I’ll admit this up front: I don’t know the answer to the question I posed in the title. But I thought it would be interesting to think about and discuss in this after-the-Winter-Meetings post.
The “emperor” to whom I refer is, of course, Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi. We’re now over a year into his tenure, and it is obvious that, after Zaidi respectfully waited out the victory lap of legendary manager Bruce Bochy, everything is now about to change. Quickly. A lot.
Sometimes–often–change can be good. But change just for change’s sake can backfire if it’s not thought all the way through. And that’s where I’m just not sure about the Zaidi Regime so far.
In the Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a powerful emperor orders a new suit of clothes, and two wily con-men weavers somehow convince him that a new suit that is invisible is the height of fashion. Even better: Only people who are really smart and perceptive will be able to see this fabulous new suit. Incompetent dolts with no imagination will see nothing. When the emperor parades in front of the people in his new “birthday suit,” no one–at first– dares to speak the truth for fear they will be seen as stupid and unfit for their jobs.
So…is Farhan Zaidi brilliant and visionary and ahead of the curve? Or is his so-called genius not just invisible but actually illusory? Let’s break this down, analyzing some key plot points in the story so far. The “Clothes” or “No Clothes” labels attached are obviously my own opinions. I’ll look forward to your thoughts in response.
Opening Day, March 28, 2019: No Clothes
Zaidi failed to acquire major league outfielders in the offseason, and the team opened with two waiver-wire minor leaguers obtained just a week or so before Opening Day, Connor Joe and Michael Reed, starting in the corner outfield spots. Reed lasted less than a week, and Joe barely two before both were DFA’d. Even Zaidi himself admitted that he got off on the wrong foot. To his credit, he adjusted quickly.
Zaidi upgrades the outfield during the season, various dates: Clothes
The four outfielders who started the season with the Giants (Reed, Duggar, Joe, Parra) combined for a -1.1 fWAR during their time with the Giants. But by late June, the outfield consisted of Alex Dickerson, Mike Yastrzemski, and Kevin Pillar. Those three players combined put up a 4.7 fWAR; add Austin Slater as a backup, and it’s 5.2.
For more perspective, consider the outfielders who began the 2018 season with the Giants (McCutchen, Jackson, Pence, and Hernandez). Those four combined for a 0.3 fWAR. Other outfielders receiving substantial ABs that year included Slater (0.0), Blanco (-0.7), and Duggar (0.7)–which, if you’re quick at math, adds up to zero.
This is to say that the in-season adjustments to the outfield in 2019 were superb. Now, a combined 5.2 fWAR by the top four outfielders is not even one All-Star on another team, but compared with what they ran out there in 2018 or even on Opening Day 2019, it was a substantial improvement.
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) December 15, 2019
Trade Deadline, July 31, 2019: Clothes
Zaidi had a good day, although, in hindsight, it was probably not as good as it should have been. He traded Sam Dyson, Drew Pomeranz, Ray Black–and, to everyone’s astonishment, Mark Melancon–receiving a package of prospects back who immediately entered the Giants’ top-30 prospects list and one of whom (Mauricio Dubon) seems likely to be in the 2020 Opening Day lineup. He saved present and future money in so doing.
To everyone’s surprise, he did not trade Will Smith (the Giants’ only All-Star) or Madison Bumgarner, the ace. Considering the value they got for the other pitchers they traded, that now looks like a pretty costly error in judgment.
New Giants manager hired, November 12, 2019: No Clothes
There is a range of opinions about Zaidi’s choice of Gabe Kapler to replace Bruce Bochy. I’ve already discussed my own views on this at some length. I still hate this hire. I think Kapler’s kind of a screwball and that the new coaching staff proves it, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Maybe the worst thing about the Kapler hire is that really raises the question (for me, anyway) of whether Zaidi knows what he’s doing.
No minor leaguers added to the 40-man roster, November 20, 2019: Clothes
I was surprised by this but not necessarily upset. And now that the Rule 5 Draft has come and gone, and the Giants didn’t lose any players in the major league portion, it appears that they made the right decisions.
Kevin Pillar non-tendered, December 2, 2019: Clothes
OK, I know this is also a controversial opinion. A lot of Giants fans and observers were shocked when the 2019 Willie Mac Award winner, who’d also led the team in most offensive categories and played a solid-to-spectacular centerfield, was not tendered a contract. While I would have been happy if they’d kept Pillar, I also understand the reasoning behind not spending $10 million or so on a guy who will not be part of the future beyond 2020.
Winter Meetings acquisitions, December 9-12, 2019: Clothes
The Giants’ trade with the Angels, sending minor league pitcher Garrett Williams to the Angels for veteran infielder Zack Cozart and 2019 first-round infielder Will Wilson, caught a lot of people’s attention. From an Alex Pavlovic article:
SAN FRANCISCO — “We were jealous.”
Those were the words of a rival executive after the Giants took on Zack Cozart’s contract in order to get shortstop prospect Will Wilson, the No. 15 pick in this year’s draft. The Giants made just two moves this week, but that one certainly caught the attention of many around the game, and it was one team officials couldn’t stop talking about over the last couple of days of the Winter Meetings.
It was a creative move, one straight out of an NBA offseason, with the Giants using their financial flexibility to pry away a good prospect from an Angels organization that soon would give Anthony Rendon $245 million.
