A lot has transpired since I published my last Out of Left Field two weeks ago today. Rookie top prospect Kyle Harrison made a brilliant home debut, and grizzled veteran Alex Cobb followed that up by coming one out short of a no-hitter. The Giants won 4 of 5 and their first series since the beginning of August and were back in playoff position.
And then September happened.
After winning the first game of their road trip in San Diego, the Giants lost the next six games and looked awful doing it. The Padres’ loaded lineup beat up on Tristan Beck, Harrison, and Cobb in succession. The Giants scored one (1) run in three (3) games, including a Labor Day stinker in which they mustered just two hits and never got a runner to second base. And then somehow it got worse. After fiery quotes from team leaders Mike Yastrzemski and Logan Webb, along with manager Gabe Kapler, the Giants’ offense finally woke up on Tuesday…but the pitching (bullpen game) and the defense (mostly Joc Pederson, but there were others) were so atrocious that the Giants lost 11-8. They don’t lose many games when they score eight runs, but they lost that one. Grant Brisbee made the following comment about that Tuesday night game:
It felt like an elimination game. Spiritually, not mathematically. Depending on what happens over the rest of the season, there’s a strong chance that Tuesday night will feel like a tipping point.
Well, as most of you know, MrLefty and I were in the park for that game, and it felt that way to me, too. But this is not an “I give up” column (yet). This is a “this is their last shot” column, or, as I titled it, “The Final Countdown.” The “countdown” refers to the ten (now nine) games coming up versus the Rockies, Guardians, and Rockies again, six of which will be at home where the Giants have been much better in the second half. (Hey, remember when they won like 10 in a row on the road including sweeps at Coors Field and Dodger Stadium? Good times.)
These ten games not only may/will tell the story of the 2023 season but they may also forge a path for what comes next. Let’s unpack this. Because of their wretched early September play (and let’s be honest; this hasn’t been a good team since the end of June), the Giants have put themselves in a deep hole as to a possible playoff spot. Cue Jim Mora.
The Giants now trail the #3 wild card team, the Arizona Diamondbacks (who also were left for dead just a few weeks ago), by three games with 21 to play. Now, they do have two remaining head-to-head games against the Snakes, but that’s not their only problem. Between Arizona and the Giants are also the Cincinnati Reds and the Miami Marlins. To make any kind of serious run at a playoff spot, the Giants (a) need to go on an incredibly hot streak of their own and (b) need some help from other teams.
Oh. And. The Giants’ final ten games include seven against the Dodgers, who have been scorching hot since August 1, and who would likely enjoy burying the Giants’ 2023 hopes, even if they’ll have long ago clinched their division title. The other three are against the Padres, who just kicked the Giants’ a$$es around Petco Park last weekend and who are probably in a collective bad mood about missing the playoffs themselves.
Still, these next ten (now nine) games are important. When the Giants began their ten-game winning streak on June 11, they had a .500 record (32-32). Beginning this crucial ten-game stretch, the Giants were 70-70. In between those two points, the Giants had risen as high as 13 games over .500. But alas, here we are. The important point in this parallel is that the Giants won ten straight games, most of them on the road, and against some good teams. And that was this season, not some point in the distant past. Could they do it again? Absolutely, considering that their opponents are the Rockies and the Guardians, they could.
Last night’s game was a good start. Well, sort of. They did win, and in the end, that’s all the matters. Like the “spiritual elimination” game in Chicago the other night, the Giants got plenty of offense but also bad pitching and bad defense. Unlike the game in Chicago, the Giants figured out ways to come back from deficits and hold a lead long enough for the game to mercifully end. They got nine runs (not eight) and they needed every last one of them–but they did win. One down, nine to go.
Why this “final countdown” is important
Let’s be honest with ourselves. The odds are against the Giants making the playoffs. I mean, literally, the oddsmakers give the Giants a 24% chance of making the postseason as of today. Now, 24% is not zero. But it’s also not 80% or even 50% or 40%. So if the playoffs are a long shot, why are these ten games important to the Giants’ short- and long-term future? I can think of a few reasons. In the spirit of this column’s title, I’ll count them down in reverse order of importance.
