The One Who Got Away: A Look at Brian Sabean's Best & Worst Pitching Trades
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The 2011 baseball season is upon us, and that can only mean one thing for eager fans: a fresh start. With hopes of celebratory bliss, you announce confidently, “this is our year,” as you retrieve the enormous foam finger lodged behind your bed. The once prized possession is now dusted with crumb remnants and dead ants.
While one’s prophecies for the upcoming season may be nothing more than fantasy, players must approach each year with the goal to maintain past success, improve on past failures, or return from an injury, thus proving they still are one of the elite. No player is more eager to prove he can return to greatness than Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan.
Nathan made great progress this spring and has reestablished himself as Minnesota's closer to open the season. This tale, however, is not about Nathan’s return to the mound. This is a tortuous reminder to all San Francisco Giants fans who still cringe when his name is spoken. A four-time All-Star, Nathan is nothing less than a savior to Minnesota faithful, but to Giants aficionados, like the ex-girlfriend you let slip through your fingers when you stupidly answered yes to “do these jeans make me look fat,” he is merely the one who got away.
This June, the Twins will visit San Francisco for the first time since the 2003 trade that sent Nathan to Minnesota. Like a nerd coming back for his twenty-year reunion driving a Porsche, and sporting a hot blonde on his arm, the elite closer will return with a chest full of accolades acquired since.
In November of 2003, Giants General Manager Brian Sabean, traded Nathan, along with Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano, for catcher A.J. Piersynksi. At the time, everything appeared safe. Piersynksi was a player about to hit his prime at a hard-to- fill position, and only Nathan had any major league experience at that point. The result? You’d be hard pressed to find one person who would argue against it being the worst trade in San Francisco’s history.
Sabean has made a career of upsetting fans at the time of a deal yet, somehow, many work out in the end. So what happened with this one? Was the departure of these now American League all-stars a result of miscalculation, poor scouting, and an itchy trigger finger, or just an anomaly, resulting in a case of inauspicious hindsight?
How has Sabean really fared in his assessment of young pitching talent? At this point everyone knows the names Lincecum, Cain, Sanchez and Bumgarner, but that staff didn’t get assembled without some bumps in the road; Nate Bumps to be exact.
Below are some of Sabean’s trades involving young pitchers. Some left fans day dreaming of memories past, while others left fellow GMs holding a bag of Sabean Fool’s Gold.
THE ONES WHO GOT AWAY
4. Jeremy Accardo to Toronto for Vinnie Chulk & Shea Hillenbrand (July 2006)
Sure, Accardo hasn’t amounted to a whole lot since; however, the year after he was traded he racked up 30 saves and a 2.14 ERA for Toronto while loathed Giant closer Armando Benetiz saved just nine games, blew a handful of others and was traded mid-season.
3. David Aardsma & Jerome Williams to Chicago Cubs for LaTroy Hawkins (May 2005)
Aardsma, one of many first round picks Sabean has dealt during his tenure, bounced around for a few seasons before finally settling in as the closer for Seattle in 2009. That year he saved 38 games then followed it up with 31 in 2010. When healthy, he is slated for closing duties again this season, proving to be a valued commodity in the Mariner’s bullpen. Would the Giants have wanted to wait four years for a guy who would’ve just pissed off the team seamstress by using up all her “A” letters? The prognosis is no, but good bullpen help is always hard to find, especially one with closing ability – just ask Armando Benetiz haters.
2. Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry & others for Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin & Roberto Hernandez (July 1997)
All three players obtained somewhat helped bring a National League West title to San Francisco in 1997, but Sabean left the dog door open and Keith Foulke quietly escaped into the night to go on to save 191 career games, as well as bring a World Series title to Boston in 2004. See aforementioned prognosis for Aardsma, minus the nagging seamstress.
1. Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano & Boof Bonser for A.J. Piersynksi (November 2003)
Looking to upgrade the catcher position after the departure of Benito Santiago, Sabean made what is regarded the worst trade of his tenure, giving up Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, for problematic A.J. Piersynksi. Bonser, rated the 29th best prospect in 2002 was actually the prized piece of the deal, but he isn’t the one fans have lost sleep over. He has been no better than a 5th starter for any team since the deal. Liriano took the A.L. by storm when he broke into the majors a year later, and after being derailed by an arm injury he has once again established himself as one of the best lefties in the game atop the Twins rotation. Nathan has gone on to make four all-star appearances, and has been one of the game’s best closers over the past six seasons.
Piersysnki was released the following season.
