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November 3, 2010

On the Beat

Building a Champion

by John Perrotto

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The Giants tried to win a World Series with all-time home run king Barry Bonds in the middle of their lineup for 15 seasons. All it got them was one trip to the fall classic, where they lost to the Angels in seven games in 2002.

Three years after the Giants and the rest of baseball said goodbye to Bonds, even if it was seemingly premature as he still had a .352 True Average in 477 plate appearances in his final season in 2007, they won their first world championship in 56 years when they beat the Rangers in the World Series this season.

The groundwork for the franchise's first title since moving from New York to San Francisco in 1958 came when general manager Brian Sabean received a contract extension during the 2007 season. Management realized that Bonds' run with the Giants was about to end and they needed to plot a new course.

"We knew we couldn't be Bonds-centric anymore, for lack of a better term," Sabean said. "For years, we had built our team around Barry and tried to go for it every year. We had never really gone into a rebuilding or put ourselves in a situation where we could give a lot of younger kids a chance. We were always trying to patch the lineup with veterans and we knew we had reached the point where we just couldn't continue to do that."

And the Giants' new priority wasn't just to go young but to build their roster in a different manner, taking advantage of playing in spacious AT&T Park.

"From that point forward, it was all about acquiring pitching, pitching, and more pitching," Sabean said.

Run prevention was a big reason why the Giants were able to chase down the Padres and win the National League West on the season's final day, then beat the Braves in the National League Division Series, the Phillies in the National League Championship Series and the Rangers in the World Series. The Giants were second in majors in runs allowed in the regular season giving up an average of 3.60 a game, which ranked behind only the Padres.

The starting pitching was magnificent in the postseason and particularly in the World Series when Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner combined to allow just nine earned runs in 34 innings for a 2.38 ERA. Sanchez is the oldest at 27. While he was a 27th-round find from Ohio Dominican, an NAIA school in Columbus, the other three were first-round draft picks.

"Everyone assumes that first-round draft picks are automatically going to be star players, but you see so many who don't take advantage of their talent and fail to live up to their full potential," Sabean said. "These guys, though, are special. Not only are they talented but they are great competitors. Nothing scares them as you saw throughout the postseason."

Sabean also did an exceptional job this season of getting production from hitters who had been discarded by other organizations. The Giants signed first baseman Aubrey Huff to a one-year, $3 million contract last August when the veteran had no other offers, signed left fielder Pat Burrell after he had been released by the Rays in May, and claimed right fielder Cody Ross off waivers from the Marlins in August. All played major roles in the team winning it all.

Sabean has been the Giants' general manager since the end of the 1996 season, and they have made five post-season appearances during that span. Yet he is rarely mentioned with the top GMs in the game. In fact, Sports Illustrated ranked him No. 27 in its GM ratings prior to this season. However, Sabean's bosses are extremely pleased by his work.

"What Brian has done is nothing short of exceptional, not just this year but over a period of time," Giants president Larry Baer said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a better job done by anybody in putting together a baseball team and keeping it together and doing it in a way that weighs and balances everything."

Sabean, for his part, isn't a publicity seeker. That was evident by his staying in the background during the Giants' celebration following their World Series-clinching victory.

"All I do is hire good people, trust them and delegate," Sabean said.

---

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen reprised his role as a pre-game analyst for Fox during World Series coverage. While he enjoyed another stint on television, it wasn't a substitute for managing in the fall classic. The White Sox finished second in the American League Central to Minnesota.

"If I don't finish first, it's a bad season for me," Guillen said. "A lot of people would be satisfied with second place, or over .500. (Owner) Jerry Reinsdorf and (general manager Ken) Williams don't pay me to be in second place. They don't pay me to be a .500 team. They pay me to win. And we don't get to the point we want to get, very emotional year. Very, very bad days. Very great days. But in the meanwhile, we don't do what we wanted to do—just win. That's my goal all the time—be in the playoffs."

The emotions Guillen were referring to were his blowups with Williams. Guillen, though, said they have patched their relationship. Things got so bad last season that the White Sox actually had talks about trading Guillen to the Marlins. On the plus side, the White Sox did come back from a 24-33 start go get within 3 ½ games of the Twins on September 6 before finishing six games out.

"Every day you learn something when you put this uniform on," Guillen said. "Every day. It's not a day when something happens on the field and off the field you don't learn from. A lot of guys had bad years early in the season, and they came up and put it together and made it better."

---

New Blue Jays manager John Farrell is quite familiar with the talent level of his team, as he was the pitching coach with the American League East rival Red Sox for the past four seasons. Farrell was impressed enough by the Blue Jays going 85-77 last season under Cito Gaston, who retired, that he took the job when offered.

"They didn't give me an impression of a one-year wonder by any means," Farrell said. "There is a lot a work to be done. Yet the strengths of this ballclub center around a young pitching staff, a very good starting corps, and an offense that set records with the home-run ball."

While the Blue Jays set a team record for home runs (257) last season, Farrell would like them to improve upon their runs scored (4.66 per game) and on-base percentage (.312). He would also like to see a reduction in the ERA (4.23).

"That is our goal, that is our driver," Farrell said. "I think we're fortunate enough to have the direction of (general manager Alex Anthopoulos) to put the pieces in place."

Though the Blue Jays finished better than expected in 2010, Anthopoulos says that he will not change his long-range plan of trying to build an organization that is a contender on a yearly basis. Thus, don't look for him to try to acquire many quick fixes either via trade or free agency this winter.

"Our goals haven't changed," Anthopoulos said "That being said, we want to get there as fast as we can, but at the same time doing it in a responsible way that doesn't deviate from the plan of winning over the long term. The game plan is to continue to look for opportunities to improve the club but be smart about it. Don't make short-sighted trades that are geared toward one season. We'll look for opportunities knowing we have the resources behind us and a very strong baseball operations group."

Farrell was one of more than a dozen candidates for the job as Anthopoulos conducted an exhaustive search in his first time looking for a new manager.

"I don't know if we will ever see the like of the due diligence that's been done in selecting this manager," Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston said. "At one point, I said, 'Alex, the Dalai Lama's here. Have you asked him what his opinion is?' The reality is he did exactly what needed to be done."

---

The Astros were another team that exceeded expectations last season, going 76-86 under first-year manager Brad Mills when many pre-season magazines pegged them for a last-place finish. Owner Drayton McLane responded by exercising the 2012 option in Mills' contract a year early and adding a club option year for 2013 while calling him "the best asset we have."

"We can't say enough about the job that Millsie has done for us," general manager Ed Wade said. "He brings every quality that you look for in a successful major-league manager. All that he cares about is helping build a championship club."

Mills waited a long time to get his chance to manage in the major leagues. He managed in the minor leagues for 11 seasons then was a major-league coach for 11 more years, including six with the Red Sox from 2004-09.

"This is where I want to be," Mills said. "I'm committed to this organization and where we're trying to get. I think we made a lot of progress this year."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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