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Brian Sabean, the San Francisco Giants’ executive vice president of baseball operations, has overseen an unheralded player development system.

Cubs study Giants’ strategies for building homemade championships

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SHARE Cubs study Giants’ strategies for building homemade championships

SAN FRANCISCO – Jason McLeod, the Cubs’ top scouting and player development executive, recently showed pitching coach Chris Bosio an old high school video of Giants’ workhorse pitcher Madison Bumgarner.

“If you walked into a park and saw this kid in high school, what would you think?” McLeod asked Bosio.

Bosio: “I see physical size, but I’d probably look at him and say this is a guy who’s going to blow.”

Said McLeod: That’s probably what 90 percent of us thought, because he was kind of cross-body, way back here slinging. And you’re saying there’s no way he can hold up like that.”

The Giants liked the 6-foot-5 left-hander enough to draft him 10th overall in 2007, the sixth pitcher taken – after the likes of Daniel Moskos, Casey Weathers and Jarrod Parker.

Three All-Star selections and three World Series titles later, Bumgarner not only hasn’t blown, but he’s become one of the greatest performers in World Series history.

“He’s just a badass,” McLeod said.

“But that takes guts to make that call on a high school lefty that doesn’t have the ideal mechanics. It’s so easy to pick that apart, and be safe, and not pick that guy.”

It’s no accident that McLeod has been looking at old video of the pitcher who beat the Cubs 9-1 Thursday to hand them their first three-game series loss since last month.

McLeod has made a case study in recent years of the drafts and player development success of Brian Sabean’s Giants. Because as much as the Giants are chasing the Cubs on the field these days, the Cubs are chasing the Giants off of it.

“I love how they’ve done it,” McLeod said of a Giants methodology for growing a prodigious homegrown core he considers every bit the industry model that the St. Louis Cardinals get all the national attention and hype for.

“The proof’s on their mantel, with their three World Series trophies [in five years],” McLeod said. “This is a dynasty they’ve built here. I don’t know why they don’t get the credit they deserve.”

When healthy, the Giants start an entirely homegrown infield, a homegrown catcher and a mostly homegrown starting rotation.

And while Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey are top-10 overall picks, All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford came out of the fourth round (2008), first-baseman Brandon Belt from the fifth (2009), World Series closer Sergio Romo from the 28th, (2005), All-Star second baseman Joe Panik from deep in the first (29th I 2011).

And Rookie of the Year contender Matt Duffy came out of the 18th round in 2012.

That’s the kind of impact depth that separates the best farm systems, the kind of depth the Cubs have to build even as they’ve gotten early, major impact from their recent top-of-the-draft picks.

“They’ve really hit on their early picks, and they’ve developed pitching,” McLeod said of an area that is a particular weakness for the Cubs right now. “It’s not easy hitting on pitching like that.”

Not that anyone would know the Giants were that successful with their scouting and farm systems to read the industry organizational rankings in recent years. Baseball America ranked the Giants’ system 27th for talent this year, 19th last year, 28th in 2013, 22nd in 2012 and 23rd in 2011.

“We’re grindstone people. We don’t look for accolades, and we don’t seek out the limelight,” said Sabean, who has run the Giants baseball operations for more than two decades – after he helped run the scouting department with the Yankees that acquired the Derek Jeter-led core that won four World Series in a five-year span.

“Maybe being a West Coast team we’re a little bit taken for granted, but the proof’s in the pudding. It’s on the field.”

McLeod seems particularly interested in the Giants’ knack for hitting on impact pitching in the draft, whether it’s Bumgarner at No. 10 overall, Matt Cain deep in the first round (25th) or this year’s 11-game-winning rookie Chris Heston (3.34 ERA in 24 starts) in the 12th round.

But he also said a strength of the Giants’ player development is a willingness to identify young players to trust in the heat of a high-stakes season, instead of trying to fill up on rent-a-players as those needs arise.

“They’re not afraid to push their prospects,” McLeod said. “They’re one of those teams that believe in their players and give them the opportunity. I think some teams are leery to do that sometimes.”

Crawford, for instance, was in his first full season as a pedestrian-hitting, good-glove shortstop in 2012, when the Giants stuck with him throughout their second title run. Last October, he hit a grand slam for the first runs in a wild-card victory over Pittsburgh, contributed to another World Series title and this year became an All-Star.

Panik was installed as the everyday second baseman in June last year after Marco Scutaro was hurt and Dan Uggla flopped. Panik had three hits in the wild-card victory, a home run in the National League Championship Series clincher and joined Crawford as an All-Star this year.

It’s not unlike what the Cubs have done with rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber, all of whom debuted after the start of the season and have played major roles in the Cubs’ playoff contention.

“I think what’s good is that we understand player development doesn’t stop in the minor leagues,” Sabean said. “You still have to be open minded and do work with players individually and as group once they get to the big leagues, and that’s where we’re lucky with the coaching staff we have and a manger [Bruce Bochy] that gets it. Our manager’s not afraid to play young guys.”

Another strength of Sabean’s front office has been the ability to use the system for key deadline trades for stretch-run help. For example, Hunter Pence was acquired at the deadline in 2012 from the Phillies for role player Nate Schierholtz and two undistinguished minor leaguers.

Pence has been a major part of two of the Giants’ titles.

“The biggest separator is who you keep as [core players], and who you put up as quote trade bait. And everybody goes through that exercise,” Sabean said. “We kind of bear down on it more than most, I guess.”

Crawford and Duffy say a supportive clubhouse culture has helped them succeed, but neither can identify a certain “Giants Way” during their ascensions that stands out as unique development method.

“They’ve been able to get guys that just play the game right,” Crawford said. “And the spotlight’s never too big for them. They don’t get a whole lot of real emotional guys. We’ve brought in guys like Hunter [Pence] and Angel [Pagan], who do play with a little more emotion, and I think every team needs that.

“But we also have a lot of guys like Bumgarner and Buster, myself, Joe, who just kind of stay pretty even-keeled no matter what the situation. And I think that’s also pretty big on a team.”

Whatever they’re doing in the system, it’s hard to argue that anybody is doing anything better than the Giants.

No matter what the level of recognition from outside the organization might be.

“Believe me, we know what we’ve produced. We keep track,” Sabean said. “We keep our own scorecards, and we know that our scores are pretty high now.

“But there’s an ebb and flow to that. There are ups and downs to seasons just like there’ll be ups and downs to drafts and who you produce.”

Until then, the Giants seem to have no problem with other teams getting all the prospect-rankings love.

“Everybody’s got their own opinion,” Duffy said. “But it definitely adds a chip on our shoulder, to the point when we get up here, it’s like we’ve got something to prove because a lot of people said you can’t do it.

“That might have something to do with it.”

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