Dave Stewart pitched the Oakland Athletics past the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 World Series, and now he's trying to achieve a similar objective as general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It's a daunting task given San Francisco's three titles in five years and the Giants' smooth-running machine led by GM Brian Sabean and a certain manager with a budding Hall of Fame résumé.
"You know the challenge with beating the Giants? It's Bruce Bochy," Stewart said. "He's the key to that team. We would need him to be kidnapped and taken away someplace for us to have an opportunity. It can be done. But when you have a guy like that leading a baseball team, it makes it difficult."
With all due respect to Bochy, the Giants' recent run of success has been a collaborative effort and a product of some rare continuity that precedes his eight years as manager. Sabean is about to enter his 19th season in the GM role, and he's surrounded by advisers and scouts who have his implicit faith and trust. Every situation the Giants encounter this offseason is one they've been through umpteen times.
San Francisco's model of stability and longevity is even more impressive when contrasted with the other four National League West venues. In Los Angeles, Colorado, Arizona and San Diego, the front-office faces have been changing the way NHL teams change line shifts.
Before talk turned to the Hot Stove market, San Francisco's divisional competitors were making news seemingly every week or two with updates to their executive hierarchies. The Padres fired Josh Byrnes in June and replaced him with Texas assistant GM A.J. Preller in August. In late September, the Diamondbacks completed an extensive search and hired Stewart as GM. He'll report directly to Tony La Russa, Arizona's chief baseball officer, who just joined the organization last May.
On Oct. 8, Colorado's Bill Geivett and Dan O'Dowd resigned after a 96-loss season and the Rockies promoted Jeff Bridich to the GM position. And the Dodgers made a major splash in mid-October when they hired Andrew Friedman away from Tampa Bay to run the show as president of baseball operations at Chavez Ravine. Friedman has since hired former Oakland executive Farhan Zaidi as GM and added Byrnes and former big league outfielder and TV analyst Gabe Kapler to L.A.'s front-office mix.
And those personnel shuffles don't include a slew of other NL West changes and additions, from scouting directors to farm directors to roving minor league hitting coordinators.
Now the challenge for these newly assembled contingents is making smart and cost-efficient moves (yes, even the Dodgers) while cultivating the same, long-term sense of purpose that's been so integral to the Giants' success.
Friedman made his first trade Thursday, acquiring veteran reliever Joel Peralta from Tampa Bay. Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford or even Matt Kemp could be the next Dodger out the door. But Friedman also has a mandate to build an organizational structure that can maximize the Dodgers' massive resources and withstand the test of time.
"Our goal starting now is to have continuity as far as we can see out," Friedman said. "Invariably, as people start working together for the first time, things will pop up that are unforeseen. But when you do a really good job of communicating and getting in front of things, I think you react more quickly and do everything you can to make sure they don't pop up again. That's going to be a focal point of mine as far as I can see out -- to try and help that process happen as quickly and naturally as I can."
Where were you in 1996?
During the Giants' World Series run in October, Sabean routinely spoke about the importance of stability in the front office.
"Sometimes, the toughest thing to do is get everybody pointed in the right direction or share the same vision," he said before Game 6 in Kansas City. "When you have the same group together for so long, I think it's easier to understand when you have to reinvent yourself or make changes. That's true in any walk of life -- not just baseball. Experience is also the ultimate coping mechanism when it comes to crisis management."
For some perspective on how long Sabean has been in the chief decision-making seat in San Francisco, here's what the division's other general managers were doing when he took over for Bob Quinn as the Giants' GM on Sept. 30, 1996.
• Stewart, who retired as a player in 1995 with 168 career victories, was working in the Oakland front office as an assistant to Sandy Alderson. He did some scouting, worked with aspiring young A's in the instructional league and oversaw contract talks with some of Oakland's pre-arbitration players as an apprenticeship to becoming a GM -- a pursuit that ultimately took almost 20 years.
• Bridich, 37, was a freshman at Harvard and a member of the Crimson baseball team. "I was also earning a poor grade in Chem 5," he said, laughing.
• Zaidi, 38, was a sophomore at MIT and had begun taking economics classes and playing online fantasy sports. He was particularly smitten with a fantasy Web site called Sandbox. "That's as much player evaluating as I was doing then," he said, also laughing.
