Thursday, July 19, 2007

Rebuilding: Truth and Consequences - Brewers

The previous post has content on rebuilding that was going to go into this series I was going to do, but hadn't gotten around to. Since Boof is egging me on, I'm going to organize my thoughts in the comment plus take some stuff I added when I copied that into a comment at El Lefty Malo, then, as usual, tweaked even more.

Plus there was a few continuity errors in my comment, I had orginally started the year of Bill Hall being picked since that was the first year of the draft where their young starters were picked, but decided that some might question my leaving out Sabean disastrous 1997 draft, so I bumped it to 10 years so that we can compare fully with Sabean's record. But then forgot to change the text to reflect that change, so I fixed what I could.

Rebuilds Are Not a Panacea

People think rebuilds are quick, easy, and/or youth only but they aren't. One example people like to point at as a great rebuild is the Brewers. What people don't realize is that they have been rebuilding now for a long while: this is their 15 year of rebuilding. Yes, they had lost for 14 straight years now, from 1993-2006.

First, they struggled with staying around .500 for about 8 years before doing what I advocate for a quick rebuild: sink to the bottom. From 2001-2004, they lost 94 games 3 years, 106 one year. That gets you a lot of high draft picks: one #2, two #5, and one #7. This netted them Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Mark Rogers, and Ryan Braun, three key offensive pieces this season and a top 5 pitching prospect in Rogers.

Brewers Drafts 1997-2006

Let's go over their draft results, from 1997 as that is the year Sabean took over the Giants, plus I'll throw in Baseball America's top 10 prospects:

1997: No current member of Brewers drafted, nor any good player drafted period (0 out of 50).

1998: Bill Hall, he's a round 6. Everyone else pretty much sucked (1 out of 50).

1999: Ben Sheets, #1, 10th overall (1 out of 49).

2000: Corey Hart, 11th round (1 out of 50).

2001: J.J. Hardy, 2nd round, 56 overall (1 out of 50 and prospects)

2002: Prince Fielder, 1st round, 7th overall; Dana Eveland 16th round, has MLB experience (1 out of 50 plus prospects)

2003: Rickie Weeks, 1st round, 2nd overall; Tony Gwynn, 2nd round, 39th overall, #17 BA but made MLB; (1 out of 50 plus prospects)

2004: Mark Rogers, 1st round, 5th overall, #5 BA; Yovani Gallardo, 2nd round, 46th overall, #1 BA; Lorenzo Cain, DFA 17th round, #6 BA; (1 out of 50 plus prospects)

2005: Ryan Braun, 1st round, 5th overall, #2 BA; Will Inman, 3rd round, 85th overall, #3 BA; Mat Gamel, 4th Round, #10 BA; Steve Hammond, 6th round, #7 BA (1 out of 50 plus prospects)
2006: Jeremy Jeffress, 1st round, 16th overall, #4 BA; Cole Gillespie, 3rd Round, 92nd overall #8 BA (0 out of 50 plus prospects)

Thus, over a 10 year period, the Brewers found 8 players who are currently on their roster. The Giants have 9 players. Clearly, they have much better players on the whole, but 2 of them were Top 5 overall picks (Giants had one), 2 more of them are top 10 picks overall (Giants had one during that time) and 2 were from the 2nd Round.

The Brewers were 67% on their Top 5 picks (Rogers still developing so could be 100%), 100% on their 6-10th picks overall, 0% (out of 6) on picks in the 11-19 overall range. They are 4 out of 10 for their first round draft picks, but if you use more comparable picks with the Giants (10th to 30th), they are 1 out of 6 or 17%. The Giants have selected Cain, Lowry, and Lincecum with their 10-30 picks during that period, as well as Kurt Ainsworth, Boof Bonser, Brad Hennessey, and David Aardsma. Only counting Cain, Lowry, and Lincecum as good, we were 3 out of 11, or 27%.

So, the winning Brewers of today have been slowly rebuilt via the draft (and trades) over a 10 year period. Thus, people, who view the Brewers as an example of a good rebuild, are advocating that the Giants suck for 10+ years, get a lot of draft picks high, so that you can be happy with a team rebuilt the right way. I would not be happy with a 10+ year rebuild. That is why I want to stay the course with Sabean.

