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Brian Sabean At Work, Part 3 Of 3

(originally written 7/11/10)

We’ll reflect upon Sabean’s seven least-successful transactions. Many folks define such transactions as merely “bad” when the players involved underperform, which amuses me, as a percentage of those very folks applauded the move at the time it was made (i.e. Bob Howry in 2009, a great conceptual pickup who didn’t shine). 

For that very reason we will not label them that way—some of the “worst” deals in MLB history turned out to be the best (Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz in 1987, Mark Mulder for Dan Haren and Kiko Calero in 2004, $55 million man Gil Meche in 2007-2008).

Since results cannot be predicted unless you’re the Tigers and you’ve just signed Tom Cruise to take over 8th-inning setup duties from Joel Zumaya, it’s unfair to grade a GM’s moves solely based upon them. Rather, each listed move will be judged by its’ cost to the Giants on the field (how poorly did the player perform, and what effect it had on the club), on the books (how little did his performance justify his pay), and on the farm (how badly did swapped prospects outperform their veteran counterparts)…and to what degree a GM could have reasonably expected better.

(These entries are unranked)


Barry Zito, 2007

Zito's only on this list because the Giants outbid themselves to get him. At similar points in their careers—specifically their first forays into free agency—Zito's career stats bettered Cliff Lee, and Zito was younger. True, his stuff did not match up, but it was good enough to be a top starter on a perennial contender in the American League. I don't believe in committing to pitchers for seven years, but if you were going to, Zito wasn't a bad option at the time.

But Sabean and crew spent up to $41M too much; no other team had offered Zito more than Texas' 6Y/$84M and it's highly doubtful any other club would have gone much higher. Zito completed all seven years of the deal with SF and was very good in stretches, but very not-good in too many others.

Edgardo Alfonzo, 2003

Alfonzo had a good overall resume, but he was an old 29 and had never wowed anyone with his durability. The Giants hoped he'd return to his All-Star form of 1999-2000, but the only big numbers he posted were on the scale. Perhaps the team is to blame for miscasting him as a run producer and batting him lower in the order when his best  years came batting second and third; in any event Sabean's only takeaway from signing Alfonzo was finding a taker for him after the third (awful) year of his four-year, $28M deal.

Aaron Rowand, 2008

In Rowand, the Giants were filling a CF need, a leadership need and a public relations need—with Barry Bonds gone, fans needed to know a rebuild wasn't around the corner. Though he had always been a complementary piece with Chicago and Philadelphia, SF paid Rowand like a star (5Y/$60M). 

Rowand did come up with a huge defensive play in the 2010 World Series but overall was a massive disappointment, heard the boos at home, lost his job to a journeyman making 10% of his salary and was cut before the end of the fourth year, ending his career. (It could have been worse; Rowand was a Type A free agent, meaning he could have cost the Giants their 2008 first round pick under old rules. But Philly did not offer him arbitration so SF kept the pick...which turned out to be Buster Posey.)

Edgar Renteria, 2009

32-year-old Renteria was brought in for 2Y/$18.5M at a time fans clamored for something rarely seen in those days—younger players getting real shots to play. Kevin Frandsen and Emmanuel Burriss were in-house, but the Giants went after a veteran and chose Renteria after Raffy Furcal proved too expensive.

Long story short, Renteria couldn't stay on the field and became a forgotten man by the end of 2010, at least until the World Series when one swing of the bat turned his bad deal good.

Damian Moss, 2003

The Giants traded Russ Ortiz because A) his salary was due to escalate and B) they feared he would break down. Fine, good. But they got a total stiff and a bust in return for a guy who'd won 63 games the previous four years, then competed for the 2003 Cy Young while winning 36 games over two years after the trade.

Moss was the "veteran" who'd gone 12-9, 3.42 as a Braves rookie in 2002. But he never improved his command as a Giant, was traded again in mid-03, and out of MLB a year later. Merkin Valdez was the obligatory throw-in prospect who teased with his potential, but ultimately left SF with a 5.24 ERA and 1.7 WHIP in 67 appearances.

