by DrLefty

Happy New Year!  I know it’s January 6 (Happy Epiphany!), but I’m happy to report that Larry David has modified his prohibition on saying “Happy New Year” after January 3. Last year, he updated it to January 7, and this year, he’s pushed it to Jan. 11.

I like saying “Happy New Year.” It’s less fraught than worrying about what to say to people in December. I also just like the concept of a new year–clean slate, fresh start, and all that.

The Giants need a Happy New Year, and what better year to have one than the year named after the Best Giant Ever, the guy whose statue is in front of 24 Willie Mays Plaza in San Francisco?  I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned here that every time MrLefty and I go to the ballpark, we head to the Mays statue and each tap his bat twice for good luck. If we don’t do it and the Giants don’t hit/win that day, it’s our fault. (If we do tap the bat and the Giants don’t hit/win that day, it’s their fault. Not on us!)

Anyway, last week I wrote about the sad state of affairs that 2023 presented for our Giants. It probably was a recap no one wanted or needed, but maybe it helped fuel your New Year’s Eve drinking and your subsequent decision to do “dry January.” If so, you’re welcome.

But the old year is past and it’s ’24. So what might it hold for our Giants? I know there may seem to be little reason to feel optimistic or hopeful (see how December 2023 went), but as I said: New Year. Fresh start. Maybe not an entirely “clean slate,” but the games are played on the field, and the World Series is never won in the previous offseason. Case in point: I vividly remember how Sports Illustrated assured us before the 2011 season started that the Phillies would face the Red Sox in that year’s Fall Classic. That did not happen. The Phillies didn’t make it out of the first round, and the Red Sox missed the playoffs entirely after a notorious September collapse that cost manager Terry Francona his job. So…while I wouldn’t say that anything is possible, I would say that many things are possible–including the Giants pleasantly surprising us in ’24.

So with all that in mind, let’s take a look at where we are and how the season might go.

 

Hey! The Giants Did Something!

The Giants made a splashy signing of Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee in December, and he had a successful and delightful introductory press conference. But that signing was wedged between their epic failures to sign Japanese superstars Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who not only didn’t sign with the Giants but instead went to the Dodgers to the tune of over a billion dollars of guaranteed money. As Farhan Zaidi put it in his recent interview with the Athletic’s Tim Kawakami:

Look, as disappointed as we are that we didn’t get those two guys, if they would’ve taken our billion dollars, we would’ve done those two deals, too. We’re in no position to sort of complain about the unfairness or big-market teams pushing dollars around. I tip my cap to them.

Other than signing Lee, the Giants also signed backup catcher Tom Murphy to a two-year deal with a third-year team option. Nicely done there, too. But after Yamamoto agreed to terms with the Dodgers right before Christmas, the free agent news has been practically nonexistent. I keep refreshing Twitter multiple times a day to see if there’s news about the Scott Boras stable (Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, Matt Chapman, and Cody Bellinger) or the remaining Japanese pitcher, Shota Imanaga. Crickets.

BUT…the Giants did make a substantial trade yesterday!  In the big scheme of things, it may not move the needle very much, but it’s certainly more substantive than, say, Donovan Walton for Prelander Berroa (ouch, too soon). Andrew Baggarly’s opening line about the trade was laugh-out-loud funny: “The San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners made a trade on Friday, which is sort of like reporting that dogs like bacon.” It was also pretty funny when, continuing with the kitchen theme, he compared Mitch Haniger to “an expensive stand mixer with a broken hook that they might use once or twice a year.”

So the details: Haniger and Anthony DeSclafani and $9 million went to the Mariners in exchange for 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. As Baggarly explains in some detail, the money is cost-neutral for 2024 (that’s why the $9 mil is thrown in), and assuming that neither Haniger nor Ray opts out after 2024, it amounts to “signing Ray to a three-year, $34.5 million contract.” Baggarly also disclosed that the Giants have liked Ray for a long time and were in the mix for him when he was a free agent after 2021. IF Ray returns to form after Tommy John surgery (he’s expected back after the All-Star break) and IF he doesn’t opt out and is a Giant through 2026, the Giants have a credible veteran lefty counterpart at the top of the rotation with Logan Webb at a pretty reasonable price tag. And even if Ray doesn’t help the Giants much this year, the trade helps them now by clearing out the stand mixer–oops, I mean Haniger–and DeSclafani, who was also clutter, given his profound inability to stay healthy and productive over the last two seasons.