Free Agents Part of the Package

And even then, they still needed free agents to get to where they are today, a successful example for people of a rebuild. They overpaid a 32 year old Jeff Suppan to be a starter on their team. That is because they could not develop enough young starting pitchers to fill their rotation. They are also forced to use mediocrities (this year) like Dave Bush (4.84 ERA), Capuano (5.16 ERA), and Claudio Vargas (4.47 ERA) as starters, plus Sheets is no good to them on the DL. Their pitching is so bad that they were forced to resort to using Elmer Dessens on their staff.

And, of course, in the ideal rebuilds that the rose-colored idealist sees, you don't sign pitchers who are old and past their primes, you have to use young prospects only, vets are verboten! So the Brewers have violated what many Sabean naysayers have been criticizing Sabean for, signing a older pitcher who is in the decline phase of his career. And for 4 years at $10.5M per season.

Vets Are Still Necessary For Brewers

Also, they kept and even re-acquired veterans. Geoff Jenkins they had under contract, and Tony Graffanino they kept but he was only eligible for arbitration, plus they re-signed Craig Counsell, who was a free agent. These are all players who, under the rebuild theory that many have been mad at Sabean for keeping or acquiring, complaining that they should have been traded away already for prospects, or better, not re-signed in the first place with Counsell. Damian Miller too was kept around. They need their veterans too.

Again, this violates the tenets that Sabean naysayers have been espousing, not only keeping veteran players who they could have gotten prospects for, particularly Jenkins, but also re-signing such a player, like Counsell. Counsell would especially be an example of the typical Sabean signing, as criticized by the naysayers.

In fact, they are spending a lot of money on these veterans (Cots and baseball-reference):

Player - OPS+/ERA+ - Salary
Jenkins - 107 - $7M
Suppan - 88 - $6M (but contract to 2010, average $10.5M per year)
Estrada - 82 - $3.4M
Mench - 102 - $3.2M (but backup OF)
Graffanino - 88 - $3.25M (backup)
Counsell - 80 - $2.8M (backup plus owed $2.8M in 2008 plus buyout)
Miller - 102 - $2.25M (backup catcher)
Dessens - 65 - $2.1M
Koskie - DL - $2.0M (no stats but contract, so probably DLed)

That's $32M for an OK outfielder, and subpar starting pitcher, a subpar starting catcher (and he is known for his offense), and a bunch of bench players. Sabean would be screwed into the ground by the Sabean naysayers.

Giant Thoughts

So, over 10 years, almost 500 draft picks by the Brewers, they have developed 8 players who are on their roster (nobody has been traded who is on another MLB roster). That is 1.6% success rate, and that is with the great picks they got early in the first round four times. And this is from a team that many people like to point at as an example of how the Giants should do their rebuilding.

True, their entire starting lineup is full of prospects they selected, but their pitching rotation is not that good, particularly after Sheets went on the DL once again. They have Yovani Gallardo but the rest of their rotation are not particularly good, heck, they aren't even middle rotation good, they are pretty bad. Good thing they have a great offense.

Drafting is not the holy grail of rebuilding, it can be nasty, slow, frustrating, much like adding rings on a tree or watching grass grow. The Brewers didn't add more than one player a year, to their roster, based on results thus far. If they are rebuilding at that rate, they will fill out the starting lineup and rotation plus closer in 14 years, by which time the first ones will be close to retirement already and they would probably have had to trade for young prospects to try to keep the talent level going. Of course, some of the players they have selected in 2004 through 2006 are probably still valid prospects, but obviously that is yet to be seen.

Rebuilding is not the easy turnaround that people think they are, it normally take many years of losses, particularly with out and out stinkers, they are always done with some vets on the roster, some (a lot in some cases, like Atlanta, as we will soon see) free agent signings, and the rebuild will have mistakes made (none of their 11-20 overall picks are major leaguers). The Brewers have taken 9 years since drafting Bill Hall, 12 years since drafting Geoff Jenkins, are you willing to put up with that?

