Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The Bravos

As I wait for the new Angry Video Game Nerd video to load, I'll take the time to fawn over an organization that I think is certainly one of the best-run in the major leagues, the Braves. Many fans simpy equate the Braves' run of success (they won 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005) with three great pitchers, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, and those guys are obviously key reasons, but there's a lot more to their continued excellence than meets the eye.

Last month I read through John Schuerholz's book Built To Win, a memoir of his time running the team during their long run of success (he came aboard in 1990; the Braves went from last place that year to first in '91). While the book does contain the patented "crusty old baseball dude anti-Moneyball rant" (in the second chapter Schuerholz calls the basic premise of Moneyball "flawed", then demonstrates over the next ten pages or so that he has no understanding of what that premise actually is), overall it's a very good read. Schuerholz comes across as authoritarian and a bit of a stuffed shirt (the Braves don't allow any of their players to wear jewelry on the field; you get the idea that Schuerholz would have hated Bill Veeck), but there's no denying that when it comes to evaluating talent and putting together competitive teams, he has few peers.

What I find most impressive about the Braves is not what they did in the years when they had Maddux, Glavine, etc, but what they've done since 2004, after those guys left and after they had restrictions put on their payroll by Time Warner. As team payrolls began to escalate, the Braves were given a ceiling starting in 2001, and slowly the percentage of their team payroll relative to the league began to decrease. For a lot of teams, this would have meant bad times.

Not for Schuerholz. As their players got older and they started to lose some guys to free agency, a steady influx of young talent has kept the team afloat. The Braves won 96 games in 2004 (the first post-Maddux/Sheffield year), 90 in 2005, and now are 54-47 and three games back of the Mets in the NL East. They had a little squawk last year, finishing at 79-83, but their expected won-loss record (go here if that concept is foreign to you) was still 85-77. As Schuerholz is proud to point out, in 2005 the Braves had 17 rookies make appearances on their major league roster, and many played significant roles.

In fact, take a look at this list of players, 25 or under, on Atlanta's roster in 2007, making a significant contribution to the Braves this season (alongside is their age):

Brian McCann, 23
Kelly Johnson, 25
Jeff Francoeur, 23
Scott Thorman, 25
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 22
Yunel Escobar, 24
Chuck James, 25
Kyle Davies, 23 (ok, he sucks, but there's still potential)

McCann and Johnson are two of the best players at their respective positions. Francoeur isn't too far away, if he'd just learn to take a freaking pitch, and "Salty" (too tired to spell his name out) and Escobar are apparently big time talents. All of these players came up through Atlanta's organization and all are making solid contributions. That's quite a list. It's a testament to the Braves' scouting department, which is clearly tops in the game.

You see, this is sort of what pisses a lot of us Giants fans off about our team. The Braves won a lot during the 90's and into the aughts, and yet here they are, still on top, producing prospects out of every orifice (um, franchises have orifices? Where...never mind). You'd think that they would have fallen into the typical cycle of producing a winning team for a decade, and then losing those players to age or free agency, then sucking for a while. It hasn't happened, because their farm system has continued to bear fruit, even as their big dogs (Glavine, Maddux, Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez) have gone.

Meanwhile, we look at the Giants, who have been winning for a long time, and their resume looks essentially like a how-to guide to running a farm system into the ground. Let's see, ignoring potential impact hitters in the draft? Check. Giving away picks in order to have more money to spend on Michael Tucker? Check. Continuing to draft pitching projects even though the organization hasn't produced a hitter since the days of Kruk and Kuip (the playing days, that is)? Check.

The Giants' argument for their continued insistence on signing late-thirtysomethings to surround Bonds has been that they want to compete now, while Bonds is still around; they don't have time to sit and wait for young players to develop. What Atlanta has done the past few years (and their success compared to the Giants') is like the perfect rebuttal to that argument. Perhaps Brian Sabean should look at the Braves and take some pointers on how to successfully replenish your major league team with young players while continuing to win. Hint: it doesn't involve Dave Roberts or Rich Aurilia.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have some man-crush on the Braves here. I'm not particularly fond of them, and their fans (at least the ones who go to the games) are an apathetic lot. However, I'm just impressed by their smarts as an organization. It's like the samurai: I don't like you, I will kill you, but I respect you as a fellow warrior. And notice how this tribute to the Braves slowly morphed into another anti-Sabean rant? Sigh, some habits die hard.