The Giants' concern was justified—Ortiz did break down in 2005 and was never the same again. But they could have and should have gotten better from Atlanta—Ortiz had just beaten them twice in the playoffs—or elsewhere.

Shea Hillenbrand, 2006

Division-leading SF gave up promising reliever Jeremy Accardo to obtain Hillenbrand from the self-described "sinking ship" he was trapped on in Toronto. On paper, it wasn't a bad move—he was only 31, had past NL West success with Arizona, had been a 2005 All-Star, and was hitting over .300 despite being unhappy with the Blue Jays in 2006.

The Giants won Shea's first game, then went 1-11 over the next 12 with their new star driving in exactly one run—effectively eliminating them from serious playoff contention. Adding insult to injury, Accardo emerged as a standout closer for Toronto in 2007 while the Giants were forced to pay their own closer to go away.

A.J. Pierzynski, 2004

There’s nothing I can write about the utter failure of Pierzynski in orange and black that hasn’t already been written. Pierzynski was a lefty-hitting catcher who hit .300, made an All-Star team and helped Minnesota to back-to-back division titles in 2002 and 2003. He was 26 and not eligible for free agency for another couple of years. Any club in any era with a catching vacancy would have interest in a man with those credentials. 

The Giants had a catching vacancy, having parted ways with Benito Santiago.

The Giants had interest in A.J. Pierzynski. 

And they got him, for reliever Joe Nathan and prospects Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.

Six years later, the trade still haunts the club.

I mentioned Pierzynski’s credentials, the plusses which encouraged Sabean to bring him to the Bay Area. Few of those plusses mattered, at least in the Giants clubhouse, when confronted with the young catcher’s most glaring minus, one that can’t be improved with extended time in the batting cage—his offending personality. 

Though only in the bigs for a short while, Pierzynski owned a poor rep, and it didn’t take long for his new SF teammates to grow weary of him. Reportedly, during spring training of 2004, more than one teammate went to management asking them to send him packing. Starting pitcher Brett Tomko openly feuded with him. Later in the season, Pierzynski intentionally kicked trainer Stan Conte in the groin, as Conte performed the unforgivable act of inquiring about an injury.

It may have all been tolerable if Pierzynski’s bat showed some life, but he never got hot. True, AT&T Park has never been friendly to left-handed hitters, but I’ve never heard anybody blaming a ballpark for grounding into a double play. Pierzynski, in his one Giants season, easily set a new team record in that department. Mind you the Giants have existed since the late 1800’s. 

The Giants cut their losses and non-tendered him after the season (leaving them with nothing to show for the deal). Since then, things have worked out pretty well for Pierzynski; he’s been the White Sox’ #1 catcher, rediscovered his stroke, been an All-Star (remember the “Punch A.J.” campaign?) and his own deception helped the Sox to the 2005 World Championship.

Things have also worked out very well for the Twins. Joe Mauer slid right in at catcher and is putting together a Hall-Of-Fame career up north—as is Nathan. Nathan came up as an infielder, made it to the majors as a starting pitcher, only to see his career derailed after injuring his arm. By 2003 he was back and a key middle reliever for the Giants. However, manager Felipe Alou (as evidenced by the 2003 playoffs) lost faith in Nathan. He became expendable. Nathan won the closer’s role in Minnesota and has been lights-out ever since, a major factor in three division titles for the Twins. Though he’ll miss 2010 after elbow surgery, few doubt he’ll return to prominence upon healing.

Meanwhile, Liriano became the toast of the town in 2006, one of the league’s most dominant lefty starters upon being inserted in the rotation. After three years of injury and recovery, Liriano is back on top in 2010 as the Twins’ ace. Though Bonser’s contributions didn’t quite measure up to those of Nathan and Liriano, he gave the Twins mostly quality innings as a starter in the late 2000’s as well.

Safe to say the Pierzynski deal didn’t work out.

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