but after Sabean passed the baton to Bobby Evans in 2015, it was clear that he was heading towards retirement. That’s still the case, of course, but I wonder how much interest he has in doing the GM song and dance for another month, especially when it’s the first month of the offseason for a team that’s now a corpse of the body to which he once gave life.

The Giants might not be planning to rest on their laurels for one more year, but they might think they’ll be able to hire someone who can make marginal upgrades this year while setting up a big revision plan for 2020 and beyond. That probably makes the most sense while being the least entertaining, but that is probably the most respectful way to handle a battered and broken roster core that’s still regarded as a group of heroes.