Around the time the San Francisco Giants lost Melky Cabrera to a steroid suspension, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers added former All-Stars Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford — not to mention $250 million in salaries — in an August trade with the Boston Red Sox.
From the day of the deal’s announcement through the end of the regular season, the Dodgers had a .500 record. The Giants went 23-13 and won the National League West.
In the opening round of the NL playoffs, the Giants encountered a Cincinnati Reds team that signed first baseman Joey Votto to a $225 million contract extension earlier this year. The Giants fell behind in the series 2-0 before winning three straight elimination games to advance.
The Giants defeated the reigning world champion St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series — again winning three times when a loss would have meant the end of their season — and met the favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The Tigers had a $200 million first baseman of their own (Prince Fielder), the majors’ first Triple Crown winner in 45 years (Miguel Cabrera) and the best pitcher in baseball (Justin Verlander).
The Giants swept them.
San Francisco’s second title in three seasons raises the immediate question of whether baseball has its first dynasty since the 1996-2000 New York Yankees. (The answer, by definition, is yes.) Even more intriguing are the lessons behind the Giants’ victory, on the eve of an offseason in which the cash-flush industry will eyeball an underwhelming cast of free agents.
Let’s start with a point that will be repeated within innumerable executive suites after Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke sign their next contracts: Teams with three of the four highest payrolls in baseball this year — the Phillies, Red Sox and Angels — missed the playoffs. Also, the Marlins won the winter meetings last year with a showy spending spree, but quickly turned into a spectacle for all the wrong reasons; they finished last in the NL East and fired manager Ozzie Guillen.
It’s impossible to win the World Series without stars. But the Giants demonstrated — just like in 2010 — that gaudy numbers are not enough. Defense matters (Gregor Blanco and Brandon Crawford). Baserunning matters (Blanco and Angel Pagan). Unselfishness matters (Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum). Savvy matters (Marco Scutaro and Ryan Theriot). Leadership matters (Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and most everyone in a professional clubhouse).
Above all, atmosphere matters. Manager Bruce Bochy has fostered an enduring championship culture, thanks in large part to Posey’s steady production and winning ethic.
"The reason we succeed, quite frankly, is that there’s component parts here that have low ego,” Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said. “We have to go out and earn it every year. We have to be smart. We’re not going to spend the most."
To be clear, the Giants aren’t a financial underdog. They drew more than 3.3 million fans this season, second-most in the National League. Their Opening Day payroll was $117.6 million — eighth in the majors, according to USA Today — and they added to it with the July trades for Pence and Scutaro. The 2012 Giants are the only team in baseball history to have two pitchers signed to contracts with total values of $126 million or more: Matt Cain and Barry Zito.
Posey is another $100 million player waiting to happen, and there’s a good chance he will become one with the Giants. (Joe Mauer’s record contract for a catcher — eight years, $184 million — could be a reasonable goal for Posey in two or three years’ time.)
So, yes, the Giants spend plenty of money. But the brilliance of general manager Brian Sabean is in how he does it. Their core is largely homegrown, meaning such players as Posey, Cain, Pablo Sandoval, Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner and Sergio Romo were acquired as amateurs at relatively low cost. Thanks to such astute scouting and player development, Sabean has had enough money left in the budget to acquire complementary veterans.
“What struck me is, you look around the field and we had a lot of homegrown guys,” Baer said of the final nine on the field Sunday in Detroit. “Look at the infield: Brandon Belt at first base, Marco was a pickup, (Brandon) Crawford at short, Panda at third, Posey behind the plate. These guys came up through the system. I think that gives us reason to be hopeful we can be in this kind of mode for a while.”
This isn’t a revolutionary idea. Owners and GMs have known for years that a strong farm system is the key to sustained winning. Championships become a lot more attainable with a player like Posey, the first-round draft pick who is an exceptional hitter, catcher and competitor. But it seems that the Giants are among the best organizations in baseball at evaluating and finding those final pieces to a playoff roster — like Scutaro, Pence and Blanco — who often account for the difference between empty champagne bottles and, well, emptiness.
It’s not necessarily about trading for the best player. The Giants tried that last year, when, starved for offense following Posey’s season-ending injury, they acquired Carlos Beltran from the Mets. Beltran was then — and is now — one of the game’s most graceful players, a switch-hitter with power who has a lengthy history of postseason slugging. But he’s not a grinder who pours his soul onto the field, in the way that Scutaro and Pence do.
With Beltran in the starting lineup, the ’11 Giants went 20-23 and missed the playoffs. In the 70 games (postseason included) started by Scutaro and Pence, the ’12 Giants went 48-22 — a dazzling .686 winning percentage. Sure, the Giants’ superb pitching staff had a lot to do with those victories. But there’s something to be said for the manner in which Bochy incorporated the new arrivals, who, true to the scouting reports, fit perfectly with the Giants’ brand of baseball.
"It’s the way Sabean finds ballplayers,” admired Mike Murphy, the Giants’ legendary home clubhouse manager and a team employee for 55 years. “They’re just great guys. They get together great. We picked up Pence and (Scutaro), and they kept the club going. When Pence came, he was a little hectic at first. But once he got to know the guys, he just blended in like the rest of the boys. Everywhere we went, he kept us alive.”
With a superstar behind the plate and strong sense of self, the Giants have less guesswork in filling the rest of the roster. They haven’t spent lavishly on the free-agent market in recent years, and they won’t sign multiple stars this winter just because they can.
Sabean learned his lessons from the Zito and Aaron Rowand deals: Big contracts rarely solve big problems. Often, it’s the little moves that bring home the largest trophy.