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I agree with you that Atlanta has one of the very best, if not the best, draft and develop organizations in MLB. I don't agree that the Giants wither in comparison.
But first, I think it is important to understand that Atlanta has a very disctinct advantage over the Giants - and over most other aamlb teams. Atlanta has been in Atlanta for about 40 years. Even with the establishment of the new teams in Florida, they still have the benefit of little or no competition in an area of influence: Ga, S.C., N.C., Ala., Tenn. and other nearby states. Atlanta was very smart in establishing a network with the high schools and high scholl coaches in the area. They not only benefit by having the work and cooperation of hundereds of high school coaches, they also have their assistance, in identifying legit prospects and identifying those who would likely sign. This has allowed them to both identify AND sign the plethora of players right in their own area. So, for example, 3 of the players you name are from Georgia and 2 are from north Florida. The Giants do not have any sort of comparable 'home town team' advantage, competing with 3 other Calif teams, an Az team and Seattle.
Next, and I've made this point before, the Giants are nearly as productive as the Braves in developing prospects - and these two teams are among the best in MLB (altho my analysis did not look at every team, just 6). Atlanta has, when I looked, about 10 days ago, 13 players on their 25 man roster that are 'homegrown;' the Giants have 11. For comparison, the other teams results are: Padres (4); Tigers (6); Red Sox (6); Dodgers (9).
I also think it is illegitimate to compare only 'position' prospects and ignore pitching prospects. This is like choosing the argument so that you can guarantee ahead of time you will win. A roster is 25 players. A team can allocate the 25 as they see fit. In looking only at position players, you ignore 1/2 any given teaas roster; and then you attempt to confine the discussion to that half of the roster where you can win the argument. It is an axiom in baseball, that 'pitching wins,' and 'p[itching is 90% of the games,' etc. I think history shows good pitching shuts down good hitting; and to be successful in the playoffs, you need very good pitching. So, ignoring that 1/2 of the roster leads to completely uselss results.
A pitcher has more to do with the outcome of a game than any other single player in the game. Not that he doesn't need the other 8, but his excellent - or lousy - performance has more to do with the outcome than any other single player's performance.
You might be right, that a position player is more entertaining, but as far as building a winning team, the place to start is with pitching. Then you add defense and speed. Lastly, you add power. This is because building a team to enhance your pitching is more likely to result in wins than simply adding power (without defense). Also, as there is always a shortage of pitchers, drafting and developing your own allows you to fill 1/2 of your roster easily and cheaply. In other words, if you draft a pticher you don't know with precision whether he will be a # 1, a #3, a #5 a RP or a closer. If you happen to be lucky - or good- and develop 6 SPs, you can always put one in the pen or as closer. If you have 3 2d basemen, you can't necessarily use them - you run the risk of having players 'blocked' in the minor leagues much more so with position players than with pitchers.
And, despite the misery of this season, once you have a good pitching staff, you are not far from competing.
The mistake that I think a lot of Sabean critics make is assuming the Giants "need" the sort of young prospects Atlanta has. Actually, age has little to do with it. The Giants need better production than they've gotten this year. They need 5 guys hitting about 25 points higher. I hope, like everybody else, that the Giants bring in some guys who will be the next Bonds, Durham/Kent, Burks, M Williams. That is a preference, but not a necessity. The next mistake people make is to look just at the roster and in the minor leagues and say the future is doomed. First, as already stated, it igm=nores that the most difficult aspect of the team (pitching) has been assembled. Second, and amazingly so, it dgnores the role that trades and FA play. No one has any idea who will be in the starting lineup come April 08. It is clear it will be not be identical to the '07 lineup. It is clear it will not be entirely new. Some of the players will be back, some will be traded, some FAs will sign. This season has been brutal, marked by more losses than the team even deserves. But it hardly foretells next year.
I'm going to try to hammer this home one last time, because you don't seem to get it. The Giants have 11 homegrown players on their roster, yes. That would be impressive and meaningful, if most of them were good. Most of them suck though. Here's a list of the Giants' homegrowners on their active roster:


Other than Cain and Lincecum, that's a whole lot of low-upside mediocrity. Maybe Sanchez could turn into something, but those position players...egad. Here are some of those other teams you pointed out.

