The Giants’ rebuild hits a snag: They’re winning

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades

Bumgarner pic

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.

The Truth About The Yankees’ Home Runs

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The simple stupidity of the Yankees being criticized for relying on the home run ball speaks for itself. Are they supposed to stop trying to hit home runs to prove they can win without it? What’s the difference how they score their runs? Are they sacrificing other aspects of their game chasing homers?

The answer to the above questions is no.

They have players who hit a lot of home runs. If they lose games in which they haven’t homered, it’s a safe bet that they ran into a pretty good pitcher.

The out-of-context stat argument is more complicated. Picking and choosing a convenient stat to bolster an argument is not the true intent of using statistics to begin with. They’re designed to promote a factual understanding and not to fool readers into seeing things the way the writer wants.

Is it a bad thing that the Yankees score via the home run? No.

Is it indicative that they’ll continue that trend once the playoffs start and do they need to be prepared to find other ways to score runs when they’re in games against better teams with better pitchers? They’ll hit their homers, but it won’t be like it is now.

The truly important factor to examine isn’t whether or not they’re hitting home runs, but who they’re hitting the home runs against.

During the regular season there aren’t the top-tier pitchers they’re going to face in the playoffs. The better the pitcher is, the better his stuff is; the better his command is; the better his control is. He’s not going to make the same mistakes as the mediocre and worse pitchers they’re fattening up their power numbers against.

I looked at all the pitchers the Yankees have homered against this season.

The list follows:

Russell Martin: Clay Buchholz, Justin Verlander, Jose Mijares, Homer Bailey, James Shields, J.P. Howell, Jonathon Niese, Jon Rauch

Mark Teixeira: Anthony Swarzak, Felix Doubront, Matt Albers, Bruce Chen, Luis Ayala, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Graham Godfrey, Hisanori Takahashi, Alex Cobb, Dillon Gee, Mike Minor

Robinson Cano: Jason Marquis, Luke Hochevar (2), David Price, Bronson Arroyo, Tyson Ross, Bartolo Colon, Ervin Santana, Alex Cobb, Johan Santana (2), Tom Gorzelanny, Anthony Varvaro, Tommy Hanson, Miguel Batista (2)

Alex Rodriguez: Ervin Santana, Clay Buchholz, Derek Holland, Justin Verlander (2) Tommy Hottovy, Will Smith (2), Octavio Dotel, Jonny Venters, Tommy Hanson, Jon Niese

Derek Jeter: Wei-Yin Chen, Hisanori Takahashi, Carl Pavano, Matt Capps, Bruce Chen, Justin Verlander, Tommy Hanson

Raul Ibanez: James Shields (2), Jason Isringhausen, Neftali Feliz, Burke Badenhop, Felix Hernandez, Hector Noesi, Bronson Arroyo, Jonny Cueto, Randall Delgado, Chris Young

Curtis Garnderson: Jake Arrieta, Ervin Santana (2), Carl Pavano, Anthony Swarzak (2), Jeff Gray, Phil Coke, Max Scherzer, Brian Matusz, James Shields, David Price, Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Will Smith, Bobby Cassevah, Casey Crosby, Bobby Parnell, Tim Hudson, Tom Gorzelanny, Edwin Jackson

Nick Swisher: Joel Peralta, Kevin Gregg, Clay Buchholz, Vicente Padilla, Drew Smyly, Jose Valverde, Luke Hochevar, Tyson Ross, Johan Santana, Cory Gearrin, R.A. Dickey

Eric Chavez: Clay Buchholz (2), Jason Hammel, Tommy Hanson, Jon Rauch

Andruw Jones: Darren O’Day, Matt Maloney, Collin Balester, Steve Delabar, Tommy Milone, Johan Santana, Jon Niese

There are some names above that the Yankees might be facing in the post-season. Shields, Price, Verlander, Hanson and a few others. But they’re not going to be able to use Hochevar, Pavano or most of the other mediocrities to beat on.

I don’t see the names Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez or Yu Darvish in there.

If the Yankees don’t hit homers, then what?

Understanding the value of their homers is not the brainless bully strategy of, “Me swing hard; me hit home runs; team win.”

What was the score when the home runs were hit? What where the weather conditions? Did the pitcher make a mistake or did the hitter hit a good pitch? Was the game a blowout and the pitcher just trying to get the ball over the plate to get the game over with in either club’s favor?

These questions, among many other things, have to be accounted for.

Those who are complaining about the club needing to “manufacture” runs don’t know any more about baseball than those who are blindly defending the use of the home run without the full story.

Of course it’s a good thing that the Yankees hit a lot of home runs, but those home runs can’t be relied upon as the determinative factor of whether they’re going to win in the post-season because they’ll be facing better pitching and teams that will be able to use the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium themselves mitigating any advantage the Yankees might have. Teams that are more versatile, play good defense, steal bases and run with smart aggression and have strong pitching will be able to deal with the Yankees’ power.

Teams like the Mets are unable to do that.

The Yankees’ home runs are only an issue if they stop hitting them. Then they’ll have to find alternative ways to score when the balls aren’t flying over the fences. This is why it’s not a problem that they don’t have Brett Gardner now. In fact, it seems like the fans and media has forgotten about him. But they’re going to need him in the playoffs because he gives them something they barely have with this current configuration: he can run and wreak havoc on the bases and is an excellent defensive left fielder.

As much as Joe Morgan was savaged for his silly statements blaming the Oakland A’s inability to manufacture runs in their playoff losses during the Moneyball years, he wasn’t fundamentally inaccurate. It wasn’t about squeezing and hitting and running capriciously as Morgan wanted them to do and altering the strategy that got them to the playoffs; but it was about being able to win when not hitting home runs; when not facing a pitching staff that is going to walk you; when a team actually has relievers who can pitch and not a bunch of names they accumulated and found on the scrapheap.

The A’s couldn’t win when they didn’t get solid starting pitching or hit home runs.

Can the Yankees?

That’s going to be the key to their season. Then the true value of their homer-happy offense will come to light.

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