The Giants also signed free-agent pitching reclamation project Kevin Gausman to a one-year, $9 million deal. While that sounds like a lot of money for this year’s version of Drew Pomeranz, Gausman appears to have substantial upside and potential to bounce back, especially in a good pitchers’ park (which it still will be after the reconfiguration, just not quite as extremely so). For what it’s worth, Steamer projections have Gausman as the best pitcher on the Giants in 2020. Gausman seems happy about it too, already dressing his baby daughter in Giants gear.
— Kevin Gausman (@KevinGausman) December 12, 2019
Finally, the Giants picked up right-handed reliever Dany Jimenez from Toronto in the Rule 5 Draft. Jimenez had a good year between high A and AA, and he may be able to stick in the new 26th spot on a team with a suddenly thin bullpen.
Announcement of the 2020 coaching staff, December 12, 2019: No clothes
I’m not saying that all of the coaches will be awful. Some of them may be terrific. Maybe all of them will be. But whereas Zaidi’s slick trade with the Angels got admiring/envious reactions around the league, the space-age roster of inexperienced guys under 40 for Gabe Kapler’s coaching staff led to raised eyebrows and head-scratching. (Well, Brian Kenny of MLB Network loved it, and that by itself makes me really, really worried.)
As I said in the comments section of a post earlier this week, I would have preferred to see a more balanced mixture of experience and new ideas. Because I have little faith in Kapler based on his track record so far, I expected to see an A-list group of veteran minds in the room to help him learn on the job to be a better manager than he was for the Phillies–like how new head coach Steve Kerr had Alvin Gentry, Ron Adams, and Luke Walton to start with in 2014. I’m also dubious about how major leaguers will respond to a group of coaches so young and so lacking in experience. I worry that Kapler will try out weird ideas and these young guys won’t be able to talk him out of it. (First day in Scottsdale: “OK, everyone strip from the waist down, grab some coconut oil, and head out into the sun for 20 minutes!” Speaking of no clothes…) I don’t mind innovation, but this just feels like too much, too fast. Why did Ron Wotus somehow emerge unscathed? I’ll get to him in the conclusion.
Not seriously pursuing Madison Bumgarner, all of 2019: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”*
So I have a theory about why this is happening, which I’ll also get to in my conclusion. But I can’t think of any good reason not to do whatever it takes to re-sign a franchise hero. Frankly, I’m frustrated and shocked that Bum didn’t get an extension before the 2019 season or in August after they decided not to trade him. His price tag isn’t in the Cole/Strasburg stratosphere, and the Giants easily have the cap space to pay him. He’s 30, healthy, and still valuable. The Giants need starters. Oh, and most fans adore him and want him back no matter what.
And to top it all off: We might not only lose him, but to the Dodgers? Yes, yes, I know it’s a two-way street and Bum might choose to go elsewhere. But from what we’ve heard during and after the season, Bumgarner would have been amenable to a new deal to stay with the Giants, and the team didn’t lift a finger to make that happen. Now it may be too late, even if they do decide they actually want him.
If Bumgarner leaves, and especially if he leaves for our arch-rivals, I will be firmly in the “emperor has no clothes” camp, and I may never emerge from it.
*Source: the kid who finally spoke up in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
Conclusion: Why is this happening and where is it headed?
I think the composition of the coaching staff, and probably also the hire of Kapler, is the biggest clue: Zaidi, with the support of ownership, wants to tear it all down to the studs and rebuild from scratch. Zaidi and Kapler don’t want any old-fashioned types around to get in their way or drag their feet. Wotus survives because Zaidi knows two things: (1) Kapler does need a steady, experienced hand on his coaching staff and (2) Wotus has demonstrated, by working under three different previous managers (Dusty Baker, Felipe Alou, and Bochy) that he can adjust to a new regime and be a help rather than a hindrance.
If this is the plan, we may see old-school player types also jettisoned in the coming weeks and months. Maybe that’s why Pillar, Smith, and Vogt have already been allowed to move on. Samardzija is a crusty traditionalist who may not have any use for the new world order. Longoria may be, too, but since he played with Kapler in Tampa and enthusiastically endorsed Kapler’s hire, he may survive a purge. Buster is a good soldier, and Cueto is a good-natured free spirit, so they might fit in. The Brandons will be told to cooperate with any and all changes the young coaches throw at them, and if they don’t, it will be adios Brandons.
This brings us to Bumgarner. Who is more of an old-school throwback than he is? He’s ornery and feisty and competitive, but he had great respect and affection for Bochy. Maybe the real reason why there’s been little effort to bring Bum back is that they don’t trust him to fall in line with the new leadership. And given his stature in the Giants’ clubhouse, that could be a big problem for Kapler and his coaching staff.
Part of me is enthusiastic about all of this. It’s obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention that change is needed and lots of it. I’m intrigued to see more innovative, out-of-the-box thinking, like the trade for Cozart/Wilson. But I’m also nervous. Just because something is new and different doesn’t automatically make it better. The previous regime of Sabean, Evans, Bochy, and the coaches got a lot of things right. A lot.
I’m willing to be open-minded, but to be honest, I have my doubts. I’ll plan to come back and revisit this topic in six months, a year, and beyond to see where I/we all are with the clothes/no clothes question. I’d hate to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater, and as for emperors running around with no clothes on–ugh. Lefty out.