While the rival Dodgers frolic in World Series sunshine, the San Francisco Giants mope in the dark of their worst finish since 1985. “A team’s fortunes can change quickly,” wrote team president and CEO Larry Baer in an October 4 email to fans, noting that the Arizona Diamondbacks and Minnesota Twins reached the playoffs this year after losing 93 and 103 games respectively last year.
Yes, a team’s fortunes can change quickly. But it works both ways. Last year the Giants had the best record in baseball at the All-Star Break. This year they had the second-worst record in baseball.
Don’t expect them to emerge from that basement as fast as the D-Backs or Twins.
The Giants finished 2017 with a 64–98 record. Using Bill James’s Pythagorean win formula, intended to take the luck out of a team’s finish, Baseball Reference says the Giants actually performed at a 67–95 level. Had Madison Bumgarner played the entire season, it’s likely the Giants would have been another three games better.
That takes them to 70–92. To reach the playoffs this year, the Diamondbacks won 93 games, the Twins 85. So the Giants need to gain at least another 15 wins, and more realistically another twenty.
That’s the equivalent of adding three or four Buster Poseys to the roster.
I’m not sure there are three or four Posey-type free agents available. Even if there are, they’ll be prohibitively expensive, and the Giants will have money for one, maybe two.
Nor can the Giants trade for that many quality players without giving up quality in return.
Which means the Giants will need to get the bulk of their additional wins from young players in the farm system.
Just one problem: as we saw this summer, the Giants don’t have many good young players. Of all the new guys they brought up in 2017, only two — starting pitchers Ty Blach and Chris Stratton — established themselves to any degree.
So I don’t see the Giants returning to contention next year. I’m not sure they’ll contend in 2019 either. If they make the most of their early draft picks next year, the team may see meaningful improvement in 2020.
The shapers of conventional wisdom are calling for the Giants to sign 32 year-old free agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain and trade Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, or both for prospects. Ah, baseball pundits. They make political pundits look smart. Signing Cain would repeat a chronic mistake in center field: Aaron Rowand, Angel Pagan, and Denard Span were all aging center fielders when the Giants signed them, and they failed to live up to their contracts. Trading Belt and Panik would deprive the weak offense of its only better-than-average hitters besides Posey. How does either move help?
If the Giants want to gamble on a quick fix, here’s the move I suggest they make: trade Bumgarner.
He has genuine value, with a lifetime ERA of 3.01. He finished fourth in innings pitched and sixth in WHIP among all starting pitchers just a year ago. And he’ll be only 28 next season. His contract allows him to block trades to eight teams (identities unknown), but that allows the Giants to negotiate with 21.
How would the Giants benefit by trading one of their two potential Hall of Famers? By receiving in exchange two or three prospects on the verge of becoming significant contributors. They would also avoid having to negotiate Bumgarner’s next contract, which will cost at least twice the $12 million a year he’s getting through 2019; that’s money they can use to fill needs elsewhere. And if Bumgarner goes the way of Barry Zito, Tim Lincecum, and Matt Cain (more likely than not, since most pitchers do) the next team to sign him will overpay for a rapidly fading star. Should that team be the Giants?
I’m not advocating a Bumgarner trade. But Brian Sabean, who is still in the front office, established himself in San Francisco by trading power-hitting fan favorite Matt Williams for Jeff Kent in 1996, a shocking but shrewd move that turned the Giants into contenders for the next eight years. The roster needs a similar jolt now.