When we look back on this era of baseball in future times, exhorting children to get off our lawns, nobody shed tears of pity for the San Francisco Giants. After all, the Giants of this generation made the World Series four times and won three of them, a difficult, probability-crushing feat in a world where six division winners and four wild card teams make the playoffs. It was a team that featured most of the grandest years of one of the best players anyone will ever see — no, Dusty Baker, not Pedro Feliz — before that mantle was handed off.
After such a highlight-filled epic, the problem is what comes next? In literature, you have the ability to just end the story. King Arthur’s body sails to Avalon; Beowulf lives another 50 years; Frodo sails away. Or maybe the author doesn’t finish the books, and a TV adaptation shoves three years’ worth of material into 13 episodes. But baseball always has another sequel, another tale with new protagonists and antagonists and unfortunate Joe West cameos, and these San Francisco Giants have bungled the end of their current tale.
The Outfield Conundrum
We’ve talked a lot about Cleveland’s failures this offseason to address their outfield situation, but San Francisco’s problems are long-standing and arguably even less excusable. While one can rightly complain about the amount of chutzpah (and possibly arrogance) needed for a contending team to just let a major weakness slide going into the season because their competition is extremely weak, the Giants were under no such illusion. The NL West provided five playoff teams combined in 2017 and 2018 and the Dodgers were the NL champs in both seasons, so the “Hey, we play the Tigers and Royals a lot” excuse doesn’t hold. Not to mention that the Dodgers, while losing their partial season from Manny Machado, reasonably expected to get a full season from a returning Corey Seager, which is as good as a major free agent signing.
In terms of WAR, the last time the Giants had an above-average outfield was back in 2014. Hunter Pence’s last good year — though he’s been shockingly good this year — carried the bulk of the load, hitting .277/.332/.445 and posting 4.1 WAR for the season. Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan, and Michael Morse covered the rest of the cavernous outfield. The team’s outfield ranking dropped to 24th in 2015, and hasn’t reached those dizzying low heights since. Blanco’s .291/.368/.413, 2.0 WAR season in 2015 remains the top WAR season for a Giants outfielder since Pence’s 2014. If we were in 2016 or 2017, that would be troubling; in 2019, it’s a disaster for a team claiming contention.
That’s not to say the Giants did absolutely nothing; that would be an unfair charge. When the Miami Marlins, looted and pillaged more often than fifth-century Rome, opened up their gates for another round prior to the 2018 season, the Giants were in on all of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna at various times. They came away with none of those players and instead traded for Andrew McCutchen, and went the bargain route with Austin Jackson. McCutchen worked out more or less, but was an insufficient short-term fix to a long-term problem; the Giants essentially paid the Rangers Cory Gearrin and Justin Bahr just to be relieved of Jackson’s contract.
This year, looking at the last, best chance to recapture the magic of the 2012 season, San Francisco’s grand outfield plan was to sign outfielders that were highly sought-after by other teams…in 2012. None of Cameron Maybin, Gerardo Parra, or Craig Gentry made it out of March with the organization. While the Kevin Pillar trade was a reasonable one, it still left the Giants with an outfield that projected to be worth around two WAR combined for the 2019 season. Meanwhile, Pillar looks increasingly like the latest outfielder the team has picked up after their prime, rather than before or during it.
Magic is Dead
However they got here, 2019 is already essentially a lost cause. The Giants are tied with the Rockies for the second-worst record in the National League (for a team that’s actually trying to compete — apologies Marlins), and the aging roster has less upside than that of any team in the NL West. The ZiPS projected standings as of Monday morning paint a bleak picture of the division, at least as far as San Francisco is concerned.
|Los Angeles Dodgers||96||66||—||.593||97.2%||1.3%||98.5%||12.7%|
|San Diego Padres||78||84||18||.481||0.7%||4.8%||5.5%||0.2%|
|San Francisco Giants||70||92||26||.432||0.0%||0.0%||0.0%||0.0%|
ZiPS places the odds of the Giants making the playoffs at about one-in-355. That’s not impossible, but it’s at least implausible. The true odds might be even worse. One of the things that is out of ZiPS’s so-called “jurisdiction” is future roster moves. The ZiPS projections are based on which players teams currently have in their organizations, not the ones who could be. For example, in the more pessimistic scenarios for the Dodgers, ZiPS doesn’t consider that the team could make a trade for Marcus Stroman or Anthony Rendon or whoever else could help fix whatever happens to be going wrong in that slice of the multiverse. The Giants may be less-equipped than any team in the division to make these kinds of additions, featuring what is arguably the worst farm system in the NL West — if it’s not, it’s still not very good — and the least payroll flexibility.
But let’s imagine for a moment that the Giants could make the best possible acquisition for the least possible cost. Let’s re-project the Giants after acquiring Mike Trout for a heavily used VHS copy of 1989’s Think Big, a humorless comedy featuring the Barbarian Brothers driving a truck full of toxic waste while trying to thwart Martin Mull, David Carradine, Bull from Night Court, and the guy who played Jaws.
|Los Angeles Dodgers||95||67||—||.586||97.0%||1.3%||98.3%||11.8%|
|San Diego Padres||78||84||17||.481||0.7%||4.0%||4.7%||0.2%|
|San Francisco Giants||76||86||19||.469||0.3%||2.4%||2.8%||0.1%|
The best trade in major league history couldn’t save the 2019 Giants — only amazingly good luck could.
Dwindling Veteran Value
While the Giants spent the last couple of years competing without winning, a potential rebuild withered on the vine. With the farm in recent years looking like something ripped from The Grapes of Wrath, the Giants haven’t developed much in the way of new talent to compensate for the dwindling trade value of their veterans.
It would have been extremely difficult for the Giants to justify starting their rebuild after the 2016 season. They were coming off an 87-win campaign and a playoff appearance, with an excellent infield and the top three of the rotation that looked like one of the best in baseball. 2017 was a notable disaster at 64-98, but you could still argue that with an aggressive retooling focused on making the team better in the short-term, there was room for a bounce-back season much like the ones the Boston Red Sox achieved a few times in the previous decade. But after another disaster in 2018? While winning is a laudable goal, rebuilding before this season, short of a major, near-miraculous overhaul of the roster, should have been an easy call.
Due to years used and unexpected player declines — there are far more players expected to under-perform than over-perform — the Giants’ name-veterans only have roughly a third of the win-value remaining in their contracts. And this ignores salaries — in a world where the Giants will not pay the entire freight on any contracts they move (also known as reality), many of these contracts are underwater and near-unmovable.
The team still has a chance to get something in return for a few of their veterans. While Evan Longoria and Johnny Cueto would likely pass through waivers at this point, Madison Bumgarner is finally back to his 2016 strikeout rate, and his ERA is only inflated because of a .312 BABIP. Our erstwhile colleague Jeff Sullivan implored the Giants to trade Will Smith back in January; it’s even more of an imperative now that 2019 looks as unimpressive as was projected. Not a lot of teams need a first baseman, but Brandon Belt would improve the Indians, Astros, Nationals, and maybe the Yankees if the Grim Orthopedist pays them another visit.
San Francisco made a great effort to avoid paying the luxury tax and they’ve been successful. But instead of paying the luxury tax, they’ve spent three seasons paying the mediocrity tax, finishing well out of the playoffs with payrolls in the high hundred-million range. Since the last time San Francisco made the postseason, they’ve won four fewer games than the Marlins while spending well over $100 million a year more. The longer it takes for the Giants to acknowledge the future instead of holding onto the past, the more painful that future will be.
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.