If you are satisfied with taking so long to rebuild, you have more patience than I do. I don't want to tolerate a lot of losing. I haven't been happy with the losing these past three seasons, but instead of just reacting to the bad situation, I took what I thought to be an objective assessment of where the Giants are right now and where we might go from here. Else you risk throwing out the baby with the dirty bath water.

Given how fast Sabean has rebuilt the team already, I would rather see what he can do in another seaon or two or three than to go with another GM and see how he does. This is because if the new GM is a former GM, he would have as much baggage as Sabean with probably less overall success, and if he is a new GM, he most probably will be learning on the job, learning on our dime, and I don't see that as a quick turnaround.

And in either case, we will probably have to endure a rebuilding period. As I will show in this series, most teams take at least 3 seasons to go from winning to losing/mediocre to winning again. If we are going to suffer through a losing period anyway, with a strategy that we don't know about (what if, for you anti-Sabeans, the new GM is even more anti-saber than you think Sabean is?), I would rather go with Sabean and his pitching focused strategy.

Trying out shiny new GMs with sabermetric leanings appeals to me too (I liked that sabermetric oriented manager that the Nationals picked up from the Mets, Manny Acta; he was a candidate for the Giants manager position won by Bochy) but there is a potential cost to that as I noted just above, whereas given Sabean's success thus far, I think the turnaround could be quick under him. That's why I was for 2 years and I'm OK with the option. As I noted, it is not for 2 years, it is a year to year contract, and he needs to show each year that we are progressing and moving closer to contention again.

And I like the focus on getting pitching as an organizational strategy. If he had focused on position players instead, maybe we have a nice outfield (assuming Cain, Lincecum, and Lowry are now equivalent OF position players), but now you have the infield to fill plus catcher and the pitching staff. Following his pitching-focused strategy, we have a pitching rotation that should be great for another 5 seasons or so together. He then filled in the bullpen with pitchers who were not as good but are good enough to hold a position. Only Taschner among the relievers who have made up the core of our bullpen this season, has not done OK or well, in terms of ERA.

With the rotation we have and budding bullpen, I think this is the tipping point for the strategy of focusing on pitching, now is when the rubber meets the road. Any future pitchers our farm system can generate will open up another trading chip instead of being plugged into the roster out of necessity. That will open up options for trading, that will open up opportunities to improve our pitching staff while simultaneously providing us with another player that we can trade away. And we should see some signs of this in action next year.

In addition, if we can keep the team ERA around 4.00, it should not take much offense to get us back on the winning track. With most large salaries coming off the books after the 2007 and 2008 season, there is the opportunity to totally recast the lineup, depending on what is available on the free agent market, on the trade market, and percolating up the minors. Between the three, we should be able to construct a steady enough offense that doesn't blow hot and cold.

Generally, I think firing Sabean would have been a knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation while ignoring the positives of our newly reconstructed pitching staff. What harm is there for another year or two of Sabean? At worse, we add a year or two of rebuilding, but that would have happened anyhow with any new GM we would have gotten in place. We need to see if he is headed in the right direction, just like we had to keep Ainsworth and Williams to see what direction they were headed, that's the same principle governing why Sabean has kept Cain, Lowry, and Lincecum. With such potential to the strategy, we need to see it through.


  1. Comparing the Brewers' vets to the Giants' is apples and oranges. Jenkins was given an extension after a huge year. Although his contract doesn't look so bad now, it wasn't a good move. Suppan's deal was stupid, no argument there.

    However, of those other guys you list, none make more than $3.4 mil and they aren't supposed to be integral components of the club. They're placeholders, guys who can fill a hole cheaply and adequately until the team can develop somebody else.

    The Giants, meanwhile, signed all of these old players to multi-year deals, against all logic, given what we know about players entering their late-30's, in the hopes that they'd be major contributers to a winning cause. They aren't, and now the team is stuck with guys like Dave Roberts and Randy Winn, whose contracts essentially make them trade poison.

  2. Martin, Alderson signed. I can't paste the link but read it on his local Az paper. He signed for slot money.

  3. Thanks allfrank. That's weird, I've heard a rumor that the Selig ordered that overslot deals should be delayed in announcement (order not binding), but if he signed for slot, I wonder what the hangup was.

