Following the 2001 baseball season the San Francisco Giants faced a challenging problem: how to retool a 25 man roster that had a solid core of talented players but still lacked a number of critical pieces.
In 1997 the Giants lost the League Division Series 3-0 to the Florida Marlins, and in 2000 they again lost the LDS, this time 3-1 to the New York Mets.
That’s when General Manager Brian Sabean did something the San Francisco Giants rarely ever do: he acknowledged the team’s needs and signed several free agents (along with making several trades), going all in with the goal of playing in the 2002 World Series.
Flash forward to the end of the 2015 season, when the Giants found themselves in almost the exact same circumstances as 2001. Recent success, but a team with a growing number of significant issues.
And, remarkably, this off-season San Francisco did something they haven’t done in 14 years—they acknowledged their line-up and pitching needs and spent the money needed to address those needs.
This time around it’s General Manager Bobby Evans and team Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Brian Sabean who signed free agents Johnny Cueto (6 years, $130 million), Jeff Samardzija (5 years, $90m), and Denard Span (3 years, $31m).
That $251 million is the most off-season money the Giants have spent in franchise history. And the money commitment was long overdue at a time when the San Francisco Giants are one of the top five wealthiest professional sports franchises in North America.
Recalling 2001, it is striking how similar the scenarios were.
The Giants needed another top of the rotation starter to join Russ Ortiz, who pitched 218.2 innings in 2001, posting a 1.271 WHIP and a 3.29 ERA.
Productive right fielder Armando Rios went to the Pirates with pitcher Ryan Vogelsong in the trade for Schmidt. Right field was now a black hole, with bench player John Vander Wal and aging former superstar Eric Davis filling in the innings.
Within the space of about a month and a half, Brian Sabean had solved each of these issues:
• On December 7, 2001 the Giants signed free agent Benito Santiago to a $3.8 million two-year deal.
• On December 16th the Giants traded pitcher Shawn Estes to the Mets for center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo.
• On December 18th Sabean signed free agent starter Jason Schmidt to a five year $41 million deal.
• On January 8, 2002 San Francisco signed power-hitting free agent right fielder Reggie Sanders to a one year $1.75 million contract.
• On January 25th the Giants traded infielder Desi Relaford to the Seattle Mariners for third baseman David Bell.
And just like that, the San Francisco Giants moved from a second tier team with recent success to being a contending team. They finished with a 95-66 record, good for 2nd place in the NL West behind the Arizona Diamondbacks (98-64).
The Giants went on to win the LDS (3-2) from the Atlanta Braves and the NL Championship Series (4-1) from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Of course the familiar coda here is the crushing World Series loss to the Anaheim Angels in seven games.
After the first five games San Francisco led the Series 3 games to 2, and had a 5-0 lead in the 7th inning of Game 6. Then came the infamous Dusty Baker moment: the Giants’ manager pulled starter Russ Ortiz with one out in the bottom of the 7th inning, inexplicably giving Ortiz the game ball as he left the mound.
Which is something you simply don’t do. Unless you think it might be fun to poke the baseball gods with a sharp stick just to see what happens.
The Angels went on to score three runs in the 7th and another three runs in the 8th to win Game 6. Starter John Lackey led Anaheim to a 4-1 victory in Game 7 to take the Series.
The moves made by the Giants prior to the 2002 season provided the resources the team needed to get into the post season and have success in the post season. Obviously the Series loss was disappointing but without the moves made by Brian Sabean in the winter of 2001-2, the Giants don’t get to WS Game 6.
Flash forward to the winter of 2015-16.
Ace starter Johnny Cueto now joins Madison Bumgarner to form a true 1-2 punch at the top of the Giants’ rotation. Denard Span will bring speed and offense at the top of the batting order and provides a huge defensive improvement in center field.
The Jeff Samardzija deal does not look nearly as good.
The Giants quickly signed Samardzija on December 9th, and overpaid him by about $10-$15 million, likely as a result of Arizona announcing the Zack Greinke signing just five days before.
The positives for Samardzija include the fact that he has pitched over 200 innings three times in his eight year career (including 214 IP in 2015) and his lifetime 1.278 WHIP is slightly above average.
The downsides are considerable.
He posted a 4.96 ERA with the White Sox in 2015, and led all American League pitchers in giving up the most hits (228), the most earned runs (118), and the most home runs (29). His SO/9 was a soggy 6.9 and, for whatever it’s worth, his lifetime W/L record is 47-61.
Samardzija plays much better as a #3 or #4 starter– which is pretty much what he’ll be in the Giants’ rotation.
Having said that, you have to give the San Francisco Giants front office and ownership group enormous credit for the moves they’ve made so far this off-season.
This is a high revenue, enormously wealthy franchise that did what was needed for the Giants to not only contend in 2016, but to be successful in the 2016 post season.