There are several ways for major league general managers to improve their club during a pennant race, with the most obvious being a trade to bolster a team’s weakness.
At the trade deadline, San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean tried to do just that by wheeling and dealing to upgrade the offense by adding Carlos Beltran from the New York Mets. And in an attempt to improve at shortstop, he made a lesser deal with the Cleveland Indians to get veteran Orlando Cabrera. Neither trade has worked out so far because, in Beltran’s case, he missed time with an injured wrist; in Cabrera’s case, his decline on both sides of the ball weakened the team's defensive range (as compared to rookie Brandon Crawford) while not improving an already anemic offense. They were both good moves at the time, they just haven’t worked out.
Beside trades, there are other ways GMs can try to improve a fading but pennant-contending team. That includes bringing up a young player from the minor leagues, releasing under-performing veteran players and even making a flurry of “shock” moves that literally can shake up a complacent clubhouse. Sabean, in a surprising whirlwind of a Wednesday, did all of the above.
First, he made the decision to bring up 26-year-old rookie and power-hitting first baseman Brett Pill, who was hitting .312/.341/.530 with 36 doubles, 25 home runs and 107 RBIs from their Triple-A affiliate Fresno club of the Pacific Coast League and then activated outfield Pat Burrell from the disabled list. Then came the stunner when he designated both Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada for assignment, giving the Giants 10 days to trade both of them or release them unconditionally, either way ending their careers in San Francisco.
The addition of Pill brings a “younger” energy to the clubhouse and at least a new alternative to try to score more runs from the first base position. That doesn’t mean he’ll supplant Aubrey Huff at the position, but Huff’s .243/.301/.375 season with just 12 home run and 55 RBIs -- just four RBIs since Aug. 10 -- has to be wearing on Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Remember Huff is 34 years old and has always been a below-average defender. If nothing else Pill’s call-up could be a wake-up call to Huff, either to perform or remember we have multiple choices to replace you in left fielder -- namely Brandon Belt or Pill.
One of baseball’s best GM cliches -- “addition by subtraction” -- came into play in their other moves when the team designated for assignment both Rowand and Tejada. Rowand is still owed close to $14 million from his five-year, $60 million deal he signed before the 2008 season. The signing ended up being one of the worst personnel decisions of the Sabean era (besides Barry Zito) and to date becomes the biggest contract ever eaten in Giants history.
This was the right move by the Giants to cut ties and take their losses now. Rowand, 33, was having his worst year of his career, batting just .233/.274/.347 with four home runs and 21 RBIs. His playing time had diminished and so have his skills. The team was going to have to pay him whether he’s on the team or not, and the replacement cost is just the rate of the major league minimum of $414,000, which is the amount that Pill will make.
With rosters expanding to 40 in just a few hours, it’s obvious this deal was about addition by subtraction because the Giants easily could have carried him on the roster to at least finish out the season. Instead, management made it clear -- they don’t think he can help them anymore. Of course, this was a bad contract to begin with, but he also never lived up to the ability he showed with the Phillies in 2007 when he finished with an .889 OPS and 27 home runs and 89 RBIs. With the Giants, he never had an .750 OPSand never hit more than 15 home runs in a season. It was a bad contract because of his inconsistent career at the time.
But Wednesday’s move has nothing to do with the contract. Rather, it's about the fact that he can’t play at his accustomed level anymore. If the Giants had kept him because of financial reasons, it would have sent the wrong message to the clubhouse and impeded the Giants' chances of winning this year and beyond. Forget about long-term exposure. If the player can’t play, he can’t play and you have to make personnel decisions based on talent and performance rather than contractual commitments.
Miguel Tejada was a different case. He played decent shortstop last year for the San Diego Padres despite his limited range. When Edgar Renteria decided to sign with the Cincinnati Reds and Juan Uribe went with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Giants took a chance they could win with another declining middle infielder. It just didn’t work out. At least this was just a one-year, $6.5 million mistake, which unfortunately is part of baseball economics. Tejada can’t play short anymore and his bat has slowed down. He also was uncharacteristically complaining about a lack of playing time, something the Giants weren’t used to, especially after winning the World Series last year with a team of players that accepted whatever role they were given. Tejada couldn’t get playing time at third because of Sandoval, can’t play sufficient defense at short or second and didn’t want to sit on the bench. Again, it’s addition by subtraction.
There were no guarantees back in July that the Beltran and Cabrera deals were going to get the Giants back to the postseason, just like there’s no guarantee that shaking up the clubhouse by severing ties with Tejada and Rowand and adding energy, youth and power with Pill will help the Giants catch the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West. But they’re the right moves by Sabean, who’s doing everything he can to help the Giants get back to the postseason with trades, promotions and addition by subtraction.