When the Giants hired Farhan Zaidi away from the Dodgers to replace Brian Sabean as the head of baseball operations, they did not do it to maintain the status quo. The Giants were long one of the main holdouts for the old-school way of running an organization, eschewing a deep dive into statistics as the final determinative factor in procuring and retaining players. It certainly worked for them with three World Series titles in five years starting in 2010.
However, the Giants are an organization that knows which way the wind is blowing – perhaps a lingering aftereffect of Candlestick Park – and moved away from the Sabean/Bruce Bochy line of thought and into the same environment which has built and maintained the Bay Area cohabitants the Athletics as well as the Dodgers, which were the two organizations Zaidi worked for before heading to San Francisco.
While the Giants did not go the route of the full teardown as the Cubs and Astros did under Theo Epstein and Jeff Luhnow respectively (and successfully), Zaidi has not concealed his intentions. Over the winter, the most recognizable names the Giants acquired were Pat Venditte (the switch-pitcher), Drew Pomeranz and Gerardo Parra. These were not moves to radically improve a 90-loss team and they definitely were not designed to close the gap with the Dodgers. They were done for veteran competence and players who might yield a prospect or two at the deadline.
If this were the defending champion Giants or the “we’re going for it” Giants, these are reasonable, role players to add to a championship mix. For a club that finished 64-98 in 2017 and 73-89 in 2018, the latter with a payroll of $200 million, sticking to the admittedly successful blueprint from the past was cannibalizing and foolish. Had the Giants wanted that, they would not have gone so far in the opposite direction from Sabean’s methods to Zaidi’s.
There’s a fine line between trying to lose and not caring about losing. The Cubs and Astros, during their rebuilds, “tanked.” They were not “throwing” games, but the teams were so terrible that losing was a natural byproduct of the terribleness of those rosters. This relatively new phenomenon is not all that new. Upon informing Ralph Kiner that he had been traded to the Cubs, Pirates GM Branch Rickey famously told him that they finished last with him and could finish last without him. The idea gained prominence with the Devil Rays/Rays under current Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman by ostensibly saying, “We’re gonna lose anyway, so what’s the difference between losing 90 and 100?”
The Astros and Cubs took it to its logical conclusion and were positioned to do so with the new heads of baseball ops inheriting bloated contracts, dead farm systems, a history of failure and owners willing to hand the keys to them because there was no history to protect and nothing to lose.
The Giants had played poorly; the players who comprised the foundation for those championships were getting old and underperforming; and the template had run its course. Add in that the National League West housed Zaidi’s old team, the Dodgers, and they had exacted a dominance over the division that the Giants could not come near without radical changes to the structure. That radical change was, in short, copying the Dodgers.
In its actions, the Giants tacitly admitted they were moving on from the Bochy/Madison Bumgarner/Buster Posey/Brandon Belt/Brandon Crawford/Pablo Sandoval years – the last remaining residue of the championships.
Manager Bochy’s spring announcement that he planned to retire after the 2019 season put an exclamation point on the organization’s direction. The question as to whether Bochy is really retiring or is being granted the respect to leave on his own terms so Zaidi and his staff can hire a manager whose thinking corresponds with theirs will be answered if Bochy takes some time off and then leaks that he’s bored and will listen to offers to manage.
Posey, Belt and Crawford are under contract for the foreseeable future, but if they are not traded, they will be ancillary players who fit in with the scheme rather than the foundation around which the scheme is crafted. With no contract extension forthcoming for Bumgarner, they had essentially said he was going to be traded by the deadline. The only question was where.
Then, from the nadir of their season so far on June 29 when they were 12 games below .500, eight games from a Wild Card spot and ahead of only the Marlins in the overall National League standings, the Giants started winning. In the subsequent three weeks and after Thursday night’s/Friday morning’s 16-inning win over the Mets, the Giants were 13-2 and gained 5.5 games in the Wild Card standings.
This is where it gets complicated. Having this happen so close to the July 31 trade deadline in the season after August trades were eliminated by MLB, the Giants and every other team must decide on what they are and what they want to be. The second Wild Card has opened so many scenarios to make an argument to stand pat that the fans and media will not accept a club punting on a season when there is the remotest possibility of making a run. It takes an experienced and entrenched baseball operations boss plus a willing ownership to do that.
Some teams will take a wait-and-see approach to their midseason status before acting. The Mets fall into that category, but they are not in the same circumstance as the Giants in that they have enough young talent and starting pitching under contract that they can say they’re going to retool and try and win in 2020. Some will disagree with the philosophy and its ambiguity, preferring the resoluteness of “this is what we’re doing, like it or not.”
The Twins were faced with a comparable conundrum in 2017. Having abandoned their longtime method of running things with the “Twins Way,” they fired veteran GM Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire, mitigated background architect Tom Kelly and moved on with former Cleveland Indians director of baseball operations Derek Falvey as the Twins new chief baseball officer They had lost 103 games the previous year and were not expected to be anything more than, at most, a 90-loss team. Instead, they hovered around contention for the second Wild Card and a likely one-game dismissal by the Yankees or Red Sox if they made the playoffs.
Instead of having the freedom to do what they wanted with a 100-loss team, Falvey and GM Thad Levine were suddenly saddled with trying to make a playoff run when it was inconvenient to their plans; was a waste of time, energy and assets; and hindered rather than helped. So, they vacillated. They made trades to “improve” as the second Wild Card spot played down to them instead of vice versa. They acquired Jaime Garcia for show, and traded Garcia and Brandon Kintzler a week later as a concession…and then still won the second Wild Card that no one in the front office wanted. They got hammered by the Yankees in the playoff game and were then free to continue their rebuild. Still, loitering around contention might have prevented them from maximizing their best tradeable assets Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana and stagnated what they set out to accomplish. It didn’t hurt them significantly as they are currently in first place, but it didn’t help either.
It might be a bit much to say that Zaidi is displeased that the Giants are playing so well, but it does put a wrench in the machine he’s constructing. Certainly, his life would be much easier if they continued that late-June spiral and freed him to gut the place because, what was the difference?
Now, it makes a difference. Could ownership step in and say it’s worth the shot to get into the Wild Card game with Bumgarner pitching it and see what happens? Absolutely.
Would the fans accept trading a team legend when the club is suddenly in the mix to make the playoffs in a weak Wild Card scrum and vulnerable teams – even the Dodgers – leading the respective divisions? They wouldn’t be happy about it even if the Giants and Zaidi extract a ransom for Bumgarner, Will Smith and Crawford and salary relief for Jeff Samardzija.
Given Zaidi’s background, he will still trade Bumgarner at the deadline and ignore this quixotic leap into the playoff conversation. But the Giants’ hot streak has put that decision from the definite category to the maybe category. Retaining Bumgarner and even adding at the deadline is precisely what Sabean would have done, and that is not what Zaidi or the Giants intended when he took the job.