Last Thursday, Madison Bumgarner wrecked his dirt bike, and in the process, also wrecked his throwing shoulder. The team publicly announced that he’d be out 6-8 weeks while rehabbing the injury, but reports suggest that might be an optimistic belief.
SF will get more info on Bumgarner in days ahead, but there is concern within organization the injury will sideline him longer than 2 months
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) April 22, 2017
The Giants, faced with the adversity of losing their best pitcher for an extended absence, traveled to Colorado for a weekend series with one of their division competitors; it did not go well. In getting swept by the Rockies, they were outscored 28-6, and that was while throwing their three best healthy arms, and theoretically having the starting pitching advantage in each game. Johnny Cueto lost to Tyler Chatwood, Jeff Samardzija lost to Antonio Senzatela, and Matt Moore lost to Kyle Freeland. It was not an inspiring, win-one-for-the-gipper kind of series.
So on April 24th, the Giants sit at 6-13, a half-game ahead of Toronto for the worst record in baseball. They are already seven games back of Colorado in the NL West race, and in their next two games, they have to throw their two worst starters at the Dodgers, who will counter with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Clayton Kershaw. The team could easily be 6-15 in a couple of days, and if they lose the next two, they’d be five games behind the Dodgers. Catching LA was already going to be difficult, but climbing out of a five game hole without Bumgarner for a few months would be a particularly tough task.
That series of facts prompted Andrew Baggarly to suggest that perhaps the Giants should start looking to the future, sooner rather than later.
Tanking this season might be the best thing for the franchise’s medium- to long-term health. From a baseball operations perspective, anyway. And Bumgarner’s shoulder injury, sustained in a dirt bike accident last Thursday, might give the Giants the impetus to go through with it.
No, it wouldn’t be a multiyear rebuilding plan employed recently by the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs or the current Atlanta Braves. Maybe it’s just a one-year thing. Call it a Turbo Tank, maybe.
Well, the Giants could trade Cueto and Nuñez prior to the July 31 deadline and add a few prospects to the system. They could free up money from Cueto’s departure to be opportunistic elsewhere. They could get innings and at-bats for Tyler Beede and Christian Arroyo so their top prospects could learn at the last level of development.
In the meantime, outfielder Bryan Reynolds gets another year to get closer to the big leagues (he tripled off A’s top prospect A.J. Puk on Sunday). They could see if first baseman Chris Shaw or third baseman Ryder Jones is ready to make a jump. They could throw Austin Slater into the fire, and perhaps discover if they have another Matt Duffy on their hands. Their bullpen would gain another year of experience. And next year, if all goes well with Will Smith’s Tommy John rehab, they’ll have a pretty good left-hander to throw back into the mix.
The Giants might even finish low enough in the standings to get a top-10 pick for John Barr, which has turned out pretty well for them. Their last top-10 choices were Zack Wheeler, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum. That’s a whole lot of WAR right there.
Given that I just wrote something similar about the Blue Jays, I’m certainly not in the camp that thinks it is too early to start talking about whether an expected contender’s slow start should cause them to reevaluate their plan for the year. However, in looking at the Giants and Blue Jays, I think there are a few reasons to see a different picture here, and I don’t think I’d endorse the “turbo-tank” plan in San Francisco just yet.
For one, the National League remains highly stratified, with a dramatic division between good and bad teams. The Dodgers, Nationals, and Cubs are all on another level than the rest of their league-mates, and barring injuries or significant downturns from expected producers, should win the three division races somewhat easily. All three are currently sitting at greater than an 80% chance of capturing their division title, with the Nationals pushing 90% given their strong start to the season.
Who is the fourth best team in the NL? Well, heading into the season, it looked like the Mets, but they’ve got their own issues at the moment. An 8-11 start has them just two games ahead of the Giants, and basically every position player on their team is injured in one way or another. The Cardinals were also expected to be solid Wild Card contenders, but they’ve started 9-10 and have yet to figure out what their infield should look like, while the pitching has also been a bit worrisome. The Pirates? 8-10, and already lost Starling Marte for half the season due to a PED suspension.
Among the teams that looked to make up the middle class of the National League, we don’t find a single winning record so far. That’s left the door open for upstart contenders like the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Marlins to push themselves into the mix, but while their hot starts help give them an early lead in the Wild Card chase, there are reasons the preseason projections weren’t in love with their rosters. Odds are that at least two of these three are going to come back to earth, and our forecasts have them all finishing between 80-83 wins.
Leaving out the three likely division winners and the five not-trying-to-win-this-year rebuilders, this is how our projections have seen the mid-tier of the National League move together since Opening Day.
