Photo credit: NBC Sports Bay Area

by DrLefty

Here is the column I promised to write after the Giants signed Matt Chapman...IF President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi obtained another frontline pitcher. It didn’t have to be Blake Snell, but he’s the one I always wanted this whole offseason. Usually Giants fans don’t get to have nice things (like Harpers or Judges or Yamamotos or…you get the idea), and the defending NL Cy Young winner, healthy and in his prime, is the kind of “nice thing” we don’t typically get, but…he’s the one I wanted and hoped for. He just seemed like the perfect fit, a lefty ace to pair with Logan Webb and take the pressure off 22-year-old Kyle Harrison.

Anyway–we got him, and now here is the column.

I have been quite critical of Zaidi over the years, and I’ll get back to how I feel about that now. But first let’s review (and celebrate) what he’s accomplished since the end of last season. To appreciate it all, I’m going to put the key moments in chronological order, starting with the earliest:

  • September 29, 2023: Fired manager Gabe Kapler. While I wasn’t even a little bit sorry to see Kapler go, I was disgusted that he was the fall guy for Zaidi’s failures. I still feel that way, but that development was critically important to everything that happened after that, starting with…
  • October 24, 2023: Hired manager Bob Melvin. It’s hard to say exactly how the timing worked out here. When did Zaidi know that the Padres would allow Melvin to leave, and how did that influence the somewhat odd decision to fire Kapler three days before the season ended? We’ll probably never know, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Kapler is gone, Melvin is the manager, and that is huge. Just a couple days ago, super-agent Scott Boras, at Snell’s introductory press conference, had this quip: “Bob has actually cost me a lot of money this offseason cause I have players that really, really love playing for Bob.”  It’s hard to say whether any of what happened next would have happened at all if Melvin hadn’t been hired before the World Series ended and free agency began.
  • November 5, 2023Exercised Alex Cobb’s $10 mil team option. In some ways, this seemed like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t really. While Cobb has been a really good Giant for two years, even making his first All-Star team and nearly throwing a no-hitter in 2023, it was already known that he needed hip surgery, and he’s 36 years old. Ten million is a lot of money, and as it turns out, the Giants are ending up right at the second luxury tax line, so it wasn’t a small decision. Cobb is making a much more rapid recovery from the surgery than anyone thought at the time and will likely not even go on the 60-day IL. He may be pitching for the Giants before April is over.
  • December 12, 2023: Signed Korean star outfielder Jung Hoo Lee to a six-year $113 mil. contract. It was a weird offseason for everyone, not just the Giants, and Lee’s signing was wedged right between the monster deals given by the Dodgers to Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto. As weeks/months went by after those December blockbusters, it was almost easy to forget that the Giants had given Lee the biggest free-agent contract for a position player in franchise history. Time will tell how good Lee will be, but so far, so good, in spring training. And if nothing else, that early signing kept food on Boras’s table while he tried to manage his stable of high-profile yet flawed clients. Maybe Lee’s deal gave Boras warm feelings about Zaidi? Who knows?
  • January 5, 2024Traded Mitch Haniger and Anthony DeSclafani to Seattle for 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. I simultaneously loved this deal and felt dubious about it. For one thing, I loved it because it happened on a Friday and gave me something to write about on Saturday morning. Baseball content can be tough to come by in early January. But mainly I loved it because it cleared some dead wood off the roster, though I feel bad about saying that about ol’ Tony D, who was a good Giant in the magical 2021 season. The dubious part was worrying that Zaidi would “count” Ray as his signature acquisition for the rotation–“We have our #2 starter to go with Webb now!”–and use that as an excuse not to go after a major free agent like Snell. Ray is recovering from both Tommy John surgery and flexor tendon surgery. He seems to be doing well, but he won’t be available until the second half of the season…and then, if he does well, he can opt out of the remaining two years of his contract. But knowing what I know today, I’m just happy about the trade. Ray is a bonus, a lottery ticket, but if he pays off, the Giants could have a really good rotation this year. Meanwhile, poor DeSclafani got traded again since then (to the Twins) and may need season-ending arm surgery.
  • January 18, 2024: Signed RHP Jordan Hicks to a four-year, $44 mil deal and announced he was converting (back) to being a starter. Now I was really rolling my eyes. OK, two Zaidi specials: an injured starter (Ray) and a project (Hicks) who’s never been successful as a starter in his major league career. But Hicks has looked terrific in his Cactus League outings, and…what if this works out? He’s been announced as the starter for the Giants’ third game in San Diego next weekend. The question arises as to what happens if both Cobb and Ray return healthy and effective. That’s a good “problem” to have, and if the rotation is “full” and Hicks returns to being a high-leverage reliever and gives the Giants a stacked bullpen, well, that’s not the worst outcome in the world, and Hicks is only 27 and on a reasonable contract. (He’s getting about the same salary as lefty reliever Taylor Rogers; $11 mil is not out of line for a good reliever these days.)