It’s a nice move. The upside, if it happens, is substantial, and there really isn’t a downside. The Giants spent no prospect capital to get Ray, and because they shed two other big salaries, the price point is quite manageable if Ray completes his contract with the Giants. If he pitches well in 2024 and opts out and goes elsewhere, that means the Giants got some value from him.

Meanwhile, as Baggarly also noted, the trade opens up roster space by subtracting Haniger and DeSclafani, while Ray and Alex Cobb will likely begin the season on the 60-day IL.

 

OK, So What Now?

The Giants’ front office has been almost pathological this offseason about giving to their fans with one hand and taking away with another. For example, on the day of new manager Bob Melvin’s introductory press conference, the good vibes were dampened by chairman Greg Johnson’s comment that “hopefully our goal is to somewhat break even.” The same week of Lee’s feel-good signing and press conference, there was an unfortunate interview with Buster Posey that amplified unfair criticisms about San Francisco. So instead of focusing on “Yay! Lee!” we were back to obsessing about why the Giants didn’t get Ohtani and worrying that we’d never get anyone else because San Francisco is perceived as such a hellhole. Scott Boras, of all people, rebutted those concerns at Lee’s press conference, saying that the players he works with are more interested in teams’ winning trajectories than with concerns about their cities, pointing out that all major U.S. cities have problems (including, of course, Los Angeles).

This week, the good news about a savvy trade that offloaded some dead weight was almost instantly tempered by Zaidi’s press conference. As reported by Baggarly and Alex Pavlovic, Zaidi seemed to imply that he thought his work was done with starting pitching (so don’t get ideas about Snell, Montgomery, Imanaga, or even Marcus Stroman or the return of Sean Manaea). As of this minute, the Giants’ rotation on Opening Day would consist of Webb, Kyle Harrison (whom Zaidi made clear in his interview with Kawakami is untouchable in trade talks), maybe Ross Stripling, and some combination of other young pitchers: from the 40-man roster, Keaton Winn, Tristan Beck, Sean Hjelle or Kai Wei Teng and AA/AAA prospects (not on the 40) Mason Black, Carson Whisenhunt, Landon Roupp, and Hayden Birdsong. The idea, I take it, would be that they’d expect reinforcements in the second half when Ray and Cobb would hopefully be ready to go.

Zaidi did imply that there still could be moves in the outfield, whether to move excess inventory off the roster or to add someone, but:

“…as it stands now, we like our outfield group. We’d be fine going into the year with it. We frankly still could add somebody to that mix with Mitch being traded today. Lots of things still on the table there. But the most direct answer to your question I can give is that it doesn’t mean our outfield is set and there won’t be any more moves on that front.”

Right now, the outfield looks like this: Lee in CF, Mike Yastrzemski/Austin Slater (both of whom have already agreed to contracts) in RF, and Michael Conforto in LF. That leaves a fifth spot for one of Luis Matos, Heliot Ramos or Wade Meckler (and maybe throw in Tyler Fitzgerald) and possibly Blake Sabol taking the 26th spot as an emergency catcher/LF/DH. I would assume we should forget about Cody Bellinger as a possibility, both because of price point and because he bats lefty, but I’ve figured that Bellinger was off the table (if he was ever on it) after they signed Lee. The subtraction of Haniger leaves the Giants’ outfield awfully skewed to the left side–only Slater and one of Matos/Ramos/Fitzgerald are RH outfield possibilities.

Zaidi did suggest that they are still looking for infield help, which Baggarly interpreted as “in negotiations for Matt Chapman,” but we’ll see about that, too.  In his interview with Kawakami, he also said that he would not rule out obtaining (via trade) players in their contract years. He might have been thinking about Ray (who can opt out after this season), but he also could have been referring to frequently mentioned trade targets such as the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and Willy Adames.

