SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Newly promoted Giants CEO Larry Baer might be open to making a run at a premier free agent this winter, though his philosophy will still focus on building a franchise from the bottom up to develop a deep and talented farm system.
So, might a slugger like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder be splashing home runs into McCovey Cove come 2012? That remains to be seen.
“That’s been a winning philosophy,” Baer said Thursday of relying on homegrown players. “That’s a good template. Don’t interpret that as we wouldn’t go after a premier free agent but I don’t think we wake up in the morning and say that’s the first choice.”
In a surprising move by the reigning World Series champions late Wednesday, Baer is taking on a bigger role and Bill Neukom is stepping aside as managing general partner at the end of the calendar year. The announcement comes 10½ months after the Giants captured the franchise’s first title since moving West in 1958.
Neither Baer nor Neukom would clearly answer Thursday whether Neukom had been pushed out of his decision-making duties by ownership’s executive committee, as it appears, and both insisted there were no communication issues among the brass.
Even regarding the recent release of outfielder Aaron Rowand, the club’s second-highest paid player who is still owed $12 million for next season. Neukom said the decision was supported by the other investors ahead of time.
“There was no precipitating event that I’m aware of,” said Neukom, sporting one of his signature bow ties — with black and orange stripes. “The Aaron Rowand decision, if anything, we have been generally applauded for doing that. It wasn’t easy to do. We liked the guy and he was in center field for us in November. I’ll never forget that. He was a good influence in lots of different ways. But we had to put together the best team we could to give ourselves the best chance to get as far as we could this year. After a lot of agony and a lot of analysis, we made the tough decision. I think the fans understand why we did it. We had a lot of good advice and guidance from the baseball brain trust.”
Baer and Neukom will work jointly to lead the Giants up until the late December departure of Neukom, who plans to serve in an advisory role as chairman emeritus for a season and teach at Stanford Law School before giving up his stake in the team altogether. He said he will remain a season-ticketholder.
“Business as usual,” Baer said of the transition period.
Well, not completely.
Baer won’t assume the title of managing general partner — the franchise will go without one for now in this new leadership structure.
“Everybody has a boss,” Baer said. “They’re employing me to come in and run the thing. I’m accountable to the board.”
Or nine of them in his case.
Baer will have that many top investors on speed dial when he wants to make a major decision.
He indicated general manager Brian Sabean, who along with manager Bruce Bochy is signed through 2012, is part of the long-term plans and said it’s safe to expect any players under contract to return next season — including $126 million left-hander Barry Zito. The 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner with Oakland has struggled in his five years across the bay in San Francisco. He is owed $19 million next year, $20 million in 2013 and has an $18 million team option with a $7 million buyout in 2014.
Baer didn’t provide a timetable for when Sabean and Bochy might be extended beyond next season. In the past such announcements have come within a couple of days after season’s end.
“We’ll talk about it. All I can say is, we have huge admiration for the job they’ve done,” Baer said. “The two sides have admiration for each other.”
In the Mercury News story Wednesday that first broke the news of management changes at the top, Neukom reportedly spent money and revenue from the World Series run without checking with the other committee members, some of whom wanted that money put in a reserve fund.
Asked about that Thursday, Neukom said: “The Giants are a partnership. We have substantial reserves. I won’t mention the amount, but they’re very substantial reserves. So in any normal business sense of the word ‘rainy-day fund,’ we have a rainy-day fund, and it’s more than adequate.”
Sabean told the Giants’ flagship radio station, KNBR 680 AM, that he always experienced “open dialogue” in his dealings with Neukom and Baer.
“I never saw any open acrimony,” Sabean said. “I’m not actively involved unless called in to partners’ meetings.”
Neukom grew up in nearby San Mateo, with then-San Francisco Seals owner Charlie Graham as a neighbor. He joined the Giants’ ownership group in 1995 and became a general partner in 2003. He replaced Peter Magowan in October 2008.
Still, Baer was the key executive handling many of the day-to-day operations while jumping from executive vice president to team president.
A fourth-generation San Franciscan, Baer was an assistant to CBS Inc. chairman Laurence Tisch in New York when he helped put together the ownership group with Magowan in 1992 that prevented the Giants from moving to St. Petersburg, Fla.
The Giants began this season with a $118,216,333 payroll — up from $101,417,943 at the end of 2010 — and that increased to about $120 million when they acquired slugger Carlos Beltran in a July 28 trade with the New York Mets.
Baer doesn’t envision payroll decreasing as the team prepares for next year. The Giants began Thursday trailing the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks by 7½ games in the NL West with 13 to go.
Sabean called bringing back Beltran “a complicated issue because he’s going to have a lot of suitors in both the American League and National League.” Beltran is represented by super agent Scott Boras.
Neukom believes San Francisco would have won another division crown had it not been for season-ending injuries to reigning NL Rookie of the Year catcher Buster Posey in a home-plate collision with Florida’s Scott Cousins in May and sure-handed second baseman Freddy Sanchez — and all the others who have spent time on the disabled list lately.
“In short, this franchise is stronger than it has ever been, in terms of the prospects for contending baseball and in terms of a really productive, efficient meritocracy of colleagues and workers in the front office,” the 70-year-old Neukom said. “So it’s a little like the mountaineers, they talk about coming to a campsite and leaving it better than you’ve found it.”