  • February 2, 2024: Traded RHP Ross Stripling to the A’s. Doesn’t matter for whom. Zaidi undid another mistake from the 2022-23 offseason and got the A’s to take most of Stripling’s salary off the Giants’ books. (Stripling is scheduled to make $12.5 mil this season, and the Giants are paying $3.25 mil of that.) I was scratching my head at that point. While I certainly didn’t look forward to watching Stripling pitch again for the Giants this season, at that point he was penciled in as the #2 starter (with Hicks and Harrison behind him). We started hearing a lot of buzz about how “excited” the Giants were about their young pitching and that they wanted to clear the decks to give some of them a chance, but…how many young pitchers are we talking about here, and are the Giants just punting the season until Cobb and Ray return, and what if Harrison isn’t quite ready to step up, and…?  Since then, of course, we’ve learned that Cobb’s progress is much more rapid than expected, Hicks and Harrison are having great springs, and it all looks more reasonable. But back in early February, it all looked iffy, and things got worse when several young pitchers came up with injuries early in camp (Kai-Wei Teng, Sean Hjelle, Keaton Winn, Tristan Beck).
  • February 18, 2024: Signed designated hitter Jorge Soler to a three-year, $42 mil deal. Camps had opened and pitchers and catchers had reported when this happened, and it seemed like a surprise at the time. Several Bay Area writers had pointed out in the previous week or two that the Giants really could use more power and that two good power hitters, Soler and J.D. Martinez, were still available. However, the Giants seemed somewhat set at DH with choices like Michael Conforto from the left side and Wilmer Flores or J.D. Davis on the right side. Soler, who hit 36 homers and was an All-Star for the Marlins last year, fell into the nice-to-have-but-a-luxury category. Zaidi has not been known to jump at those opportunities in previous years. He’s been more of a “let’s see what we have in Alex Dickerson/Darin Ruf” kind of guy. Maybe more than anything else that’s happened, the deal with Soler and the aggressive pursuit of Lee were, in hindsight, signals that this offseason would be different.
  • Feb. 26, 2024: Signed shortstop Nick Ahmed to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. By itself, this didn’t seem like big news–it’s a minor league contract, after all–but it immediately became a more major story when Giants icon Brandon Crawford signed a major league deal with the Cardinals right around the same day. If the Giants wanted a veteran SS to back youngster Marco Luciano, why not just bring back Crawford, who very much wanted to remain a Giant? With that option (Crawford) now off the table, it still didn’t seem all that likely that the addition of Ahmed would amount to much. He is a two-time Gold Glover (2018-19), but his hitting had dropped off so much that the Diamondbacks, Ahmed’s only major league team, DFA’d him in September, 2023, just weeks before their surprising run to the World Series. It still seemed possible that SS would be held down by some combination of homegrown options Luciano, Tyler Fitzgerald, and Casey Schmitt. Well, what a difference a few weeks makes, huh? Ahmed started out with a bang, hitting a homer in his first Cactus League game, and still leads the Giants in OPS (1.176) after, um, J.D. Davis (we’ll get back to him). Meanwhile, Luciano got off to a very slow start at the plate and now appears ticketed for AAA, though he’s been on a tear this past week or so.
  • March 3, 2024: Signed third baseman Matt Chapman to a three-year, $54 mil contract…sort of. (Chapman has opt-outs after years 1-2, and then there’s a mutual option after year 3, so Chapman could be a Giant for anywhere between 1-4 years.) Unlike the addition of Soler, Chapman signing with the Giants was the worst-kept secret of the offseason. Melvin, who’d managed Chapman for years with the A’s, was openly lobbying for the Giants to bring him to San Francisco. Still, given the Giants’ other needs, Chapman seemed less necessary in the abstract. The Giants had Davis, who by then had won his arbitration hearing and would earn $6.9 mil for 2024, to play 3B everyday and youngster Schmitt in the wings if needed. However, adding a four-time Gold Glover to the left side when you have ground ball pitchers like Webb and Cobb seems like a very important development…especially if Ahmed ends up being the Opening Day shortstop.
  • March 11, 2024: Released J.D. Davis, saving nearly $6 mil. Once Chapman (and Soler) had been signed, it was obvious that Davis would not be a Giant this year–there was no place for him to play and no room on the roster for him. But Zaidi was unable to find a trade partner who was willing to take on Davis’s salary, so he put Davis on waivers. After he went unclaimed, Zaidi released him–and it turned out that due to a CBA loophole, the Giants would only owe Davis 30 days of termination pay (a little over $1.1 mil). There was a lot of unhappiness in the fanbase about how Davis was treated, even after he signed a free agent deal with the A’s, but the Giants didn’t actually do anything wrong. Were they supposed to pay a guy they don’t need almost $7 mil when his contract didn’t require it?
  • March 20, 2024: Signed LHP Blake Snell to a two-year, $62 mil deal (sort of–he has an opt-out after this year). Zaidi had several times proclaimed that the Giants were “done”–“the offseason is over.” Then, after saying that, he signed Chapman and then Snell. The addition of Snell rocketed the Giants past the first luxury tax line for the first time since 2017 and almost, but not quite, to the second line ($257 mil.). According to Fangraphs Roster Resource, the Giants’ “estimated luxury tax payroll” for 2024 is $253,169.583. Now, it’s “estimated” because things like player benefits and salaries for minor leaguers on the 40-man roster can shift, but right now–it sure looks like the difference between being over that second line instead slightly under it is…the money they’re not paying J.D. Davis.

