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So desperate were the San Francisco Giants for another World Series championship in 2018, that they tried to wedge their contention window open with a $205 million wad of cash.
But rather than the top of the National League West, the Giants are near the bottom at 72-81. Outside of an 18-10 June, they’ve been mediocre or worse all season.
Put together with their 98-loss crash and burn in 2017, the Giants have the seventh-lowest winning percentage in Major League Baseball over the last two seasons. It’s quite the fall for a team that averaged 87 wins between 2009 and 2016, not to mention took home World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014.
In times like these, it’s tempting to reflexively blame the manager. But that wouldn’t be fair to future Hall of Famer Bruce Bochy. Under his watch, the Giants have actually outperformed their expected record for the seventh time in his 12 seasons at the helm.
So, take it from first baseman Brandon Belt, who told John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle:
“We as players haven’t gotten the job done. That’s on us as players. More specifically, on us as an offense. I think [Bochy] has been holding up great. He comes in with the attitude we’re going to go out there and do some damage, kick somebody’s butt.”
This kind of accountability is admirable, and Belt’s analysis is accurate. Giants hitters have actually regressed from producing 3.9 runs per game in 2017 to 3.8 per game this year. It hasn’t been nearly enough to pick up a pitching staff that’s been good-not-great in its own right, allowing 4.2 runs per game.
Certainly, better things should be expected of a roster worth (officially, according to Spotrac) $205.6 million.
The catch, however, is how foolish it is to scold the Giants for spending so much money in pursuit of wins. And looking back, it’s mostly difficult to fault them for how their exorbitant roster came to be.
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The Giants have committed $361.3 million to Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Belt and Brandon Crawford. They’re the best homegrown stars remaining from a farm system that also fed their championship machine with Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo.
If there’s a fault to be found with how the Giants approached signing those four, it’s that only Bumgarner was extended during his pre-arbitration days, while he had little negotiating power.
But this “fault” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Teams paying market value to keep their own stars is a practice that ought to be applauded. Otherwise, everyone is effectively rooting for billionaire owners to exploit their most treasured workers.
Some of the Giants’ other big contracts are also defensible. They spent $90 million to keep Hunter Pence from free agency when he was wrapping up an excellent 2013 season. They dropped $220 million on Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija after their starting rotation let them down in 2015. When their bullpen followed suit in 2016, they signed Mark Melancon for $62 million.
As soon as a big contract is signed, however, the clock starts ticking. The money is fixed, but the player’s ability is not. Inevitably, his prime will run out before the money does. The only real way to soften the blow is to pair players exiting their primes with players entering their primes.
Which brings us to where the Giants have gone wrong. Between 2010 and 2017, their share of wins above replacement from 26-and-older players stayed steady while their WAR from 25-and-under players dropped off:
This can’t be chalked up to an exodus of intelligent shot-callers. The Giants front office is marked by extraordinary consistency, from executive VP of baseball operations Brian Sabean to general manager Bobby Evans to scouting honchos Dick Tidrow and John Barr on down.
But with success comes lower draft picks and smaller bonus pools for the draft and the international market. These things have been an anchor on the Giants’ efforts to reload their farm system, and they simply haven’t overcome it.
Their first-round picks between 2009 and 2015 covered Zack Wheeler, Gary Brown, Kyle Crick, Joe Panik, Chris Stratton, Christian Arroyo, Tyler Beede and Chris Shaw. Brown might have become the biggest superstar, but he isn’t even in affiliated ball anymore. Otherwise, only Panik has become a viable regular in San Francisco.
Meanwhile on the international market, the Giants incurred penalties by going over their bonus allotment to sign Lucius “Not the Batman Guy” Fox in 2015. They couldn’t sign anyone for more than $300,000 in either of the following two signing periods.
If this weren’t enough to bleed San Francisco’s farm system dry, there have also been some trades that invite more second-guessing than the team’s big-money signings.
Wheeler was sacrificed to add Carlos Beltran to a 2011 team that was already fading. Along with Matt Duffy, Fox was dealt for Matt Moore in 2016. He was a former top prospect who’d faded into mediocrity following Tommy John surgery, and he didn’t deviate from that path in his year-and-a-half with the Giants.
All this contributed to the Giants’ 25-and-under WAR finally going underwater in 2017, which rightfully spooked Sabean. He conceded to Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle last September that the “culture we created, whatever atmosphere, that window is closed,” and that the Giants “definitely need to get younger, more athletic.”
Sabean’s solution was to go hard after reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton (28) and Japanese two-way wunderkind Shohei Ohtani (23) on the offseason market. But both spurned the Giants. For Stanton, it was as simple as not believing that an immediate comeback from 98 losses was in the cards.
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The Giants might have taken their failures on Stanton and Ohtani as the ultimate cue to rebuild. If they had, they might have cleared quite a bit of money and acquired prospects through trades of Posey, Bumgarner, Belt and/or Crawford, and possibly Cueto and/or Samardzija as well.
Instead, they made the baffling choice to pivot from getting younger to getting older. Out went a handful of prospects, and in came a 31-year-old Andrew McCutchen and a 32-year-old Evan Longoria. Thus did the Giants saddle themselves with MLB‘s oldest lineup. Sure enough, neither surpassed expectations. The former is gone now, and the latter is owed $67.5 million through 2022.
It’s not all bad in San Francisco. Dereck Rodriguez, Alen Hanson, Andrew Suarez and Reyes Moronta look like young keepers. Shaw and Aramis Garcia are teasing that they might be, too. And as bad as the team’s finances look, some good could come from their getting under the luxury-tax threshold.
And yet, this amounts to a thin coating of sugar.
It would take a massive fire sale to accelerate the renovation of the Giants’ farm system, but such a thing may now be impossible. Posey is recovering from hip surgery, while Cueto is recovering from Tommy John and Samardzija from a ruined shoulder. Albeit to a lesser degree, Bumgarner, Belt and Crawford also have depreciated trade values compared to a year ago.
There’s little doubt that the Giants will try to save themselves with yet another active winter, but there’s also little doubt that they are beyond saving. Through a mix of natural causes, negligence and stubbornness, their time as World Series contenders has expired.