This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
In his 18-year tenure at the Giants helm—the longest of any active general manager—Brian Sabean has witnessed the evolution of the very nature of team building. Sabean has the mindset of a scout but eventually became open to new perspectives, even when they seemed to conflict with a scout’s approach. As analytics began to make inroads in the game’s front offices, Sabean’s methods and practices adapted to meet these new challenges. 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.
After several years coaching college baseball, Sabean jumped to the professional ranks, joining the Yankees as a scout. From 1986 to 1992 Sabean played a key role in the Yankees scouting and drafting, a period in which the team landed many of the players that would make up the great Yankees squads of the late 1990s. He also observed first hand well-respected general managers Bob Quinn and Gene Michael in action. When Quinn got the general manager’s job in San Francisco in 1993 he hired Sabean as a key assistant. In 1996, after two last place finishes, principal owner Peter Magowan promoted Sabean to general manager.
Other smart, aggressive front office personnel and scouts had also recently joined the Giants, and Sabean judiciously delegated authority, creating a team of trusted lieutenants. Assistant GM Ned Colletti remained with Sabean for nine years before starting his own successful run as general manager of the Dodgers. Dick Tidrow and Bobby Evans are still with Sabean 19 years later.
Despite inheriting a last place club, Sabean had one huge advantage to work with: Barry Bonds, still in the prime of his career. Sabean revamped the team around Bonds using both free agent signings and trades, most notably swapping popular third baseman Matt Williams for infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino. A couple of young, previously lightly utilized starting pitchers (Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter) were given a chance, both had good years, and the Giants won the division.
The farm system Sabean inherited remained relatively fallow, and over the next several seasons he filled in around Bonds and Kent, who had developed into a great hitter in his own right, with short-term veteran solutions. Overall, these mid-market players (J.T. Snow, Ellis Burks, and others) delivered impressive returns, and San Francisco remained consistently competitive. The Giants opened their new privately financed stadium in 2000 and attendance boomed, freeing up additional revenues for player signings.
In 2002 the team came within one game of winning the World Series before falling to the Anaheim Angels. As a consequence of the Giants fill-in-with-veterans strategy, they were an exceedingly old team. For the next several years, Sabean continued to use veteran free agents to plug holes and try to win before his stars could no longer contribute. Bonds’s tremendous late-career peak essentially delayed Sabean from rebuilding. In 2003 the team won 100 games and in 2004 they won 91, capping an outstanding eight year run in which they averaged just over 92 wins a season.
Inevitably, however, a win-now strategy with a veteran team can only work for only a limited time and eventually comes with a cost. Without the necessary influx of young players, the Giants lost at least 85 eighty-five games from 2005 to 2008. On top of the disappointing seasons on the field, Sabean and Magowan did not come off well in the Mitchell Report, devoted to the prevalence of steroids in baseball. Sabean also made some baseball moves that backfired: signing free-agent pitcher Barry Zito to a record-breaking contract; overspending on free agent Aaron Rowand; and surrendering a couple of future all-stars to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski.
Sabean had nearly run out of chances. Bill Neukom, named managing general partner in 2008, spent the 2009 season evaluating the organization–another sub-.500 season and Neukom might very well have brought in a new GM. Fortunately, Sabean and his staff had been effective in rebuilding the farm system, the team rebounded to 88 wins, and Sabean received a contract extension. And over the next five years the Giants won the World Series three times.
Much of the turnaround could be attributed to a stellar collection of pitching prospects from the Giants farm system: Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. But there is more to great pitching than simply drafting youngsters with live arms. Sabean put an organization-wide emphasis on the health of his players, particularly pitchers, and it paid off. In 2010 their top-four starting pitchers all started at least 33 games, and in 2012 the team’s top five starting pitchers started 160 of the 162 games. (Matt Cain’s 2014 injury shows that no emphasis is fool-proof.)
Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy (hired in 2007) were also willing to integrate young positon players into the team. Venezuelan signee Pablo Sandoval broke out in 2009 as a 22-year-old and anchored third base for the next six years. Catcher Buster Posey spent just over a year in the minor leagues before he became the club’s starter and franchise player and captured the 2010 Rookie of the Year award. The Giants lacked the top prospects to rebuild the rest of the offense, however, and Sabean once again needed to rely on his staff’s savvy to fill holes cheaply and efficiently without surrendering any key contributors.
Before the 2009 season, Sabean signed Juan Uribe and Triple-A outfielder Andres Torres, and in mid-summer he traded for Freddy Sanchez. For 2010 he signed Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell (after his release in May), and claimed Cody Ross off waivers in August. All these undervalued players contributed to the 2010 World Series victory. But because most were temporary solutions, Sabean had to repeat this strategy, and for the team’s next championship he landed Melky Cabrera, Hunter Pence, and Marco Scutaro. Similarly, he always seemed to have pieced together an effective bullpen.
To find this underappreciated talent during the Giants’ stretch of World Series victories, Sabean was both receptive and innovative when it came to the evolving tools for player evaluation. For a man who spent his formative front office years in scouting and player development, and would naturally have resented the way Michael Lewis portrayed scouts in Moneyball, statistical analysis eventually assumed a meaningful part of the evaluation process. At least as important, Sabean recognized that the Giants needed to take advantage of their location in the heart of the technology industry and were at the forefront marrying video downloads with high-powered computing. As the USA Today put it, the Giants “applied a mixture of tech and baseball savvy that helped the baseball and business side. . . . You might call it Techball.”
Over Sabean’s tenure the Giants have won four pennants and three World Series, an enviable record. The team has produced some high-end talent, Sabean has proved adept at finding key contributors at low cost, and he and Bochy have kept the team winning and free of drama.
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To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.