 

My Thoughts

It’s too soon to do a really deep dive on what the 2024 Giants might look like because there are still too many moving parts that need to, well, stop moving. But based on what we know right now–and I think we’ve all learned to “speak Zaidi” pretty well–here are some observations:

  1. According to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource, which has been updated since the Ray/Haniger/Disco trade was announced, the Giants’ bottom-line payroll for 2024 stands at just under $200 mil. (198,048,333, to be specific). I found this frankly depressing. Almost $200 mil, and two major salaries (Ray and Cobb) are on the shelf, and it still seems like the roster needs a lot of work. The first luxury tax threshold is $237 mil, so the Giants still have some room to spend if they can find someone to take their money–and if ownership deems that to be a good idea. (Johnson also said in the same ill-considered remarks that going over the luxury tax threshold, while not completely out of the question for someone like Ohtani, was not something they plan to make a habit of. And while Zaidi said to Kawakami that he’s had “a lot of support from ownership” this offseason as to his high-profile pursuits, he also said specifically that they didn’t spend aggressively after a successful 2021 season because of post-COVID payroll concerns from ownership.)
  2. I’m not surprised, as I said above, to hear that the Giants “like [their] outfield group.” Bellinger would be expensive and he has question marks. While I don’t love the idea of relying heavily on unproven youngsters like Matos/Ramos/Meckler/Fitzgerald, they have enough veteran presence in Yaz/Slater/Conforto and some youthful pizzazz in Lee. It’s not all that exciting, but it’s not nowhere, either, and other than Bellinger, the options in the free agent market aren’t very appealing.
  3. I am surprised and a bit alarmed if Zaidi really thinks he’s “done” with starting pitching.  Now, he may have been implying that just to not sound desperate to the likes of Boras, but the rotation as it is today is thin and iffy. It could be really good–if Ray and Cobb can return healthy and effective, if Harrison is the real deal, and especially if they can hit on a couple of their own prospects. Heck, maybe Stripling will return to 2022 form in his walk year. Stranger things have happened, and the Giants under Zaidi have been pretty good at rescuing and building pitchers’ careers (thinking even of homegrown Webb, Camilo Doval, and Tyler Rogers). But I still think the Giants’ quickest and most plausible path to being a legitimate postseason contender in 2024 is through a strong and deep rotation. Even the addition of Stroman or the return of Manaea would help, but I’m still holding out hope for one of the top-market free agents and/or a trade for Burnes. They need more.
  4. Sign Chapman? Sure, OK. Kerry Crowley did a podcast a week or so ago where he dove deeply into the pros and cons of signing Chapman. He made some on-point comparisons between Chapman and when the Giants traded for Evan Longoria before the 2018 season. They were both multiple Gold Glove winners at 3B, and their offensive stats the year before the Giants acquired them (if the Giants signed Chapman) were remarkably similar. One important distinction between those two situations was that the Giants had to trade assets for Longoria; Chapman would just cost them money, but he would also cost them a draft pick. The major “con” to signing Chapman, according to Crowley, would be blocking Casey Schmitt long-term. There was no comparable 3B prospect when the Giants obtained Longoria. And lest you dismiss Schmitt because he’s a “good glove/no hit” guy, Crowley reminded us of another comparison, between rookie Brandon Crawford in 2011 and Schmitt in 2023. Again, their offensive stats were pretty comparable. There was no guarantee that Crawford would ever hit at the big league level, but the Giants felt that his glove was elite enough that they handed him the job in 2012, anyway. So…I could go either way on this one. If they’re pinching their pennies, I’d rather they spent on another starting pitcher and go with a combo of Schmitt and J.D. Davis next year. If they sign Chapman–OK, Davis is your primary righty DH/1B (I guess job-sharing with Wilmer Flores), and Schmitt is either back in AAA or a utility backup infielder. But if signing Chapman means no more starting pitching, I say “no thanks.”

 

To wrap this up, I have to at least thank Zaidi for giving me something to write about this week. As you could tell  last week, I was dumpster-diving in old Giants news. This week was way more interesting, and more baseball news should be forthcoming in the next couple of weeks, I’d think. We’re not even six weeks from camps opening, and our annual pilgrimage to Scottsdale is only a little over two months off!  Time marches on, and did I mention: Happy New Year!  Lefty out.