Rebuilding, Competing, Both, or Neither?

by DrLefty

After last night’s discouraging-but-all-too-familiar loss, Alex Pavlovic said this in his gamer.

This was supposed to be a season full of mistakes from young players.

 

Mauricio Dubon. Jaylin Davis. Joey Bart. Tyler Rogers. Sam Coonrod. Possibly Heliot Ramos and others who will be a big part of the future. Giants fans would watch them make mistakes, and lose some games because of it, but they would know that the future was bright and this was all about gaining experience.

 

But this rebuild has turned competitive, and the Giants aren’t actually that young or inexperienced at all. The bullpen is, but the lineup and rotation are filled with veterans, MLB All-Stars, journeymen and World Series champions. (emphasis added)

In a couple of short paragraphs, Pavlovic captured what is frustrating and confusing about this entire 2020 season. “This rebuild has turned competitive.” Let’s unpack this a bit.

 

Rebuilding?

Though every situation has its distinctives, the “science” of rebuilding is not complex. You scout and draft well, you develop well, you unearth diamonds in the rough from the waiver wire, you trade from the major league roster to build some depth in the farm system. Some teams, like the Astros from 2012-15, deliberately tank to obtain top draft picks. I’m glad the Giants don’t do that because it lacks integrity and good faith. Now, it goes without saying that this year is more complicated than most for a rebuilding team because without a minor league season, the critical development part of the equation can’t happen, or if it does, to a much lesser extent and one that’s not easily observable.

But there’s still drafting and trading, and so far the two biggest disappointments of the 2020 Giants season have happened on draft day(s) and this past week at the trade deadline. Obviously we won’t really know for years whether this was a good or bad draft for the Giants, but experts just seemed confused by it at the time (“The Giants used their first-round pick on another catcher?”), and when it came time for the new top-100 prospects list to be published, no Giant from this year’s draft was on it, even though other players drafted lower than Patrick Bailey made the list. The Giants’ three previous first-round picks (Ramos, Bart, and Bishop) immediately landed on the list and stayed on it. It felt like Farhan Zaidi and his staff were more enthralled with their own cleverness than with actually drafting the best talent available when they had the chance. I can envision their Zoom meeting with a spreadsheet on the screen: “See? If we draft these guys at spots higher than what they’d expect, we can pay them less and have more money to keep that third-rounder kid from going to UCLA. Genius!”

Again, though, we won’t know the outcome of all that for years. But we do know that at the trade deadline Zaidi, GM Scott Harris, and whoever else was involved chose to do literally nothing. They didn’t sell. They didn’t buy. They didn’t DFA anyone who’s clearly not working out (ahem, Pablo Sandoval) or make room in Sacramento for a couple of their top pitching prospects to get in a few weeks of work with their coaches. They. Did. Nothing.

That is not what a rebuilding team does.

Former GM Jim Bowden, in a piece in The Athletic grading teams’ deadline moves, said this about the Giants:

San Francisco Giants

Grade: D

 

Trades: Traded C Rob Brantly to Yankees for cash; Acquired 2B/3B Daniel Robertson from Rays for cash; Acquired LHP Anthony Banda from Rays for cash considerations.

 

They held on to Johnny Cueto and Kevin Gausman. They kept Brandon Crawford and Evan Longoria. They kept southpaw Tony Watson. I thought at the very least they’d move the three pitchers. However, I did like their pick up of infielder Daniel Robertson, who was blocked in the Rays organization behind a plethora of better infielders, and Banda should help their struggling pitching staff as well. However, for the present or future of the Giants, little or no progress was made in making the organization better. (emphasis added)

 

 

Competing?

Your reaction to the above section might be “C’mon, Lefty. You’re being unfair. You have no idea what Zaidi might have been offered for Kevin Gausman or Tony Watson or Donovan Solano or whomever. Maybe he really wanted to make lots of deals and it just wasn’t there for them.”

OK. You’re right. I don’t know. I can just take the word of Zaidi himself. For example, from an Alex Pavlovic story:

While he took lots of phone calls this time, too, he ultimately again decided not to sell. He’s hopeful this version of the Giants can sneak back into the postseason.

 

“You can tell there’s a lot of belief within the group about what we can accomplish here down the stretch,” Zaidi said.

And from a John Shea piece in the Chronicle:

“You want to recognize you’re a half-game out of the playoffs,” Zaidi said, “and that lends itself to a certain responsibility to play things out for the clubhouse and fan base, really for the organization.”

So there you have it–from the horse’s mouth. Zaidi didn’t sell because he thinks they have a chance to make the playoffs. He wants to compete.

