Dark Times By The Bay

In baseball, when a team wins the World Series many sins can be forgiven. When a team wins the World Series three times in the span of five seasons then it would seem all sins should be forgiven for a decade at the very least. How many teams have even done that in the history of the Major Leagues? The Yankees (duh – multiple times), the Dodgers, the New York Giants, the Tigers, and the A’s have pulled off three wins in five seasons. It happens more often than one would think mainly because of the Yankees, but it is rare enough that only five franchises have ever managed the feat. So you would think that the San Francisco Giants fans would be content with whatever the team can manage these days since they were the last club to pull it off with their third win coming in 2014. In baseball years that’s pretty much a week ago, so why does there seem to be so much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from the orange and black loyalists? It is easy to understand why Giants’ fans might have become spoiled and also why they find it hard to give up on their hopes of another title considering their payroll – just over $221 million to start the 2018 season – good for first in the bigs. But all the money in the world (in the days of salary caps) can’t guarantee a deep postseason run. This is especially true when one of the reasons your payroll is so high is that your team is old. The Giants as I mentioned, as well as the Nationals, Mets, Angels, Mariners, and Blue Jays all missed the playoffs entirely and had team salaries in the top 9.  But age isn’t the only reason the Giants missed the postseason and are likely to miss it for a while.

Ok, so age is part of the Giants’ problem. They had the third oldest roster (29.6 years according to Statista) in the majors in 2018. It makes sense when you think of the message they were sending to the league, which was, “We’re going for it again”. Instead of shipping off veterans to rebuild their minor league system, the Giants went out and signed veterans to shore up their lineup – 33 year old third baseman, Evan Longoria, and 32 year old outfielder Andrew McCutchen were the two biggest acquisitions. To make those signings anything other than basic wish-casting, the Giants had to feel confident that their starting rotation would be healthy and effective again – especially their big three, Madison Bumgarner (29), Johnny Cueto (32), and Jeff Samardzija (33). Well that certainly didn’t go how they’d expected it to go. Bumgarner is the only one of the big three who pitched 100 innings (129.67).  Cueto made 9 starts (53 innings) and went down for the season and possibly some or all of 2019 after his second trip to the DL. The Shark didn’t look much like a predator after losing 2 MPH off his fastball and also going down for the season with a shoulder injury (and a grotesque ERA of 6.25 after 10 starts and 44.67 innings). If not for the development of Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez, and the resurgence of Derek Holland, the Giants would certainly have lost 100 games. How embarrassing would that be to have the highest payroll in all of baseball and still go out and lose 100 games?

One of the brightest lights of the 2018 season was the re-emergence of closer Will Smith who missed all of 2017 due to injury. Smith fanned 71 batters in 53 innings, kept his WHIP to .981 and sported an ERA of 2.55. With Smith in the closer spot, Tony Watson in the setup role, and Sam Dyson contributing 70 quality innings, the pen should be a relative strength as it was in 2017. Hunter Strickland was a hot mess last year with self-inflicted DL stints and issues with wildness. The former closer has seen his strikeouts to walk ratio go down each of his four full season with the Giants, from 5.00 in 2015 to where it was in 2017 – 1.76. If he can get right and quit punching immovable objects, the Giants pen would have a deep core to build from.

With a solid pen and at least three starting pitchers who were decent, you would think the Giants would win more than 73 games, but in baseball run prevention is not enough to succeed. The Giants had the most anemic offense in all of baseball in 2018 based on wRC+. They created fewer runs after adjusting for park and league than even the Marlins, Orioles, Tigers and Padres, and this after signing Longoria and Cutch. While Longoria had a subpar season generating 0.4 WAR (Fangraphs version) with a wRC+ of 85 (15% below league average), McCutcheon actually had a good season before he was traded to the Yankees – wRC+ of 115 during his time in SF to lead the team. Brandon Belt and Buster Posey were the other two Giants who posted wRC+ scores above league average (100) at 107 and 106 respectively, but both players finished the season on the DL. That may sound like bad luck, but with Belt at least, injuries are part of his profile. Only once since 2013 has the man with the name made for a power hitter played in at least 150 games. Belt appeared in only 112 games last year and 104 in 2017 so counting on much more is unwise even though he is only 30. Buster Posey, who moms everywhere want for their son-in-law,  has been quite durable, especially for a catcher, but he had off-season hip surgery, and at 31 it is possible that a decline phase might be starting for him. In fact maybe it already has begun as Posey hasn’t posted a 5 WAR season since 2015. Joe Panik, a relative baby in the lineup at 28, was besieged by injuries last season from a torn ligament in his thumb to a strained groin, and he posted his worst season since becoming the starter at second base. Panik, with a 75 wRC+ picked up most of his value with the glove as his bat sure wasn’t getting it done. The Giants should get a better version of Joe Panik in 2019, but Joe isn’t enough to carry an offense. At his best, Panik is around league average – nothing wrong with that. Brandon Crawford will turn 32 during the off-season and has posted two sub 100 wRC+ season in a row (85 & 93 respectively). This is likely the new normal since most of Crawford’s value comes from his excellent glove work and even at his peak he was only a bit above league average with the stick. This isn’t meant to denigrate B-Craw’s value – three Gold Gloves at short and two All Star Game appearances (including last season) would make any team happy, but we are talking about the Giants’ offense, and while Crawford contributes plenty for his position, it isn’t like he is Manny Machado. For some perspective the Giants had Crawford batting 8th  to start the season, moved him around between the 6, 7, and 8 holes for most of the first half, and then once injury and ineffectiveness turned them almost completely punchless, they moved him around in the middle of the batting order.

