Last November the San Francisco Giants eased aside their longtime baseball operations people, Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, in favor of analytics-driven Farhan Zaidi. All winter the sports talk gabblers waited for what they called Zaidi’s signature move. They thought the Giants’ pursuit of over-hyped, over-priced free agent outfielder Bryce Harper would be it, but then Harper signed with Philadelphia. No signature moment.
Except there was a move with Zaidi’s signature on it: he conducted the 2019 season as an open audition.
Sixty-four players performed for the Giants this year, enough to fill two and a half major league rosters. By contrast, in 1985, the Giants’ worst season ever (100 losses), they used only 36 players. Too long ago to make a valid comparison? Okay, how about two years ago, when the Giants lost 98 games? That year they used 49 players.
Did the strategy work? Inarguably. The Giants found a productive everyday outfielder, Mike Yastrzemski, whose Hall of Fame pedigree also brought the marketing folks an appealing hook. They found a versatile, hitting backup infielder (Donovan Solano) and a powerful backup outfielder who might someday make the All-Star team if he can avoid injury (Alex Dickerson). They also elevated a trio of right-handed minor league relief pitchers (Sam Coonrod, Jandel Gustave, and Tyler Rogers) ready to join the core of next year’s bullpen.
Those are six likely above-average contributors. And all of them are earning the near-minimum salary, which gives Zaidi more financial flexibility as he seeks to fill the team’s remaining holes.
There’s likely not much Zaidi can do with the infield, as first baseman Brandon Belt, shortstop Brandon Crawford, and third baseman Evan Longoria are fading veterans with expensive long-term contracts. That gives other teams little incentive to trade for them, and the Giants little incentive to release them. But Zaidi signaled that all three will share time with other players in 2020, and more rest may make the aging threesome more productive through MLB’s 27-game-a-month grind.
The other need is starting pitching. Two years ago I argued that the Giants should trade icon Madison Bumgarner. His contract ran out this year, and the Giants were open to parting with him at the July 31 trade deadline. But the team was playing better than it had in three years and the offers for MadBum were underwhelming, so they kept him. He’s now a thirty year-old free agent — and I think they should re-sign him. His arm has held up and he’s successfully transitioned from flame-thrower to finesse pitcher, so it’s reasonable to assume he has three or four good years left. There aren’t many available pitchers of his caliber, and he means a lot to the fan base.
Whether Bumgarner comes back — and other free agents sign with the team — will depend in part on who succeeds the acclaimed Bruce Bochy as manager. Zaidi is conducting that search largely out of view. I hope he chooses a strong communicator with an appreciation for data and their shortcomings. That would be his second smart signature move.