6:44 PM EDT, October 29, 2012
DETROIT — New on the job and with a potential playoff team on his hands, Brian Sabean went out to find as much pitching as he could. He targeted the team that had the most to give, and shocked the baseball world by landing Roberto Hernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin in the same trade.
The deal that became known as the White Flag trade in Chicago helped Sabean's Giants win the NL West, but that was all. The Marlins, under manager Jim Leyland, swept San Francisco in the first round.
The story didn't end there, however.
Sabean remained the Giants' general manager, reaching one World Series with Barry Bonds and riding out the rough end to Bonds' career, and never stopped valuing pitching. If anything, after that 1997 trade with the White Sox he became more convinced about the value of homegrown pitching. He quietly collected the pitchers that on Sunday night won the World Series for the second time in three years.
The Giants opened the season with a payroll of about $118 million. Almost 48 percent of that ($56.6 million) went to Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong.
Manager Bruce Bochy joined Sabean in San Francisco for the 2007 season, leaving San Diego after 12 years with a reputation for maximizing the value of a roster. He says he knew from the start that Sabean's plan was to win with pitching and defense, the old-fashioned way.
"At some point that was discussed, how we would make a transition from what the Giants were," Bochy said. "They were more of a power club, slugging club. In our division with the bigger ballparks, (he thought) that we would be better off going with pitching and defense and (trying) to get more athletic. So that was the plan, and Brian has done a great job with it."
Sabean, 56, is baseball's second most tenured general manager to the Twins' Terry Ryan. Among current GMs, only three others (Billy Beane, Brian Cashman and Dan O'Dowd) were on the job before 2000. Sabean and Cashman have had the most success among those in this group, but they've always been comfortable working in the shadow of their high-profile managers and star players.
With Sabean setting the agenda, the Giants became one of only three National League teams to win two championships in a three-year span since World War II. They did it without the fanfare of the Reds' Big Red Machine of 1975-76 or the Dodgers of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills in 1963-65.
Because they had such strong pitching — using first-round picks to accumulate Cain (2002), Lincecum (2006) and Bumgarner (2007) — and landed likely 2012 MVP Buster Posey with the first-round pick in '08, the Giants were able to build a consistent contender without investing heavily in run producers.
Cain, Lincecum and Bumgarner rolled through the 2010 playoffs, leading San Francisco to an 11-4 record that was highlighted by a five-game World Series ending with a celebration at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The familiar suspects limped toward October this year, with Lincecum pitching his way out of the playoff rotation.
The Giants' starting pitchers had a 5.44 ERA in the first nine postseason games but kicked into gear when Zito beat the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter in Game 5 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium. That triggered a seven-game winning streak in which the Giants' rotation compiled an 0.99 ERA, consistently putting up the early-inning zeroes that frustrated the Cardinals and Leyland's Tigers.
Counting Lincecum's work out of the bullpen, the regular-season rotation worked 30 of 37 innings in the World Series, allowing only four runs. Detroit batted .159, with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera going a combined 4-for-27 with only one homer and three RBIs.
Cain credited the dynamic created by Bochy and Sabean.
"A lot of guys are loose and relaxed, and it just seemed like all the pieces fit together," he said. "A lot of us kind of had the same mentality about the game. Nobody really stood out and wanted to steal the spotlight, and I think that's what helped us."
Sabean has always been comfortable doing his work outside the spotlight. But he's done it so well that attention is finding him and his age-old plan. They say pitching and defense wins championships, and usually they're right.