On March 28, 2019, my family and I went to Petco Park for Opening Day. We made the trip for two reasons: (1) It was both spring break and Lefty Jr’s birthday and (2) We thought there was a good chance it might be Madison Bumgarner’s last Opening Day start as a Giant. It also was the kickoff of the Farhan Zaidi era, though Bruce Bochy was still the manager.
I clearly remember how bewildered I was when, a couple of hours before the game, the Giants announced their roster and starting lineup. Connor Joe? Michael Reed? Mac Williamson, who we thought would be the Opening Day left fielder–gone, DFA’d? Huh? It was so disorienting to go to the park and see two complete strangers, guys who hadn’t spent a minute in camp with the Giants, in the starting lineup as corner outfielders.
The Giants lost that game 2-0. Bumgarner pitched well enough, but the lineup was completely shut down by…checks notes…Eric Lauer. We went to the game the next night, too, and the Giants didn’t score until Evan Longoria hit a solo homer in the ninth. That was almost 18 innings during which I wondered if the Giants would ever score a run that season, forget about actually winning a game (they did so the next day).
Look, I’m not going to overreact to the Giants losing the opener at Yankee Stadium. I honestly kind of figured they would with Cole on the mound, even if Logan Webb was at his best (and depending how you look at it, he almost was). And, as Brandon Crawford pointed out (in Andrew Baggarly’s gamer), the Giants lose on Opening Day a lot. They even lost the opener in 2021 (bullpen melted down and blew a late five-run lead), and they only lost 55 total games that year. And who can forget the last time a starter (Bumgarner again) had double-digit strikeouts on Opening Day–and hit two homers, to boot? The Giants lost that game, too (in 2017–thanks, Mark Melancon).
But the parallels to 2019 were pretty hard to miss on Thursday. A homegrown outfielder, about to get an opportunity, instead abruptly sent to AAA. A total stranger arriving in the clubhouse, pinch-hitting, and striking out (to be fair, so did his teammates, 15 other times). The Giants, stacked with lefty hitters against righty Gerrit Cole, unable to do anything at the plate. Again wondering if the 2023 Giants would be the first team in MLB history to never score a run.
Connor Joe and Michael Reed lasted less than two weeks as Giants. Joe, a Rule 5 player, was returned to his original team, the Dodgers. (And yes, I know that several years later, Joe became a good major league player. He wasn’t ready in 2019, and he has admitted it himself.) The Giants have a Rule 5 player, Blake Sabol, on this year’s roster. How long will he last? How long will Matt Beaty, the guy who screwed things up for both Bryce Johnson and Brett Wisely, be around? Will the latest acquisition, catcher Gary Sanchez, ever play for the Giants?
Obviously these are questions we can’t know the answers to right now, and with the way Farhan Zaidi operates, other people we’ve never heard or thought about will likely be inserted into the mix. It’s hard to win My26ManGuy™ when the contest deadline was days before Zaidi acquired the last guy on the roster.
But here’s the point I want to make with this unhappy walk down Opening Day Memory Lane. What’s truly remarkable and very troubling about all of this is how miniscule and useless these moves have been (and are likely to be, in the cases of Beaty and Sanchez)–but also how much disruption and ill will they caused. I’m sure Brett Wisely was happy to get an 11th hour reprieve from going to AAA, but it had to be bittersweet that his parents missed his major league debut because Zaidi couldn’t make up his mind until it was too late and that his “debut” was not at the plate or in one of his natural positions –but in center field, a position he’d played…checks notes…never in a game as a professional. He’d played a whopping 23.1 innings in left field as a minor leaguer. Wisely is an infielder. If memory serves, Connor Joe, who started the 2019 opener in left field, was also primarily an infielder at the time. The parallels just won’t stop coming.
I was listening to KNBR yesterday, and midday host Greg Papa was talking about the Giants and remembering the press conference after Zaidi was hired. Henry Schulman, the long-time Giants beat writer for the Chronicle, asked him if he could sum up his philosophy as a general manager in one word or phrase. Zaidi’s reply was “No move too small.” Well, he wasn’t lying. The 2019 Giants broke the franchise record for transactions and number of different players who suited up for them that season. Then the 2022 Giants broke that record. We’re two days into the 2023 season, and Zaidi’s on pace for 162, which would…ah, never mind.
If there are any Zaidi true believers still left out there (other than, I guess, owner Greg Johnson), they might argue that at least some of Zaidi’s churning has paid off. What about Mike Yastrzemski and LaMonte Wade Jr., back-to-back Willie Mac Award winners in 2020-21? What about Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano and Darin Ruf* and Thairo Estrada? To which I reply: what about them? Yes, they’ve all been good Giants, but Dickerson, Solano, and Ruf are long gone, and Yaz and Wade Jr. are sure looking like one-hit wonders at this point, not sustainable everyday players. Only Estrada, at this point, is looking like a credible find–which makes it even worse that two years later, Zaidi still can’t pronounce his name right(!). And that short list doesn’t begin to cover the Donnie Waltons, Kevin Padlos, Dixon Machados, Yermin Mercedes, etc., etc., etc., who came and went and didn’t accomplish much except to make the poor clubhouse guy who has to stitch the names on the jerseys contemplate medical disability or early retirement.
