Tuesday, July 26, 2016

When To Cut Your Losses

In the Bay Area, we have the luxury of two major league baseball franchises--the San Francisco Giants, and the Oakland Athletics. 

Over the last several years, these respective teams have pursued very different management strategies, with respect to how they construct their rosters from year to year. 

The A's have become notorious for a constantly shifting roster re-build, dumping half or more of each year's players through trades or voluntary releases, to such a degree that fans feel as if they must be "introduced" to an entirely new squad each spring training. This approach de-emphasizes "loyalty" and team cohesion in favor of hard pragmatic measures; it's run like a corporation, hiring and firing willfully, without regarding for the feelings of individual players, or of fan sentiment. Players who do very well or very poorly, are likely to be treated the same, either to rid the team of their salary commitment, or because of poor performance. Players aren't people in this system. They're just ciphers or parts of a machine. The system places great emphasis on the skill and intuition of the general manager, which is why the team general manager, Billy Beane, has been lionized by the media (and even a major Hollywood film based on a book about him and his management style) for his "moneyball" success in crafting competitive teams. 

The Giants, on the other hand, have built a successful franchise on a different principle. Brian Sabean, the Giants General Manager from 1996 to 2015, took a different approach, building teams through the minor league system, sticking with them through the early times as they matured, and through shrewd judgment of existing free agent talent. The team has attempted to treat its players as the emotional, sensitive people they are, valuing individual player loyalty, and nurturing team cohesion. This approach has brought the team three world championships in the last five years, and the team is comfortably, at this writing, in first place in the NL West Division, also leading the majors in winning during much of the last month or so. 

But there are problems to both approaches. The Athletics are ruthless in dealing with talent. Professional major league teams are businesses. If a team isn't performing, it must be regarded dispassionately, the bad (or weakly performing) parts cut out, and replaced with better options. There's a certain amount of fluidity to that, of course, since all players, and all groups of players, undergo fluctuations from day to day, week to week, and month to month. The Giants, on the other hand, seem to over-emphasize player loyalty, often holding onto a player well after that player has demonstrated a decline in quality--an inevitable factor in almost all players' careers. 

Tim Lincecum displayed Cy Young numbers for five years (2007-2011, during which his combined record was 69-41), but then his career began to tank. This was obvious for anyone to see. His herky-jerky motion, relatively small frame wasn't constructed for a long career. He lost velocity on his fast-ball, and began to lose his control. The handwriting was on the wall. Lincecum's career was destined to be a short one, as I had predicted way back in 2010 here on The Compass Rose. Yet the Giants held on to him, despite this decline, partly out of a sense of sentiment (or nostalgia). 

Matt Cain came up through the Giants farm system, and became what is commonly called a "good journeyman" position on the staff, going 85-78 between 2005 and 2012. Then, almost overnight, his arm went bad, and his participation was cut in half. It was clear, by 2014, that Cain was no longer the strong, young journeyman he'd once been, as his ERA ramped up, and hitters began teeing off on his diminished stuff. He underwent arm surgery, and his return has been a disaster. Cain's career is over, but the team seems determined not to accept that verdict. 

The team has had similar experiences with free agent hurlers. Tim Hudson was clearly over the hill, whose best years had been with Oakland, and then, for several years, the Atlanta Braves. Yet the Giants hired him for two seasons, during which his combined record was 17-22.  In retrospect, that decision looks to have been a mistake, unless you accept the pragmatic notion that every staff must have a few "innings-eaters" even if their starts result in losses.

In 2014, the Giants signed Jake Peavy to a three-year contract, despite his going 1-9 for the Red Sox the first half of that year. Peavy's best days had been with San Diego, where he went 86-62, and earned a Cy Young with 19 wins in 2007. Judging from how he's pitched since then, there's no evidence that he has the body or the skill to put up numbers resembling those ever again. 

The Giants have been through this routine before with Barry Zito, their worst free agent signing ever. 63-69 in the seven seasons of his long contract. Though it was clear that Zito's career was essentially in disarray by 2008, the team kept using him--and losing with him--through another four agonizing years of frustration. 

Contracts and obligations often weigh teams down. Players given huge long-term contracts may prove to have been very bad investments. Giving up on a player in mid-career may sometimes be a mistake, though a simple change of scene may be the only way of reviving a player's performance. Astute students of the game can usually tell who to offer the big contracts to. But letting emotion and sentiment dictate your moves can be a mistake. 

Right now, the Giants have three very good starters in Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija. But Peavy and Cain are dragging the team down. Any game that either of these two guys start is likely to be a blow-out loss. Neither seems capable of sustaining more than an inning or two of acceptable dominance, frequently giving up runs in bunches, often to mediocre teams. As long as the Giants keep running these guys out there, we're going to have to keep crossing our fingers. It's like expecting that 40% of your games will be forfeits!

It would be nice if a faith in players earned dividends in the real world. But in professional sports, the bottom line is made from ability and success. Players whose abilities have withered, can't be kept around just "for old times' sake." These two has-beens need to be shown the door, and replacements found. I'm all for loyalty and humanity and common decency, but Peavy and Cain are no longer major league pitchers. It's over. Better to cut the cord now, before they drag the team down in the standings. 

I'm not suggesting that the Giants should be run like the A's. Quite the opposite. Building strong teams is nearly impossible by turning over your whole roster every year--and the effects on your fan base are disastrous. But I do think the Giants need to be more realistic about these tired old arms than they have been. The team is in contention for another title this year.  The Cubs, who are trying to win it all this time, after a century of frustration, would be unlikely to settle for second-rate performance like that we've been getting from Peavy and Cain. We should be just as impatient. 

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