by DrLefty

This is the last Out of Left Field of 2023. Tomorrow’s date will have the odd digital feature of being 123123. Something to look forward to!

 

The 2023 Season: Before and During

This year hasn’t been a good one for Giants fans. We began it mired in disappointment over the failed December 2022 pursuit of Aaron Judge and the even more shocking last-second collapse of the Carlos Correa deal. I seriously remember every detail of that latter day, December 20, 2022. It was a Tuesday and I headed for my weekly 9 a.m. Pilates session, happily listening to KNBR about the Correa press conference coming up at 11 a.m. By the time I emerged from the studio at 10 a.m., it had all fallen apart.

Giants’ President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi pivoted fairly quickly from those two high-profile failures (or maybe “disappointments” is the better word), spreading money around among other lower-tier acquisitions: Joc Pederson, who’d accepted a qualifying offer, Mitch Haniger (whose signing was announced the same day the Judge fake-news-followed-by-actual-news broke), Michael Conforto, Ross Stripling, and Sean Manaea (whose signings were announced after the Correa deal fell apart), and finally Taylor Rogers. Considering that 2022-23 was one of the most exciting free agent markets ever, this was a very nondescript haul. While Pederson had a nice 2022 season for the Giants and made the All-Star team, he wasn’t $19.65 million good. Haniger and Conforto were coming off serious injuries; Conforto had missed the entire 2022 season. Stripling had a decent 2022 for the Blue Jays, but Manaea, who was traded from the A’s to the Padres right before the 2022 season began, had a poor year. Rogers had been traded from the Twins to the Brewers and then to the Padres at the deadline, and had a disappointing contract year in 2022. So to summarize, we got two outfielders trying to come back from serious injuries, a starter and a reliever trying to come back from down seasons, and two journeymen types (Pederson and Stripling) being overpaid. To add insult to injury, the deals to Conforto, Manaea, Stripling, and Haniger included opt-outs. So counting Pederson’s one-year deal, the free agent acquisitions included four players who were likely to be Giants 1-2 years at most.

“Well, at least Zaidi did something this year,” we tried to console ourselves. If you squinted hard enough, you could see ways it could have turned out well. Giants’ CEO Larry Baer famously said before the season that

“I think we’re finding that some of it takes some explaining, because it’s not in the headlines. I think the explanation is going well with the fans. We’re getting reactions. Fans are like, ‘OK, we get it, we understand now… I get it. You did a lot of moves that added up.’ The lightbulb went on, but the lightbulb didn’t go on immediately. So it’s been a little bit of a lag effect.”

I guess I’m in the “lag effect” group because I’m still waiting for that lightbulb to go on. I wasn’t impressed before the 2023 season and I’m not impressed after it. The mediocre “pivot” after the Judge/Correa mishaps turned out about as badly as you could imagine. The six players named above amassed a total bWAR of 1.8–for an investment of $74.65 million. Stripling and Conforto both had such poor years that they chose not to opt out of their contracts.

I personally began the season with low expectations. You always hope for the best, but realistically, you have to look at what’s there, which not only included the Giants’ roster of no-names but also a stacked Padres roster and the perennial 100+-win Dodgers. Further, the Giants had a terrible early schedule that featured two East Coast road trips and a disastrous junket to Mexico City. By late April, they were 6-13 and playing putrid baseball. After a Mother’s Day loss on May 14, they were 17-23 and in fourth place in the NL West. Yep–pretty much as predicted, maybe even a tad worse.

Gabe Kapler, all set for the Mexico City trip

 

The Bright Spots

But then, amazingly, things started to improve. The Giants made another offseason miscalculation in assuming that David Villar, who’d hit a bunch of homers for them in September 2022, was ready to be their everyday third baseman. Reader, he was not ready. By May 9, they’d called up top prospect Casey Schmitt, a second-round pick in the 2020 draft who was considered to have an elite glove at 3B and who had played some shortstop for Eugene the previous year. Schmitt got off to a great start, and barely a week later, the Giants also promoted catcher Patrick Bailey, their first-round pick in 2020, after Joey Bart was injured. Top outfield prospect Luis Matos was called up on June 14 after Haniger was hit by a pitch in Colorado, breaking his arm. The three youngsters brought a jolt of energy that, for awhile, looked like it would turn the season around. The Giants had a 10-game winning streak in the middle of June that included road sweeps in St. Louis and at Dodger Stadium. It also included a 10-game road winning streak that added a sweep in Coors Field. In July, they added a seven-game winning streak. On August 2, the 2023 trade deadline, they were in the #1 wild card spot and only 2.5 games behind the first-place Dodgers in the NL West.

