Two weeks ago, after staving off elimination multiple times and then sweeping the Detroit Tigers, the San Francisco Giants raised the World Series Championship trophy for the second time in three years. That’s an accomplishment we haven’t seen since the Yankees pulled off the feat in the late 90’s by stringing together four titles in a five year span.
How did they do it? And, more importantly, what did the Giants do that the Indians could learn from in order to make their own run to the top of the baseball world? Well, if you look at it objectively, there are several things San Francisco has done that the Tribe could implement. However, in order to do that we need to take a look that the process through which the Giants built a championship caliber team.
The first move occurred in 2007. The Padres, looking to move in a younger direction under new management, allowed Bruce Bochy to interview and ultimately accept San Francisco’s managerial position. Even though the Giants were coming off of successful runs under Dusty Baker and then Felipe Alou, they realized a change in both philosophy and approach needed to be made as the Barry Bonds era came to an end.
Bochy was regarded as one of the better managers in the game. He won the NL Manager of the Year award in 1996, led the Padres to the World Series in 1998, and won the NL West in the two years prior to his move to the Giants. San Diego’s willingness to let him go came as a bit of a shock to most.
Meanwhile, transitioning from the Bonds era proved more difficult than many had envisioned because of the team’s lack of youth. In 2002, the Giants had one regular player under the age of 30. In 2006, the average age of the starting lineup was 35 years old. They had put themselves into a corner with a high payroll, lack of flexibility, and no tradable assets on the big league roster.
In Bochy’s first three seasons on the job, the Giants averaged 77 wins and finished fifth, fourth, and third, respectively. Barry Zito was a disaster after San Francisco gave him the most lucrative free agent deal ever for a pitcher before the 2007 season. Bonds’ career came to an ugly close as accusations of PED use were running rampant. With no other real options available, the Giants were forced to throw young home grown talent by the names of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval, and Buster Posey, among others, to the wolves.
Things appeared bleak for the Giants despite a new ballpark and Bonds’ home run chase. After a run of success earlier in the decade that included annual postseason appearances and a trip to the World Series that resulted in a Game 7 defeat, fans grew impatient. They wanted more big spending and more blockbuster trades. While it was tempting to make moves to bring in more established, bigger name players for large sums of money, GM Brian Sabean stuck to the new plan of drafting smart, making shrewd trades, and waiting until the time was right to make a move for the right player.
It paid off. In 2010, believing that the team would finally be in a position to compete thanks to their stable of young players and acquisitions made the previous season (Freddy Sanchez, Jeremy Affeldt, and Andres Torres) Sabean began making moves to bolster the team for a playoff run. Veterans Mark DeRossa and Aubrey Huff were added to bolster the lineup in the offseason. In late May, the team promoted top prospect Buster Posey and signed Pat Burrell. At the Trade Deadline, Sabean acquired bullpen help and then claimed eventual postseason hero Cody Ross off of waivers in August.
Armed with a starting rotation of young lively arms led by Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner, the Giants went on to win what would be their first championship since moving to San Francisco. More importantly, the Giants looked like a potential juggernaut in the making given their combination of youth and talent on the roster.
Of course, the Giants hit a speed bump on their way to cementing themselves as a dynasty. The 2011 season was marred by injuries and lackluster performances from key acquisitions. Carlos Beltran, Orlando Cabrera, and Jeff Keppinger failed to make a lasting impact and the Giants missed the playoffs. But that’s not to say it was a complete failure. They found a diamond in the rough in Ryan Vogelsong and were able to provide valuable big league experience to top prospects Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, all of which would prove invaluable during the Giants 2012 World Series run.
Finally, in 2012, armed with all of the pieces that had been put in place since 2007, the Giants set out to return to the top of Major League Baseball. Sabean once again showed his ability to improve the team via trade. He acquired Melky Cabrera prior to the season in what looked like one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history until Cabrear tested positive for PED’s, and then he upgraded center field from Andres Torres to Angel Pagan.
When Brian Wilson went down with an elbow injury in April and was lost for the season, it was next man up for the Giants bullpen. The depth of pitching provided them with enough options to manage late game situations before Sergio Romo finally took over as the team’s closer in September. With Lincecum struggling as a starter, he took over as the team’s postseason long reliever and continually shut down opposing lineups for innings on end. Even Barry Zito, who many felt was finished as a major league pitcher, emerged as a reliable fifth starter before ultimately saving their season, and his career, in the postseason.
When they needed to bolster their lineup for the stretch run, Sabean once again tapped into his bag of tricks and plucked Hunter Pence from the Astros and Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. Both moves paid huge dividends. Pence emerged as the emotional leader of the team by delivering pregame motivational speeches and further bolstering the chemistry of a team that was already close to begin with. Meanwhile, Scutaro put together one of the most clutch postseason performances we have ever seen accumulating, hitting .328/.377/.391 with 4 doubles, 11 runs scored and 8 RBI. In the NLCS, he accumulated 14 hits and batted .500.
