Brian Sabean is facing an even bigger challenge than the one he confronted when he became the Giants’ general manager 10 years ago.
Midway through the 1996 season, as Sabean was preparing for the general manager position he would assume after the season, we sat in his box at Candlestick Park watching a Giants team that would win only 68 games. “We’ve got only four legitimate major leaguers on that field,” he said.
In the offseason, Sabean traded Matt Williams for several players (including Jeff Kent) and traded for J.T. Snow. At midseason, he made a trade that brought in pitchers Roberto Hernandez and Wilson Alvarez. The Giants won the division and started a strong eight-year runthat included a near-miss in the 2002 World Series.
But Sabean had two advantages then that he lacks now: the game’s best player, Barry Bonds, and a strong trading chip with Williams. Bonds may return next season, but his only resemblance to the player of 10 years ago is his name. The best player on the current roster is shortstop Omar Vizquel, who will be 40 in April and has no significant trade value.
While pursuing their older-than-thou plan the last couple of years, the Giants have continued to let their farm system go downhill. Catcher Eliezer Alfonzo was a feel-good story last season as he finally made it to the majors. But he’s weak defensively at a position where defense is critical. He shouldn’t be more than a backup.
When Kevin Frandsen came up, he was billed as the new Robby Thompson. But he, too, looked like a player who should be a backup, not a starter. At one point, they brought up a first baseman, Travis Ishikawa, who was hitting .256 in Double-A. This is a prospect? Are you kidding me?
The Giants have deluded themselves the last two seasons, thinking they were contenders because they are in a weak division. But the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks have some outstanding prospects who will make them better, and the Colorado Rockies should improve next season, just with the natural development of a young lineup.
The free-agent market doesn’t offer much help either. The Giants have said they won’t offer a “Bonds-type” contract to anybody, which means no Alfonso Soriano. Otherwise, the consensus in baseball is that this will be a thin free-agent market.
Sabean may have to re-sign Pedro Feliz and Shea Hillenbrand, which will be a measure of his desperation. Feliz is a very good defensive third baseman, but with a low batting average and on-base percentage and only average power for a corner infielder. Hillenbrand hits for average but with a low OBP, has below-averagepower for a corner infielder and is a mediocre defensive first baseman. And, he’s had problems with players and/or managers with three previous teams.
These are hardly players who can be cornerstones for a rebuilding program, but they may be better than any free agents Sabean can sign. And it goes without saying that they’re better than anybody available in the farm system.
It’s payback for the Giants’ failure to address the problems in their minor league system and their policy of surrounding Bonds with veteran players who, except for Vizquel, are heading downhill. Sabean faces a daunting task. I don’t envy him.