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Brian Sabean At Work, Part 2 Of 3

(originally written 6/26/10)

Full analysis of Sabean’s best signings (and fleecings)

7. Livan Hernandez, 1999

When Sabean acquired Livan in the middle of the 1999 season, he was 24, threw hard (enough), and already boasted quite an impressive resume (including a World Series MVP award). He wouldn’t be eligible for free agency for three more years. Florida moved him primarily because Florida moves everyone who’s about to make big bucks, as Hernandez would have soon done in arbitration. Usually, however, those Florida moves bring back good returns (Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla eventually brought back Preston Wilson, Al Leiter brought back A.J. Burnett, Edgar Renteria returned Braden Looper, etc.)…with the rare exception of Hernandez.

Sabean sacrificed only Nate Bump and Jason Grilli—two then-good prospects but not the team’s best—for Hernandez, who went on to be a very good Giants starter through 2002 (save for Game 7), especially in 2000 when he won 17 games and seemed to go eight innings every turn. Meanwhile, Bump lasted a couple of inglorious seasons in Marlins middle relief, and Grilli did nothing for Florida, enjoying his lone brief MLB success in Detroit.

6. Sidney Ponson, 2003

Ponson may not have dominated in his three months wearing the other orange and black, but Sabean deserves some credit for convincing Baltimore that Damian Moss, Kurt Ainsworth, and Ryan Hannigan represented equal value for their 14-6 ace who did give the contending Giants quality innings in 2003. True, the O’s probably knew they’d have a good shot at getting Ponson back as a free agent after the season—so being burned in this deal wouldn’t spell disaster. That said, for Sabean to get any return on the stiffs that Moss and Ainsworth—a Lincecum-level prospect in his day—turned out to be, we should give the guy a little props.

5. Bengie Molina, 2007

Molina should have never suited up for the Giants, because Mike Matheny should have served as Giants backstop through at least 2007—and possibly beyond. As we know, Matheny’s career came to a sudden end in mid-2006 following multiple concussions, forcing Sabean to scour the market for a replacement. But rather than exhibit caution after partial returns on Matheny and A.J. Pierzynski and grab a cheap warm body such as Brad Ausmus or Mike Lieberthal, Sabean went for one of the best in the game—nabbing him at a damn near bargain price ($15 million for three years).

Molina turned out to be the Giants’ “spiritual leader”, so to speak, over the next three seasons. But far more importantly he produced at the plate, eclipsing many career highs and often carrying the team on his broad shoulders plus handling a young pitching staff admirably. An under-the-radar signing of a mid-tier player whose contributions likely meant the difference between respectability and apathy for the S.F. Giants of the late 2000’s.

4. Kenny Lofton, 2002

Looking back, it is almost laughable in a 2001 Mets sort of way that the Giants entered a season with Tsuyoshi Shinjo (a member of the 2001 Mets) as their leadoff man and fully expected to contend for a championship that season. Though superior to his predecessor Marvin Benard defensively, Shinjo gave the Giants very little with the bat aside from the occasional smashed bug. As the season wore on and it became evident that wasn’t going to change, Sabean swung a deal for the fleet Kenny Lofton, then a White Soc but best known for his days as catalyst for the formidable Cleveland Indian teams of the 1990’s. All it cost to acquire the 11-year vet was two prospects, one who lasted 18 games in MLB and one who never made it.

Lofton did not blow up the stat sheet, but he gave the reserved, low-key Giants a heavy dose of swagger and pride which they sorely needed—backing down, being intimidated, or failure to play hard for 27 outs would not be accepted on his watch. The Giants went 11-5 in Lofton’s multi-hit games, and as clear underdogs upended Atlanta and St. Louis in the playoffs with Lofton himself recording the NLCS-winning hit.

3. Jeff Kent

There was a time in the mid 1990’s when the Giants could have dealt Matt Williams for 17 players and not have gotten equal trade value. Even after two straight injury-plagued years, Williams’ Bay Area popularity rated so high that when Sabean did swap him for 17 Cleveland Indians—okay, four Indians following the 1996 season, fans decried Sabes so mercilessly, he had to publicly deny his idiocy. After all, second baseman Jeff Kent was a career underachiever, shortstop Jose Vizcaino was a light-hitting journeyman, swingman Julian Tavarez’ 1996 ERA neared 6, and reliever Joe Roa was nothing but a warm body.

Not only did the Giants get equal trade value for Williams, who was just a step below Hall-of-Fame standards, they actually got the better of the deal long-term. While Williams enjoyed a productive 1997 for Cleveland’s A.L. Champion team and had a few more good years for Arizona, Kent went on a spectacular six-year run during which he topped 100 RBI annually and won an MVP award—building credentials that will definitely land him in Cooperstown. 

And if that wasn’t enough, Tavarez contributed adequate middle relief work for the rest of the decade.

2. Randy Winn, 2005

Talk about impact. Short on quality outfielders with injuries to Barry Bonds and Marquis Grissom, Sabean pulled the trigger on this deal with the Seattle Mariners for Winn, a Bay Area native whose biggest claim to fame to that point was being traded for a manager (by Tampa to Seattle, for Lou Piniella) after the 2002 season. A professional hitter with his share of power, speed and defense, Winn was simply unconscious for the 2005 Giants in the second half, ripping .359 with 14 home runs (including four leadoff) in just 58 games. In fact, he ended up leading the team in triples and finishing third in steals and homers in that short time; his effort helped keep the Giants in contention until Bonds returned.  Had Winn’s performance come in the first half, he’d have been an All-Star.

Winn would play four more years with the team, batting .300 in two of them and mastering a very tough AT&T Park right field. Meanwhile, neither of the two players Sabean surrendered to Seattle lasted very long there—catcher Yorvit Torrealba left after 2005 for Colorado and had a nice run for the 2007 pennant winner (also alienating himself from SF fans during a confrontation with reliever Steve Kline) but onetime cant-miss prospect Jesse Foppert missed badly; helping SF land Winn would prove to be his most significant MLB contribution.

1. J.T. Snow, 1997

One of his earliest works remains, IMHO, his best. Snow at the time had been the Halos’ primary first baseman for the majority of four seasons, of which only 1995 stood out. Snow had regressed in 1996, and with Darin Erstad waiting in the wings, the Angels cut their losses and swapped Snow to the Giants in exchange for gritty lefty Allen Watson on November 26, 1996. Watson was coming off his “magnus opus” of a mediocre career, 8-12 in 29 starts for a Giants team that lost 96 times.

Snow, after recovering from a spring training beaning, found the consistency that had been missing in Anaheim and became a top Giants slugger for the next four years—as well as a magnificent Gold Glove first baseman. Though he regressed offensively upon switching from Candlestick to AT&T Parks in 2000 and lost his starting job more than once, Snow ended up playing nine seasons (1997-2005) for the Giants and ended his tenure there very much beloved and appreciated.

Meanwhile, Watson stayed with the Angels for two seasons, the first of which he led the A.L. in homers served up. He scratched out two more years with three teams as a middle reliever and was done by 2000. Although Watson got a championship ring by latching onto the ’99 Yankees for a couple of months, Sabean clearly was champion of this trade.

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