The San Francisco Giants have their own stupidity to thank for their first World Series title.
It's true. If the Giants didn't run their organization in such boneheaded fashion in the early part of this century, they wouldn't have pig-piled in the middle of Rangers Ballpark on Monday night. They'd have simply been another franchise saddled with stubborn and short-sighted management.
So before we rewrite history and cast the Giants as some sort of scouting-and-player-development paragon, lest we forget the Michael Tucker debacle of 2004 – and forgettable is perhaps the best way to cast the career of Tucker, who played outfield at a staggeringly mediocre level for a dozen seasons. Somehow he ended up as a Type-A free agent after the 2003 season. Rather than wait for the Kansas City Royals to decline offering him arbitration, the Giants swooped in and signed Tucker for one season, which, because of his Type-A designation, meant they forfeited their first-round pick in 2004.
These were the Giants of general manager Brian Sabean: holding draft picks in such contempt that they went out of their way to hand them to other teams. It's funny, then, to scan their roster and realize three of the team's linchpins are wearing Giants uniforms explicitly because of the failure of Sabean's plan.
After punting their first-, second- and third-round picks in 2005, the aged and, in some cases, ancient Giants stumbled to a 75-87 record, which gave them the 10th pick in the draft. Building around Barry Bonds proved disastrous. The Giants were old. They were slow. They were bad. And because top-15 picks are protected, they had to use the draft choice.
And in 2007, they selected Madison Bumgarner(notes) with their first-round pick. Followed the next year by Buster Posey(notes). Turns out Sabean's scouts – notably scouting director Dick Tidrow – had a knack for pegging front-line talent. His player-development crew knew how to nurture it, too. After a decade of hard-line senselessness – "Quite frankly," Sabean told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, "we're very reluctant to overspend in the draft," while he was perfectly happy to go bonkers in a significantly more inefficient market, free agency – the rules forced him to deviate and modernize an organization that was more triceratops than on top.
Which, incidentally, is where they've reached since their commitment to kids. It's a simple notion, really, one that Sabean somehow never grasped over his first decade in San Francisco: Going young isn't just for low-revenue, scratch-and-scrimp ballclubs. It allows larger-revenue teams, such as San Francisco, to make nuclear mistakes in free agency – see: Zito, Barry – and have their own fallout shelter already built.
Before Posey, the Giants hadn't drafted and developed a position player of consequence in nearly two decades. Counting him and Lincecum, Bumgarner, Matt Cain(notes) (first round in 2002) and Jonathan Sanchez(notes) (a 27th-round gem of a find in 2004 by scout Sean O'Connor), plus relievers Brian Wilson(notes) and Sergio Romo(notes), the Giants' homegrown talent is among the major leagues' best.
"It's kind of scary to think about the young arms we've got with Timmy, Cainer, Bum, Sanchy," Posey said. "It should be good, man. As long as we keep working, it should be good."
True enough, and even better: The scouting finds are deepening. A farm system that vacillated in Baseball America's rankings between 11th and 24th from 2001-2008 is suddenly churning out prospects. If Aubrey Huff(notes) leaves the Giants as a free agent, slugging first baseman Brandon Belt(notes) – less than two years removed from college and currently in the Arizona Fall League – could take over. Charlie Culberson, a 21-year-old second baseman, is leading the fall league with a .431 batting average and .741 slugging percentage before his expected jump to Double-A. Zack Wheeler, the sixth overall pick in 2009, impressed scouts with Class A Augusta.
All of this shouldn't be surprising. Sabean started as a scout, which made his aversion to the draft and international free agency all the more puzzling, and Tidrow is recognized as a keen mind. When 2006 arrived and the team gave $2.1 million to both Lincecum and Angel Villalona, a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic, it represented a budgetary and ideological thawing.
The Villalona signing was a disaster. He was charged with murder in a September 2009 shooting death at a bar in the D.R. His visa is gone. His career is over.
Lincecum clinched the World Series with a consummate pitching performance in Game 5. Bumgarner won Game 4 by throwing eight scoreless innings. Cain tossed 7 2/3 scoreless in Game 2 to extend his postseason streak without allowing an earned run to 21 1/3 innings. Posey hit a home run to dead center in Game 4 and became the youngest catcher to start all the games in a World Series since Johnny Bench in 1970.
There is a lesson here, and it's one that Giants fans only can hope has dawned on Sabean. Surely by now, Sabean – the longest-tenured GM in baseball today, 14 years and counting, and going nowhere after the championship – realizes the folly of free agency and how a good, smart draft can set a franchise free.
Though if he doesn't, what the hell. Sabean whiffed the first time through, and look at what it got him: a championship.
- Brian Sabean