Are the new-look Giants better or worse?

Rob Neyer sits down with Giants GM Brian Sabean in sunny Arizona to discuss the new-look Giants.

Originally Published: March 6, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ari. -- When a writer visits Brian Sabean, he's not ushered into the general manager's office and seated in a plush chair. Or at least this writer wasn't.

Wednesday afternoon, a few minutes before the Giants hosted the Mariners at Scottsdale Stadium, I was invited to join Sabean on the patio behind the club's spring-training office, in the direct view of the Arizona sun. It's for occasions like these that most everybody in these parts keeps sunglasses always at the ready.

Not Brian Sabean, though. Throughout our 20-minute conversation, he faced the sun without eye protection. As if he were impervious, like some sort of Super(general)man(ager), to those dreaded U-V rays. So he was one up on me already -- I donned my shades the instant I stepped outside -- and that's even before considering the fact that since 1997, when Sabean took over as GM, only one National League team has won more games than the Giants have.

What is Sabean thinking?
What keeps Brian Sabean awake at night?
I don't have any idea, because I forgot to ask him. Must have been the sun.

What should keep Brian Sabean awake at night?
His starting pitching. The Giants are blessed with four of the game's top pitching prospects, but at this moment not even one of them is guaranteed a major-league job, because Jason Schmidt is joined in the rotation by Livan Hernandez, Kirk Rueter, Damian Moss, and perhaps even Ryan Jensen. Young Kurt Ainsworth is ready for a rotation slot right now, and Jesse Foppert and Jerome Williams aren't far behind. If the Giants don't win 90-plus games this season, it'll be because Barry Bonds gets hurt or because Felipe Alou can't sort out the eight or nine candidates for the starting rotation.

And of course, no other National League team very nearly won the 2002 World Series. Just a few miles away, the Anaheim Angels -- who did win the 2002 World Series -- are preparing for the 2003 season with a roster that's practically unchanged from last fall.

Not Brian Sabean's Giants, though.

Out? Jeff Kent, David Bell, Reggie Sanders, and Kenny Lofton. Oh, and Dusty Baker.

In? Ray Durham, Edgardo Alfonzo, Jose Cruz, and Marquis Grissom. Oh, and Felipe Alou.

Not including teams like the 1915 Athletics and the 1998 Marlins, who simply gave up trying to win, very few pennant-winning teams have undergone the sort of offseason transformation that the Giants have. If it doesn't work, Sabean will be accused of behaving like the owner of a Rotisserie team. If it does work, he'll be hailed as some sort of genius.

When Sabean was signing all those new players, did he worry about how they would fit into the Giants' lineup? Or did he just go get the best players that he could, figuring that he and his new manager would sort things out later?

"A little bit of both," Sabean responds. "And as it turned out, the changes we've made aren't as ominous as people are making them out to be. Because we didn't do much with the pitching staff, and any lineup that includes Barry Bonds and returns the catcher and the first baseman and the shortstop ... you're well on your way."

And there was some good luck involved, too.

"Where we got lucky was, the type of guys we needed were available in the free-agent market, and they were all interested in us. It was just a real quirk of timing. Some of these guys obviously were needed from day one. Like Durham. Knowing that Kenny (Lofton) wasn't going to return, we needed a leadoff man. With our inability to sign Jeff (Kent), having somebody like Alfonzo available was obviously a godsend."

But will the Giants score as many runs as they did last year?

More from Sabean ...
Bonus question for Brian Sabean:
"What does Neifi Perez bring to the ball club?"

Bonus answer from Brian Sabean:
"To have a Gold Glove type of utility player on your team is very unique. In talking to Felipe and seeing how it's played out in the spring, we're going to play him all over in the spring, and he's going to get a chance to play during the season. It's a unique situation, because he could be an everyday shortstop for most clubs, but he's also willing to play second base, and third, and by doing that he's going to get quite a few at-bats."

"It's possible," Sabean says. "We'll be a better baserunning team, with three legitimate base-stealing threats in Durham, Cruz, and Grissom. We're more of a contact-hitting team than we were, but I think we're going to have a chance to drive in quite a few runs. On a daily basis, we're going first to third and second to home better than we have in the past."

But Sabean's really not too worried about how many runs the Giants score.

"I'm convinced that, on paper at least, we've got a chance to pitch very well and defend very well, and when you have those two working in combination on most days, you figure how to score enough runs. That type of team really doesn't take too many days off, where you're not competitive."

For all those changes to the lineup, the change in the dugout might be even more important. In the new Baseball Prospectus, one can find a table suggesting that a significant number of players have elevated their games while playing for Dusty Baker.

Will they do the same for 67-year-old Felipe Alou? It's only March, but Sabean certainly sounds optimistic.

"Felipe was born to be in a baseball uniform," Sabean said. "That's obvious. If you see him in person on a daily basis and you engage him, you see that he's sharp as a tack. I think the fact that now he's with the organization that he started with, and he knows that we have high expectations for what's a veteran club. I think he's been rejuvenated, knowing that however long he manages, this is going to be his final go-around."

So it looks like Felipe Alou and Barry Bonds might ride off into the sunset together. And the big question is, will they ride off with World Championship rings?

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

ALSO SEE