    By slot, do you mean what people got around the #22 pick last year or the 10% decrease in bonus money that is being seen this year (after a decrease of about 10% last year too)?

    Paulie, read this article on The Hardball Times. They follow Bill James methodologies extensively, he has written for their annual, and are pretty well known among sabermetric circles:

    It is titled, "Inside the Mind of Brian Sabean," and by a well know sabermetric writer, Dave Studeman, who originated the website, Major League Baseball Graphs: There are beautiful graphs there, I recommend it if you like to look at baseball stats.

    From his research, he found that late 30's players often have value that you don't always see in the 30's leading up to 36 years of age, as the natural decline in value that one would expect occurs, creating a "U" in the value received from players.

    To quote, "Give Brian Sabean a little credit. He has a feel for this phenomenon, and he's taken advantage of it. In a crazy way, this is the "Moneyball" philosophy. Approach the market in a different manner, and take advantage of values that others don't recognize. Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta valued OBP before others did; Brian Sabean values really old guys."

    And he ends with "So maybe there's a method to Sabean's madness."

    This is what I've been relying as evidence that Sabean has been going against conventional baseball logic in signing older players.

  4. Also, Paulie, give me a break, you know that Sabean would be lambasted for signing so many bench players for so much money to sit on the bench, he got crap for Vizcaino (and well he should have), so if he signed all these players for $2-3M, chewing up $32M, or about 40% of their $72M payroll on players who are average, old, and/or not doing well, you know Sabean would hear about it.

  5. Martin:

    Enjoyed your analysis as usual.

    Another question to ponder. As the Giants are plummeting toward the bottom, are they be better off with the first pick, or a slightly lower pick? E.g. what is the drop off in the odds of getting an all-star caliber player from #1 to #5. The trade off, of course, is the cheaper signing bonus.

  6. The problem is that it is hard to say exactly, because there is only 13 years worth in my database (hand compiled too...), so the odds are not exact and as I explained in the study, I was forced to use batting average as my metric for measurement. But it is close enough, plus I used my judgement when I thought players were good but their batting average wasn't.

    So I'm going to give you a few percentages so that you can get a feel for it:

    For the top 5 picks overall, my study showed 43% of the picks were good or better.

    There appears to be no great difference between the first pick and the fifth pick. It probably isn't significantly different.

    Then it appears that picks 6-20 is about the same, then it downshifts for 21-30, further falls to 31-90, then 91-100. Here are the probabilities of selecting a good player based on those splits:

    1-5: 43.1%
    6-20: 18.5%
    21-30: 10.8% (end of 1st round)
    31-90: 4.0% (suppl. 1st/2nd/3rd round)
    91-100: 1.5% (3rd round)

    As I outlined, I think in El Lefty Malo's, the Giants are currently in position for the #5 pick, but there are 3 teams "cold" on their heels, and likewise, it won't take the Giants much to reach #1.

    Personally, I want the #1. It's got to be the best, I don't care about the money issue. According to Baseball Prospectus's draft study, the #1 is the best in terms of value (I'm just looking at whether he's a good player or not) by a far margin. Sold, I want #1.

    But it would take a lot to get that. Basically we would need to do everything the Sabean haters have been saying to do: sell off everyone old with a big contract and play young kids and "hope" for the best.

    However, August beckons and Cain and Lowry have seemed to get very white hot as a pitcher during that month, approximately, so it might be hard to reach #1 without taking them out early even if they are doing well or skipping their start.

    I still think we could put a good move on and move up the division, but since we are so close to the #5 pick overall, I really want that. And it's not like we have to tank things, we're already there.

    I think that given those conflicting goals, we should start Frandsen at 3B. If he is good, then we should start winning more as Feliz has stunk; if he is worse than Feliz, then we lose some more.

    Looking at Vizquel's splits, he should platoon with Aurilia at SS, he gets RHP, Richie gets LHP. That gives Richie AB's, plus he can play 3B against tought RHP.

    Feliz is Mr. Utility again, but mainly only in a pinch. He only gets to play 1B in platoon with Klesko at 1B if Richie is starting at SS vs. LH. He shouldn't get many ABs going forward.

