The 2018 season is looking like another one in which the Giants’ even-year magic has deserted them. Amid a barrage of bad news about Brandon Belt, Johnny Cueto, and Pablo Sandoval — not to mention unsettling signs regarding Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey — they were inactive at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and now look ill-suited to leapfrog nearly half the league in order to get to October. After a crushing 3-1 loss to the Astros on Monday night via Marwin Gonzalez’s three-run homer off Will Smith with two out in the ninth inning, they’re 57-57, six games out of first place in the NL West and six back in the Wild Card hunt. Their playoff odds (2.8%) suggest they’re fated to play out the string.
Mind you, coming off a 64-98 season, the Giants never appeared to be a juggernaut. Offseason trades for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen did fill a couple of obvious holes, albeit with players whose best years are probably behind them, but the team’s preseason odds (23.9%) still suggested more than a puncher’s chance at relevance. Yet the Giants haven’t been in first place in the NL West since March 31, and have spent just five days in second since I last checked in on them on June 7, two days after Bumgarner made his belated season debut. Then as now, they were a .500-ish team — 30-30 before Bum’s return, and 27-27 since — but as time has run off the clock, the hits have kept coming. Not the good kind, either.
On July 25, Belt hyperextended his right knee while legging out an infield single. When an MRI revealed a bone bruise, the team placed him on the disabled list for the second time this year; he had lost 13 games to an appendectomy at the start of June. Even having played in just 85 of the team’s 113 games, the 30-year-old first baseman has been the Giants’ most valuable player in terms of WAR (2.6), as well as their best hitter (.278/.372/.470, 129 wRC+), though he’s hit a meager .231/.321/.347 (83 wRC+) since his return from surgery. He’s unlikely to return before mid-August.
Sandoval, who since bottoming out in Boston has resuscitated his career by serving as a Panda of all trades — with innings spent on the mound and at second base, even — made just three starts in place of Belt before straining his right hamstring while tagging up in a July 29 game, that after having just hit his first triple since June 14, 2015. Via The Athletic’s Andrew Baggarly, the Giants downplayed the severity of the injury just prior to the trading deadline, which is laying it on a bit thick regarding a utilityman hitting .248/.310/.417 for a fourth-place club that last made a trade on July 8. On August 2, the team finally announced that Sandoval needed season-ending surgery.
Indeed, August 2 was a particularly bad day in San Francisco, for that’s when Cueto finally underwent Tommy John surgery, likely knocking him out until 2020. On the heels of a subpar 2017 season shortened by blisters and a flexor strain, the 32-year-old righty had been brilliant in March and April (0.84 ERA, 2.79 FIP) before suffering a UCL sprain that at the time wasn’t deemed severe enough to warrant surgery. After missing all of May and June while rehabbing the injury, he was a shadow of himself in four July starts (6.86 ERA, 7.64 FIP) amid diminishing velocity. When he complained of elbow pain following his 61-pitch July 28 outing against the Brewers, his date with a scalpel became increasingly clear. Major-league mounds will be substantially less colorful in his absence.
Cueto joined a disabled list that already included fellow starter Jeff Samardzija and reliever/oaf Hunter Strickland. The former, who has managed just a 6.25 ERA and 5.44 FIP in 10 turns totaling 44.2 innings this year, is down with a bout of right shoulder inflammation that required a platelet-rich plasma injection during the All-Star break, while the latter, who saved 13 games in the absence of Mark Melancon, has been out since fracturing his pitching hand while punching a door on June 19 following a blown save. Melancon, who’s been slow to return from last fall’s pronator surgery followed by a flexor strain, finally pitched in back-to-back games on August 2-3, but he’s striking out a career-low 16.1% of hitters these days and not yet back to regular closer duty. Hence Smith’s ill-fated ninth-inning appearance on Monday, where he yielded his first homer in 36.1 innings this year.
