High-risk trades pay off for Sabean's Giants

Ex-GM returned results in deals despite drawing ire of fans

High-risk trades pay off for Sabean's Giants

SAN FRANCISCO -- Brian Sabean observed that the Groundhog Day aspect to trades, the issue that emerges and commands notice with every deal, is the risk-versus-reward factor. Sabean obviously has been rewarded more often than not, assembling teams that won three World Series and finished above .500 in 13 of his 18 seasons as the Giants' general manager.

But one particular trade exposed Sabean to considerable criticism from fans and media: The November 1996 swap that sent third baseman Matt Williams and utility man Trent Hubbard to the Indians for second baseman Jeff Kent, shortstop Jose Vizcaino and right-handers Joe Roa and Julian Tavarez. Sabean received so much disapproval for parting with All-Star slugger Williams that he felt compelled to defend himself by saying, "I am not an idiot." He wasn't, as Kent, Vizcaino and Tavarez contributed significantly to San Francisco's National League West title in 1997.

Another trade that Sabean engineered initially worked and appeared sensible, then prompted increasing ridicule. That was the November 2003 deal with the Twins, who sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for pitchers Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser. A disgruntled Pierzynski played himself out of San Francisco after one season. By contrast, Nathan became a six-time All-Star who accumulated at least 35 saves in nine seasons, while Liriano was an erratic but sometimes spectacular starter who has migrated to Pittsburgh.

Sabean recently referred to that trade as a "lesson in humility."

It could have been worse had the Giants taken an alternative to trading Williams. Having endured three consecutive losing seasons from 1994-96, the Giants needed to acquire Major League-ready talent and fix their finances. The salaries of Williams and Barry Bonds consumed about 40 percent of their payroll. Instead of jettisoning Williams, the Giants could have opted to trade Bonds, who won four Most Valuable Player awards and hit 369 home runs, including his record-breaking 756th, from 1997 through the end of his career. "It came down to trading Barry or Matt," Sabean said.

Sabean explained that the Pierzynski deal was hastened by the need to replace catcher Benito Santiago, who hit .273 with 33 home runs and 175 RBIs from 2001-03 with San Francisco. Pierzynski, a .301 lifetime hitter in six seasons with Minnesota, seemed like an excellent successor. But he reportedly squabbled with members of the pitching staff and grounded into a club-record 27 double plays. Meanwhile, Nathan became the dominant closer San Francisco lacked after Robb Nen's shoulder betrayed him.

"Unfortunately at the time, we didn't know enough about Nathan and how he was going to blossom," Sabean said.

The Giants realized that Liriano possessed considerable skill. They also knew that he was a converted outfielder with shoulder problems. They couldn't have foreseen his breakout year in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA for the Twins.

"You never know when you're trading prospects," Sabean said.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.