November 14th, 2003. A day that will forever haunt Giants fans. On that day, Brian Sabean dealt Boof Bonser, Francisco Liriano, and Joe Nathan to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski and cash. A year later, the Giants would release Pierzynski. Bonser may become a tolerable fifth starter in the bigs, while Liriano and Nathan are among the very best starters and closers in baseball, respectively.
Hindsight is 20/20, right? It’s easy to rip on Sabean several years later. But was this like the Austin Kearns trade, where Wayne Krivsky was derided from the get-go? Or did the Pierzynski deal seem OK at the time? Let’s view this in context.
The 2003 San Francisco Giants used a combination of Benito Santiago and Yorvit Torrealba at catcher. The result was a batting line of .270/.320/.412. The average NL catcher hit .260/.328/.404 in ’03, so Santiago/Torrealba was tolerable. The club won 100 games and the NL West. However, they lost in the Division Series to the Marlins, who would of course go on to win the World Series.
The Giants traded for Pierzynski in November of ’03, and Torrealba would remain with the Giants in ’04 as his backup. Santiago signed with the Royals that winter for two years and $4.3MM. He would turn 39 before the season began. Santiago popped up in the BALCO case in March of ’04 but seemed unfazed. A broken hand from a hit-by-pitch knocked him out in late June, and he didn’t play for the Royals again.
Pierzynski was coming off a .312/.360/.464 season for the Twins, his best ever at age 26. He was the sixth-best hitting catcher in the game in 2003. His salary was due to rise several million dollars in arbitration and Joe Mauer was ready to go, so Terry Ryan explored his trade opportunities. A deal to the Cubs for Andy Sisco was mentioned, and the Padres expressed interest too. Ultimately A.J. became a Giant and slumped to .272/.318/.410, an offensive line that ranked 18th among backstops.
Brett Tomko called Pierzynski a "cancer" in May of ’04, calling for Yorvit Torrealba to take over. The Giants still considered a multiyear deal after the season, but then decided to go with Mike Matheny and let A.J. go.
Bonser was ranked 29th on Baseball America’s 2002 Top Prospects list, right behind Jake Peavy. A year later Rich Harden would earn the 29th spot, and Ervin Santana got the honors in ’04. Bonser never made another list. In ’03, he posted a 4.00 ERA in 135 Double A innings at age 21. Bonser now projects as a fifth starter with the Twins.
Liriano was ranked 83rd on BA’s 2003 list, ahead of Taylor Buchholz and Wily Mo Pena but behind bums like Ben Kozlowski, Chris Gruler, Kris Honel, and Josh Karp. Liriano was outranked on the list by teammates Jesse Foppert (4th), Jerome Williams (50th), Kurt Ainsworth (64th), and Todd Linden (82nd). Shoulder injuries limited Liriano to just nine innings in 2003. It was clear he had potential, but Liriano was anything but a lock. Just another in a long line of hard-throwing pitching prospects.
Joe Nathan never made an appearance on a Baseball America top prospects list. Drafted in 1995 in the sixth round, Nathan reached the Majors at age 24 in 1999. He made 14 starts for the Giants and had ugly marks in home runs allowed, free passes, and strikeout rate. Many teams approached Sabean about Nathan in the winter of ’99-’00, but he was regarded as untouchable.
Nathan started working on a changeup in 2000 while making 15 starts for the Giants. His numbers were even worse, as walks increased. He spent time on the DL with shoulder tightness that summer, but Dusty Baker made sure to get him right back out there ASAP. His shoulder caused a second DL stint in July. Surgery was considered, but Nathan ultimately took a cortisone shot and resumed pitching. The injury recurred a third time, causing Nathan to sit out the playoffs. Way to go, Dusty! Nathan had shoulder surgery in October of that year.
His velocity down to the mid-80s in ’01, Nathan toiled in Triple A until June before earning a demotion to Double A. Things improved a bit before the end of the season, and he was in the low 90s by the spring of ’02. He pitched poorly that year in Triple A but got a September call-up anyway.
In the spring of ’03, Nathan finally gave up starting and managed to earn a job with the Giants as a setup man for Tim Worrell out of spring training. He started the season with a 22 inning scoreless inning streak. After winning 12 games and posting a 2.96 ERA in 79 innings in his first season as a reliever, he became a major component of the Pierzynski trade.
At the time, here’s how I think each player was evaluated:
Liriano: interesting raw prospect with major injury concerns
Bonser: impressive young starting pitching prospect whose stock fell a bit in ’03
Nathan: converted starter coming off his best season; history of shoulder problems
Pierzynski: one of the game’s best-hitting catchers entering his prime with several seasons before free agency
Pierzynski was a coveted young backstop, and Sabean really only gave up one bona fide Major Leaguer to get him. Back in November of 2003, this looked like a deal that would benefit both teams. Liriano and Nathan could’ve easily been lost to the injury abyss and we wouldn’t be talking about this.