The moves of GM Brian Sabean
Coming off a third-place finish in 2013, San Francisco back on top in NL West
The San Francisco Giants have yet to show a discernible weakness on their way to the best record in the majors. They're 23-12 at AT&T Park and 20-12 on the road. The lineup ranks third in the National League in runs and second in homers even though Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval have mediocre numbers by their standards. The rotation has logged the fifth-heaviest workload in the NL despite Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum combining for nine quality starts in 23 appearances. And the bullpen is deep and masterfully managed by Bruce Bochy, who one NL scout says is in a "class by himself" in generating late-inning matchups to his liking.
The Giants even stack up nicely in Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved rankings, where they're 13th among the 30 MLB teams. Shortstop Brandon Crawford doesn't fare especially well in that department, but that's to be expected from a player who is gaining a reputation for underrated-ness.
Still, when the architect of the San Francisco roster tries to pinpoint the attributes that truly define this team, he relies on a brand of baseball plain talk that resonates with the algorithmically impaired. This is the unabashedly old-school way that Brian Sabean rolls.
We're living the good life now, but we know that things can change on a dime in any given day or week. To have a good year and get to the playoffs, you need to have the mindset that a couple of games or a week don't define how good you are." --Brian Sabean
"The two most obvious things are their will to win, and they hate to lose," Sabean said by phone Thursday, after the Giants ended a three-game losing streak with a 7-1 win over the Washington Nationals. "That's a powerful combination. They really have a passion for the game and they love to play as a team. It's not a team of stars. You have to earn your way."
It's worth noting that the last time Sabean invoked that phraseology, in October 2012, he was assessing the landscape before the Giants swept Detroit for their second world championship in three years.
Time and the rigors of a long summer will determine if the Giants can maintain their torrid early play and find a rallying cry to rival the "outcasts and misfits" label that bonded them as a unit in 2010 -- or a good-luck charm to compare with Aubrey Huff's rhinestone-encrusted rally thong that same year. But they're certainly a motivated group. They play with a sense of urgency that trickles down from the top.
As the Giants begin a three-game series Friday night in San Francisco, Sabean points to the disappointment of 2013 as a driving force in the team's strong early play. Throughout the roster, the San Francisco players arrived in Arizona for spring training with a collective chip stemming from their 76-86 record and third-place finish a year ago.
Sabean shared in their anger and embarrassment. Human nature says that he might have been braced for a letdown after two titles in three years. But he was genuinely ticked off over the way the 2013 season unfolded, and by all accounts, he was not the most fun person to be around. True to form, Sabean gathered his tight circle of advisers as the offseason approached, assessed the team's weaknesses, assembled a list of targets and acted quickly and decisively. With Sandoval and closer Sergio Romo in line to become free agents after this season, he was focused primarily on short-term, reasonably priced additions who would give him financial flexibility. But he also was prepared to think big when necessary.
• In late September, the Giants invested $90 million in a five-year deal for Hunter Pence, the man Sabean refers to as "our Eveready bunny." Pence ranks sixth in WAR (2.1) and seventh in OPS (.829) among big league right fielders, and he's a hard man to pin down with or without his scooter.
• In November, the Giants signed veteran right-hander Tim Hudson, who was coming off a serious ankle injury, to a two-year, $23 million contract to fill a void in their rotation. While his former Oakland teammate Barry Zito has gone surfing and is still pondering a comeback in 2015, Hudson can officially be filed under "lifesaver." He leads MLB starters with a 1.81 ERA, sports the fourth-highest ground ball percentage in the game and has allowed four home runs in 89 1/3 innings. At age 38, he's trying to gain some late-career Hall of Fame traction.
• Michael Morse, signed to a one-year, $6 million deal after two straight injury-riddled seasons in Washington and Seattle, has had a major stabilizing impact in the middle of the order. Last year, San Francisco's left field contingent ranked last in baseball with five home runs and a .337 slugging percentage. This year, with Morse and Tyler Colvin logging the bulk of the at-bats at the position, Giants left fielders already have 10 homers and a slugging percentage of .463. Morse also has come in handy at first base since Brandon Belt went down with a broken left thumb in early May.
The moves were characteristic of Sabean, who values players for both their on-field contributions and their ability to mesh with the team dynamic. All general managers understand the importance of clubhouse chemistry to a degree. But Sabean is self-assured enough to publicly espouse a mindset that makes him sound like a dinosaur -- until he's riding in a parade.
"The guys we brought in had a real desire to be here," Sabean said. "Our clubhouse is pretty easy and welcoming. Our guys knew they could have played better last year and didn't, and that we needed help. That made for an easy transition for both parties."
If the Giants keep winning and justice is served, Sabean will get some recognition later this year. Walt Jocketty pocketed his third Sporting News Executive of the Year award with Cincinnati in 2010, and Cleveland's Mark Shapiro, Oakland's Billy Beane, Minnesota's Terry Ryan and Doug Melvin have all captured their second over the past decade. Sabean, meanwhile, received the honor for the only time when Felipe Alou managed the Giants to 100 wins in 2003.
In 2010 and 2012, San Francisco's two championship seasons, Jocketty and Beane won the Executive of the Year award. Sabean appears as though he couldn't care less, but his boosters in the organization and the industry think he's terminally overlooked.
"Brian has his guys who are loyal to him," said an NL scout who has worked with Sabean. "They grew up with him, and he's got a feel for how to put together a team. He goes after it early. He goes after it hard. And he's shown that he's willing down the stretch to add a guy. He'll trade prospects and he won't look back.
"But he's also a very private guy. He's not one to toot his horn or give out a lot of information. To me, he's just a real baseball guy."
A real baseball guy understands that no matter how rosy things appear today, there's always more work to be done. With second baseman Brandon Hicks in an 8-for-58 funk, some Giants fans are starting to agitate for 2011 first-rounder Joe Panik to get the call from Triple-A Fresno, where he's hitting .322 in 66 games. That's one issue that needs to be resolved.
Belt is hoping to return from the disabled list later this month, and Marco Scutaro keeps plugging away in his attempt to come back from chronic back issues. Sabean probably doesn't have a Carlos Beltran-for-Zack Wheeler-caliber deal in him this summer, but he will be trolling for bench help and pitching upgrades before the July 31 nonwaiver deadline. The Giants rank fourth in the majors in attendance, and he's perpetually aware of his obligation to the fan base.
"We're living the good life now, but we know that things can change on a dime in any given day or week," Sabean said. "To have a good year and get to the playoffs, you need to have the mindset that a couple of games or a week don't define how good you are. Baseball is a lot like life. Everything is going to mete itself out in the end."
In his 18th season as San Francisco GM -- the longest active tenure in the majors -- Sabean understands that it's his job to sweat the details, monitor all the worst-case scenarios and give fate a push in the right direction. Just like players, MLB executives have to earn their way.
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