The baseball offseason has been pretty lively so far, with a number of huge free agent deals being signed, in part because of the new labor contract between the owners and the players’ union. (Labor peace leads to some cost certainty, and therefore to teams being more willing to throw money around, you see.)
I mainly follow three teams these days: The Red Sox (my favorite team), and the Athletics and Giants (the local teams here in the Bay Area). As 2006 draws to a close, enough has happened to warrant looking at what these teams have been doing, and what I think about it.
I chose the Giants as my first stop because, well, I think they’ve had a terrible off-season, and the reasons why are pretty easy to see. I’m certainly not alone in that opinion, as San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion feels much the same way, and has plenty of cutting words for how Giants general manager Brian Sabean has approached a team which really ought to be rebuilding.
Now, I’m not a big proponent of the concept of the success cycle concept in baseball: I don’t think it’s true that teams should be either contending or rebuilding. I think it’s more true that teams should be either contending or not contending. Contending teams may have the luxury of also being able to build for the future while they contend, but non-contending teams should be focusing on working their way back into contention, and be honest with themselves when they don’t have any real chance of contending and not spend resources on that fool’s errand.
After a half-decade of success (including a World Series appearance, losing to the Angels in 2002), the Giants are now a non-contending team. In 2006 they went 76-85, 11-1/2 games back in a relatively weak division. In 2005 they finished 75-87, 7 games back in an even weaker division. With a roster of old players, more than half their quality players up for free agency, and not much help coming from the farm system, this is a team which should not be considering contending in 2007. That means they should be signing inexpensive warm bodies with upside to fill the Major League roster rather than spending big bucks on old free agents, giving what prospects they have a long, hard look, and restocking the farm system with young players. This is a hard road to take, and it requires discipline on the part of both the GM and the owner, because it implies a loss of revenue due to the public stance of not contending. The advantage is that it will help the team contend sooner, and build a team whose quality players will be around longer.
The Giants have one big problem, though: Barry Bonds is nearly at the end of his career, but in the next year or two he’s likely to pass Hank Aaron for the career home run record. Bonds is still a good player and can help a good team, and despite his, uh, controversies, he’s likely to be a draw at the gate while he pursues the record.
Here’s how the Giants’ off-season has progressed:
- Felipe Alou, manager (retired)
- Jason Schmidt, SP (free agent, to the Dodgers)
- Moises Alou, RF (free agent, to the Mets)
- Steve Finley, CF (free agent)
- Shea Hillenbrand, 1B (free agent)
- Jamey Wright, SP (free agent)
- Todd Greene, C (free agent)
- Mike Stanton, RP (free agent, to the Reds)
- Bruce Bochy, manager (from the Padres)
- Rich Aurilia, 3B (free agent, from the Reds)
- Ryan Klesko, 1B (free agent, from the Padres)
- Bengie Molina, C (free agent, from the Blue Jays)
- Dave Roberts, CF (free agent, from the Padres)
- Barry Bonds, LF (free agent, 1 year, $16M)
- Ray Durham, 2B (free agent, 2 years, $14M)
- Pedro Feliz, 3B (free agent, 1 year, $5.1M)
- Steve Kline, RP (free agent, 2 years, $3.5M)
The Bonds Factor aside, amidst all their free agents only Jason Schmidt seemed likely to reward a large contract, and even he was risky. Instead they brought back Bonds and Durham, re-signed OBP sinkhole Feliz, and brought in some other aging free agents. Their alternative was to let them all go, collect a bunch of draft picks in compensation, and re-stock the farm system. But instead they re-stocked for another run at, well, third place, I guess.
To be fair, the Giants have two unique problems: Bringing back Barry Bonds might well be worth at the gate the money they’ll be paying him – unless he gets hurt or collapses, that is. Moreover, had the Giants not shown an effort to contend in 2007, he might have signed elsewhere. The other is that they’re the one team in baseball paying off a privately-financed stadium, so they have bills to pay that other teams just don’t. But though throwing in the towel in December might clobber them financially, continuing to gray the team – metaphorically speaking – might merely delay that for a year or so.
Swapping Felipe Alou for Bruce Bochy as manager is probably a no-op. Both of them are in my mental “not bad, but not distinguished either” bucket as far as Major League managers go. Managers are rarely worth many games in the standings, though.
Realistically? The Giants will probably struggle to reach 75 wins in 2007, and that might cost Brian Sabean his job. Which might be a good thing for the franchise, although I think owner Peter Magowan bears some responsibility for the team’s current direction. The Giants probably should have said goodbye to Bonds (or at least shown a willingness to do so, and thus possibly signed him for a low price) and started rebuilding now, because this team is likely to be even worse in 2007 than it was in 2006.
In sum, the Giants are on the brink of a complete collapse, and soon they’ll need to look at themselves and make the moves that the Detroit Tigers made 4 years ago, rebuilding from scratch even if they don’t have much to rebuild with. While the Tigers seem an improbable success story, they’re preceded by the Indians and Braves of the late 80s/early 90s in adopting this philosophy, and are merely the latest example of the object lesson: If you’re not a contender, don’t try to contend. You’ll be better off in the long run.