When it was all said and done, the Giants had emerged from the postseason steel cage match the lone victors. They can rightfully stake claim to the titles of “world champion” and “best team and baseball.” Even more impressively, they have a legitimate shot of doing it again in the years to come. The Giants laid the groundwork for a formula that can put a competitive team on the field for a decade. With the proper mix of developing young talent and integrating a veteran presence when necessary without bankrupting and crippling themselves, the Giants are looking at years of sustainable competitiveness.
So what can the Indians learn from all of this?
First and foremost, the Indians have to hire a leader who not only commands respect from his players, but also has the experience to back of his decisions both on and off the field. With Terry Francona in the fold, it looks as if the Indians can check off step one. Much like Bochy, Francona has a resume full of not just experience, but positive experience that he can fall back on.
The second takeaway—and this is easier said than done—is scouting, drafting, and player development. This is something the Indians have failed to do over the course of a decade. Meanwhile, the Giants’ current roster is full of players they drafted and developed internally or signed as teenagers from the Central or South America and the Dominican. Not only does this benefit the team on the field, naturally, but it also provides depth should a key piece get injured or valuable assets for trade purposes. As it stands now, the Indians have no depth beyond their starters and in order to improve via trade they would have to create another hole somewhere else. Ideally you want to trade from a position of strength to address a weakness and right now the Indians have few areas of strength.
What really hurts is the Tribe’s inability to develop any of their draft picks and prospects acquired via trade into serviceable major league talent. Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley, and Jason Kipnis are all great stories, but for each of them there is an Andy Marte, Matt LaPorta, or Adam Miller. Whether it’s injuries, coaching, conflicting personalities, or simply that the players in question aren’t any good, the Indians routinely get zero return on their investments. Or, in the case of Brandon Phillips and Ryan Ludwick, they are cast off only to turn into All-Stars for other franchises.
Third, the front office has to be better in its analysis of all the player information they gather and ultimately, their decision-making. The Indians’ track record when it comes to trades has been less than impressive of late. It’s even worse when you take a look at their returns on trades involving their premier players.
The other aspect of the Giants that has improved is the amount of money they have spent. While they currently rank 7th in terms of payroll, it still feels like they are getting more value for their buck. The majority of their higher-priced players are their young pitchers that they have locked up for multiple years. Only Barry Zito (the highest-paid player on the roster and lone carryover from the Bonds era) and Hunter Pence (not on a contract negotiated by the Giants) are making more than what the Giants are currently comfortable spending. Remove their combined $29 million in 2012 salary and the Giants fall from 7th to 15th in terms of overall payroll.
Sabean has morphed into one of the ruthless and savviest GMs in the game. Almost everything he touches turns to gold. Can Chris Antonetti morph into the same caliber decision maker? Only time will tell, but so far it seems we have a long way to go.
Lastly, the Indians have to do a better job with veteran players. Occasionally the Indians sign or trade for a player on the cheap and hit the jackpot: Kevin Milwood in 2005, Trot Nixon in 2007, and Orlando Cabrera in the first few months of 2009. Other than that, the “lightning in a bottle” approach has been more frustrating than it has been successful.
At various points over the past two seasons, the Indians have run out Johnny Damon, Kosuke Fukudome, Derek Lowe, and Jim Thome. The results were average at best if you’re being generous. Going back even further we’ve witnessed the failed acquisitions of Juan Gonzalez, Jason Michaels, David Delucci, Josh Barfield, Todd Hollandsworth, Carl Pavano, Kerry Wood, and Russell Branyan, all of whom were brought into the fold in hopes they put the team over the top and in all cases the Indians were left standing with their metaphorical pants down.
Meanwhile, the Giants are able to turn a castoff journeyman like Ryan Vogelsong into an all-star. Cody Ross is claimed off of waivers and becomes an NLCS MVP. Marco Scutaro transforms into Mr. October version 2.0. Hunter Pence hits only .219 for the Giants in 59 games but drives in 45 runs and becomes the teams emotional leader. Barry Zito was all but done as a major league pitcher and left off of the Giants 2010 playoff roster only to be reborn in 2012 and make a positive impact on the team all year long. Tim Lincecum had his worst year as a professional and agreed to move to the bull pen for the postseason and immediately found the fastball that made him great. Can the Tribe find similar success with Ubaldo Jimenez should his days as a starter be numbered? Can they help him rebound in Zito-esque fashion?
Granted, it’s a much smaller sample size of players compacted into fewer years, but even so the results for the Giants are astounding. Is it the result of better scouting and better coaching? Possibly. Is it just blind luck? It’s also a possibility. More than likely it’s some combination of the two and somehow, someway, that perfect mix of scouting, coaching, and luck has eluded the Indians.
So, while the Indians can go on and on about how they have a plan and vision in place, it is only as good as the execution. For the Giants, they have executed their plan to perfection. Through better scouting, drafting, and coaching combined with a shrewd business sense aimed at improving the their team with the right player at the right time they have set themselves up for what looks to be a World Series contender for the next 5 years and beyond.
Are the Indians paying attention? We can only hope.