5. Draft order: The Giants as of today have the 16th best (14th worst) record in MLB. But they’ve been playing terrible baseball, especially since August 1. If their won-loss record from now until the end of the season mirrors their winning percentage since the trade deadline (12-21, .364), they’d go 8-13 and finish the season with a record of 79-83 (.488). Depending how some of the teams right below them finish, they could drop a few spots in the W-L order (and go up in the possible draft order). If they went 0-21 and finished 71-93 (.438) they could potentially “catch” the bottom six teams who get to be in the draft lottery. Now, they’re not likely to go 0-21 (at least I don’t think so), but it is mathematically possible that they could at least get a top-10 draft pick next year. Conversely, if they go on a fierce hot streak, they could “fall to” the bottom third of each round.
4. Attractiveness to free agents: I don’t see this as a huge issue unless we’re talking about Shohei Ohtani, but I’ve never really thought the Giants had a chance at signing him, and the injury to his pitching elbow further complicates matters. This rest of this year’s free agent class isn’t all that interesting, and I still believe that for most players, money talks when it comes to final decisions. That said, if the rest of September goes like the first week did, it could be hard for a player from the outside to squint hard enough to see a brighter future. On the other hand, Kris Bryant got his “bag” from the Rockies, so I guess anything is possible.
3. Player opt-out decisions: The Giants have three players who can opt out of their contracts after this season: Michael Conforto, Sean Manaea, and Ross Stripling. Conforto and Stripling are currently on the injured list but reportedly could return by this weekend. All three of them have underperformed this year, and that’s putting it politely. As of today, I wouldn’t predict that any of them opt out. However, if Conforto went back into the heart of the order, went on a hot streak (and he’s had a couple this year), and helped lead a strong ending to the season, he and his agent Scott Boras could decide that testing the open market is an acceptable risk. You could construct similar narratives for the two pitchers, but that will depend a lot on how the Giants choose to use them over the last few weeks. You could also argue that the futures of several other veteran players could be determined–will the Giants offer arbitration to Yaz, to Austin Slater, and to J.D. Davis, for example? Will Brandon Crawford decide to retire? (I mean, we love ya, Craw, but let’s make a decision so we can have a “Day” for you and you can enjoy life at home with Baby #5.)
2. Development of younger players: How the next ten days go may determine how much playing time younger guys such as Luis Matos, Casey Schmitt, Joey Bart, Blake Sabol, and others receive. I’ll also throw in names like Heliot Ramos, Marco Luciano, and Wade Meckler, all currently in AAA (sorry, David Villar, Bryce Johnson, and Brett Wisely–you’re not even on the radar). You figure that rookie pitchers Harrison and Ryan Walker are going to stay in their same roles, but what about Keaton Winn and Beck? In my opinion, it’s way more important for Winn to get some opportunities than it is to try to salvage the lost seasons of Stripling or Manaea, but I have a feeling Winn will lose his roster spot when Stripling comes off the IL. And who goes down to make room for Conforto?
1. The futures of Kapler, his coaches, and President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi. This is the big one. I’ll cut to the chase and say that the smart money is still on Zaidi’s option year being picked up and Kapler being allowed to finish out his contract, which goes through next season. Giants’ CEO Greg Johnson pretty much said so in an interview with the Chronicle’s Susan Slusser a few weeks ago. Kerry Crowley, the former Giants beat writer who now works for KNBR and The Athletic, recently started a very good Giants-focused podcast. In his two episodes this week, he also predicted that Zaidi and Kapler would return but that some of Kapler’s coaches, especially the hitting coaches, could take the fall for this bad season. Andrew Baggarly said similar things in a “Mailbagg” article for the Athletic yesterday. However, the Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins also published a hard-hitting piece yesterday suggesting that if the Giants continue their September death spiral and finish out of the playoffs, Zaidi’s and Kapler’s jobs could be on the line. I think Crowley’s take (Zaidi and Kapler survive, coaching staff gets shaken up) is probably about right, especially since Crowley added the (cynical) observation that letting them go would cost the Giants money–and Greg Johnson doesn’t like spending money.
You might want to add others to this countdown list, but I figured you didn’t want this column to go on forever, so I stuck with five.
Rockies at Giants, 6:05 p.m. at Oracle Park
Chase Anderson vs. Logan Webb
P.S. Tomorrow’s pitcher for the Giants is TBD because Cobb’s hip is acting up, so they’re pushing him back. They’ll be on ESPN at 5:10 p.m.
So there you have it. This ten-game stretch that started last night is the “final countdown”–for how this season will end up and how decisions might be made for the future. It’s not quite time to write an obituary, but it is time to recognize what the stakes are. We shall see. Lefty out.