At the beginning of the year, we saw the Mets, Giants, and Cardinals as a step ahead of the Pirates, Rockies, Marlins, and Diamondbacks, but the first three weeks of the season have brought everyone crashing together, and now there’s basically a seven-team pileup in the middle of the expected end-of-season standings. Every team in this group is now expected to finish with between 78 and 84 wins, with the Giants right in the middle of that pack at 81-81. In other words, even with a horrendous start and the loss of Bumgarner for a few months, we’d currently project the Giants to finish all of three games out of a playoff spot at the end of the year.
Of course, this assumes the team will start playing better soon; if the Giants keep playing like they have the first three weeks of the season, then they’ll play themselves out of this mix soon enough. But as long as they don’t hold NL West aspirations, the reality is that the rest of their competitors are either off to similarly poor starts or have rosters that don’t support their early-season strength. While a few teams will emerge from this pack, it looks more likely than ever that a team could get a Wild Card spot with fewer than 90 wins, and it wouldn’t take that much good fortune for the Giants to turn their season around to get back into that 86-89 win range.
Of course, the other factor in the buy-or-sell decision is the reward for surrendering. That was part of the argument for the Blue Jays thinking about whether they want to chase a Wild Card game, given the haul they could expect to get for Josh Donaldson this summer, plus the chance to perhaps move some of the money still owed to Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, and Kendrys Morales. If the Blue Jays pivoted this summer, they might be able to significant improve their franchise’s long-term standing, at least relative to letting Donaldson walk as a free agent after next year and getting saddled with the end of some long-term deals for aging former stars.
The Giants aren’t really in that position. It’s telling that Baggarly cited Cueto and Nunez as the two guys the team would likely move in a sell-off, but neither of them are going to have a tremendous amount of trade value.
Cueto would be the big chip, and certainly, there would be a market for his services. But the contract the Giants gave him would cause teams to pause before ponying up big time talent, because he comes with limited control but also significant downside. Because Cueto has an opt-out at the end of the year, he’s almost certain to enter free agency again if he has another strong year like he did last year, and any team trading for him would have to see him as a rental. But one of the nice things about trading for rent-a-pitchers is that there is limited risk, and if their elbow blows out during the stretch run, well, so be it.
But Cueto’s only a rental if he stays healthy. If you trade for him in June or July and then his arm explodes in August or September, now you’re on the hook for an $84 million rehab. So he’s a rental with real downside, and that’s going to drive his trade value down a bit. There will definitely be teams willing to take the risk on him staying healthy enough to use the opt-out and be a traditional rental arm, but the Giants probably won’t get as much for him as if he just had a normal expiring contract.
As for Nunez, a 30 year old with shaky infield defense and a career 92 wRC+ isn’t going to bring back a premium trade chip. The Giants gave up a likely back-end starter to get him when he had 1.5 years of team control remaining, so if you’re moving just the remaining 0.5 part of that, you can’t even expect to recoup most of what you gave up. Maybe you get a guy in A-ball who is interesting, or a potential relief arm who could help sooner, but Nunez isn’t the kind of trade chip that will bring back a core piece.
And that’s basically it as far trade chips go. Maybe you could move Moore for value if he has a strong next few months, or dump part of Samardzija’s contract if he starts pitching better, but if you’re trying to win again in 2018, you probably get more value of these guys than whatever you’d get back in return for them. And it’s basically impossible to see the team moving the likes of Posey, Belt, or Crawford, the guys who would legitimately inspire a bidding war among other teams.
As for seeing what the young kids can do, well, they can do that even without selling. Want to see what Christian Arroyo looks like at third base? Move Nunez to left field, which has been a huge gaping hole for the team anyway. Want to give Tyler Beede a look in the rotation? You can already do that, since Bumgarner’s absence creates a void.
No question, this has been a disastrous start to the year for the Giants. They looked like a dumpster fire in Colorado over the weekend, and it isn’t easy to imagine the team that just got beat down by the Rockies turning it around any time soon. But the NL Wild Card race looks like a three-legged waddle to 88 wins, and the other teams that should most scare the Giants are off to poor starts as well. Without significant rewards for punting, I don’t know that the benefits of throwing 2017 away are worth the cost of a potential late-season comeback.
Maybe the Giants will keep playing this poorly and make the decision easy for the front office. But right now, even with the 6-13 start, I wouldn’t write the Giants off yet. There is enough talent here to get back to 85-90 wins if some things break right, and thanks to the way the National League is setup, you don’t have to be that great to make the playoffs in the senior circuit anymore.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.