One down, many more to go, but does that matter?

Well, at least Schmidt appears to be, if not back to normal (normal being 2003-2004), he's back to what we Giants fans have been used to since we stole, er, acquired him from the Pirates in mid-season of 2001. And wow, two near shutouts to boot, to make a big statement about him coming back. That's one element the Giants need to be more than a .500 team this year.

But do we want to be more than a .500 team this year? I see a lot of Giants fans who have already written off the season and talking about trading off as many pieces as we can to dump salary and to get pieces for the future plus play our young players to give them experience. Trade Matheny and play Torrealba. Trade Vizquel (and I guess play Deivi Cruz, not exactly a youngster). Trade Durham and Alfonzo for a pair of athletic socks (or worse :^). Same for Rueter. Some even talk about trading Schmidt and Bonds. Get young and regroup for 2006.

However, for all the grief that Sabean gets for going with veterans and not youngsters, vets are generally less risky than youngsters in terms of variability of performance. For example, there was a lot of talk in the pre-season about how the Giants should trade our pitching prospects for young stars. One mentioned trading Matt Cain for Vernon Wells and get our CF of the future. Well, had we gotten him for Cain (and hit like he has this season), a lot of fans would be upset with that trade: .246/.295/.455/.750 in 264 AB, though with 14 HR in 264 AB. If this continues for the season, this would be the second consecutive down season in performance.

Young players are not a panacea though, obviously, if you are given the choice of a up and coming young player and a downtrodden vet, you go with the young guy. But that's rarely the choice, it is normally between an unproven young player who hasn't blown through the minors, like Ellison and Niekro, or an ageing but productive vet, like Grissom and Snow. And Sabean chose the vets.

But those who deride the pre-season moves to keep those vets are viewing the moves with convenient blinders. Those who say that Grissom is a ticking time bomb of age are mainly the same ones who were against getting Grissom in the first place, when he was an ageing platoon player who couldn't hit anymore. He has provided two good years of production for us and did not appear to be slowing down much last season. And it appears that he has been battling an injury all season long, an injury that has been lurking, apparently, for the past 10 years but that he was able to play well with until this year.

Those who didn't want Snow are mainly the same ones who have been riding the Giants management for getting Snow in the first place. He's not the best 1B offensively (and got too huge a contract) but he has been very productive vs. RHP throughout his career and one of the Giants problems the past few years, despite having Bonds in the lineup, was our offense against RHP, except for last season when Snow hit like Bonds for half a season and lefthanders Tucker and Pierzynski were added to our offense (as well as Mohr who also did well against RHP). In addition, for those of you who are Sabres, Snow's key offensive contribution has been his ability to take walks and keep his OBP high (still good at .368 this season vs. RHP and that's approximately what his average OBP been during his time with the Giants).

I agree that Sabean is not perfect but for every move you can question about Sabean, you can find something equally good or better. Plus his trades for Snow, Kent, and Schmidt should earn him a lot of leeway (for a bunch of who's and over the hill players in Allen Watson, Matt Williams, and Armando Rios/Ryan Vogelsong). One can twist oneself into knots thinking through all the permutations of goods and bads.

I prefer to keep it simple, as in wins and losses: what has each team he has had charge over done? And every year, until this year, his teams have generally been in contention until the very end and making the playoffs. Having a good hitter, even the best hitter in the league, does not mean that you even win, let alone make the playoffs, look at how teams have fared with, say, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez on their teams for recent examples, Don Mattingly and Tony Gwynn for not as recent, and Ernie Banks for an old example. Yes, having them should make it much easier but it does not mean it is that easy to do either, it is not a slam dunk. It is still a good accomplishment for a GM to put together a team that makes the playoffs, great player or not, because it takes more than that one player to have a good enough team to make the playoffs.

So back to the question, trade away or stay the course? Had any of the other teams had enough to pull away from us more, I could have been convinced that we should plan for the future. But they haven't. While 10 games is not unsubstantial, especially with 3 teams ahead of us, there is still a lot of baseball left to be played (91 games), Schmidt and Lowry are coming around, Tomko and Rueter are doing about what they can be expected to do, Hawkins coming back soon would a bullpen trio of Walker, Eyre, and Hawkins shutting down close games, and Feliz and the offense is starting to heat up.

Plus there is the huge wildcard factor of Barry Bonds coming back. The Giants offense, while totally sputtering, has been very potent at times. A potency that would only be enhanced with Bonds in the lineup.

