Deconstructing the Restructured Giants

During World Series week we discussed the complete overhaul of the San Francisco Giants starting lineup from 2010 to 2012. I suggested that theirs was a strategy of “doing it wrong quickly” and after looking more deeply into the matter, I’m standing by that theory. Further, it seems to be a strategy that the Giants have employed for a while, and it’s worth investigating the construction of their 2010 squad as well. Let’s start with the 2010-2012 turnover first, however, honing in on the World Series starters at each position.

First Base
2010: Aubrey Huff
2012: Brandon Belt
After a strong ’10 campaign, Huff signed a fat multi-year contract and proceeded to slog through a miserable ’11. Meanwhile, the Giants were waiting for either Belt or Brett Pill to realize their potential as highly regarded young sluggers, and Belt beat Pill to the punch. Owed another year and $12M, Huff hung around as a multi-position bat off the bench.

Second Base
2010: Freddy Sanchez
2012: Marco Scutaro
Around the keystone is where the “do it wrong quickly” strategy was most heavily employed. The Giants were quite happy with Sanchez, but first a shoulder injury and then major back problems limited his duty to 60 games in ’11 and likely ended his career. The Giants paraded one man after another through the position, including Mike Fontenot, Emmanuel Burriss, Bill Hall, and Jeff Keppinger. Finding none of those options inspiring, San Francisco signed free agent Ryan Theriot away from the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, and when he proved only adequate, second base prospect Charlie Culberson was sent to Colorado for Scutaro — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Third Base
2010: Juan Uribe
2012: Pablo Sandoval
In truth, this wasn’t really a turnover, as Uribe spent more time at shortstop and Sandoval started 136 games at 3B during the 2010 regular season. However, the fact that ice-cold Kung Fu Panda was benched for the comparatively tepid Uribe in the postseason speaks to Bruce Bochy‘s philosophy of a.) changing things up until something works, and b.) staying with what’s working. And in truth, Panda didn’t exactly have the position locked up due to his wild streaks between hot and cold; Miguel Tejada and Mark DeRosa combined for 55 starts there in ’11.

2010: Edgar Renteria
2012: Brandon Crawford
Like second base, there was much shuffling at shortstop over the past two years. Renteria was on his last legs in ’10, and Uribe actually made 96 starts at SS that year. The Giants spent ’11 auditioning a plethora of men at the post, including Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, Fontenot, and Crawford. In the end, Crawford was the cream that rose to the top, showing enough glove to warrant the starting job in ’12 despite questionable offensive skill.

Left Field
2010: Pat Burrell
2012: Gregor Blanco
After resurrecting his career with a return to the NL in ’10, Burrell was rewarded with a one-year contract for ’11. However, he turned out to be more of a question than the answer, and the Giants responded with a rotation of Cody Ross, Belt, and Aaron Rowand in hopes of finding paint to stick. Ross wound up being stickiest, but fled to Boston in the offseason. To fill the hole, the Giants sent eternal enigma Jonathan Sanchez to Kansas City for Melky Cabrera, whose PED-fueled, MVP performance in the first half played a significant part in SF’s success. After Cabrera was suspended, manager Bruce Bochy cycled through Justin Christian, Francisco Pequero, and Xavier Nady before settling on Blanco, whose speed and defense outweighed his meager offensive contribution.

Center Field
2010: Andres Torres
2012: Angel Pagan
Oh boy … this is the one that draws the ire of Mets fans. Torres had a breakout, career year in 2010, only to follow in the footsteps of one-hit wonders such as The Knack, Mungo Jerry, and Norman Greenbaum. The 2011 season was not as kind to Torres, who muddled through injury issues as well as a sharp drop in offense. Sharing centerfield duties with Torres in ’11 was Rowand, Ross, and Christian — none of whom provided the answer, so GM Brian Sabean asked Sandy Alderson if Angel Pagan was available. You know the rest of the story.

Right Field

2010: Cody Ross
2012: Hunter Pence
As mentioned above, Ross spent considerable time in LF in ’11 to plug the offensive leak left by Burrell. With Ross in left, right was manned mostly by Nate Schierholtz (with occasional spelling by Huff) until a man named Carlos Beltran arrived in July. However, Beltran was allowed to leave for St. Louis, Ross fled to Boston, and so strong-armed, so-so-hitting Schierholtz returned to his post in RF. Schierholtz is a nice player, but not the type you see in a corner outfield spot on a Championship club, so San Francisco dealt at the deadline for Pence — sending Schierhotlz to Philadelphia as part of the trade.

