Elegy for ’18 – San Francisco Giants

With the Giants’ core likely entering its decline phase, a rebuild may be in the cards.
(Photo: Ian D’Andrea)

Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, even-year World Series wins. Goodnight, bowl of mush. Goodnight, even-year playoff appearances. Goodnight, Jeff Samardzija’s arm…

In 2018, the Giants beat out the Padres in the NL West. Unfortunately, they didn’t do much else.

The Setup

With three World Series championships over the decade and a fourth playoff appearance, it’s hard to have that much pity for the Giants, who have won more than their share of trophies.

Having aggressively spent after the 2015 season, signing Johnny Cueto and Samardzija in free agency just a week apart, the Giants can’t be blamed for lack of effort. The $251 million invested in the team that offseason was third in baseball. And it paid off, too, with Cueto and Samardzija combining for over 400 innings and 8.1 WAR, in addition to Madison Bumgarner, who had yet to start suffering a freak injury at the start of consecutive seasons.

In the weaker post-2016 free-agent market, the Giants didn’t stand pat either, risking $64 million on Mark Melancon as the Santiago Casilla era wound down.

But a disastrous 2017 campaign exposed the cracks in the organization. While the early parts of the Giants run were initially driven by an impressive crop of homegrown talent — including Bumgarner, Brandon Belt, Matt Cain, Brandon Crawford, Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey, and Pablo Sandoval — that pipeline largely dried up. After a few offseasons, a few injuries, and a few players aging quite suddenly, that lack of flexibility to patch holes on the fly proved deadly.

While a few players from more recent drafts (Heliot Ramos most notably) might have something to saw about it, the last position player drafted by the Giants who has also had a significant long-term role with the club is Joe Panik in 2011. Giants outfielders combined for 0.6 WAR in 2017, the worst in baseball, and though it takes a lot of ingredients to lose 98 games, the outfield with its toxic blend of has-beens and never-weres was one of the key problems, along with the starting rotation.

And to their credit, the Giants again weren’t negligent in approaching these issues after the 2017 season. At various times in the offseason they pursued the entire Marlin outfield, with Derek Jeter and crew looking to deal Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich. The team was just a hair from closing on Stanton, with Miami’s slugger putting the kibosh on the possibility only with an eleventh-hour invocation of his no-trade clause.

San Francisco also was one of the seven finalists for Shohei Ohtani, a fit for the Giants as both a starting pitcher and in the outfield, two of the gaping holes on the roster. Again, they were unable to close the deal, with Shohei-mania heading instead to Anaheim.

In the end, the Giants had to make their larger improvements via trade, first banking on a bounceback season from Evan Longoria and then betting Andrew McCutchen could maintain his 2017 resurgence for another year and hold his value better in a corner spot.

San Francisco’s signings in the 2017-18 offseason — Derek Holland, Austin Jackson, and Tony Watson — were less exciting, thanks in large part to a payroll that was approaching the luxury-tax threshold. While GM Bobby Evans never explicitly said there was a mandate to get the team below the threshold in 2018, it was a secret to precisely zero people that the team wanted to finish under it and reset the penalty to 20% from 50%.

This gamble — and whether or not it represented enough to squeeze another playoff run from the current core — would define the 2018 Giants.

The Projection

ZiPS saw a playoff run as plausible, projecting the team at 83-79 going into the season. But the projections also saw a club with a significant downside, reflecting a fairly thin roster that didn’t receive as many improvements in the outfield and rotation as would have been ideal — and not a lot of plausible Plan Bs for things that went wrong.

The Results

San Francisco fell out of first for good by the end of the first series of the season but managed to stay around the edge of the playoff race for most of the year. For a long time, it looked like the team would be able to finish .500, not enough to make the playoffs, but a more than respectable 17-win improvement from 2017.

In fact, for a period from late June to around the All-Star break, there were actual reasons for optimism. An 18-10 June got the team into a second-place tie with the Dodgers, only 2.5 games behind Arizona. Bumgarner’s 2018 season finally started in June and both Cueto and Samardzija were finishing up their rehab stints.

