DETROIT -- A year ago, Gregor Blanco was playing winter ball. He was looking for a job after spending all of 2011 in Triple-A and became a minor league free agent after the Washington Nationals let him go.
A year later, he stood next to a large bin half-full of champagne bottles with "Giants World Series Champions" labels on them, soaked in the sweet scent of victory.
"I was just waiting on an opportunity to see if somebody can pick me up," he said after the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers to win their second World Series in three years. "I was playing amazing, amazing winter ball. The Giants offered [a contract], saw all my games. I talked to my agent, 'What do you think?' ... I said to myself you have to be with a winning team. They were the 2010 World Series champions and that’s where you want to be."
Late in the season the Giants made the decision to leave Melky Cabrera, suspended for a positive PED test, off their playoff roster, even though the outfielder who hit .346 would have been eligible to return in the National League Championship Series. It was a controversial decision, especially given that the roster included the twice-suspended Guillermo Mota, a decision that would conceivably hurt the Giants’ chances to win the World Series.
Instead, they put their faith in Blanco, the speedy 28-year-old outfielder most noted for his spectacular catch earlier in the season to help preserve Matt Cain's perfect game.
"I always believe in myself," Blanco said about replacing Cabrera. "Always, always. They said just play your game, you’re a good player. I was able to fill that spot. Play defense. And the opportunity took care of itself."
Signing Blanco was just one of several moves Giants general manager Brian Sabean made heading back to last offseason that shaped this club into the World Series champion. Blanco was certainly an under-the-radar move, but he fit a mold the Giants had sought in recent years: An athletic player who could play defense. He had struggled in Triple-A in 2011, hitting .201, but the Giants knew he’d at least bring speed and a good glove.
Manager Bruce Bochy addressed this mindset prior to Sunday's Game 4, talking about when he first took the Giants job in 2007. "They were more of a power club, slugging club," Bochy said. "In our division with the bigger ballparks, that we would be better off going with pitching and defense and try to get more athletic. So that was the plan, and Brian has done a great job with it. As you well know, our outfield, we’re faster, more athletic out there."
Sabean’s big heist of the offseason was swapping outfielder Andres Torres and reliever Ramon Ramirez to the Mets for center fielder Angel Pagan. Torres had been a big part of the 2010 title team, a guy Sabean had once picked up off the scrap heap, but had hit .221 in 2011. Pagan was three years younger and the Mets had soured on him after some nagging injuries slowed him in 2011. Sabean threw in Ramirez, dealing from the team’s bullpen depth, to upgrade center field.
The team also trusted second-year shortstop Brandon Crawford with the starting job, even though Crawford had hit just .204 in 66 games as a rookie. Again, a defense-first decision, but in watching Crawford every day during the playoffs, you saw why the Giants were willing to live with his offense (which proved to be much better than his rookie campaign).
Sabean made his final touches during the season, acquiring Hunter Pence from the Phillies and Marco Scutaro from the Rockies. Pence was deemed the bigger acquisition at the time, but it was Scutaro who ended up paying the big dividends. He hit .362 after coming over from Colorado, giving the team a terrific No. 2 hitter in front of Pablo Sandoval and Buster Posey in the absence of Cabrera. His terrific postseason was capped off by the game-winning RBI in Game 4.
In a crowded tunnel outside the Giants' clubhouse after the game, Sabean quietly deflected the attention away from himself, giving credit to the entire organization and to "all the great players who have played here through the years." He mentioned how many former players remain close to the organization. Pitching coach Dave Righetti is a former Giants player. Former All-Star first baseman Will Clark was in uniform, holding court after playoff games.
Sabean is a guy who sabermetric analysts have never given his full due, saying he rode Barry Bonds to a lot of success in his early years as the Giants' general manager. Maybe so, but you can’t deny two World Series titles in three seasons. He’s one of the few GMs out there who will trade for sort-of-expensive veterans such as Pence and Scutaro to help provide upgrades; these guys aren’t stars (although Scutaro played like one), but they are good role players, similar to the Cody Ross and Pat Burrell pickups in 2010.
In the end, the players have to produce, of course. It's a team built around its starting rotation and catcher Buster Posey. But Bochy and Sabean believed in Blanco, and the left fielder came through. He hit .286 against the Reds, including a home run in Game 4 of that series. He hit just .182 against the Cardinals, but drew six walks and scored six runs. In the World Series, he made two key diving catches in Game 1, and tripled in a run and scored and made another big catch in Game 3.
A year ago, he didn’t have a job. Now he’s a World Series champion.