However, when is becoming a huge factor. 10 games back now is one thing, 10 games back when Bonds comes back, which looks more and more like the end of July or later, is another. One can point to Houston's comeback last season as an example of it never being too late but most times teams like Houston are also rans at the end of the season, not playoff teams.

I think that we should stay the course for the most part until the end of July. With the pitching looking up for July and the offense perking up, if we can cut down 1 game off the standings each week, we could be as close as 5 games when Bonds return (if he returns about the end of July). However, if one of the teams ahead of us suddenly put in their afterburners and decide that they are taking the division, then we could be screwed.

But I think that there is still plenty of time before that happens before the Giants have to make the difficult decision to scuttle this season and look to the future more aggressively. They should not make wholesale changes until it is very clear that we are not going to be a factor in the pennant race (though a trade of either Durham or Alfonzo to free a position for Feliz - and drop salary - would be great). However, the light at the end of the tunnel is visible and coming fast so the Giants better start picking things up now or face their first season under Sabean without a playoff chase at the end.

Go Giants!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Martin, I'm concerned that Sabean seems not just unwilling but unable to build a team through the draft. Tucker's signing, done specifically to lose our 1st-round draft pick, was a clear indication that Sabean doesn't grasp the fundamental need of teams to replenish their rosters with fresh, inexpensive talent. I understand his reasoning (he uses the money he saves on the 1st round pick to pay for Tucker's salary) but I think it's short-sighted. That's like businesses cutting their budgets for Research and Development. Maybe the shareholders (or in our case, the fans) are temporarily happy, but this isn't a good long-term strategy. One could argue that Sabean has been hired to win now, and so he has less motivation to act in ways that don't hurt our chance in 2010. Then someone (team president?) should be monitoring his decisions to insure that he doesn't do things that are detrimental to our long-term stability.
I'll stipulate that drafting is a crapshoot...and that the bonus money paid to draftees is ridiculous. But, it's the best current way to acquire young talent - the lifeblood of a team. I don't disparage older players - you have to have some to provide stability for the team. But we are (were?) much too far out on the continuum of age vs. youth, both in our roster and in our philosophy.
We've crowed over the acquisitions of Robb Nen, Jason Schmidt, Wilson Alvarez (at the time), Sidney Ponson (again, at the time) and others. But, we should be concerned that none of those players we traded away turned out to be very good. It's not so much that we are great traders - it's that we see we have been lousy drafters! Jason Grilli or Nate Bump or Boof Bonser or Francisco Liriano or Kurt Ainsworth or David Aardsma or *someone* should have turned out to be a good player. That they haven't is the point that we all seem to have overlooked. And that fault lies with Sabean, Tidrow, et al.

Tue Jun 28, 05:57:00 AM PDT  
Blogger obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

Thanks for the comment.

I'll try to keep it short as I'll make clear in my next post but wanted to answer yours best as I can.

I share the same concern about his ability to build through the draft. I lay my hopes that he is able to do that in the fact that he has been able to discern talent in the trades that he did plus he was at the draft helm for the Yankees when they drafted their young core of players that led them to their run in the late 90's (list of them in one of my articles but includes Duncan, Williams, Jeter, Pettitte, Snow, among others).

The problem is that the quantity of eventual major league quality players is pretty slim as soon as the 20th pick of the first round. Successful teams normally don't draft until the mid-to-late 20's. After 20, the odds of picking a good player is very poor, I noted this in my draft article (on SFDugout.com: http://sfgiants.scout.com/2/343576.html).

To get a star from picks 21-60 is 1.9%, from 60-100, 0.4%, for my dataset covering 1986-1998 (11% for 1-10, 6% for 11-20). To get a good player (hit .275-.295 or ERA 3.30-4.25 and over 6 seasons played) or star, the odds are 10.8% for picks 21-30, 4.0% for 31-90, and 1.5% for 91-100 (43% for 1-5, 18% for 6-20). To get a useful player (player with 6+ seasons but not a star or good), the odds are 74% for 1-5, 42% for 6-20, 32% for 21-30, 22% for 31-50, 13% for 51-90 and 7% for 91-100.

Thus if you pick in the winners area (picks 21-30), you are looking at finding 1 (ONE!) good/star player every 9 years or so. Of course, some are better than others (which I will grudgingly admit Beane appears to be, but which is still contingent on the current crop of young players to prove themselves first) but even if you are, say, twice as good, it still takes you about 4-5 years to find one while picking in the 21-30 range.

This difficulty I illustrated in my first article on the draft looking at teams who drafted high during the Sabean era. No team had done well as of 2003 season data (covering Yankees, Atlanta, Oakland, and SF).

