Brian Sabean, in his 16th season as general manager of the San Francisco Giants, is quick to heed his inner voice when it tells him, “Go for it.”
Last July, with the Giants hurting for offense and desperate to defend a world championship, he traded top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets for a two-month flier on Carlos Beltran. When the deal was done, Sabean looked at his top lieutenant, Dick Tidrow, and they acknowledged the long-term risks.
“It was an old-time baseball trade,” Sabean says in hindsight. “When Dick and I finally crossed the bridge with Wheeler, you know what we said? ‘We’ll find another Wheeler. But right now we need Beltran.’ ”
Time will tell how much the Giants regret dealing Wheeler, who is 6-2 with a 1.92 ERA and averaging better than a strikeout per inning for the Double-A Binghamton Mets. But they’ve done an admirable job moving on from Beltran, who signed with St. Louis as a free agent in the offseason.
The Giants rank 29th in the majors with 43 home runs and have committed 59 errors (one fewer than the major-league leading Orioles), but they’re still 38-32 and have been able to maintain contact with the first-place Dodgers at 4½ games back in the National League West. A reconstituted outfield has played a major role in keeping the team afloat.
• Left fielder Melky Cabrera, acquired from Kansas City in November for left-handed starter Jonathan Sanchez, leads the majors with 101 hits and seven triples, and is ranked second to Joey Votto in batting at .363.
• Center fielder Angel Pagan, acquired from the Mets in December for outfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez, has hit safely in 53 of his past 59 games and leads the team with 12 stolen bases. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pagan is tied with Ian Kinsler for third in the majors with 39 line-drive hits. Votto and Michael Bourn are first and second in that department.
• The Giants also have gotten lots of mileage out of the unheralded Gregor Blanco, who signed a minor league deal in January that pays him a base salary of $516,000 in the big leagues. Blanco is hitting a worrisome .200 (15-for-75) in June. But he still ranks second on the team in walks (27) and pitches seen per plate appearance (4.06). The Giants are 25-19 when he starts in the leadoff spot.
San Francisco’s outfield is a veritable WAR Machine. Cabrera ranks fifth among big league outfielders and ninth overall among position players with a Wins Above Replacement of 3.0, according to FanGraphs. Blanco is the 13th-ranked outfielder at 2.3, and Pagan is tied for 21st at 1.9. That aggregate WAR of 7.2 places San Francisco’s outfield second to the Atlanta trio of Bourn, Martin Prado and Jason Heyward among the 30 major league teams.
The revamped outfield has helped the Giants survive a series of setbacks that could have brought a team to its knees. Closer Brian Wilson underwent Tommy John surgery in April, but Santiago Casilla quickly filled the void. Pablo Sandoval missed a month with a hand injury, Freddy Sanchez has yet to play this season, Aubrey Huff has been a non-factor and Tim Lincecum is an uncharacteristic 2-8 with a 6.19 ERA. But the Giants keep plugging away.
Calling all discards
Oakland is frequently billed as the Land of Misfit Toys — a perception that was drummed home again when journeyman Brandon Moss won the latest American League Player of the Week award. But the Giants have a lengthy track record for assimilating veteran hitters who have either underachieved in their careers or appeared to be in decline.
Two years ago, Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell made significant contributions to a World Series team that billed itself as a collection of “castoffs and misfits.” In previous years, the Giants had success bringing in the likes of Ellis Burks, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou for limited runs late in their careers. Manager Bruce Bochy gets criticized for his hesitancy to play kids and some debatable batting order decisions. But like Dusty Baker and Felipe Alou before him, he’s provided a nice, comfortable landing spot for veterans in need of a second wind.
Sabean, while not averse to using Sabermetrics as a tool, is an unapologetic advocate of good old-fashioned scouting judgments as the main driver in player transactions. The Giants became sold on Blanco while scouting him in the Venezuelan Winter League, and they signed infielder Joaquin Arias after blanketing him in the Dominican League. San Francisco’s scouts return home with positive reports, everyone sits around a table and expresses an opinion, and the guy in charge never waffles once he makes the call to proceed.
In the case of Cabrera and Pagan, Sabean saw two multidimensional outfielders who might thrive in new environs. They’ve bounced around, in his estimation, because baseball has gotten “too picky” in dismissing players who might have some flaws in their game or haven’t progressed according to a predetermined timetable.
“With all the analysis and statistical profiling, people don’t always notice that there are baseball players all over this game,” Sabean says. “You watch a lot of baseball — and that’s what I do for a living — and kids who fill the bill like these guys do are hard to come by.