SABEAN FOOLS GOLD
5. Jason Grilli & Nate Bump to Florida for Livan Hernandez (July 1999)
Rarely in any sport do you see consecutive year first round picks traded in the same deal, but when the Giants dealt for inning-eater Livan Hernandez at the trade deadline in 1999 this rarity became a reality. Grilli, the fourth overall pick in 1997 seemed poised for a brilliant major league career, but Sabean sent the Seton Hall alum to Miami along with 1998 first rounder Nate Bump.
Grilli was a top 50 prospect at the time, and Bump had shown promise in the minors, posting a sub 1.75 ERA in each of his first two seasons. Dealing two 1st round prospects for a pitcher who was 5-9 at the time would make even the most unknowledgeable fan question sanity, but amazingly Sabean came out smelling like a rose.
Hernandez went on to win 45 games for the Giants while Grilli became nothing more than a journeyman reliever. Nate Bump pitched in just three partial seasons for Florida with the last being in 2005.
4. Jesse Foppert (and Yorvit Torrealba) to Seattle for Randy Winn (July 2005)
Foppert, the fifth rated prospect by Baseball America in 2003 was San Francisco’s Lincecum, before there was Lincecum. He had a promising 2003 and was a fixture in the starting rotation for a team that won the National League Western Division, but promise quickly turned to pain killers as multiple injuries to his throwing elbow sent his career into a tailspin.
Before the completion of his comeback Sabean sent the once can’t-miss prospect to Seattle for consistent, but not flashy, Randy Winn. Despite the injuries, the Bay Area product was a fan favorite, and many were sad to see him go. In the end it was the right move. Winn went on to start in right field for SF for the next four and a half seasons, and was seventh in the N.L. in hitting in 2008. Foppert never pitched in the Majors again.
3. Kurt Ainsworth (and Damian Moss) to Baltimore for Sidney Ponson (July 2003)
Another first round pick (1999), Ainsworth followed the orange and black brick road right out of San Francisco, like his fellow first rounders of the past. Like Foppert, Ainsworth cracked the rotation in 2003, posting a winning record and sub-4 ERA in 11 starts, but was traded before the deadline for often lazy and rarely effective Sidney Ponson.
Ponson won only three games the rest of year for SF, and cost the Giants in additional food catering services due to his insatiable appetite, but once again Sabean made the right call. Ainsworth would pitch only two innings in the Majors after the trade, and is rumored to be working in the giraffe exhibit at a Baltimore zoo. (Don’t get me wrong, giraffes are amazing creatures – I’m just saying.)
2. Tim Alderson to Pittsburgh for Freddie Sanchez (July 2009)
In what was regarded as a bit of a haphazard deal at the time, Sabean dealt the No. 2 prospect in the organization for a powerless and injury plagued second baseman. At the time of the trade, Freddie Sanchez couldn’t even play due to injury. Who trades the 45th ranked Major League prospect and his miniscule ERA for a beaten up player who can’t even suit up? Could he have traded for someone better at the time? Yes. Could he have given up a lesser prospect to get Sanchez? Yes. Did the trade work out?
Alderson posted a whopping 6.03 ERA in 25 minor league starts in 2010 and was demoted to Single-A before season’s end. Sanchez went on to help San Francisco bring home its first World Championship, contributing with three doubles to set a World Series record in Game 1, and will take the field on opening day 2011. Enough said.
1. Ryan Vogelsong (and Armando Rios) to Pittsburgh for Jason Schmidt (July 30th, 2001)
Ok, so Ryan Vogelsong can hardly be considered a prospect, but then again neither was Jason Schmidt at the time. Schmidt immediately blossomed in the organization, establishing himself as one of the top pitchers in the National League and led the team to post-season births in 2002 and 2003. Vogelsong amassed 10 wins over six seasons with the Pirates. He is now back with the organization this spring vying for a spot on San Francisco’s opening day roster.
Not trading Tim Lincecum for Alex Rios (after 2007 season)
San Francisco was desperate for a bat, and Lincecum was an emerging superstar. The deal was more than just a rumor, but luckily dissipated like a phantom in the night once cries were heard from Giant faithful.
All in all, Sabean has done a decent job at assessing pitching talent, confidently trading away first round pick after first round pick, only to see them flounder in their new homes. He has created one of the best starting pitching staffs and despite it taking 17 years, he hasn’t given up a whole lot (other than a guy 30th on the all-time saves list, one of the best left-handed starters in the American League and a guy who was on the mound when the Red Sox brought home a Championship after 86 years).
When Nathan comes trotting out of the bullpen later this season during his team’s stop in San Franciso, Giant fans can dream about what could have been, but ultimately be happy about what has been.
Sabean has been forgiven.
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