• Preller, a year removed from Walt Whitman High School in Long Island, New York, was a freshman at Cornell in 1996. Not long after his arrival, he became friends and roommates with a guy named Jon Daniels, who went on to become general manager of the Texas Rangers.
The Padres made consecutive playoff appearances in 2005 and 2006, but they've enjoyed only one winning season in the past seven years. Preller appealed to San Diego ownership as a GM candidate because of his experience as a Latin-American talent evaluator and his reputation as a scouting and player development junkie in the truest sense. Preller begins his days playing pickup hoops, then spends the next 16 hours talking about players, looking at players, making phone calls about players and trying to mine every conceivable avenue to sign good players.
"We hope A.J. is here for a long time," said Mike Dee, San Diego's president and CEO. "I think he likes the David-versus-Goliath kind of thing. He's eager to compete against the larger-market clubs to the north and take those guys on. We're in a unique position because we don't have a lot of long-term commitments. We don't have the kind of impact players we want in all cases. But we also don't have a lot of heavy contracts of guys in their mid- to late 30s to be dealt with, so A.J. kind of starts with a clean slate."
Preller also starts with a manager, Bud Black, who has been with San Diego since 2007. Like the Dodgers, who retained Don Mattingly, and the Rockies, who kept Walt Weiss, the Padres decided that change was more important in the executive suite than on the field. Arizona is the only NL West team that will begin the 2015 season with a new manager, after firing Kirk Gibson and replacing him with Chip Hale.
The Padres won only 77 games this year, but management cut Black some slack in the wake of an offense that ranked last in MLB in runs scored (535), batting average (.226) and OPS (.634).
"Casey Stengel would not have won with the type of offensive output we had over the first 90 games of 2014," Dee said.
Same goal, different approaches
San Francisco's four NL West competitors are operating in a variety of landscapes. The Dodgers led MLB in attendance at 3.7 million. They have a 25-year TV deal that pays them $334 million annually. They won 94 games this season, finished six games ahead of the Giants and have the newly minted National League MVP and Cy Young winner in Clayton Kershaw, so they're obviously not going to cede any ground.
In Colorado, Bridich has to determine whether to keep Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, the Rockies' oft-injured marquee players, or throw open the door to trade scenarios. And some things never change at Coors Field. "We'll address pitching," Bridich said. "I imagine we'll be addressing it every single year we do this."
At the recent GM meetings in Phoenix, La Russa told reporters that he would be "heartbroken" if the Diamondbacks fail to post at least an 82-80 record next season. That modest goal might not fire up the season-ticket base, but a .500 record would be a marked improvement over the team's 98 losses in 2014.
While the Padres are routinely overshadowed by the Dodgers, Angels, Giants and A's to the north, they plan to be aggressive in revamping the roster. It's late November, and they've already jumped into the fray for free agent Pablo Sandoval and Cuban outfielder Yasmani Tomas. Forbes Magazine ranks the Padres 17th in the majors with a team valuation of $615 million, so they don't necessarily have to brown-bag it.
"We're going to spend at mid-market-team levels," Dee said. "We don't consider ourselves a small-market team in San Diego. We're not going to be a top-five spender, but we're not going to be a bottom-10 spender, either."
Regardless of how much money they spend or the player acquisition methods they stress -- amateur draft, trades, free agency or the international market -- the new NL West front offices know the process will work more seamlessly if everyone is on the same wavelength. Instant gratification is great, but not at the expense of consistency from one year to the next.
"There's a here-and-now from the standpoint of what the plan is baseball-wise," Zaidi said. "Free agency. Trades. All that stuff. It's something we really have to live in the moment on. But we've all talked here about creating the kind of organizational structure and culture that is going to sustain itself. We're spending a lot of time on both of those things.
"I think that's part of Andrew's reputation from his Tampa days. He makes it a very collaborative process. People told me while I was making my own decision [to come here] that Andrew is a really good listener. That's a tremendous and very underrated skill that he has in spades."
Amid the trade talks and phone calls to agents, Friedman and his new front-office team don't have to listen very hard to hear the sound of popping corks and parade speeches in San Francisco. The Giants, with their staying power and sustained run of excellence, have raised the bar of expectations for everyone.