It wasn’t meant to be. Cueto was back on the disabled list by the end of July and had his 2018 and 2019 end prematurely with Tommy John surgery in early August. Samardzija’s return consisted of two lackluster starts, with fastballs just peeking into the low 90s, before he was shut down for his shoulder, a respite that lasted the rest of the season.

By the trade deadline, the Giants had dropped off into fourth place, but they were still just five games back and above .500, with a possible-if-difficult path to an NL West victory. But the team was plagued by the twin problems of a luxury-tax threshold under which they desired to remeain and a weak farm system made even weaker with the loss of the players from the Longoria and McCutchen trades.

Where the Dodgers added Manny Machado and the Diamondbacks added depth, the Giants did precisely nothing. There would be no reinforcements, as it turned out that teams with valuable players to trade were total misers and wanted something in return for the players they were offering. With the team likely not good enough under any circumstance to justify trading off Ramos, that was that.

The Giants spent August slowly fading out of contention, the team finally trading McCutchen at the end of the month. Only in September did the Giants go into a full tailspin, winning just five games the rest of the year. They proved to be an equal-opportunity spoiler, getting swept by four of the five NL playoff teams (they finished with the Cubs in July) and the near-playoff Cardinals.

The season wasn’t a total loss, however. The Giants showed they can still assemble an above-average bullpen relatively cheaply, the very-expensive Melancon pitching decently but feeling redundant and never regaining the closing job. Dereck Rodriguez’s 2.81 ERA was likely a bit over his head, but there’s a decent chance he’ll at least be a dependable midrotation starter, something they can absolutely use. Alen Hanson also showed enough to hang around as a utility player.

What Comes Next?

The Giants fired Evans after the end of the season, but it shouldn’t be taken as a sign of a drastic change in direction for the franchise. Team vice president Brian Sabean has been clear that the team isn’t interested in a total rebuild, and while he’s not expected to be hands-on with the eventual hire, I don’t think the team will bring in someone with a dramatically different vision from what they intend.

While I don’t think it was absolutely necessary to start and rebuild the past few years, I think we’re getting to the point where enough of the core has disintegrated that it’s difficult to avoid doing so.

San Francisco needs to plan on adding 20 wins from 2017 to 2018 — there’s not a lot of upside on the roster, so they can’t just target an 85-win year and hope for lightning in a bottle — to make avoiding a rebuild worthwhile, and unless the team goes absolutely insane in free agency, I can’t see where they find these wins. Individual hitters will have better seasons, but almost the entire veteran offensive core is on the wrong side of 30 (Panik is the main exception), making it far more likely than not they decline as a group.

The team literally needs a whole outfield, and I don’t think Steven Duggar or Chris Shaw are actually all that likely to be league average. Cueto is guaranteed gone, and given the difficulty resolving the shoulder issues, I don’t think you can be all that confident in Samardzija in 2019. Adding an extra win to all of Belt, Crawford, Longoria, Panik, and Posey next year still leaves you finding another 15. Somehow adding Machado and Bryce Harper doesn’t get you to 15, and I’m quite certain the Giants aren’t signing Machado and Harper this winter.

At this point, I’m not optimistic about the 2019 Giants, and I think they’ll come to regret not starting to rebuild this year. Too many players are too far from their best years, and I don’t believe they’ll be able to add enough to the current roster. I could be wrong, but remember, it’s an odd year.

Way-Too-Early Projection – Buster Posey

ZiPS Projections – Buster Posey
2019 423 .284 .358 .400 120 23 1 8 47 55 4 106 6 3.7
2020 398 .281 .353 .394 112 22 1 7 42 51 4 103 5 3.2
2021 378 .278 .348 .389 105 19 1 7 39 48 4 101 4 2.8
2022 355 .270 .336 .372 96 16 1 6 34 43 3 93 3 2.1
2023 331 .266 .326 .350 88 14 1 4 28 37 3 85 2 1.5
2024 283 .258 .313 .325 73 10 0 3 21 29 3 75 0 0.7
2025 204 .255 .306 .319 52 7 0 2 14 18 1 71 -1 0.3
2026 138 .254 .300 .304 35 4 0 1 9 11 1 66 -1 0.0
Tot 6680 .293 .360 .428 1957 361 14 171 684 855 46 117 17 53.4

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. ZiPS does not see Posey’s home runs coming back in 2019, and final park factors/league factors aren’t going to change the preliminary projection by all that much.

