Before winning the 2010 World Series, it had been 56 years since the San Francisco Giants won the Fall Classic. This was so far in the past, in fact, that the team was stationed in Upper Manhatten, New York at the time. The former New York Giants were one of the most prolific teams in the first half of the 20th century; before they migrated along with the Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast for the 1958 season, they had won five championships and seventeen pennants. Managed by the distinguished John McGraw and armed with Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Mel Ott, and the great Willie Mays, the New York Giants laid claim to one of the richest histories of any franchise in the game. It took 54 years for the team that formerly inhabited the Polo Grounds to come out on top in the baseball world again, and they followed up with World Series titles in 2012 and 2014. The question is: how did the Giants return to glory? Luck certainly does not carry a team to three rings in five years, but savvy decisions by the front office certainly played a key role.
Brian Sabean has been a leading figure in the Giants front office since 1993, but was often criticized until 2007 for his inability to build a winning team around Barry Bonds and a penchant for signing aging players to lucrative deals. Right at the end of the Bonds era, Sabean signed 30 year old outfielder Aaron Rowand to a 5/60M deal, despite his lone all star season being an anomaly in a walk year. Roward cashed in and regressed back to his lukewarm career norms, posting a .253/.310/.394 line while playing only 127 games a year on average and being released before the fifth year of the contract. On the mound, Oakland Athletics pitcher Barry Zito was seen as a top free agent. With a Cy Young Award and a track record of durability under his belt, Zito was hyped enough to expect a record setting contract. However, a deeper look into Zito’s numbers suggested otherwise. His FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was over half a run more than his ERA, proving that his “ace numbers” were largely thanks to an excellent defense behind him. Poor strikeout and walk ratios (6.8 and 3.5/9IP respectively) painted him as a middling starter on the brink of decline. Nevertheless, the Giants signed him through his age 29-37 seasons and paid him 126M. His ERA ballooned to 4.66; fittingly, this time it was identical to his 4.66 FIP.
With the retirement of Barry Bonds and these glaring failures putting his job security in jeopardy, Brian Sabean finally sought new ways to build his team. In 2006, he signed his first round draft pick after forfeiting the picks in the previous two years. That pick developed into two time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. 2007 first round pick, Madison Bumgarner, established himself as one of the game’s premier southpaws when he was called up in 2010. Additionally, 2008 first round pick Buster Posey became one of the best catchers in the game, winning the National League MVP in 2012. This youthful nucleus was the winning formula Sabean never found to compliment Bonds, but it has led the team to three World Series Championships.
Sabean understood that his margin for error on the free agent market was minuscule after years of blunders. He immediately locked up his young talent by extending World Series MVP Bumgarner for a bargain 5/35M and team leader Posey for 9/164M. On the open market, each would assuredly receive 200M contracts, while Sabean retained them for 200M total. However, it is the money that Sabean did not dole out that put the franchise in good position. With Zito’s contract soon to be off the books, San Francisco found themselves financially capable of resigning 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval’s relative youth (28 at time of free agency), fan favorite status, and gaudy postseason statistics (.344/.389/.545) made the decision seem easy. However, Sabean looked at his team’s fallen stars (Lincecum and Matt Cain combined for a 4.62 ERA in 1033 injury plagued innings from 2012-2014) and realized the success of the team lay in their formerly brilliant pitching. Sabean declined to sign Sandoval, citing his poor conditioning and incapability of topping Boston’s 5/95M offer. In reality, the Giants brain trust decided to wait a year to allocate the money towards the vaunted 2015-2016 free agent pitching class, coming away with top pitchers Johnny Cueto (6/130M) and Jeff Samardzija (5/90M). This season, Cueto, Samardzija, and Bumgarner are all posting ace numbers and pushing the Giants to a healthy lead in the highly competitive NL West division. To make up for Sandoval’s absence in the lineup, Sabean resigned All Star Brandon Crawford for 6/75M, a steal for a player who plays a premium position in shortstop.
Pablo Sandoval has produced a negative 1.1 WAR in his tenure with the Boston Red Sox, with conditioning and injury issues rendering him unplayable.
With three championships already this decade and key players under team control and contract for several seasons to come, the San Francisco Giants find themselves in position to create a dynasty that surpasses their New York predecessors. Their organization’s philosophy of developing through the farm system and Sabean’s ability to invest in the right internal talent has created a stronger team than any from the Barry Bonds era. In an age of baseball where big spending is disincentivized, the Giants’ meticulous front office has led them to perennial contention.
Those faithful fans from the Polo Grounds only had to wait 54 years.