Given such a litany — as well as production at second base (Joe Panik and company) and left field (what’s left of Hunter Pence and friends) that would have qualified them for spots on their respective Replacement-Level Killers lists if the team had appeared to be a viable contender — it’s not hard to see why the Giants didn’t aggressively try to shore up their weak spots at the deadline. But as Dan Szymborski pointed out, they also didn’t do anything to improve their chances for 2019 or 2020, or at least try to give themselves more breathing room under the $197 million competitive-balance tax threshold. (The July 8 trade of Cory Gearrin and Austin Jackson to the Rangers shaved about $2 million off their tax payroll, trimming them to an estimated $196,712,834 according to Cot’s Contracts).
The August waiver period will provide general manager Bobby Evans a chance to further pare payroll, mainly in the form of McCutchen. The 31-year-old right fielder’s overall performance has been solid (.265/.358/.424, 117 wRC+, 1.5 WAR), but he’s been particularly hot since the All-Star break (.286/.397/.500, 147 wRC+), and it’s an open question as to whether that can last longer than the team’s ability to pretend they’re still in the running. And while it won’t do a whole lot for their payroll or add much more than a lottery ticket or two to a downtrodden farm system, the Giants also have other assets to consider moving, such as rejuvenated starter Derek Holland (3.88 ERA, 4.06 FIP), reliever Sam Dyson (two years of club control), and backup catcher Nick Hundley (lots of Killers on the loose).
Of course, the one move that would jump-start the system is a trade of Bumgarner, who has one more year of club control in the form of a $12 million club option and $1.5 million buyout — but a performance that’s trending the wrong way. While his 2.97 ERA is right in line with his career mark (3.01), the 29-year-old southpaw’s 3.72 FIP and 9.5% walk rate are both career worsts, while his 19.7% strikeout rate represents his lowest mark since his 2010 rookie season, and his K-BB% differential is about half of what it was in his 2014-16 heyday. Though his average fastball velocity is in line with what it was two years ago, before he sprained his shoulder in a dirt-bike accident, it’s down by about 1.4 mph from 2015, and batters are not only chasing it outside the zone with much less frequency, they’re rarely swinging and missing, and they’re hitting it HARD:
Note that Pitch Info, the source of the first six columns of data above, classifies all of Bumgarner’s fastballs as four-seamers, while Baseball Savant shows him throwing both four-seamers and sinkers, though only 216 of the former last year, and none this year. The wOBA and xwOBA figures are for all classifications of his fastball, so even if the above numbers are an aggregation of multiple pitches, the trends are quite ominous.
That said, as a shorter-term investment with a below-market salary, Bumgarner could still be an appealing acquisition. After all, he’s probably still more effective than, say, Cole Hamels or Lance Lynn. He’s so economical, in fact, that he might not make it all the way through waivers and to an intended contender, so if the Giants are thinking about trading him — and there’s no real sign that they are — they might have to wait until winter.
Meanwhile, though Posey has avoided the disabled list this season, the 31-year-old backstop left Friday’s game in the third inning in order to be monitored for concussion symptoms; he had taken a hard foul ball off his mask in the first inning, then felt light-headed after hitting a single. He felt well enough to return to the lineup on Sunday, albeit at first base, and while that’s a relief, he’s in the midst of one of his less productive seasons, hitting .298/.372/.410 with just five homers and a 117 wRC+, two points below his career low, set just two years ago. His slugging percentage, meanwhile, is his lowest since his injury-abbreviated 2011 season. If the toll of his toil behind the plate is catching up to him in his early 30s — even with the Giants liberally using him at first base in order to keep his bat in the lineup around 140 times per year — he wouldn’t be the first. Still an excellent receiver and above-average contributor, Posey is signed through 2021, and while there’s no reason to cast him aside, the Giants will have to reckon with the reality that he’s no longer a centerpiece of the offense. In a lineup that’s already the league’s oldest, with a weighted age of 30.2 years, that’s not good news.
There’s not a whole lot the Giants can do about that right now, but as this season slips away, it’s clear that they need a new plan. The magic of 2010, 2012, and 2014 is long gone, the current core isn’t good enough in an increasingly competitive NL West, and the realities of a high payroll and a weak farm system can’t be ignored.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.