But the projections also have him aging fairly gracefully, and all things considered, four projected league-average-or-better seasons for a catcher who will turn 32 in spring training ain’t half bad. Plus, those years — helpfully for the Giants — conveniently overlap with the remaining years of his contract and his option year.

All in all, it looks like Posey will have an interesting but not a slam-dunk Hall of Fame case. Totaling 53.4 WAR puts Posey at 11th all-time for qualifying catchers, wedged in between Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett — with an excellent, extended peak, award hardware, and some rings. But falling short of .300, 2000 hits, and 200 homers takes away some round-number milestones — it took Gary Carter six tries and Mike Piazza four tries — and I feel they both had better cases than the Posey projections. Posey is better than Jorge Posada, but it’s not a gulf, and the latter got one-and-outed in the 2017 vote. I’d personally vote for Posey with this career-finish, but the Clark family isn’t appointing me the dictator of the Hall of Fame, even if they totally should.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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5 years ago

I have sadly concluded that the giants are going to be mediocre to poor for a long time. They are tied to too many longterm notrade contracts (psychologically as well as financially), their farm system is too weak, and bochy is on the one hand unfirable and on the other hand completely opposed and unsuited to any kind of rebuilding program. The only thing which i could see making a diffetence is using posey and bumgarner to get some can’t-miss young talent who even bochy would agree to play, although i think they only have a year or so of control over bumgarner and posey would have to be convinced to accept a trade (i think the yankees might well overpay for ‘the face of baseball’, for example). But i can’t see the giants’ management having tje courage or imagination to do something like that.

5 years ago

The Giants are in a real tough spot marketing wise. The fanbase has been has essentially been told rebuilds will never happen and they will always compete. That they want to be the Red Sox-west, to the Yankees-west in the Dodgers. The problem is they just aren’t that and they refuse to acknowledge it. You can’t continue to buy your way into competitive seasons via free agency without huge payrolls. And if you continue to sell prospects for expensive, middle-aged, slightly above average players, you’re never going to get another Posey or equivalent talent on the cheap either. And while the giants don’t exactly shy away from good sized payrolls, they have no desire (ability?) to run tax bills each year. The Giants have, at their core, an identity crisis. They don’t want to be a slightly richer version of the A’s, they can’t be the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers. Who are they?

CC AFCmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Walter

Presuming that what you mean when you say they want to be like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers is that they want to be big spenders, why can’t they be that? I am led to believe there’s a few bucks floating around the Bay Area these days and they’ve got quite a nice stadium.

5 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

They are willing and able to spend a huge amount of money, that isn’t the problem. The main problems (in my opinion) is that they want continuity as a matter of principle. I personally would have fired Bochy after the 2016 season at the latest (much of the famous bullpen fiasco was Bochy’s own inflexibility, among other problems with his managing), but the Giants wouldn’t hear of it, and neither would the overwhelming majority of their fans. They gave just too many long-term no-trade contracts to players either because they were home-grown or crowd favorites, way past the amount of time when the players would be productive, and even though in principle they have enough money that they could just eat the contracts and look for better players like the Dodgers do so often, they just can’t do it psychologically. They just love the idea that they’re loyal to their players, I guess. And I have to say that, having just attended a Giants’ game for the first time in quite a long time (I live a LOOONG way away), I was horrified by how ignorant the average fan at a Giants’ game is–I had the feeling that they would prefer to go on seeing players from the Giants’ glory years even if they aren’t so good anymore because they wouldn’t even recognize the names of great players who the Giants brought as free agents. They just don’t follow baseball (I remember a quote from some time ago when Barry Zito expressed admiration for the loyalty of Giants’ fans who kept on cheering for him even though he was pitching terribly considering the size of the contract he got, and Posey (I think it was) said something like ‘I don’t think it’s loyalty. They just don’t follow baseball very closely and cheer for everything.’ In terms of why the management values continuity so much, I would say that it’s a combination of Bochy’s personality and the general feeling that ‘after he brought us 3 championships’, we can’t fire him (it had been 56 years since the Giants’ last championship in 2010). Bochy doesn’t like to work with young players and doesn’t know how to. I don’t think that he has any ability to judge, encourage, or develop talent. He focuses on trying to get the last ounce out of established veterans, even if they aren’t any good or even were never any good. And this is probably related to how the Giants could spend so much money on their payroll but pay so little attention to trying to improve their farm system.