    I would play Lewis more but Roberts and Winn are starting to get hot, so I would rather play them. He can play days Bonds doesn't, even the LHP plus play RF (Winn center)when Roberts is platooned, which means LHP. Well, can't avoid them LHP forever if you expect to be in baseball for a while.

    But the more I think about it, the more I think we need to trade Morris. His value has got to be falling from a month ago. Having him is nice but we have a number of starters who could come up and do OK in that role. Get what we can for him (plus save the money). His salary is actually low for a good pitcher, but still about right for an average pitcher.

    So we don't go all out clearly trying for #1, but do lose enough to keep #5 or better.

  7. Also, Paulie, give me a break, you know that Sabean would be lambasted for signing so many bench players for so much money to sit on the bench

    First, you're contradicting your original argument, saying now that the Brewers signed those guys to just sit on the bench and rot, whereas before you were comparing the same guys to Sabean's strategy of signing vets to play regularly.

    Second, you're taking this completely out of context. If Sabean had signed Graf, Counsell, Suppan, etc. with the intention of having them be the key players on a team expected to make the playoffs, yes he'd be lambasted, and rightfully so. However, if he were at the helm of the Brewers' roster, and he'd signed those guys just as cheap replacements, as the Brewers have, then I doubt he'd get so much criticism.

    Instead, he signs sucky old players to multi-year deals with the idea that they'll be major players on a contending team. If Sabean had a roster full of good young position players, like the Brewers do, and then signed Dave Roberts to like a cheap deal to fill a hole, there's really no problem. No, instead Sabean signs Roberts for three years and $18 mil and expects him to be a catalyst. Now that's a problem.

    But just forget the Brewers for a second. You seem to have the impression that fans are angry with Sabean just because he likes older players. No, we're angry with Sabean because the old players he likes suck butt, and he gives them a lot of money and a lot of years and thinks that they'll be an acceptable solution. Meanwhile the farm system continues to produce exactly zero hitters.

    That Hardball Times article is a terrific read. In fact, I wrote a little ditty about that "moneyball" idea here ( in March. Unfortunately, that THT article was written in the winter of 2004. Two losing seasons later, I think it's clear that, if that really was Sabean's philosophy, it just hasn't worked out.

  8. Paulie, first off, my original argument is this, and I'll quote: "Vets are still necessary for Brewers" "They need their veterans too"

    No where did I compare the Brewers benchsitters against Sabean starters. I only stated that if Sabean signed so many veteran players to sit on the bench, Sabean naysayers would put him down for doing that. And they have.

    Roberts has been a good catalyst for the Padres offense the past two years. And I would rather have Roberts at $6M per year than Pierre at $10M per year any day.

    So if a team had signed Albert Belle or Mo Vaugh or any young player who didn't work out, then that means one shouldn't sign good young hitters?

    And no, the complaints I've read is about old players period, there have been good players like Grissom, Alou, Vizquel, Molina, it is not like all of them stunk. There has been no balance, yes, a lot of the deals stunk, but not all of them did, and it still doesn't invalidate the study, perhaps the older players who were still playing well were not the ones available on free agency those years that Sabean had budget to acquire them.

    You were the one talking about who can fill a hole cheaply, I never brought a players starting status in as a factor, I only noted who was starting and who was not.

    So you are saying that $2-3M for a bench sitter is OK? So spending $15M on the bench is OK with you (Mench, Graff, Counsell, Miller, Dessens, Koskie)? Sabean would be burned at the stake for doing that.

  9. Lastly, shame on me for not focusing on the big picture: anyone who still thinks the Brewers are a model for rebuilding then therefore thinks it is OK to take 9 years to rebuild a team.

    I'm not down with that. I think Sabean has a plan and strategy, which he has executed while trying to be competitive as well. The pitching staff is rebuilt. It will only take a year or two to be sure that it is working or not - it appears to be working for now. Scrapping everything now could mean years of rebuilding, years before we return to competitiveness, and wasted years of Cain, Lincecum, and Lowry as our three-some.

  10. I agree. He's building a team around the ballpark. The foundation is set for years to come with the young talented arms we've acquired. Sabean has a plan, and its NOT a 10 year plan.



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