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Inside Baseball | Jason Reid / ON BASEBALL

He Makes All the Right Moves

August 17, 2003|Jason Reid

The task might have overwhelmed some general managers, but not Brian Sabean.

Hit hard by free agency after losing Game 7 of the World Series to the Angels last season, the San Francisco Giants had holes to fill in the infield, outfield and manager's office.

And owner Peter Magowan isn't interested in rebuilding, as long as Barry Bonds is still in the lineup.

So, what did Sabean do?

Apparently, everything right.

He quickly restocked the National League pennant winners, emphasizing defense and clubhouse chemistry as well as run production. Sabean surprised many with the hiring of then-67-year-old Felipe Alou -- thought to be too old to guide the Giants and handle a certain difficult future Hall of Famer -- to replace the popular Dusty Baker, who left, then signed to manage the Chicago Cubs.

Talk about a successful makeover.

The new-look Giants have pulled away from the pack in the NL West, holding a 9 1/2-game lead over second-place Arizona. At 73-48, the Giants appear headed to their third division championship and fourth playoff appearance in seven seasons under Sabean.

The players acquired last winter have made major contributions toward another playoff push. Alou's deft handling of the group has only enhanced Sabean's already rock-solid reputation as a bold general manager who rarely makes mistakes in a sport full of multimillion-dollar blunders.

"For lack of a better term, Brian gets it," Oakland General Manager Billy Beane said. "He makes the big deal, and he has guts.

"You've got to have guts and the ability to think independently to be a good sports executive. Brian does, and one of his greatest strengths is his confidence."

Sabean has many strengths, making things difficult for other teams in the NL West.

"If you look at his track record, a lot of his major deals haven't come back to haunt him," San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers said. "The players that he's been able to acquire, either in the wintertime or at the [nonwaiver] deadline, have boosted his ballclub, helped them go out and win divisions and get deep into the postseason.

"For the rest of us in this division, if we're going to get back to winning championships, we're going to have to find a way to somehow get a little bit smarter than Brian Sabean and his people. And that might be pretty tough."

Many thought a window would open this season.

Other teams raided the Giants, signing second baseman Jeff Kent, third baseman David Bell, right fielder Reggie Sanders and center fielder Kenny Lofton. Baker ended his successful 10-year run in the San Francisco dugout, and Sabean traded No. 2 starter Russ Ortiz, who had averaged more than 200 innings and 15 victories in his first four full seasons, because of payroll concerns.

Although the Giants have the majors' fourth-highest payroll at slightly more than $89 million -- about $27 million less than the Dodgers -- Magowan and his partners have little patience for costly failed experiments, prompting Sabean to spend wisely. He did his best power-shopping last winter.

Sabean hired Alou in November, declining to interview another candidate before giving the 1994 NL manager of the year a two-year contract with a mutual option on a third year.

Then Sabean signed second baseman Ray Durham, former Dodger center fielder Marquis Grissom, third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and right fielder Jose Cruz Jr.

Durham and Grissom have been offensive catalysts while sharing the leadoff role. Cruz has dazzled defensively and Alfonzo has rebounded from a slow start; he is batting .324 with a .375 on-base percentage since the All-Star break.

Continuing his commitment to providing a versatile and deep bench, Sabean in November claimed infielder Neifi Perez on waivers from Kansas City, and invited first baseman Andres Galarraga, an 18-year veteran, to spring training.

Perez has performed well at shortstop in place of Rich Aurilia, recovering from an emergency appendectomy.

Galarraga has been more productive than most figured a 42-year-old reserve could be in any role.

And when the Giants needed another veteran starter to solidify their rotation before the nonwaiver trading deadline, Sabean acquired 14-game winner Sidney Ponson from the Baltimore Orioles.

"They do a great job of identifying great character players," Towers said. "That's important, because you need to bring the right guys into your clubhouse to make everything work.

"If you look at that ballclub on paper, they don't look like the St. Louis Cardinals. But ... they'll beat [you] like they're the best team in baseball."

Just what the Giants' top baseball executive envisioned.

"Our blueprint was to get baseball players in here, guys who could play both sides of the ball, including and especially defense, and wouldn't make mistakes in close games," said Sabean, in his 11th year with the Giants.

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