So what’s left to look at if we want to see where the Giants can produce some runs? The outfield, often a source of offense for most teams, struggled to get it done. Gorkys Hernandez played in 142 games with a wRC+ of 83, up from 76 in 2017. Hernandez is 31 so he is mostly a known quantity, and if he is starting most of your games in center or left then you are in serious trouble. He is a capable defender but eats outs like Pacman eats dots. Steven Duggar took his job and pushed Gorkys to left. Hernandez is a 4th outfielder at best. He can punch the occasional homer, play all three outfield spots, and pinch run. He should not under any circumstances get 500 plate appearances if your goal is to win, unless he is surrounded by a tremendous offense, which was not the case in San Francisco. There’s Duggar who in his rookie season showed promise with his speed and glove. He wasn’t much of an upgrade over Hernandez, but if he can repeat his walk rate from the minors – around 12% instead of the 6.6% he showed in limited time in the bigs, then he will be an upgrade and an adequate starting center fielder. Shoulder surgery ended his season, but he should have enough time to recover so that he can start on opening day.

Hunter Pence lost the starting job and will play the 2019 season as a 36 year old. He is a free agent and he is still a lot of fun to watch with his twitchy, funky way of doing everything, even as he declines. His power and ability to get on base haven’t been on display since 2016 so if he still wants to play he will likely need to sign a minor league contract. With 248 plate appearances last season, he hurt the team’s offense more than most with his wRC+ of 62. Chris Shaw was another rookie who tried to take an outfield spot. The rookie has good power, but no other established offensive skills. He has shown the ability to take a walk and to hit for average at times, but he has done neither consistently and his swing and miss rate is untenable. When you strike out 34% of the time at triple-A, really the only way for you to get a chance to play in the majors is if the big club has no offense to speak of. Austin Slater also received a decent amount of playing time because of the Giants offensivocalypse. He is a left fielder/first baseman but is really a bench bat, not a starter as he is neither fast enough nor powerful enough to generate enough runs to get a lot of starts. He lives and dies by his batting average and doesn’t walk enough to be a leadoff hitter so again – bench bat.

An outfielder who can easily hit 20 home runs should be a shoe-in to start in San Francisco, but Mac Williamson’s profile comes with a low batting average and low on-base percentage. In 339 plate appearances in the majors over four seasons, the 6’4 power hitter has a slash line of .222/.295/.386 with 13 home runs and 84 wRC+. He has never hit above .269 in triple-A and has a decent amount of swing and miss in his game – a career 28% strikeout rate. That said, this is the kind of hitter who needs a chance to start everyday to see if he can be a regular left-fielder or just an emergency guy who gets stashed in the minors. He would need to hit above .240 to succeed in the majors as something like a 7-hole hitter. At 28 it’s too late to call Williamson a prospect, but he might be a useful part, and the Giants shouldn’t bury him in the minors like they did after in 2018 – he battled some injuries including a concussion and spent the rest of the season after June 22nd as a Rivercat amassing 13 home runs in 182 at bats. One other number in his favor is that in limited playing time, Williamson has put up 5 defensive runs saved playing mostly left field. Giving him at least a half season as the starter would make a lot of sense if the Giants choose not to empty their pockets for free agents.

So the picture at the major league level should be clear by now. There just isn’t much offense there  and what is there is carried by stars in their decline phase. The starting pitching, which should be a strength, is thin if the veterans can’t contribute. The pen is a relative strength. When a team is getting older, like the Giants, they generally reach a point where they have to decide to make a last run or start a painful rebuild, or if the organization has been smart about maintaining their farm system, something in between. Look at what the Yankees are doing right now retooling with Gleyber Torres, and Miguel Andujar, in addition to Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. Of course, not everyone is in the same position as the seemingly infinitely resourced Yankees, but other teams have put themselves in similar spots – the Astros and the Dodgers for example.

