When the Atlanta Braves released declining veteran second baseman Dan Uggla on July 18, 2014, it only took three days for San Francisco Giants General Manager Brian Sabean to sign Uggla to a minor league contract.
When you look at Sabean’s long history of reclamation projects featuring fading veteran ball players, the real surprise here is why it took him a whole three days to grab Dan Uggla.
And as soon as the San Francisco signed Uggla we heard the familiar party line we’ve heard so often from the Giants’ front office: Hey, this is a no-risk low-cost move and who knows what might happen. Just maybe a change of scenery will cause Uggla to magically get back to his pre-2011 career.
Because since 2010, he’s hit .233 in 2011, .220 in 2012, and a combined .175 with a .627 OPS over 67 games in 2013-14. Defensively Dan Uggla has little range and -.02 DWAR.
At least Uggla’s terrible 31% strikeout rate over the past two years is better than Brandon Hicks’ 2014 strikeout rate of 38%. On the money side, the Braves owe Uggla $5.2 million this season, $13 million in 2015, and $1 million spread out over 2016-2019.
Predictably, the local sports media and fans obediently picked up the party line: it’s a low risk move, there’s nothing to lose, let’s see what happens.
Except what seems to be an innocuous and risk-free signing is exactly the opposite. There is actually a very big risk here as San Francisco continues to substitute a series of player reclamation projects for signing and developing young players, signing quality free agents, and making significant trades.
While other franchises take risks, the Giants celebrate the mediocrity of not taking chances. And the Uggla signing works for Giants management in three ways.
First, it’s certainly a cheap signing– they will owe Dan Uggla about 40% of the League minimum, or about $200,000 if he stays the rest of the 2014 season. Nothing lights up the Giants ownership group like cheap player signings. And, for some reason, many Giant fans are also happy when the owners don’t spend money.
Second, this is a classic smoke-and-mirrors move that allows the Giants to distract their easily distractable fan base from now until the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Now there’s no longer a need to trade for a run producing second baseman at the deadline because we have to see what happens with Uggla. Right?
And third, even if the Uggla signing doesn’t work out, at least the Giants gave the appearance of doing something about the offensive hole at second base. In which case San Francisco gets an even less expensive fallback by finishing the 2014 season with a cobbled combination of rookie Joe Panik, the injured Marco Scutaro, and whoever else they can find off the bench.
The poster player for this tactic is outfielder Pat Burrell, who the Giants picked up in 2010 after Burrell was released by the Tampa Bay Rays.
Burrell responded by putting up some very nice power numbers (18 HR, 51 RBI, .872 OPS) and was instrumental in getting the Giants into the 2010 playoffs. After that, Burrell regressed, hitting .143 AVG with a .551 OPS in the 2010 playoffs and hitting .230 in 2011. At which point even the Giants declined to re-sign him.
The list of “no risk” declining veteran players on whom the Giants have spent time and money in recent seasons is long. Most recently Brandon Hicks, last season Andres Torres (after he was released by the Mets!), and pitcher Dontrelle Willis twice– in 2010 and again in Spring 2014. In 2006 it was Steve Finley and Shea Hillenbrand, in 2007 it was Ryan Klesko, 2008 Jose Castillo, and the list goes on.
The 2010 Pat Burrell signing continues to be referenced by the Giants, the media, and the fans to justify continuing the hunt for washed up players who, as Manager Bruce Bochy so often says, “might still have some lightning in the bottle”. What a delightful long-range planning stratagem.
So while the San Francisco Giants continue to spend time and money on these “no risk” signings, their minor league system is in decline, their international signings presence is weak, and the front office refuses to make impactful trades to either bolster the 25 man roster or seed the farm system.
And other teams? Even though the San Francisco Giants have the wealthiest ownership group in all of baseball, they criticize those teams that spend money on building up their minor league system and on international scouting.
As I have noted before, the Giants organization is at a point where they can no longer even consider any “rebuilding” years. They have created a high revenue, consumer-driven product which has to be on the shelves 24/7, no matter what’s happening on the field.
Rolling the dice on Dan Uggla is just part of the ongoing sales pitch.