*The trade of Ruf to the Mets in 2022, bringing back four(!) players, may turn out to be a great one. Nonetheless, Ruf as a player fizzled out as a Giant, just as the others did/are doing.
So my beef with all of this is not even primarily that it’s unfair to the human beings and their families whom Zaidi keeps jerking around. That part’s awful, but baseball is a tough business, and it’s kind of what they signed up for. The damage that all of the churning does to clubhouse chemistry at the major league level and to morale at the minor league level is hard to quantify, but I’m certain it’s there. No, my biggest problem with the “No move too small” Zaidi era is this: It. Doesn’t. Work. What Zaidi has done reasonably well is sign free agents. Maybe not superstars in most cases, but legitimate major league players like this year’s crop (Conforto, Haniger, Pederson, etc.) and previous years (Gausman, DeSclafani, Cobb, Rodon, etc.). But the churning? It’s very little bang for a lot of buck.
The Catching Cluster
The off-day news yesterday that Sanchez had been signed as a minor league free agent with a May 1 opt-out is a classic Zaidi maneuver. While it may mean nothing–Sanchez is only on a minor league deal, so it’s a risk-free look-see for the Giants–it also makes little sense. Grant Brisbee has been all over the catching situation this offseason. Catcher is such a critically important position–if any team should understand that, it’s the San Francisco Giants. The Giants clearly were unhappy with Joey Bart as the #1 option, and yet they dilly-dallied all winter, didn’t trade for Sean Murphy from the A’s, didn’t sign free agent Willson Contreras, and pretty much didn’t do anything except acquire Sabol in the Rule 5 Draft, and Sabol’s only a Sorta Catcher. They didn’t sign Roberto Perez until about 10 days before pitchers and catchers reported, and then only to a minor league deal. According to Baggarly’s article on the signing of Sanchez, they’d been in contact with him for three months but didn’t sign him until after the season started. If they wanted him, why didn’t they work something out earlier so he could come to camp and work with the pitchers?
Brisbee wrote about the addition of Sanchez, too. Here were his concluding thoughts:
The Giants have been absolute weirdos about the catching position going into this season. […] Now they’re taking a look at an all-bat option, which is more evidence that they’re doubling down on the same defense-is-overrated philosophy that didn’t work last year. It’s why Matt Beaty is on the roster and Bryce Johnson isn’t, which is also dubious. […] In isolation, a minor-league deal to Sánchez has plenty of potential rewards, with very little risk. In practice, the Giants are chasing offense where they should probably be chasing defense. Considering the defensive foibles the rest of the team is likely to have — and that Sánchez isn’t a lock to be a productive hitter again, which is why he’s available on a minor-league deal in the first place — the strangest position on the roster got even stranger.
The catching situation will sort itself out. Depth isn’t a bad thing, and the Giants now have five (5) possible catchers between the major league roster and AAA. And that doesn’t consider a possible fast-track of 2020 first-rounder Patrick Bailey, last year’s minor league Gold Glove winner at catcher. Again, though, this flailing around–Bart’s our guy! No, he isn’t! Defense is the most important, so that’s why we got Perez and started him on Opening Day! No, it isn’t, so that’s why we signed a bat-first catcher the next day!–just suggests at best overanalysis and at worst ineptitude on the part of the Giants’ front office.
Maybe the Worst Part
Like a lot of the Giants’ fan base, I was extremely disappointed in this offseason. I thought Zaidi and his staff did a very poor job, wasting time on a futile pursuit of Aaron Judge while other good players flew off the board, mishandling the Carlos Correa situation, and then signing a bunch of free agents who were either (a) coming off serious injuries (b) coming off bad seasons (c) given player options or (d) all of the above. But as spring training began, I found my usual “it’s a new season” optimism and especially enjoyed seeing young players like Casey Schmitt, Sabol, Johnson, and Sean Hjelle stand out. “Don’t be mad at the Giants,” I told myself. “Support them.”
I was especially encouraged nine days ago when Zaidi was in the booth with announcers Dave Flemming and Shawn Estes and came close to promising that Sabol, Johnson, and Hjelle would make the team and, more importantly, that he was happy with “internal options” and wasn’t going to be doing last-minute waiver-wire pickups this year. He talked about the importance to team culture of maintaining continuity and promoting homegrown players–an opinion that new owner Buster Posey has repeated several times.
Now, here we are barely over a week later. Johnson and Hjelle did not make the team. Zaidi is back to his same-old, same-old “No move too small” antics. Defense, athleticism, speed, youth?–Still not important, despite multiple public pronouncements all winter that they would be prioritized.
The worst part is that it was all a lie. Maybe not the pursuits of Judge and Correa. But everything else.
Giants at Yankees, 1:05 p.m. at Yankee Stadium
Alex Cobb vs. Clarke Schmidt
TV: Fox (oh joy)
The Giants’ lineup is not available yet, but with another RHP, don’t expect too many changes from Thursday. Let’s hope the Giants can, I dunno, score a run today? Baby steps. Lefty out.