5 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Given the price of the concessions at ATT park, I don’t understand why they give a darn about payroll.

On a more serious note, there is certainly no shortage of money in the bay area. However, its heavily concentrated in certain sectors and people. Theoretically, the Giants should be able to tap into that, but the problem is that the bay area has: a) very little patients for failure, its a very eat or be eaten business atmosphere. b) The demographics are changing pretty quickly, native bay areians(?) are leaving while immigrants pour in. c) Huge fractions of people that live here are soaked to the bone in basic living expenses.

I believe these forces make it difficult for sports teams in the area to have broad appeal when not on top of the world. If you’re not the hot thing, I’ll take my foreign clients somewhere else, or spend the money I don’t have on something else.

5 years ago
Reply to  Walter

I would give a very different explanation (of course just a guess). I think that the present giants regime developed to a significant extent in response to and in tandem with what was going on with the a’s. The a’s came to the bay area in 1968, quickly won 3 world series, and crushed the giants in the 1989 series, while the giants had never won a world series since moving to the bay area. Both teams had success without championships in the 2000s, but the a’s legacy from those days was moneyball while the giants was barry bonds’ apparent use of banned substances. The present-day giants seem to be designed to be the anti-a’s, and this is encouraged by the fact that although giants’ fans vastly outnumber a’s fans, serious baseball fans in the bay area naturally gravitate to the a’s while the giants are left with the intellectual dregs (like me). The giants are obsessed with continuity because the downside of moneyball is beane’s seemingly constant dealing of anyone and everyone. They are against rebuilding because the a’s are perceived as being obsessed with it. They feel like they can’t compete with the a’s in terms of baseball acumen so they’re going to succeed in some other way.

5 years ago

i don’t know how tradable Posey would be. He’s still due 66 million dollars over next 3 years- along with decline of his 4th year option). With the retirement of Joe Mauer, he’s #9 in the active list of games caught. His last 3 years wRC+ are 114, 127, and 106. So even not taking into account the no trade clause- how much would you get back for a guy like that?

5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

This also doesn’t factor in whatever long term effects that hip surgery might have. Maybe there’s no issues. Maybe it’s something that lingers and affects his long term outlook.

5 years ago
Reply to  stever20

That’s why I mentioned the Yankees. As someone who lived in the NYC area for a long time, I feel like I have a pretty good idea of how the Yankees think. If the Yankees were to get the idea they have a shot at Posey, I think they might lose all rationality. He has three World Series rings. He’s probably a future Hall of Famer. He’s a household name (literally The Face Of Baseball). He’s good-looking in a conventional way. He PREFERS to be clean-shaven (a Yankees’ requirement). I think there’s a good chance he would be their wet dream to the extent that they wouldn’t care about, or at least couldn’t rationally think about, the money, the declining production, the hip surgery, or the fact that they already have Gary Sanchez. I think if the Yankees manage to win a World Series without Posey their interest will drop radically, but as long as this iteration of the Yankees hasn’t done that, when they think about Posey they’re going to think ‘missing piece’.

5 years ago

Aren’t the Red Sox a better fit for Posey than the Yankees? Similar budget, much greater need at C/1B, possibly less concern over what the contract looks like a couple years down the line.

Back to the Giants — needing literally an entire outfield isn’t the worst thing. Decent outfielders are very cheap compared to any other position. But I thought they should have gone for something like that this year, and they didn’t. Smart money says they try running it back again with some modest FA buys…