For all the reasons that made running the Giants appealing to Farhan Zaidi, there’s one major, unavoidable negative: The roster is in pretty bad shape. That’s the roster of the big-league team, and, really, that’s the overall organizational depth chart. It’s an expensive and mediocre club with few reinforcements on the way, and while Zaidi obviously knows all this, that doesn’t change the fact he’ll be doing hard work, requiring hard decisions. Navigating this kind of situation is always unpleasant, when there exists a fan base rather accustomed to winning, so you can understand why Zaidi hasn’t yet said much about trading Madison Bumgarner. It’s something the Giants will have to confront, but it’s a troublesome concept to voice.
Still, the Giants are reportedly open to it. They don’t want to frighten the public, but they also don’t want to close themselves off to potential opportunities. It’s time for the Giants to change their direction, and Bumgarner is one of few players on the roster with trade value. According to the linked article, the Giants are likely to target “at least one high-end pitching prospect.” Bumgarner’s under contract only one more year, at a $12-million salary.
James Paxton has already been traded. Noah Syndergaard, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber have all been the subject of rumors. Patrick Corbin is a free agent. Dallas Keuchel is a free agent. Yusei Kikuchi is going to be posted. You can add Bumgarner to the list of available starting pitchers. However, if Bumgarner is to be dealt, you shouldn’t expect the Giants to get a massive haul back. There’s a considerable gap between the perception of Bumgarner and the reality.
Part of this is because the average person still thinks of trades as involving players, rather than involving players and their contracts. Like it or not, baseball these days doesn’t just value players on the basis of their identities — so much of value is about future control. Bumgarner, yes, is a World Series hero, a borderline household name, and those can never be taken away from him. But because of his contract, he’s a one-year player, and one-year players don’t often go for blockbuster trades. This same thinking applies to Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt is a great player who’s going to be underpaid in 2019, but after 2019, he’s set to hit free agency. Clubs aren’t wild about giving away so many years of service time.
Beyond that, though, there’s also the matter of Bumgarner himself. Bumgarner has continued to post pretty low ERAs. He’s come back from the dirt-bike injury that sidelined him for so long in 2017, and his fractured finger in 2018 was a fluke. Yet Bumgarner now profiles as a pitcher in decline. Those same low ERAs have been posted in one of baseball’s most pitcher-friendly environments. Check out how Bumgarner ranks among his peer group, over the past two seasons. Here is a selection of Bumgarner’s percentile rankings.
I hope it’s obvious I’m not trying to make the point that Bumgarner is bad. He’s not bad. He’s probably still an above-average starting pitcher. But Bumgarner hasn’t been posting ace-level statistics like he used to. I could understand if Bumgarner simply struggled after coming back from his shoulder injury in 2017, but then in 2018, with the benefit of additional time, he didn’t show improvement. Maybe *that* was because of the fractured finger, but ultimately, players are judged by their results, and Bumgarner’s results have gotten worse. I won’t bother embedding a table, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a difference in 2018 performance between Madison Bumgarner and Wade LeBlanc.
While it’s true that Bumgarner has still managed to keep his ERA low, and while it’s true that run prevention is the name of the game, there’s reason to believe a lot of that comes down to Bumgarner leveraging his home environment. During the Statcast era, Bumgarner has run a significant gap between his actual wOBA and his expected wOBA, but that’s only been the case in San Francisco. Historically, Bumgarner’s ERA- isn’t far from his FIP-, and as many of you understand, ERA is among the noisier statistics. I wouldn’t expect teams to pay much attention to ERA at all. I’d expect teams to pay more attention to, say, something like this:
Bumgarner has been losing the ability to miss bats with his fastball. He’s compensated by throwing more curveballs and fewer fastballs, and the curve and his cutter are still good and effective, but with the fastball declining, Bumgarner’s abilities are more limited. Perhaps he’ll be able to recover some of his losses, but trade partners wouldn’t agree to a trade on the basis of hopeful speculation.
Bumgarner is under contract for one year and $12 million. If he were a free agent signing a one-year deal, what would he get? $25 million? Maybe $30 million? Just taking those two numbers, you could say Bumgarner would have around $13 – 18 million in surplus value. As it happens, Craig Edwards recently did the hard work to attach surplus values to prospect rankings. The average pitching prospect with a Future Value rating of 50 was calculated to have a surplus value of about $21 million. That would be a value in excess of where Bumgarner appears to be.
Last offseason, somewhat conveniently, the Giants were on the other side of a similar exchange. With Bumgarner, the Giants would be trading one of their own icons away. But you’ll recall that they traded for one of the Pirates’ icons, in Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen was coming off a better year than Bumgarner, but he was a bit older, and he also had just one year of team control left. The Pirates received position-player prospect Bryan Reynolds, and pitching prospect Kyle Crick. Reynolds, at the time, was given an FV rating of 45. Crick was given an FV rating of 40. Crick went on to have a successful season in relief. The Pirates didn’t get nothing, but the return didn’t blow anyone away. The parallels are numerous.
More teams, perhaps, need pitching now, compared to teams last offseason in the market for corner outfielders. If there’s a bigger group of suitors, maybe Zaidi could find a better return for his No. 1 starter. Nevertheless, premium prospects won’t be there on the table. That’s not how the industry works anymore. And it makes me wonder whether Zaidi might be better off waiting until July. That might seem like procrastination, but it could conceivably work in the Giants’ favor.
Just from a PR standpoint, Zaidi probably wouldn’t want trading Bumgarner to be his first major move with the team. He’s too popular a player, and it would leave a sour taste in peoples’ mouths. Plus, if the Giants held off, maybe the team would play well enough to flirt with the wild-card race. Maybe Bumgarner’s numbers would rebound, at least somewhat. He should actually begin the season healthy. And then there’s the matter of Bumgarner’s reputation. Really, it’s the matter of his statistical performance in the playoffs. So much of the perception of Bumgarner’s value has to do with what he’s done in October. I wouldn’t expect other teams to value that too highly right now, especially since Bumgarner was a hero all the way back in 2014, but come the next trade deadline, the playoffs will be closer in view. I wonder if Bumgarner’s background might be enough to get some other suitor over the hump. Imagine what that kind of deadline acquisition could mean to a contending clubhouse. I could be making too much of a small thing, but trades in July are just thought about differently. Right now, the postseason feels so far away. The previous one only just ended.
As always, it’s up to the executives in charge to know the details of what’s going on. Only Zaidi’s staff knows what’s out on the table right now, and only Zaidi’s staff can figure out whether it might be smarter to wait. Whether it be sooner or later, the Giants are going to have to make a tough decision with a very popular player. Assuming a trade decision is eventually made, though, it’s not going to fully re-stock the Giants’ system. Not unless the Giants wait, and Bumgarner rebounds. For the moment, he just isn’t that pitcher.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.