Pitching Staff
As mentioned in the previous Giants post, the turnover in the pitching staff was not nearly as drastic as the everyday lineup — at least, not in terms of personnel. Though the names remained mostly the same, the roles changed significantly. For example, Barry Zito went from being a stomach-turning starter that SF left off the postseason roster in ’10 to a solid #3 and postseason hero. In contrast, Tim Lincecum went from world-class ace to Zitoville, relegated to mopup duty in the postseason. That’s signficant: how many other teams would have given up on a talent like Lincecum come the playoffs? Granted, the Giants had unusual depth, but still — Lincecum’s track record and presence would be enough for many teams to keep sending him to the mound, hoping he’d somehow “figure it out” in the autumn air. Finally, there was the addition of Ryan Vogelsong, who came out of nowhere to become one of the NL’s most reliable starters

A similar story resounds in the bullpen, where faces remained similar but roles were redefined. Much of the unrest was the result of Brian Wilson‘s season-ending elbow injury in April. It was “closer by committee” for the entire season, and Sergio Romo stepped up both as a moundsman and beardsman. Unheralded yet key pieces George Kontos and Jose Mijares ate signficant innings, and Javier Lopez — who actually spent the second half of ’10 in the ‘pen –became a prominent fixture in the last two innings.

What is there to learn from all this? First, that you can completely rebuild your lineup and still succeed so long as you have quality and stability in your pitching staff (more support for the old axiom “you win with pitching”). Second, it doesn’t take that long, nor that much in terms of money or assets, to overhaul an offense. Third, in many cases it may make more sense to keep trying possibilities — and failing — rather than waiting for a preselected set of players to fulfill expectations (a.k.a., throw many cans of paint on the wall to see what sticks, rather than continuing to apply a paint that perpetually runs down the wall in hopes that somehow, some way, something will change that allows it to stick). Of course, it helps significantly to have a young stud like Buster Posey manning the most important defensive position on the diamond, and also providing world-class offense. Finally, after digging into the nuts and bolts of the Giants’ turnover, I’ve come to realize this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of education. There’s another “secret” to San Francisco’s success, which I’ll reveal in the coming days.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Mike November 5, 2012 at 11:49 am
    I sure hope everyone sees the similarities of this and why Alderson has repeatedly said about being flexible and not being locked in to big contracts. I think that the irony of the Giants greatest success (flexibility, as pointed out here) is that they have failed multiple times at handing out big contracts. Huff, Zito, Rowand are all examples of big money tied up in relatively unproductive players. Yet their ability to sign a bunch of guys on short term deals to augment their roster has been unparalleled. Ultimately they have one of the higher payrolls, but they are probably operating a bit below what they could technically spend so that they can be flexible when needed.

    Back to the Mets, Sandy and Co have been saying all along that this is the model that they wish to follow. Build a strong core and not get bogged down by enormous contracts that will hinder your flexibility going forward. Unfortunately this takes time, but once Santana and Bay are gone, does anyone really care if the Mets budget is consistently at 100 million if there are no huge contracts limiting their ability to make moves? I sure won’t care. 100 million is plenty to get the job done. Once winning and attendance is up the payroll will also increase but I don’t think the organization needs to have 150+ million to be successful. Assigning an arbitrary number of dollars to winning is a bad idea.

    • Joe Janish November 5, 2012 at 1:11 pm
      Good point about flexibility. At the same time, though, you point out that the mistakes they made with big contracts has not prevented the Giants from being flexible – so, which is it?

      Put another way, one could argue that the Giants raised payroll from $96M to $130M from ’10 to ’12, had the onus of expensive contracts for Zito, Rowand, Huff, Lincecum, and Cain, yet still managed to find the pieces they needed for a Championship — so what is the Mets’ excuse? Or, where are the Mets failing / falling short?

      Part of it, certainly, is the Mets don’t have hugely talented pieces such as Lincecum, Cain, and Posey. But they did have Reyes and Beltran until 2012, as well as Wright and Dickey. When the Giants failed with Rowand and Huff, they didn’t wait nearly as long as the Mets did with Bay. When Zito became a bust, the Giants didn’t try to build a staff around him — they planned without him. Meanwhile, the Mets continued to focus on Bay, Santana, and Beltran as core pieces, waiting for them to get healthy / perform up to their expectations. It was the same thing in previous years, when they refused to cut bait on Castillo and Perez (among others), so it would seem to be a philosophy coming from ownership. That said, I really wonder whether this upcoming “flexibility” everyone is excited about will make any difference at all. Looking at the Giants, I’m not sure the Mets haven’t had flexibility for the past two years, and if they get more flexibility come 2013, I’m not sure they’ll know how to use it.