With respect to Lincecum, I'd rather have Peavy than any five of those Giants players. And a lot of the Pads were acquired in the minors through trade (Hensley, Gonzalez, Meredith, even Hoffman) and were groomed in the San Diego organization.


Red Sox:

Again, let's look at the Phillies just to demonstrate how silly this is. They have 11 homegrown guys on their roster, same as the Giants, except four of them are Hamels, Utley, Howard, and Rollins, i.e. All-Stars.

I'd rather have any of these homegrown rosters over the Giants. The idea isn't how many homegrown players you can put in the major leagues, it's how many good homegrown players you can put in the major leagues. The Giants' cupboard is basically bare, whereas the Braves constantly stock their roster with homegrown impact players and that is why they continue to be good every single year.
Don't patronize me with "I'll try to hammer this home one more time..." Neither of us are insiders or baseball professionals. You don't have an inside track on truth, you, as do I, have opinions based on partial information.
That being said, I agree with your last sentence, "the Braves constantly stock their roster with homegrown impacgt playes..." It is also true most teams compare unfavorably to the Braves, becfause, as I pointed out, the Braves not only have a certain (and very effective) strategy, they are able to implement it because they have a big back yard they can go fishing in without much competition.
As for your other comparisons, it is strictly persoanl preference. Because of your point of view you devaluate the quality of Giants players and inflate the falue of other teams' players. Despite his poor year, Cain is still widely regarded as a super prospect, a top of the rotation guy. Yes, he's having a gruesome year; he's also only 22. And part of it is the team around him. I'm not sure aboput Peavy, but Verlander and B onderman had very rough starts to their careers. Of course they are more valuable now, they have more experience. I think Peavy is in the same situation.. And Lowry is an above average starter, somewhere between a #2 and #3.
To trade our 11 players for the Padres 3 would be a very poor trade for us. You do get a #1 pitcher, but one who, on any given night, can be matched by Cain, Lincecum, OR Lowry. Germano? Who knows? He's probably not worth, straight up, Cain, Lincecum, Or Lowry. So, you've weakened the starting rotation AND opened up a hole in the rotation. You've gutted one of the better bullpens in the NL. ANd you've traded one mediocrity (Feliz) for another (Greene). Sure Greene plays the more premium position and is worth more than Feliz - but definitely not Feliz + the rest of the roster.
Tigers. Straight up, this is not a fair comparison (just looking at draft picks). The Tigers, by virtue of REALLY sucking for years have had a huge advantage in draft pick location for years. They ought to have better players, that's the whole idea of losing teams pick first. Still, their draft 'production,' given their advantage of picking top 10, while we afre picking 22-26 is not very pronounced. Granderson, I will grant you, is a nice player. Inge is, arguable, worse than Feliz. It is hard to compare Verlander, Bonderman, or the other pitchers to ours as they have a couple more years experience. Ours are 22 (Cain and Lincecum), theirs are, what, 25? So that factors into the "value." You may not like them, but we have 3 SPs, a closer, a starting (avg) 3b, and 2 RPs with good production and loads of talent. I do not think, if you put it to a vote to baseball people (not just anti-Sabean 'baseball' people) that Detroit wins this, certainly not hands down.
Red Sox. Come on, you're not suggesting that group is better than our group??
You make a very good point with the Phillies. I'm not as familiar with them and am not going to look into them tonight. But, good point. But there is a difference in saying some other team has done well, or exceptionally well and we have done shit. I don't disagree that a few other teams have done well. The Milwaukees and Detroits dman well better have done well, picking so high so many years running.
But your assertion that the Giants' cupboard is bare is just wrong. They are on the verge of having a surplus of very good pitching. They can easily replace Morris and Kline, if they were to trade them. They could likely replace Lowry or another starter, if they were to trade them. They have arms in Fresno who are ready and they have arms in Fresno, and to a lesser extent Conn, who are developing. They have unbelieveable pitching in August (low A - keep in mind SD took an A ball pitcher as part of the trade for Linebrink). Unlike most other teams in MLB, the Giants do not have to worry too much about pitching, starting or relief. They have one of the better - and one of the younger - staffs in MLB.
I think it is probably wrong to draw too many conclusions about players, strategy, etc from this one season. This one season is marked by the precipitous downturn of 6 position players - at the lower limits of expectation even by PECOTA standards. Really, none of these players "suck." Several of them are sucking this year, and it is hard to know exactly why. Know as opposed to having an opinion.
I agree our farm system doesn't seem to have much in the way of budding position playing All-
Stars. While it would be nice, it doesn't really need them. If the minor system could produce 4 AVERAGE position players over the next 2 years, it wouldn't be too gterribly difficult to augment that with a trade and a couple of FAs to get above average, middle of the lineup players. Do I think Frandsen is one of those players? No. Out of Lewis, Schierholtz, Ortmeier, DeLaRosa, Timpner, Horwitz, Ochoa, Knoedler, Velez,
Bowker, and all the middle IFs and middle OFs in high and low A ball, I think that is a very realistic possibility. I will agree, we need 2-4 big producers, the next Bonds', Kent's, Williams', and Durham's. Are they in our system? NO. But we were able to get 3 or those 4 by trade, SD got Gonzalez by trade.
Virtually all of the teams that are successful this year - at least in the NL - have some very old players in key spots on their rosters. SD and LA both are in equally precarious shape as we are. Atlanta? They're, currently, a 2d place team. With A and C Jones', Schmoltz, Wickman, Hudson, Renteria, they've got some aging player problems of their own.
What team do you want the Giants to emulate? Name a team, then we'll analyze and compare. I predict, even if the Giants finish second in the comparison, it will be close.
I'm not trying to patronize you, it's just that this is at least the third time I've seen you make this argument, on here and on OGC, and every time someone goes into why you're wrong, you just say that they're "willingly ignoring facts" or something and then repeat the same things over and over again.