In addition to the energizing effect of the rookie top prospects’ arrival, Logan Webb had another excellent season that earned him second place in the NL Cy Young Award voting. Veteran Alex Cobb and young closer Camilo Doval made their first All-Star team, with Doval earning the win for the NL. Cobb later came within one out of pitching a no-hitter against the Reds on August 29. Cobb’s gem came just one night after the electric home debut of top pitching prospect Kyle Harrison, who struck out 11 in 6.1 masterful innings.

And thus ends both August and the bright spots for 2023.

 

The Collapse

The Giants really didn’t play well from about July 1 on. Specifically, they completely stopped hitting. After promising starts, youngsters Schmitt, Matos, and Bailey struggled at the plate. The longest-tenured Giant, Brandon Crawford, had the worst season of his career on both sides of the ball. Other cogs, including Thairo Estrada, Mike Yastrzemski, and LaMonte Wade Jr., grappled with injuries and/or ineffectiveness. Only one player, Wilmer Flores, had a good second half at the plate.

Meanwhile, the pitching staff carried the team into early August. Despite starting the year eight-deep in rotation options, by August manager Gabe Kapler was using a two-man rotation. Yes, two: Webb and Cobb. The rest of the games were covered by “openers” such as Scott Alexander, rookie Ryan Walker (who was a nice surprise and another bright spot), and John Brebbia when healthy, or by “bulk innings” pitchers, which Alex Wood, Manaea, Stripling, and Jakob Junis were turned into, mostly to their dismay. For awhile, it seemed to work. Going into August, the Giants had a very good W-L record in “opener” games. Writers such as Andrew Baggarly wrote think pieces along the lines of “Well, maybe it could work.”

I never bought it. Even back in late July I was saying things like “Yeah, let’s see how things look in September when all their arms start falling off.” Oh, and then there was Zaidi completely sitting out the trade deadline despite the Giants being solidly in contention and clearly needing help. Zaidi did nothing except add two guys (A.J. Pollock and Mark Mathias) who were DFA’d long before the season ended but not before manager Gabe Kapler memorably pinch-hit Mathias for Crawford with the game on the line in the ninth inning.

Anyway, the Giants played poorly in August (12-15) and terribly in September/October (9-19). They fell apart so badly down the stretch that Kapler was fired with three games to go in the season, despite having received a public vote of confidence from chairman Greg Johnson just two weeks earlier. They finished 79-83 and in fourth place in the NL West–about where everyone thought before the season.

 

The Aftermath

With Kapler already fired, the first and most important thing that needed to happen was hiring a new manager before free agency began, and for once in 2023, there was good news: The Giants were allowed by the Padres to interview Bay Area native and respected manager Bob Melvin, and he was quickly hired before the World Series even began. He brought several coaches with him, including beloved former Giant Matt Williams and former Reds manager Bryan Price (as the new pitching coach), and he hired 2010 hero Pat Burrell as a new co-hitting coach. Meanwhile, as already noted, Conforto and Stripling did not opt out of their contracts, but Manaea did.

December 2023 has been mostly disastrous for the Giants. Just like last year, there were high-profile pursuits of top free agents, specifically Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, both of whom signed with the Dodgers–thanks to Ohtani’s unique offer to defer nearly all of his salary until after his 10-year contract ends, allowing him to both escape substantial state income tax and the Dodgers to largely escape the competitive balance tax implications of adding him. Meanwhile, the Giants did add one free agent target–Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee--though outside observers believe they massively overpaid him–and a solid backup catcher in Tom Murphy.

It’s not surprising that the Giants didn’t get either Japanese superstar, despite competing on a financial level. They are simply not an attractive destination for top free agents with a lot of choices. I am surprised that we are apparently going to leave 2023 without any further additions, especially on the pitching side. In a podcast earlier this week, Kerry Crowley predicted that the Giants would fail to acquire Yamamoto but would pivot to NL Cy Young winner Blake Snell within 48 hours of Yamamoto signing elsewhere. Nope. With the exception of Aaron Nola’s early deal, signing back with the Phillies, and smaller deals such as Michael Wacha signing with the Royals or Lucas Giolito signing a Zaidi-esque deal with the Red Sox (remember that former Giants pitching coach Andrew Bailey is there now), all the major pitching names (except of course Yamamoto) are still on the board. I’m not sure what everyone is waiting for.

 

On to 2024

“24” is a good number for the Giants. Will it be better than 2023?  I’ll tackle what 2024 might look like in next week’s column unless something, you know, actually happens. In the meantime, enjoy New Year’s weekend. I’m gagging at the idea that I have to root for either Michigan or Alabama in the Rose Bowl (I loathe both teams and I especially loathe Jim Harbaugh), and we need the 49ers to have a New Year’s Eve bounce-back game after they ruined Christmas.

Be safe, and may you and yours have a healthy and happy New Year. Lefty out.