Kent-for-Williams: from ugly to beautiful

Giants GM Brian Sabean was unmercifully criticized after trading Matt Williams for Jeff Kent in 1996.

Originally Published: September 8, 2002
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

On September 30, 1996, one day after completing a terrible season, the San Francisco Giants announced the hiring of Brian Sabean as their new general manager.

Little more than a month later, on November 13, Sabean made his first big trade: All-Star third baseman Matt Williams and a player to be named later to Cleveland, in exchange for second baseman Jeff Kent, infielder Jose Vizcaino, pitcher Julian Tavarez, and a PTBNL.

And the early reviews of Brian Sabean's first significant deal? The following appeared in the November 26 issue of Baseball Weekly ...

The honeymoon is over for new general manager Brian Sabean, who drew non-stop criticism after trading superstar and crowd favorite Matt Williams to the Indians last week.

Everywhere he turned -- the newspapers, the talk shows, the voice mail -- he was the villain.

"All of a sudden, I've gone from a golden boy to an idiot," Sabean said. "I didn't get to this point by being an idiot. ... I'm sitting here telling you there is a plan."

I asked Sabean about that plan.

Brian Sabean
Brian Sabean

"I think our payroll was about $32.5 million," he remembers, "and I was told to cut back to $30 million, more in line with our revenues. We had Barry and Matt at about $7 million apiece, which meant that two guys would be getting half the payroll. We had to get younger and more versatile, so somebody had to go. And it was Matt. We knew what we had to do, and we'd just have to deal with the consequences. At that time, we had no choice. We literally had no choice."

The backlash was severe.

"It was pretty vicious," Sabean says. "The newspaper stuff I could handle, but the phone calls to the voice mail in the office were pretty bad, and eventually we shut it off. There were phone calls to my home, too, and a lot of them were vulgar. And I wondered, where were all these people during the season? Because they weren't in the seats at the ballpark."

The calls might have been complimentary rather than vulgar, had anyone had known that Jeff Kent would eventually become the first second baseman in major-league history to drive in more than 100 runs in six straight seasons. But of course, nobody could have known that, not even Sabean, who says, "We viewed Jeff as a 20-home-run, 80-RBI guy. Everybody thought he was a real solid major-league player."

He's been more than solid. Here's what Williams and Kent have done since the deal:

              Games   OBP  Slug   Runs  RBI
M. Williams    684   .321  .473    375  455
Jeff Kent      883   .370  .537    561  687

If Williams and Kent had been nothing more than Strat-O-Matic cards, and they'd been traded for each other straight up, it would have been a great deal for the Giants.

But they're not, and they weren't.

For Williams, the Indians and the Diamondbacks -- who acquired Williams in 1998 for Travis Fryman -- have spent approximately $47 million.

For Kent, the Giants have spent approximately $30 million. Big edge for Sabean.

But wait, there's more. It wasn't just a two-player deal.

In addition to Williams, the Indians got Trenidad Hubbard, who played in exactly seven major-league games for the Tribe.

In addition to Kent, the Giants got Jose Vizcaino, Julian Tavarez, Joe Roa, and one million dollars. Vizcaino gave the Giants a solid year at shortstop and second base before leaving as a free agent. Tavarez gave the Giants two solid years in middle relief before earning his release with a poor 1999 campaign. Roa was a bust (though he's recently resurfaced with the Phillies).

Oh, and that million bucks? Sabean used it to sign center fielder Darryl Hamilton, who gave the Giants a couple of good seasons before going to Colorado (in a trade for Ellis Burks, who played brilliantly for the Giants).

The 1996 Giants had finished in last place -- quite a distant last place, actually (23 games behind the Padres) -- and Sabean's plan also included finding a new first baseman, as that position had been a disaster.

He found one, in the person of J.T. Snow. And Sabean got him for a song, in the persons of pitchers Allen Watson and Fausto Macey; the former has won 24 games since, and the latter never pitched in the major leagues.

Sabean's plan? He traded for J.T. Snow, who responded with the biggest season of career. He traded Matt Williams, and wound up with four quality players ... four quality players who helped the Giants vault from last place in 1996 to first place in 1997.

And while most of the players involved in the deal have scattered to the four winds, there remains one tasty fruit.

"That was a long time ago," Sabean says about the trade, nearly six years later. "Now I just enjoy watching Jeff play every day."

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