Four years ago, it was hard to tell what path the San Francisco Giants were headed down.
Coming off of a 2008 season that resulted in a 72-90 record and fourth place standing in the National League West, contending for multiple World Series titles likely wasn’t part of the organization’s immediate plans.
2008 marked the second-straight year the Giants had lost 90 or more games, something that has happened only one other time since the move to San Francisco (1984-85).
Manager Bruce Bochy had come on in 2007 to replace Felipe Alou, but to say 2009 would be a make or break season for the skipper would be an understatement—San Francisco has never lost 90 or more games three seasons in a row and likely wouldn’t have let Bochy make it through the season if things didn’t change.
To make things worse, the organization appeared to be locked into a nightmare of a contract with Barry Zito and was still dealing with the fallout of Barry Bonds’ legal proceedings.
What was once a patchwork offense centered around Bonds was starting to fall apart at the seams, needing a number of bats to fill the void that the franchise’s all-time home run leader had left.
It was as close to rock bottom as the organization had been in years, desperately searching for a way out of a number of poor financial decisions.
With millions tied up in the Zito and Aaron Rowand contracts, the Giants had to resort to other means, focusing their attention on drafting and developing talent, rather than using their minor league organization as a bait pool for major league ready talent—as they had often done in years past.
That’s when things slowly started to tick upward.
While they didn’t know it at the time, the two years of crowding the cellar of the National League West ended up yielding what could be the franchise gem—Buster Posey—who was taken by the Giants fifth overall in the 2008 draft.
Just two years before in 2006, San Francisco had drafted Tim Lincecum out of Washington in the first round and already had watched their young right-hander win a Cy Young award in his second major league season.
Their draft success continued in 2007, as the Giants took a left-handed high school pitcher in the first round named Madison Bumgarner, who would also shoot through the minor league system on his way to the big league rotation.
In a three-year span, San Francisco landed three cornerstones of their organization in the first round of the draft, an inheritance of talent that has directly correlated to the turnaround of the major league franchise.
What’s relatively surprising about the Giants’ recent success through the draft is that they were one of the worst teams in the major leagues at drafting and developing talent during the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
Before Lincecum was taken in the first round of the 2006 draft, San Francisco had only one first-round pick in the last 25 years playing in an All-Star game for the organization (Matt Cain—1st round in 2002).
You have to go all the way back to the Giants first-round pick in 1986 to find their last home grown All-Star before Cain, a year when they selected Matt Williams third overall in the first round.
Interestingly enough, just as the historically poor seasons in 2007 and 2008 yielded prizes in the draft like Posey and Zack Wheeler (whom the Giants traded last year to acquire Carlos Beltran), the back-to-back 90-loss seasons in 1984 and 1985 resulted in the Giants landing Bay Area greats Williams and Will Clark high in the first round because of their regular-season woes.
Everything in between could hardly be considered draft success, as the Giants first-round picks from 1988-05 consisted of mostly names like Steve Soderstrom, Matt White, Tony Torcato and a list of others who never lived up to their first-round billing.
Having little help coming from the minor leagues during those years, general manager Brian Sabean was forced to patch together his lineup and rotation with serviceable veterans through trades and free agency, making his share of good and bad moves that ultimately affected the product on the field one way or another.
While he was able to get San Francisco All-Stars like Jeff Kent from the Mets, Jason Schmidt for the Pirates and Rob Nen from the Marlins, Sabean did have more than a couple moves he won’t be thrilled about looking back.
He sent a trio of prospects to Minnesota when the Giants needed catching help, acquiring A.J. Pierzynski for three pitchers: Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.
While Nathan went on to be one of the better closers in the American League for the better half of a decade, Liriano was also an electric left-hander for several seasons, adding a no-hitter to his resume in recent years.
Pierzynski only lasted a year with the Giants, having a poor year by his career standards and alienating himself from an organization that had thought highly of him a year before.
