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Brian Sabean At Work, Part 1 Of 3

(originally written 6/26/10)

Just as with a field manager, the barometer of success for a GM is a winning team. If your team wins, you’re considered a great GM. If your team does not win, fans demand you do everything possible to change that. Which is their right; we the fans are paying customers.

So how DOES a GM transform a losing team into a winner? If he’s employed by the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Dodgers, Angels, or Cubs, he simply writes checks to anyone and everyone willing to join his team and hopes for the best. Most of the remaining teams do the exact same thing, except with considerably fewer zeroes on said checks.


Quick: is Brian Cashman a great general manager? Knee-jerk reaction: yes. He brought the likes of CC Sabathia, Jason Giambi, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon, etc. into the Yankee fold. But was that because of Cashman’s skill/shrewdness, or was it the combined $300 million plus he had at his disposal? Could he have convinced all those great players to join the Yankees for much less?

Quick: is Brian Cashman a lousy general manager? Let’s recall that Cashman has also brought Javier Vazquez to the Yankees—twice—with disappointing results. Then there was Kevin Brown. Raul Mondesi. Carl Pavano. Kei Igawa. Most of those moves looked good at the time. All the Yankees wanted was for these players to perform as they’d done in the recent past. It wasn’t like they asked Mondesi to steal 90 bases or for Pavano to throw 300 innings and talk to the baseball. 

But those moves did not work out. The Yankee GM (referring to Cashman and/or owner George Steinbrenner, who often acted as his own GM early in Cashman's tenure) wasn’t entirely to blame—he couldn’t know what would happen, though those moves carried much higher risk than, say, trading for A-Rod or signing Giambi in his prime. The players simply failed to live up to past performance. Instead of “Cashman signed HIM for $50 million?!”, shouldn’t the invective be “Cashman signed him for $50 million…and THAT’S how he rewarded him?!” 

You can evaluate and analyze and evaluate and analyze until you even know how statistically likely a guy is to run off the field chasing a squirrel, but that doesn’t guarantee how a player will perform. No one can guarantee what will happen in sports or anything else. Who could have predicted Ray Allen would miss almost all his three-pointers after setting a first-half record in Game 2 of the Finals?

Brian Cashman is not a lousy GM, nor is he a great one. He is a GM who’s been blessed with copious amounts of dollars and a team with a rich history. His tenure has proven mostly successful because  A) he’s had to take fewer risks, B) when players fail to produce, or get hurt, he can simply buy replacements. 

I’ll give you the Houston Astros, who basically put their franchise’s future in the ample hands of Carlos Lee when they signed him after the ’06 season. They cannot afford to simply swallow or bench his contract should his production wane, as the Yankees do (see: Jose Canseco making $7M-plus to pinch-hit once a week). Should Lee get hurt, the Astros can’t afford to simply bring in another high-salaried superstar to pick up the slack as the Yankees do (see: the rental of Pudge Rodriguez after Jorge Posada’s injury).

Those facts don’t prove the Houston GM’s bad at their jobs. It simply proves they’re not as fortunate. When you stop and think about it, luck and clairvoyance are the key determining factors when weighing a GM’s “talent”…or lack thereof.

If Albert Pujols, Tim Lincecum, David Wright, or Stephen Strasburg became available in a trade tomorrow, any GM who failed to at minimum put forth an effort to acquire any one of them would face an irate, critical media and fanbase—and deservedly so. If his team went on to struggle, that GM could also lose his job.

But a GM putting forth an effort is doing so with ZERO guarantee that Pujols would hit as well as (for example) a Dodger as he has a Cardinal. He could break his wrist in his second game and never get his consistent Hall-Of-Fame stroke back. Would you call a GM who traded for Pujols in his prime an idiot just because it didn’t work out? Would you call a GM who stood pat (obviously unaware of what would happen) a genius for inadvertently sparing his team years of financial waste?

This brings me to my hometown, beloved Giants’ general manager, Brian Sabean.

I am not a Sabean “apologist”, necessarily—I admit he’s made untenable moves that’d lead one to believe he wasn't sober when making them—but I do defend a lot of his maligned deals because of the simple fact he would have been criticized whether or NOT he made the deals, and he had NO way of knowing certain players would, succinctly speaking, stop being good upon joining the Giants.

Part Two of this column will examine Sabean’s major acquisitions—and a few non-acquisitions—over his tenure. One-year veterans acquired as stopgaps or to play out the string, such as Joe Carter, Eric Davis, Reggie Sanders, and Ryan Klesko, will not be a part of the examination, nor will draft picks (that’ll be addressed in another column).

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