“Are they going to 20-plus home runs? Probably not. Are they going to steal 40 bases? Probably not. Are they going to hit .320 every year? Probably not. But beyond that, you’ve got a pretty damn good all-around baseball player in both cases. We’re talking about switch-hitters who can hit almost anywhere in the lineup, play all three outfield positions and help you on both sides of the ball. There’s a lot to like.”
Hail “The Melkman”
Since his big league debut with the Yankees in 2005, Cabrera has always been regarded as a bit of a tweener. He’s not a lithe, rangy, speedy center fielder in the Adam Jones or Jacoby Ellsbury mold, and he lacks prototypical corner outfield power. In four seasons as a semi-regular with the Yankees, he slugged .391, .391, .341 and .416.
With a double off C.J. Wilson Tuesday, Melky Cabrera set a San Francisco Giants record for fewest plate appearances in a season to reach 100 hits. Here are the franchise leaders since the team’s move from New York in 1958:
Cabrera is more a grinder than a stylist, but the bounce in his step was missing in 2010, when he arrived at spring training overweight and played uninspired ball for the Atlanta Braves. He rebounded last year in Kansas City with a 200-hit, 100-run performance, and the Giants acquired him for Sanchez amid mixed reviews.
Now the deal looks like a heist: In eight starts with the Royals, Jonathan Sanchez is 1-3 with a 5.70 ERA. He missed a month with biceps tendinitis, and his 25 strikeouts and 28 walks have resurrected the old concerns about his lack of focus and command on the mound.
Cabrera leads the majors with a .434 batting average against lefties. He also has a .404 batting average on balls in play, a likely harbinger of a regression to come. But his hustling style has made him a favorite with San Francisco fans, who keep snatching up “Melkman” T-shirts and flocking to AT&T Park in milkman garb.
“He always had tools,” says a National League scout. “Look back to Atlanta two years ago, and he was overweight and out of shape and he didn’t play with any energy. Now he’s playing every day as if his hair is on fire.”
Appreciative Giants fans have stuffed the All-Star ballot box to vault Cabrera past Ryan Braun into third place among NL outfielders behind Matt Kemp and Beltran. If Cabrera can continue to ride the wave, he will join Mays, Kevin Mitchell and Barry Bonds as the fourth San Francisco outfielder to be elected in fan balloting.
Meantime, Sabean is keeping an open mind about discussing a long-term contract with Cabrera to prevent him from hitting the free-agent market in November.
“The first thing we need to do is run it past ownership and get an idea of what the parameters might be and how it might fold into our future budgets,” Sabean says. “But I wouldn’t mind, and I think his side probably would be open to talking during the season. It still takes two to tango.”
Pagan, a Puerto Rico native, has always possessed an intriguing blend of tools, but they never translated into a full-time job until he broke through with the Mets at age 28. When Pagan’s OPS slipped from .837 to .765 to .694 from 2009 through 2011, the Mets decided to move him amid concerns over his nagging health issues and ability to maintain his production over time.
Nearly three months into the season, the trade tilts overwhelmingly in favor of San Francisco. Torres is hitting .212 in 47 games as a Met, and Ramirez has a 1.52 WHIP and a 4.78 ERA in 26 1/3 innings. He’s been on the disabled list with a hamstring injury since May 30.
Scouts have traditionally questioned Pagan for mental lapses and shaky defense — a label he hasn’t quite shed in San Francisco. People who know him say he has a tendency to be hard on himself, so Bochy and his staff will have to nurture him through the hard times.
“He’s always been a guy who would make a great play here or there or run into these streaks and hit,” says a scout. “He would tease you. He’ll still do some things that make you scratch your head. But if you overlook it and take what he brings to the table, it’s pretty good.”
Ultimately, the Giants will rely primarily on Buster Posey, Sandoval and their always-formidable homegrown pitching in the quest for another playoff spot. But Sabean keeps pushing his scouts to look for marginal upgrades that might turn out to bring a whole lot more. When general managers spout the standard line about “improving the team,” this is what they mean.
“That’s the basis for scouting,” Sabean says. “You put together the pieces of the puzzle. And the pieces come from how you gather information, the multiple looks you have, staying open-minded and realizing there aren’t enough players to go around. Just because somebody discarded a player, it doesn’t mean the player can’t play or doesn’t deserve another shot.”
The Giants took their shot on Cabrera, Pagan, Blanco and Arias in the offseason, and they’ve reaped the rewards. If the plan hits a snag, they’ll figure out a Plan B. They usually do.
Crasnick: Giants find the right puzzle pieces
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