      • Mike November 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm
        There are certainly questions as to how it all will work out, but when the picture is not fully painted yet, you have to look at the process. Trying to draw conclusions and make judgements when the piece is incomplete is folly. It’s obviously fun to speculate, but it is not yet time to make conclusions. You say the Mets “continued to focus on Bay, Santana, and Beltran as core pieces, waiting for them to get healthy / perform up to their expectations” but that was a previous regime tactic. The Mets have not pretended to be a contender and have said since Sandy took over that it is 2014 that is the goal. Sure they want to sell tickets and promote the current team publicly as much as they can, because that is good business, but all the actions (from conservatively progressing prospects and drafting up the middle, to trading Beltran for Wheeler and avoiding huge multi-year FA contracts) point to a plan and a process similar to what the Giants have done.
        • Izzy November 5, 2012 at 5:52 pm
          I think you entirely miss the boat on how the Giants operate Mike, and there is no comparison to the Mets. The Mets have lied continuously about reducing salary and using that money for improving the team. The have since the start of the reign of the Ivy liar had the contractual obligations to Reyes, Beltran, KROD, Perez and Castillo all end That’s a lot of moolah, and what was it used for???? Frankie Francisco? Was it used to stock the farm? Well, we got one kid for Beltran and didn’t sign half the draft picks this year. Do the giants operate thisio mkaes money the easy way, by dihonest means, way? They had and have bad contracts and what do they do? They pay big for their pitchers to stay, Cain and Lincecum, they trade their failures for something to help, Torres, Jonathon Sanchez and when they are in the hunt in July they don’t sit on thier duffs and sleep like Sandy the not dandy, they make moves to try to win! Why? Because unlike sandy the not dandy and his owner , the giants want and have a sold out ballpark 81 days a year with people buting all kinds of silly things. Think that extra 20,000 tix at 60 bucks a pop and all that beer and food and concession money doesn’t make a difference? The Giants were sold out with Bonds and they didn’t go into a decades long vacuum to regenerate. They did what they had to to keep their fan base. Its more than winnis and losses. Its about PR and having folks want to give you their $$$. The Mets are a failure compared to the Giants and they don’t do anything the Giants way
        • Dan B November 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm
          Mike, you make some good points but personally I believe the Mets are more interested in the bottom line then the standings. Their trades and signings will be about lowering costs. I think they will spend only if they are positive it will bring in revenue. Having a strategy is a secondary goal. I see Met fans point to 2014 as the new beginning with Santana’s and Bay’s contracts expiring. I don’t. I see the Mets saying “the free agents aren’t worth the money” and “we want to avoid long term contracts” and pocketing the savings. I see a farm system that trickles in prospects at a slower rate then other teams. I see them not signing draft picks and cutting cost in the minors. I am sure the Wilpons want to win as much as I want them to win. More since I am not financially invested. I just doubt that implementing a winning strategy is as important to them as stopping the bleeding of money.
        • DaveSchneck November 5, 2012 at 7:00 pm
          I agree that the bottom line is the priority for this ownership at this point in time. It is their business, and they are entitled to run it as they choose. If they choose to minimize losses, fine. But the paying customers can make choices as well. I don’t buy this poverty nonsense. Somehow, they found tens of millions to purchase a few of the $20 million shares earlier this year. They own businesses (Mets, SNY) worth billions, not millions. $40 million of new network TV money will begin flowing in 2014, so there is no reason why they can’t expand the budget to say $115 to $120 mil in 2013. Does that make a difference? Well, the Giants spent $131 mil in 2012, in a two team market a fraction of the size of NY, and won a world series. They spent $37 mil on two pitchers, Lincecum and Zito, that had a combined negative rWar (despite Zito winning 15 games). They also got a big fat zero contribution from Wilson ($8.5 mil) and Freddy Sanchez ($6 mil) due to injury. So, I say that extra $15 to $20 million in payroll can make a HUGE difference if spent wisely.
        • DaveSchneck November 5, 2012 at 7:03 pm
          I neglected to mention the $10 million they spent on Huff who contributed nothing. That’s $24 million on players contributing nothing, and $37 mil on the two most expensive pitchers for replacement-level contributions. Yes, they had Posey and Cain, MVP and Cy Young candidates, but the Wright/Dickey duo wasn’t far off in 2012. It’s time for Sandy and Co. to do something, and for this ownership to look under the sofa cushions for a spare $10 million, or fans to come to Citifield disguissed as empty seats in 2013.
  2. DaveSchneck November 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm
    You nailed it in the conclusion…short of your secret to be soon revealed. Pitching, pitching, pitching, more pitching, and some D will always keep a team in the mix. Yes, they have Posey’s bat, but not much more around it. This is why, short of trading RA (who I would prefer to keep) due to financial constraints, the Mets should not be dealing a MLB-level pitcher unless the return is overwhelming (see Jon Niese). Also, the Giants did spend $130 mil in a much smaller market than the Mets. Bottom line – retain as much pitching as possible, and do not give up on 2013 so long as moves don’t unreasonably compromise future.
  3. Jujo November 5, 2012 at 2:01 pm
    I agree with the above comments. The Mets real success in the past had to do with pitching. Seaver, Koosman, Matlack meant that the Mets not only were in every game, likely would win those games. Gooden, Darling, Sid and Ojeda the same. For the past 16-17 seasons, the Mets have had only one and maybe at times 2 good starters. They overpaid for old pitchers who broke down (Glavine, Martinez) who did not have the aura anymore. I think the Mets should see if some team would make a crazy trade for Dickey or Wright, but it would have to be crazy to get back minimum 4 good pieces including starting pitching, catching and CF. When you think about it, all the other positions you can outsource for year to year. But with starting pitching, look at the teams in the hunt (Giants, Nats, Braves, Cardinals, etc). They always have a chance to win. As a Mets fan, I would welcome a return to our roots of strong pitching and defense. That is sustainable.
  4. norme November 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm
    “There’s another ‘secret’ to San Francisco’s success, which I’ll reveal in the coming days”

    Really Joe, that sounds like a line from a bad advertisement.
    Fortunately, we know you won’t be selling snake oil.