Sabean also gave multi-million dollar contracts to players like Armando Benitez, Edgar Renteria and the aforementioned Zito and Rowand. Renteria and Zito nearly redeemed themselves based on postseason play alone, but their overall play during the life of the contract was hardly up to expectations.
Without a strong list of free-agent acquisitions that have panned out since bringing Bonds to the Bay Area in the early 1990s, Sabean’s success has hinged on making timely trades and recently developing from within the organization.
Finding perennial All-Stars like Posey, Lincecum and Cain, all in a six-year period of the draft, isn’t exactly a recipe that can be duplicated often, but the windfall of talent certainly came to San Francisco during a time of need.
Those three are just the tip of the iceberg for San Francisco, who has also groomed Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, Sergio Romo and Brandon Crawford in their minor league system—all being either drafted or signed by the Giants.
More than half of their starting nine were developed through the minor league system, a number that could increase in the coming years with prospects Gary Brown and Joe Panik on the horizon.
Four of San Francisco’s five starting pitchers were drafted by the organization, including Ryan Vogelsong who originally was a 5th-round pick by the club.
Even crucial members of their bullpen like Sergio Romo and the injured Brian Wilson were homegrown Giants.
All this is a far cry from the 2007 team that lost 91 games and had very few players on the roster who had been drafted by the Giants.
Former Giants like Bengie Molina, Randy Winn, Marquis Grissom, Rowand and Renteria were all imports from other organizations and were, for the most part, past their prime by the time they were in San Francisco.
The blueprint for success has been altered greatly by the Giants over the last five years, yielding the building blocks for what looks to be a lasting contender in the National League.
Two World Series titles in three years can make anyone slightly inclined to favoritism, but looking at how this team was constructed hints that the Giants may not be done contending in October for a while.
This isn’t the same team that faultered on the doorstep of the organization’s first World Series title in 2002—a team that featured aging veterans like Kenny Lofton, David Bell, J.T. Snow, Rich Aurilia and Reggie Sanders—this is a team that is founded upon a promising crop of young players who still may have better days ahead.
It’s hard to imagine Posey putting up better numbers than he has for San Francisco in his first three seasons, yet player data suggests he is just entering his prime with the bat at age 25.
Cain just turned 28 and inked a contract that will keep him a Giant well into his 30s.
Lincecum is also 28, suggesting he also may still have quite a bit left in the tank.
Then there’s the under-25 crew, consisting of Bumgarner, Crawford, Belt and an honorable mention for Sandoval who turned 26 in August. If it's true that baseball players hit their prime at age 27, this year may have only been a preview of how good they could be.
Having already weathered the pressure of the postseason spotlight and the grind of a 162-game season, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say all four of the Giants youngest stars gained priceless experience that could translate into stardom for one or more.
The only starters on the team who could even be considered “aging” veterans would be Vogelsong (35), Marco Scutaro (36) and Angel Pagan (31)—all of whom seem to have discovered the fountain of youth as their careers have progressed.
With what looks to be, at times, the perfect blend of promising youth and savvy veterans, the Giants have once again set the standard for how to win in the modern landscape of baseball.
This isn’t the brand of baseball our fathers and grandfathers watched in the early half of the century, decades owned by the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers, who could afford the best talent money could buy.
Money won in those days, as poorer teams were feeder fish for the East Coast dynasties—selling off their best talent to the richer teams just to balance the organizational budget.
The Yankees still spend more money than anyone, but of their 27 World Series titles, just one has come in the last decade.
Having the highest payroll may still be a blueprint for competitiveness, but recent history has shown its teams like the Giants, Rays and Athletics who win in the modern game because of their emphasis on the draft and development.
So, for an area that’s only claim to a West Coast dynasty is the Oakland A’s of the 1970s, there is little doubt the seeds of imagination have already been planted in the minds of every San Francisco fan.
In a game where there is a constant presence of the East Coast bias that has trickled down from eras long gone, the Giants may have sent a wake-up call to the rest of the nation who hadn’t figured out yet that these guys play pretty good baseball here in California.
