Thursday, October 22, 2009

"The Brian Sabean Report": 1997, The Turnaround

This is part one of an ongoing 13-part series here at "Remember 51." The point is to do a year-by-year analysis of GM Brian Sabean as General Manager of the San Francisco Giants. After all 13 parts are finished, I will write an overall evaluation based on the information compiled by this "report."

Despite my past criticism, I will try to look at each year as unbiased as I can, looking solely at the numbers and acquisitions of each individual year.

In my opinion, it wouldn't be crazy for a Giants fan to say Sabean's most successful year as general manager might have been his first (I don't believe it was, but like I said, you can make the argument). He took over a team that was dead last the year before in the NL West at 68-94, and not only made them into a winning ballclub, but a playoff team.

The turnaround from 68-94 to 90-72 was absolutely stunning, a feat that is up there with the turnarounds of such recent teams like the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

And it would be fair to give Sabean a lot of the credit for the turnaround. For going into 1997, his first season as Giants general manager, Sabean made a controversial move that was widely lambasted throughout the Bay Area media circles:

Trading fan favorite Matt Williams for Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, Joe Roa and Julian Tavarez.

The deal ended up being a great success. The Giants won 90 games, Kent became a mainstay for the Giants at second base until 2003, and Vizcaino and Tavarez all made key contributions during the 1997 season (the only guy that didn't pan out was Roa, but three guys panning out wasn't a bad price to pay for Williams, who was starting to decline as a player anyways).

However, if the Oakland A's teams of the early 2000's are classic examples of why "Sabermetrics" and "Statistical Analysis" work, the 1997 Giants are the exception. Despite winning 90 games, the Giants had a run differential of minus-nine and a Pythagorean W-L of 80-82.

Were the Giants just lucky in 1997? Were they just the best of an incredibly weak NL West division (as evidenced by them getting swept by the Florida Marlins in the NLDS). Was Sabean just blessed with a team that had all the right breaks going for it?

Or was Sabean really onto something? Was he perhaps building a franchise that went beyond the numbers?

The "Good" of Brian Sabean: J.T. Snow

In terms of the players Sabean acquired, he is widely lauded for nabbing Jeff Kent. Yet while Kent ended up being a mainstay and MVP for the Giants, his 1997 wasn't as great as some people might remember.

Case in point: despite 29 home runs and 121 RBIs, Kent had a measly .250 batting average, a .316 OBP and a team-high 133 strikeouts.

So while Kent eventually turned into a great hitter over the years, 1997 wasn't exactly his magnus opus of seasons. That being said, Sabean widely does not get credit for a deal that had far more impact than the Williams-Kent swap.

Signing J.T. Snow.

Snow had an incredible year in 1997 for the Giants. Known for his defense, Snow was an offensive machine. He had 28 home runs, 104 RBI, 96 walks (second behind Barry Bonds, who had 145) and an OPS of .898 (109 points better than Kent's).

If anything, Snow and Bonds were the machine that churned the Giants offensive engine in 1997, not the Kent-Bonds combo that did in the years following 1997.

The "Bad" of Brian Sabean: Poor production from their catchers.

For all the good things in his first few years in San Francisco, Sabean could not find a productive catcher over a long period of time and 1997 proved to be no exception. Rick Wilkins, Damon Berryhill, Brian Johnson, Marcus Jensen, and Doug Mirabelli all shared duties behind the backstop and neither did much to keep the job for very long.

Wilkins, the more regular-playing catcher was a mess. He batted .195 with a .257 OBP in 210 plate appearances. Even for a catcher, those numbers are pathetic, and make Bengie Molina's 2009 season look MVP-ish by comparison.

Is Sabean completely responsible for the catcher being so awful? Maybe, maybe not. However, it was one hole that wasn't filled in 1997 and struggled to get filled throughout the early years of Sabean's tenure.

The "Good" of Brian Sabean: Signing Kirk Rueter

"Woody" wasn't going to win any CY Young awards. He wasn't going to lead the league in strikeouts. Yet Rueter proved to be a strong, dependable arm that lasted with the Giants for years, and Sabean can be thanked for acquiring him.

After all, when the Giants had heard of him, little was known about the lefty who was just recently with the Montreal Expos.

However, Rueter immediately contributed, combining with Shawn Estes to be a pretty good one-two lefty punch. Estes went 19-5 with a 3.18 ERA, and Rueter went 13-6 with a 3.45 ERA.

Sure, Sabean could have gone with a bigger name, or a more proven commodity for more money. Instead though, Sabean went with a much cheaper, and under-the-radar option that proved the be beneficial to the Giants pitching staff not only in 1997, but for years to come.

The "Bad" of Brian Sabean: Trading away Keith Foulke

Sabean has had a reputation for being very active during the Trade Deadline and 1997 first showcased that. At the July 31 Trade Deadline, Sabean traded a plethora of players to solidify their pitching in preparation for a playoff run. Who did the Giants acquire? Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez...who lasted for only half a season.

The key cog from the Giants that went to the White Sox? Keith Foulke, who later became a proven closer on the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox.

Now, while Foulke would have struggled to be the closer during the late 90's and early 2000's (Rod Beck and Robb Nen held the position firmly until 2004), Foulke could have been effectively used as a prime set-up man, something the Giants didn't really have in 1997 as evidenced by Jim Poole and Doug Henry (e.g. awful).

The only problem? It seemed like Sabean and manager Dusty Baker viewed Foulke as a starter rather than a reliever, and thus viewed him as expendable because their rotation was already in pretty good shape (Sabean made the same mistake with Joe Nathan years later).

Is it nit picky? Sure, but Foulke could have been a great closer that could have carried the torch from Nen after he got hurt. Instead, the Giants were forced to drudge through years of Matt Herges, Armando Benitez and Tyler Walker blowing saves in the ninth.

Overall Evaluation of Sabean in 1997

You can't really find much wrongdoing with Sabean in 1997. He turned around a franchise that had turned crummy under previous General Manager Bob Quinn, and did so quickly. To turn around a team from last-to-first in one season is quite an impressive feat, and Sabean deserves recognition for that.

So the overall judging of 1997 for Sabean? Good. He did a really good job in fact. However, I can't say it was his best work. Did he lay down a good foundation for the following years? Yes. But was it his best season? No. The NL West was terrible and the Giants were darn lucky. Teams that finish with minus run differential usually don't have winning records, let alone make the playoffs and win the division.

Yet what can I say. Sabean got the Giants to be winners again and assembled a team that made the playoffs for the first time since 1989.

You can't ask for more as a Giants fan than that in a season really.

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