Kansas City fans of a certain age remember odd-year ace Bret Saberhagen and his career-best exploits of 1985, 1987 and 1989.
They didn’t know what to make of the baseball oddity, but reveled in their hero’s Cy Young Award campaigns of ’85 and ’89, and rejoiced in his World Series MVP performance against St. Louis. Some surely wondered what might have been last fall, if KC had a Saberhagen-like presence on the mound for the finale. He’d shut out the Cardinals in Game 7 then, after all, and all the Royals had this time was poor Jeremy Guthrie.
But that was 2014, and the even years are San Francisco’s domain, of which they are masters. World Champions in 2010, 2012 and 2014, the final time as a wild card entrant, the Giants just always seem to find a way. In the even years, anyway. In the odds? Not so much.
Part of the equation is management’s realization that no team, not even a veteran club in the middle of dynasty – and yes, this is a dynasty of sorts – wins every year. Not in the 21st century, especially. And there is always a degree of wound-licking after a great victory, whether the generals want to admit it publicly or not.
With all the talk about Bruce Bochy being a Cooperstown shoo-in, Brian Sabean ought to get some consideration too. During much of his 18 seasons running the club – as is now the custom with successful general managers, Sabean has recently moved up to the position V.P. of baseball operations – the 58-year-old executive has had a uncanny knack for reeling in the forgotten player, or the one who never quite prospered until landing in China Basin.
The Giants’ 2010 championship club, its first in 56 years, included key contributions from second baseman Freddy Sanchez (a nice little player during a five-year span in Pittsburgh), all-or-nothing-power-hitter Pat Burrell, outfielder Aubrey Huff and starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez, each in his final year as an effective major league player.
Cody Ross was a late-season waiver acquisition who managed but three home runs and seven RBIs as a 2010 Giant. He bettered that total in the postseason with five and 10, adding a little thing called the National League Championship Series MVP to boot.
Perhaps Sabean’s finest diamond-in-the-rough find that season was Andres Torres, who contributed a .268/.343/.479 line as San Francisco’s leadoff man, smacked 16 home runs, drove in 63, stole 26 bases, scored 84 runs and sparkled in the field. He hit .333 with a homer and three RBIs in the NLCS and World Series, and was never heard from again. Or before, really.
Newcomers brought in to help the Giants to the 2012 championship included PED-suspended and subsequently jettisoned Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan and current local legend Hunter Pence. Second baseman Marco Scutaro didn’t exactly come out of nowhere – he’d been a solid infielder in the American League for years – but the .362/.385/.473 following his July 27 acquisition sure did. And San Francisco doesn’t win squat without it.
Last year’s championship squad included Sabean selections Tim Hudson, then a 38-year-old veteran starter, second baseman Brandon Hicks, who managed to hit .368/.573/1.170 through the first two weeks of the season before going .159 and .128 in May and June respectively, and Michael Morse, who slugged .475, adding a booming game-tying homer in the clinching game of the 2014 NLCS.
And lest we forget Travis Ishikawa, because San Francisco never will. In fact, Giants fans will be telling their grandchildren about Travis Ishikawa for generations. Shit, I’ll tell my grandchildren about Travis Ishikawa too, and I’m an L.A. man.
Ishikawa is the perfect example of the seemingly minor Sabean move that, in the end, turns out to be genius, and makes all the difference in the world. The World Series, actually.
A journeyman first baseman with little power – 22 round trippers lifetime – who’d played 3 2/3 career innings as an outfielder prior to 2014, Ishikawa grabbed a glove, started the final three games of September plus 14 more in the postseason in left, and hit the most dramatic Giants home run since Bobby Thomson, a pennant-winning, walk-off shot to send his team to the Fall Classic.
Chalk it all up to luck or the keen eye of a brilliant baseball man, the accomplishments of Ishikawa-like players that the Giants employ to great use every other year are odd occurrences. But they are not, in the parlance, “repeatable.”
Yet Sabean rewarded Huff with a two-year, $20 million contract after his big season of 2010, gave Scutaro $20 million at age 37 in 2012 and handed Jake Peavy a two-year, $24 million deal over the winter. Also on the ledger is $127.5 million guaranteed for broken down former ace Matt Cain and a two-year $35 million extension for other former ace Tim Lincecum. Generosity or negligence? You tell me.
No one is to blame for Pablo Sandoval’s offseason exit, and I’m not even sure the Panda can explain his reasoning, but losing such an impactful player was a blow. Getting Casey McGehee to play third base was a grasping-at-straws kind of move that had little chance of success. It’s the kind of thing Sabean wouldn’t do in an even year. But he’s entitled to a couple of clunkers.
Sabean has ceded control to apprentice Bobby Evans, who should bring a fresh approach while maintaining the club philosophy of under-the-radar roster management. Despite an eight-game losing streak early this odd-year season, San Francisco did just take four of six from the first-place Dodgers, and shouldn’t be counted out.
They’re 9-13 and 4.5 back with 140 to play. Pence will return soon enough, and while there is no Saberhagen in San Francisco, they do have Madison Bumgarner. And for all we know, 2015 will be the year of World Series hero Justin Maxwell. It doesn’t seem likely, but neither did Travis Ishikawa.