If you ask the Tigers, they are likely to give a glowing recommendation.
They say good things come all at once, a cliché that may never be more fitting for a franchise that waited more than 50 years for their first taste—before being bathed again in the sweet champagne of a championship just two years later.
It’s hard to imagine the best is yet to come, but there is something about this group that tells me the orange and black are the perfect colors for October.
Where they Were Five Years Ago (2007)
Buster Posey—Not drafted until 2008 by the Giants, Posey was starring for Florida State in 2007, playing catcher and serving as the team’s closer. There, he became the only player in college baseball history to play every position on the diamond in one game—rotating between each position on the field before closing out the game in the 9th.
Pablo Sandoval—Where in the world was Pablo? Behind the plate of all places, slamming his way through the minors after being signed as a free agent in 2002. Once Posey showed up, it was time for a new position for the panda.
Madison Bumgarner—Having just been selected a few months before in the 2007 draft, Bumgarner was pitching in the low minors for the Giants and quickly jumped on the organizational radar in his first season. Questions were raised by some after a dispute with an umpire resulted in Bumgarner launching the ball over the center-field wall in disgust (from in front of the pitchers mound), but others took it as a sign of both his competitiveness and sheer arm strength.
Brandon Crawford—Just entering college at UCLA in 2007, Crawford turned his focus to baseball after also being a star quarterback in high school at Foothill in Pleasanton, CA. San Francisco’s defense is glad he chose the diamond over the gridiron.
Brandon Belt—Originally drafted as a pitcher by the Red Sox (2006) and Braves (2007), Belt turned down his opportunity to sign and headed to play for Augie Garrido at the University of Texas, where he learned the game from the man who has more collegiate victories than anyone who has ever coached at the D-1 level.
Acquired from the Phillies for C/1B Tommy Joseph and OF Nate Shierholtz.
Aquired from the Colorado Rockies for IF Charlie Culberson.
Acquired from the New York Mets for OF Andres Torres and RP Ramon Ramirez.
Signed as a free-agent by the Giants at the start of 2012 after being released by several organizations.
San Francisco Giants First-Round Draft Picks (Last 10 Years)
2012: Chris Stratton (RHP)
2011: Joe Panik (SS/2B)
2010: Gary Brown (OF)
2009: Zack Wheeler (RHP)
2008: Buster Posey (C)
2007: Madison Bumgarner (LHP)
2006: Tim Lincecum (RHP)
2005: (No 1st Round Pick)
2004: (No 1st Round Pick)
2003: David Aardsma (RHP)
2002: Matt Cain (RHP)
Gary Brown (OF)
With Pagan being a free agent at the end of the year, the Giants will have to decide whether or not to hand the center-field reins to their top prospect in 2013. If the Giants are able to keep Pagan and let Melky Cabrera walk, San Francisco could still feature Brown in center, Pagan in left and Pence in right field next season, if they deem their 2010 first-round pick ready. If the Giants feel Brown needs another year in the minors, San Francisco could sign a veteran outfielder to a one-year contract and/or give Blanco extended playing time next season in left field.
Joe Panik (2B)
The Giants drafted Panik as a shortstop in the first round of the 2011 draft, but many believe his future with the major league club is at second base. Considering the offensive strides Crawford made during the season, coupled with his defensive prowess, the organization seems comfortable letting Crawford play the position for the near future. With Scutaro approaching 40 years old, Paniks’ best shot to get in the lineup may be as a second baseman—possibly as soon as 2014.
Chris Stratton (RHP)
While there is little room in the San Francisco rotation for the time being, the Giants are going to have to make tough decisions regarding Lincecum and Zito’s future contracts, while trying to determine Vogelsong’s value as a mid-30s starter who has been anything but consistent throughout his career. The Giants also have two high school arms in their minor league system that have impressed (Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn), but Stratton may be the most advanced of the three because of his collegiate background at Mississippi State. Because of that, he could be the first in line to get a chance at replacing one or more of the San Francisco starters who will inevitably depart the club in the coming years.