So that’s it. That’s the time line. While the contract specifications are complicated because of Chapman’s and Snell’s and Ray’s opt-outs (plus Lee can opt out after four years), if all of the contracts go to their full amounts, the Giants committed nearly $400 million this offseason. More importantly, they checked a lot of boxes:

  • a legitimate everyday centerfielder (Lee)
  • a slugger who might break the 30-homer drought that’s coming up on 20 years (Soler)
  • a lefty ace to put at the top of the rotation with Webb (Snell)
  • better defense (Chapman, Ahmed, Lee)
  • plus, as a bonus, they beefed up the pitching depth (Hicks and Ray)
  • AND they haven’t substantially encumbered themselves long-term or blocked young players. With Cobb’s contract ending after this season and the possible opt-outs for Ray and Snell, there should still be plenty of opportunities for the young pitching they’re so excited about–but now they don’t have to put excessive pressure on anyone or rush pitchers who aren’t ready.

They didn’t just spend a lot of money. They spent it smartly.

So, what do I think about Zaidi now? I think he had a terrific last six months, going back to firing Kapler and hiring Melvin. It’s his best stretch by far as Giants’ POBO because the 2021 season was kind of a flukey unicorn of a year, fun as it was. This offseason’s list of accomplishments is purposeful and disciplined and shows a lot of intelligence. You still have to play the games, of course, but for the first time in a few years, I’m actually pretty excited about Giants baseball. Zaidi has put them in position to compete and be successful, and that’s all you can ask.

Besides the purposeful/smart spending, I also appreciate that Zaidi (and ownership, I assume) pushed past some previous risk-averse behavior. They went past the luxury tax line. They gave up two draft picks to get Chapman and Snell plus $1 mil of international bonus pool money. But as Zaidi said in an interview this week with Alex Pavlovic, while you never want to give up resources that keep your pipeline of young talent coming, these were real-time opportunities that seemed worth the price they paid.

So–good on ya, Farhan. A job well done.

 

Last Week of Cactus League Play

This has been a good week for the Giants, and not just because they finally landed Snell or because their two biggest free agent targets landed in scandal (Ohtani) or got shelled (Yamamoto). The Giants have played well, winning six games in a row, including two split-squad games against the Cubs yesterday. They are now 14-10-2 for the Cactus League after a rough start. While yesterday’s Scottsdale Stadium game was a mess (and I’m trying not to worry about what a bad spring Webb has had), they ended up rallying from an early 10-0 deficit and won 13-12 on a walk-off RTI. Importantly, a lot of guys who are going to be in the regular starting lineup finally were hitting (two hits each for Lee, Chapman, and Soler, plus two for Mike Yastrzemski, whose bat is hopefully waking up). In the road game, Winn, who looks like he’ll be the fifth starter until Cobb is ready, had a nice, tidy, efficient outing, earning the win.

Meanwhile, as mentioned above, Luciano has started to mash. He hit a big three-run homer in Thursday night’s game and reached base four times in Friday’s game. His OPS is now up to a very respectable .762 for the spring. Luciano has historically needed a minute to settle into every new level he’s been at, and it’s worth remembering that (a) he’s 22 years old (b) he’s had 67 ABs at AAA and (c) he’s had 39 MLB ABs. Nobody seems to think he can play SS, but let’s give him a minute there, too. I saw him make a couple plays in Scottsdale and on TV, and he seems fine, if not spectacular. I still think he begins the season at AAA, but we’ll see how long he stays there.

In other news, Melvin mentioned yesterday in his pregame remarks that Austin Slater has had a setback with his recovery from elbow surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day. This almost certainly opens the door for Luis Matos, who arrived at camp bulked up and has had a great spring, to make the Opening Day roster. I mean, of course we all wish Slater well in his recovery, but…don’t rush things. Best to be safe.

Finally, Joey Bart was removed from the game yesterday after one AB, kicking up speculation that maybe he’d been traded. But it turns out he tweaked a hamstring, and this may allow the Giants to put him on the injured list to start the season and delay the decision about DFA’ing or trading him, since he’s out of minor league options.

 

Today’s Game

Diamondbacks at Giants, 1:05 p.m., Scottsdale Stadium (TV: NBCS-BA, Radio: KNBR)

Logan Allen vs. Kyle Harrison

Today is the Giants’ last game in Arizona. Tomorrow they’ll be in Sacramento to play an exhibition against the River Cats. Monday and Tuesday is the Bay Bridge series (Monday in Oakland, Tuesday at Oracle Park), and then an off day before the season opener at Petco Park on Thursday. My next Out of Left Field will report on my on-the-spot observations from Petco!  We’re almost there, folks–real Giants baseball is just a few days away!  Lefty out.