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Here’s why Yankees’ surprise Brian Sabean hire makes sense

The Yankees made a key front office addition on Tuesday when they welcomed back Brian Sabean, who worked for the team before winning three World Series titles at the helm of the Giants’ front office.

Sabean spent nearly 30 years in San Francisco as general manager, president of baseball operations, and later a scout. Before the Giants, he spent nearly a decade with the Yankees and was instrumental in drafting players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Speaking to Joel Sherman of the New York Post in 2020, Cashman even called Sabean an “underrated hero” of the 1990s dynasty.

It may not seem obvious, but this may be why the Yankees have hired Sabean: The best-kept secret in the organization is that their minor league pitching well is drying up, and fast. Sabean showed with the Giants that not only can he trade for reliable arms, but he can still scout great ones too.

Look at his first full year as San Francisco’s GM in 1997. The Giants went from 94 losses to 90 wins and the NL West crown thanks to Sabean’s moves. He traded star third baseman Matt Williams for power-hitting infielder Jeff Kent and paved the way for Bill Mueller. Sabean also dealt for former Yankees prospect J.T. Snow, who provided power and Gold Glove defense at first base.

The catch is that up until Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum debuted, very few of the Giants’ pitching prospects hit save for Russ Ortiz. The prime Giants arms from the Barry Bonds years–like Jason Schmidt and Livan Hernandez– were all acquired via trade. They carried the load until arms like Noah Lowry, Jerome Williams, and the aforementioned Cain and Lincecum were ready.

Cue another short rebuild during which Lincecum won back-to-back NL Cy Youngs, and the Giants suddenly won three World Series in a decade on the back of strong pitching. And while these arms developed on the farm, homegrown hitters like Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval blossomed.

And all thanks to Sabean.

Now, think of Cashman’s pitching trades in the last five years. Sonny Gray was a bust. J.A. Happ was a flash in the pan and so was James Paxton. Jameson Taillon found his groove, but only after the Yankees’ coaching staff let him throw his sinker again. Cashman has an eye for talent, but insists on adjusting them to New York’s analytics instead of just letting them pitch.

Sabean, on the other hand, has a keen eye for pitching and letting his arms work. Remember he saw something in Rivera despite his only really throwing one pitch. Andy Pettitte was 6-foot-5 with no velocity, but Sabean saw stardom in his cutter’s movement. Both were allowed to just do their thing, develop on their own time, and became legends with the World Series rings to match.

That all being said, Sabean won’t be a special advisor who just collects the paycheck and practices his putting in the office. He’s in the Bronx to do work and is eager to get started.

“I’m all in,” he said on a conference call. “I’ll do anything to help the Yankees win a World Series.”

So what’s he going to do? In all likelihood, Sabean will help Brian Cashman adjust how he scouts pitching. This could mean anything from being an MLB Draft consigliere to scouting trades and helping them across the finish line. Pitching development needs cleaning up. This is how Hal Steinbrenner sends in the Wolf.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.