Building your lineup through free agency and trade is fine if you do it right, but what evidence is there that Sabean can do that competently? None since like 2002.

When you're trying to build through trade, you're relying on other organizations who are usually going to try to stiff you by giving you overvalued players. Also, again, there is just no reason to think Sabean can adequately assess young talent coming back. We don't want another Pierzynski debacle on our hands.

Trying to acquire bats through free agency is also a problem because you are usually forced into signing guys to bloated contracts, and by the time they're free agents, they're probably going to be exiting their peak and you're ending up paying them the most money when they're going to be at their least effective. Free agency is not some magic button solution. And, one more time, there is absolutely no reason to think Sabean can find the right players at the right price. Do I even need to go into the Barry Zito contract here?
Mmmm, I'm waiting for you to name a team for the Giants to emulate...
You say there is no evidence Sabean can build a line up thru trade/FA since 02. Where do you get that opinion? I've seen it thrown around quite a bit, but I just don't understand why the claim continues to be made: in '03 the Giants won 100 games. In '04 they won 90 or 92, finished 2nd, 2 games out. So, at most, your opinion is based on 3 years. Unfortunately, there are no rules to frame the argument. But I think to a large extent, Sabean gets a pass for '95 and '06 as these years featured the loss of the primary player, the player around whom the team was built. This loss ob Bonds is completely unforseen, as it arose out of a complication from a fairly routine medical procedure. '06 was lost not only because Bonds was only at 1/2 strength, but 3 other major performers were hurt, Schmidt, Benitez, Alou. So, I don't think the lost season is so much predicated on poor line up building, but more by several, key injuries. Few teams are able to overcome those types of player losses.
I think what you really mean is, not so much that Sabean is unable to build a line up, but he doesn't build one the way you would. He clearly is not following the Atlanta model. But there have been significant changes in the strategy of building the team / drafting and developing players.
First of all, the Giants have assessed their own park and the NLwest and concluded that to win the west (and also to have a reasonable shot in the playoffs), they needed pitching, speed, and defense. That does mean this team, going forward, is going to be unlike Giant's teams we're used to - lots of power, lots of HRs. It also, I think, means a big change in how the team looks at certain positions, particularly, RF. Anti-Sabean posters generally espouse the general baseball maxim that RF is a power position. The Giants are looking for exceptional D in RF together with acceptable production; they are not going to get a Bobby Abreu or Pat Burrell type player, limited range, below average-to-average D (I am using them without really knowing their D skills, but the principle remains). Winn, widely criticized because he is not a traditional RF, whowed in a game this week the thinking: On one ball hit down the line in the late innings, he used his speed to cut off the ball before it got by him, and he kept the runner at 1b rather than giving up (I think, an opening inning) double. Later, on a ball hit over his head into triples alley, he got a great break, ran down the ball before it got to the wall and held the runner to a double rather than a triple.
So, it is clear spped, particularly defense=ive speed is high on his list, which is why he went after Matthews and Pierre (and I, like you, am damn glad he didn't get them).