This leads into my theory for building a team from youth (which I'm sure others have thought of already) which I call the Phoenix strategy, which I crafted from observing the A's and Giants over the past 23 seasons. Basically you have to do the Charlie Finley/A's thing: build to a good team with youth, then enjoy the fruits for a few years, then destroy the team again via trades, FA, and rebuild through the draft by purposefully using young players and suffering 2-3 years of losing records but getting picks in the Top 5-10 where the odds are 11% of getting at least a star player, about 20-30% of getting a good player. That's how the A's have done it over the years, rebuild, destroy, rebuild, destroy.

The Giants, however, always tried to be good and by being mediocre or better, you only get mediocre or worse picks, and never get a chance to rebuild. That's how the Giants finally had a good team, imploding in the mid-80's under Haller (the only good thing about him) and getting Will Clark, Robby Thompson, Matt Williams, and Royce Clayton early in the drafts.

OK, I'm bad at keeping it short... :)

Presuming one need good or star players to rebuild a team, the odds are about 1 in 9 of finding one when you are drafting in the 21-30 range (as noted) so losing your first draft pick isn't that big a deal if you are doing it on a short term basis. Of course, this is now three years in a row of doing it.

However, Sabean does not scout or draft like other teams if you have been following the drafts. He has a lot of "Huh?" picks early on. He has been finding good prospects outside the first round and the supplement round, drafting Niekro, Munter, Accardo, Taschner, Ellison, Shaballa, EME, Ishikawa, Schierholtz, Lewis, Correia, Frandsen, Ortmeier, Bateman, Sanders, and Mooney, to name the ones off the top of my head. Of course, none of them are established yet but our farm system is as full (relatively) as it has ever been from my years of observation.

With bad odds like that, it can take up to 4-6 years to bear fruit from even your first pick and I allowed him up to two bad drafts as I assume the crummy scouts he inherited (barren system during the late 80's to mid-90's, with #1 draft picks like Steve Hosey, Adam Hyzdu, Calvin Murray, etc.)couldn't be replaced with people he trusted for a year or three. 1999 is the first year I count because of this and that is the year he got Ainsworth and Williams. And each year appears to have improved in terms of talent picked up, at least in terms of prospects.

To use your R&D analogy, you need to look at it this way. In R&D, you need to invest your funds in projects that are likely to bear fruit and not invest any in projects with less odds or greater costs or both. For baseball teams in the upper echelon, winning most years, their 1st round pick is about as unlikely to become a star/good player as their later round picks, so why pick in the first round and pay $1M when you can get similar odds (poor) in the later rounds?

About the players you mentioned, Grilli, Bump, and Ainsworth are past due but Bonser, Liriano, and Aardsma still have a few years to still pan out. Like I noted, as long as he finds 1 in 9 drafts in the first round, he's like the average team in baseball since 1986. Maybe Cain is that 1 (I had hoped Williams was and, who knows, maybe he might be eventually).

If I ever get the time, I want to investigate what the average haul from each draft using the categories of star, good, etc., for the average team. That would be very interesting as comparison to his record of drafts. But right now, based on the data I collected, Sabean is fighting upstream if he is trying to build using the draft because of the poor odds. If anything, being able to parlay the poor circumstances that he began with into a playoff contending team for 8 years is amazing given the poor farm system and poor team that he inherited as he did it with no high percentage draft pick, just by trading for the right players.

Tue Jun 28, 10:00:00 PM PDT  
Blogger obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

Last thought on this: if not Sabean, who do I blame? As I've made clear in other articles, I blame the ownership.

If you are going to self-insure, it means when there is a catastrophe, like Nen or Bonds being out for an extended period, they should have money saved for a rainy day or stick their hands into their pockets. They should have provided Sabean additional money to secure better players, in particular, a Vlad or equivalent player for 2004 and beyond.

Yes, Sabean (or rather Colletti) could have done a better job in terms of salaries given out and there are free agents he shouldn't have signed or at least for the amount given (like Alfonzo who clearly had problems coming in). But if the management group would have tapped into the Silicon Valley money in the late 90's to get additional investors to build up the rainy day nest egg, or go into their own pockets if you are going to self-insure, then Sabean would have had additional cash to get better players than the ones he ended up with, to cover the loss of talent caused by injury.

Tue Jun 28, 10:42:00 PM PDT  
Blogger obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

About how easy it is to win with a good player, here is a link to an article about how hard it has been to win the World Series with the highest paid player in baseball:


Wed Jun 29, 10:39:00 AM PDT  

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