But here’s the problem with the Giants competing (or trying to) in 2020: Zaidi did not build the roster to compete. In particular, he did not build the bullpen (which the first Pavlovic quote correctly describes as “young and inexperienced”) to compete. IF you’re trying to compete, you don’t build a good offensive lineup and a good/decent starting rotation and ignore the bullpen. It reminds me of the Detroit Tigers a few years back, when they were regularly making the playoffs with guys like Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer on the roster. They’d spend a ton of money and make the postseason and every time would get knocked out because of an imploding bullpen. I remember commenting at the time that it was like spending huge money to build a mansion and then furnishing it at Target.

Ironically, and this next observation comes from a seething Mr Lefty, a bullpen is, relatively speaking, the easiest and cheapest thing on the team to build or rebuild. Just last year the Giants had a great bullpen, one of the best in the game for awhile. In fact, they led baseball in one-run wins and extra-inning wins because of their stellar bullpen. But Zaidi dismantled it and chose not to rebuild it–because they weren’t supposed to compete in 2020.

Just how bad is the bullpen? Grant Brisbee did a great job of breaking this down in a piece after the Wednesday afternoon Coors Field meltdown. He has a lot of analytics and stats, so I’ll give you the executive summary:

  1. The Giants’ relievers don’t strike people out. No, really, they don’t. Not even the guy with the 101 MPH fastball (Sam Coonrod). Not even the guy with the “closer stuff” (Trevor Gott). The Giants’ bullpen is 29th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (that’s the stat you need to equalize the fact that different teams have played so many more/fewer games). Their bullpen fWAR is 30th (-1.5). The only reliever who has an above-average strikeout rate is Sam Selman.
  2. Because they’re not striking people out, hitters are putting the ball into play–a lot. That means you need a reliable defense behind the pitchers, and, well…The Giants aren’t the worst defensive team in the majors. They’re all the way up at 21st.
  3. In building this “contender,” Zaidi et al. prioritized offense over defense, and–that’s mostly working out pretty well. But when you combine that with points 1-2–well, you get games like that one at Coors Field and the two ugly ninth-inning losses against the A’s, and so forth. As Brisbee put it, “This kind of loss is baked into the 2020 Giants.”

So the Giants are “competing,” and that’s why they did nothing at the deadline, according to Zaidi. Since then, we had that fun 23-5 romp at Coors Field followed by two incredibly irritating losses that both should have been wins. I saw this on Twitter after last night’s game, and I thought it summed things up pretty well.

 

Both Rebuilding and Competing?

As I outlined above, I don’t see Zaidi/Harris doing the things that rebuilding teams usually do. Other than our prospects getting a year older and the contracts of Posey, Cueto, Belt, Crawford, and Longoria getting a year closer to expiring, I can’t really identify any specific ways the team has built or rebuilt for the future during 2020.

Another thing that rebuilding teams usually do, as Alex alluded to in the first quote above, is to play younger guys and let them take their lumps to get experience. A team that’s competing can’t afford to do that. So let’s take a look at the Giants’ roster and try to guess who might still be an integral part of the team in 2022 or 2023. Here’s how I see it:

  • Joey Bart (and they are letting him learn on the job, which I think is good)
  • Logan Webb (he’s young and still has upside–but how good is he, really?)
  • Mauricio Dubon (ehhhhh–maybe)
  • Mike Yastrzemski (he’ll be 32-33, but I think he’ll still be around)
  • Ummm…maybe Sam Selman?

It’s better than nothing, and those guys are all getting regular playing time this year. So that part of the “rebuild” is happening. At the same time, guys like Sandoval and Hunter Pence and Darin Ruf are getting roster spots and playing time while younger guys melt in Sacramento. So I’ll give them maybe a C+ on this point.

 

Neither Rebuilding nor Competing?

Having laid this all out, the evidence points to the 2020 Giants trying to compete rather than trying to rebuild. But it’s fair to say that they’re not doing a fantastic job at competing, though some things are going really well (the offense!). To return to an earlier point, they’re not a good team because they weren’t actually built to compete. (Sorry. They’re not a good team. They’re three games under .500 and behind two other teams for the last wild card spot.)

So, to answer the question I laid out in the title, I’d say the Giants are somewhere between “competing” and “neither.” And that’s confusing and often frustrating to watch.

 

The Return of Madison Bumgarner

Well, we knew this day would come, and though it’s some five months later than we originally thought it would be, it’s happening tonight. Madison Bumgarner is going to take the mound in our ballpark wearing another team’s uniform. It breaks my heart to even write that and I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch it. I’m completely conflicted about how I want it to turn out. I want the Giants to win, of course, but I can never root for him to do poorly. So I guess I want them to elevate his pitch count early and win the game late off the Diamondbacks’ bullpen. First pitch is 6:15 p.m., and our starter is Trevor Cahill.

 

Hope you all have a nice long weekend. Lefty out.