I personally, wished he put a bit more emphasis on OBP and a bit less on veteranness. But his lineup building has been one of the best in MLB, as far as results, over his tenure, so I do give him the benefit of the doubt. I also think, given where his draft picks have been (20s), that he has been remarkably successful in drafting and finding a large number of good and very good players. I am not claiming he is the best, but I do think he is, at least, in the top 1/3 of MLB teams. And I think he is even higher if you correct for draft position.
Finally, in reviewing his line up building for this year:
C: given availability, excelelnt choice
1b: Klesko, excellent signing; Aurilia, I wasn't thrilled at the time, but his splits showed he did just as well outside Cinci. Probably too long a contract. I say this is just an average signing. There is no way to predict injury, and the ugly production seems to be injury driven.
2b: I thought, given the options (Durham and Frandsen) this was a good pickup. I thought he would fall off from last year, to something like 280.
3b: I was very wrong on this one. I had a list of about 7 things that I thought pointed to Feliz hitting about 270. I also thought if he sucked, like he did in the first half he would be benched in favor of Frandsen or Aurilia. Unfortunately, they both sucked, too.
SS: I though Omar was a good signing when he was signed, but I had worries about his last year. My worries were more that he'd have lost his range and wouldn't be adequate at SS anymore. Actually, tho he has lost some range, his defense is still superlative. I am one who is not convinced he's done. When I look at his career, he has had some really down years; so he could be back to 270-285 next year (what I thought he would do this year).
LF: Great signing
CF: Much, much better than what we almost ended up with. I have always liked the way Roberts plays. Too bad he was injured, had surgery, then had to be rushed back. Finally, he is showing what he could do. This is just a solid signing, not one that would win or lose the division.
As I have said on other sites, if this group had all performedat or just a little better than their career numbers, we would be in the race right now.
If they all had perfectly average years, we'd be something like Colo, 5-7 games out. I think it is unexpected that 5 or 6 of them (7 if you include Linden, who I thought would have a big year) would all perform SOOOOO far below their expected numbers, sooo far below their recent career averages.
The difference between us is, I am not willing to call Sabean an idiot due to this one really outlier year.
The Giants have assessed their own park and the NLwest and concluded that to win the west (and also to have a reasonable shot in the playoffs), they needed pitching, speed, and defense.

If this really is true, it's just proof that Sabean really does need to be fired because he can't remember what made his division winning teams so successful. In 2000, the Giants won the division because they had an absolutely monster offense, probably the best in the league. From 1997-2004, the team's run production was always well above average. From 05-07, well below.
I don't mean to imply that he wants no offense. But he has concluded you need pitching and D in the west. And, coincidentally, these are the commodities that give you the best chances in the playoffs. (It constantly amazes me how "big bats" get shut down in the playoffs). Also, note: SD, this year, in the fight w/ pitching and D - and nearly the worst offense in the league.
All that notwithstanding, he is not going to look for 9 Juan Pierres. He might look for 9 Randy Winn's. For our park, Randy Winn is more valuable than, say, Pat Burrell. I think he is hoping to get at least one OF from our large group of OF prospects - all of whom play decent defense.
Did you decide, yet, who the Giants should emulate?
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