What influences teams to choose one path over another? If an organization doesn’t have money then the choice is forced upon them. If they can’t win now, then they have to start to retool/rebuild in the hopes that everything will align properly this time. But if your club has money, like the Giants, then you have to look at your minor league system. Do you have the parts to trade for that last piece or two that you need? Do you have a top prospect or two who you can just promote to fill a hole? And then there is one other consideration. Is your minor league system even good enough that trading away the pieces of value from your major league roster will put you in a position to make a run soon? If the answer to that last question is no, then does it even make sense to start a rebuild without the even more painful step of tearing it down to the studs and tanking for a few years to get a handful of very high draft picks? That’s a lot of questions, but that’s because teams like the Giants are in a very difficult position with an aging team and a very weak farm system. How weak is it? Depending on the source you pick, the Giants have between 0 and 2 top 100 prospects – Heliot Ramos shows up around 100 on some lists and not at all on others while Joey Bart, who was just drafted appears on some mid-season updates based mostly on his promise. The consensus is that the Giants have one of the five worst farm systems in baseball. The Giants just hired a new President of Baseball Operations – Farhad Zaidi, from the Dodgers – who is tasked with rebuilding the franchise while still keeping butts in their beautiful stadium’s seats. The question he faces is “to tear down or not to tear down?”.

The Cubs and Astros proved that the fans will come back after a teardown if you can provide them with a winning team. But boy are those three to five years painful! Here is the dichotomous off-season situation for Giants fans right now. The two biggest rumors in baseball involve the Giants either going hard to sign top free agent Bryce Harper or trading away their most valuable if not their best player, Madison Bumgarner which one would assume would trigger a fire sale and the beginning of a massive rebuilding effort. Either route is precarious. Signing Harper and calling it a day will not add enough offense although it will put butts in the seats by giving the Giants the star power they need to draw fans. Trading away MadBum would cost them fans for sure and once he is moved, presumably for prospects, then aside from Buster Posey, there would be nobody on the roster that the fans would come to watch while the Giants lose. In fact, if you trade Bumgarner would it even make sense to keep Posey once he proves that his hip is sound? The same question would apply to Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. The team would need to try to trade them for prospects with the understanding that these veterans won’t be around when the Giants are ready to win again. The Giants would be rebuilding their system in the hopes that the one or two players near the top 100 pan out, and that at least a couple of the players they get back from trades eventually make it as regulars in San Francisco. They would also have to count on drafting well with their higher picks once they have scrubbed their team of championship quality players and they would need to develop a star or, if they are lucky, more than one star. And then at some point it would make sense for the Giants to start spending money on proven talent again.

Or, the Giants could try to spend their way through the hard times without the tear down and hope they draft well and get very lucky with their picks, but other teams in the NL West are already better positioned to succeed in the next 3 years. In that atmosphere they would have to be supremely lucky to win anything and would have to succumb to the rebuild at some point anyway. The Padres have a superior farm system with both depth and star quality. The Dodgers have depth at the top levels, plenty of talent to win now, and deep pockets. The Rockies also have a superior major league club, including young quality starting pitching under team control – a rare commodity – plus some talent ready to emerge from the minors, and more depth in their system than the Giants.

Faced with no clear path to victory now or in the future, it is indeed a hard time to be a Giants’ fan. The Giants shouldn’t choose the path to take, instead they should let the path choose them. They should put out feelers for trade partners willing to overpay with prospects for everything on their roster including their mascot Lou Seal, while at the same time going hard after Bryce Harper and either another bat or a starting pitcher. Whichever path works out is the path the Giants should commit to with everything they’ve got. No time to be indecisive which sounds ironic after that last sentence, but in baseball, like in life, forcing it isn’t usually the best strategy. The Giants aren’t obviously in a position to either rebuild or compete, but circumstance might dictate the wisest path and that’s what Farhan Zaidi’s real job is. Find the best path for his well heeled but flawed club in their time of trouble.

Author: elfuego25

When I'm not writing about baseball (or shoving kettle corn into my mouth at the ballpark), I am probably walking Daisy, who is a very good dog, researching my Portuguese-Irish roots, or wondering when my lovely wife will return from her latest fabulous trip. Yes, life is good!

4 thoughts on “Dark Times By The Bay”

  1. I keep wanting to point out all the errors and misconceptions in your article, but… I can’t really find any. As a Giants fan since 1965, I can remember leaner times than these (1970s, early 1980s, 1995-1996, 2005-2007), but even with three world championships in the bag (when I thought I’d pass on without seeing even one) it’s still hard to witness the current fall from contention. It seems to me the management viewed 2017 as a complete fluke, and figured a few key additions would vault us right back into contention for One More Ring before a rebuild. Now, it’s a complete new deal and I’ve no idea what they’ll do. I will point out that Brandon Belt’s contract renders him virtually untradeable, and both Posey and Crawford have strict NTC’s that are all but guaranteed to keep them in SF to the end of their careers. But I think overall, you’ve nailed us fairly and accurately.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. As a teenager, I watched the A’s win three in a row (’72, ’73, and ’74) but then had to watch the lean years from ’77 through ’86 with only two winning seasons. I agree with you on the three contracts making it hard but not impossible to move them. I wish you and your Giants luck, and the franchise a speedy turn around! Zaidi certainly has his work cut out for him, but money always helps.

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