Two weeks ago, anticipating the trade deadline, I riffed on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” which begins “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…” It was kind of obvious at that point for the Giants that the “two roads” could be labeled “buyers” or “sellers.”
What I didn’t anticipate was that the Giants would take neither road, but instead would stand there at the crossroads, peer down each road for a bit, shrug their shoulders, and turn around and go back home. But here we are.
The Giants have lost 12 of 15 games since the All-Star break, including eight straight to the Dodgers and a three-game sweep at the hands of the Diamondbacks. These streaks (against the Dodgers and against the division) are the worst since the 1970s, and those were dark days for Giants fans. The results on the field are alarming enough, but we could comfort ourselves by saying “Well, not our year–Posey retired, injuries, etc., etc.” But things are worse than that. After a disappointing offseason, another nothing draft, a bewildering trade deadline, and a regression across the farm system, the Giants appear to be floundering as an organization. And none of that takes into account that the two juggernauts in the NL West just keep getting stronger.
Back in 1985, when the Giants were losing 100 games for the only time in their franchise history, we at least had Will Clark (and 1983 first-rounder Robby Thompson and later 1986 first-rounder Matt Williams) to look forward to. In the dregs of the Bonds era, the Giants drafted Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, and Buster Posey (plus lower-round gems Jonathan Sanchez, Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, Brandon Crawford, and Brandon Belt) and signed Pablo Sandoval as a teenager. If we squint a little bit, we can see some of the same hope in Marco Luciano and Kyle Harrison, but is it enough?
So it’s grim out there. How did we get here, and what, if anything, can be done to make the future look a bit brighter than it does right now?
How Did We Get Here?
As distressing as this profound free fall is to those of us who bleed Orange and Black, it’s also kind of fascinating. How does a team go from the best record in the majors, setting all kinds of franchise and major league records (wins, home runs, pinch hit homers, one-run wins, etc.), to a hard-to-watch disaster in such a short period of time? Putting aside the disappointing performance of the farm system for a moment (we’ll get to it in the next section), let’s break this down by asking and answering a series of questions.
- Was 2021 a fluke? No. 107 wins is never a “fluke.” You can be “lucky” for a few weeks or a month or two, but you don’t break a franchise record for wins, play over .600 ball every single month, and hold off one of the most talented teams ever assembled to win your division from dumb “luck.” What is fair to say is that 2021 was not sustainable.
- What’s gone wrong in 2022? Well–pretty much everything that could have: (a) Buster Posey unexpectedly retiring (b) aging and/or fringe players who had career years regressing (Ruf, Wade Jr., Crawford, etc.) (c) aging players getting injured/COVID (and even younger players, such as Wade Jr., Estrada, etc.) (d) the defense and bullpen, both strengths in 2021, becoming huge liabilities (e) the platooning/line changes/pinch-hitting that worked historically well in 2021 is pretty much not working at all this year. I could go on, but I think that covers the big ones.
- Is it Gabe Kapler’s fault? Some of it, maybe. As the Giants have cratered in June and July, it’s become fashionable to bash Kapler and even call for his firing (“Just because he was Manager of the Year last year doesn’t mean…”). I think a lot of people who were unhappy with his hiring in 2019 (and I was one of those) are finding it easy to jump back to what they thought before 2021 (a failed manager with the Phillies, a quirky weirdo who won’t even eat his own birthday cake and uses stilted phrasing in interviews). To be fair, Kapler (or any manager) is only as good as the tools (the roster) he’s given, and as we’ll get to in the next bullet point, he has not been given good tools. (Is there a tool department in Walmart?) But his extreme platooning, of pinch-hitting for hot hitters (Pederson awhile ago, Belt recently), and jerking relievers around–none of that is helping an already bad situation. Not only is none of it working, but players are showing their frustration on and off the field. It’s one thing to subjugate your personal needs and ego to the greater good when the team is winning. It feels a lot different when you’re in a humiliating tailspin.
- Is it Farhan Zaidi’s fault? Short answer: yes, it is. Even to the degree you want to blame Kapler, well–who was hell-bent on hiring Kapler a few years ago, despite much criticism and skepticism? Again, let’s try to be fair here. The Giants won 107 games last year, and it made sense for Zaidi and Scott Harris to run some things back this year. Signing Crawford to a modest two-year extension when he was one of the best players in baseball last year was not a stupid thing to do. Giving Belt a qualifying offer after one of his best years as a Giant was a calculated risk given Belt’s age and injury history, but it wasn’t a huge gaffe.
What didn’t make sense was a combination of what Zaidi/Harris did and didn’t do:
- They overvalued unproven players (Wade Jr., Estrada) and didn’t account for possible regression or even just expected mediocrity;
- They overvalued players with a track record (Ruf, Duggar, Casali) who made nice contributions in 2021 but shouldn’t be confused with Fernando Tatis Jr. or Freddie Freeman (etc.);
- same as (2) except applied to the rotation and the bullpen;
- Because of the success in 2021, they believed they had “cracked the code” and didn’t need talent when they had analytics and coaching.
- Because of (1)-(4), they didn’t feel enough urgency to make bold moves in the free agent market in the offseason;
- The one “bold”(ish) move they made in signing Carlos Rodón backfired on them–not because of his performance (he was an All-Star) but because of a stupid player option in his contract that ensured he (a) will walk after the season (b) will only NOT walk if he’s injured (see Cueto, Johnny) and (c) was less desirable in the trade market than he should have been because of the risks attached to his contract. It’s hard to believe that a front office that just this year paid Cueto’s buyout after six years would make the same mistake again so soon.
- They also prioritized offense over defense, always, and that has been a disastrous mistake.
- They waited too long to decide if they were buyers or sellers at the trade deadline and ended up doing less than nothing (made the team worse in the present, didn’t do anything notable for the future).
- Is it ownership’s fault? Some Zaidi defenders have speculated that Zaidi’s hands are tied and that in fact he was brought in under orders to cut payroll (mission accomplished, it that’s what it is–the payroll hasn’t been this low since the banner 2013 campaign). However, there is no evidence to support that theory. Zaidi has denied it multiple times over the years. Larry Baer categorically denied it on KNBR just last night. Here’s a bit of what he said, and it couldn’t be clearer:
One of the narratives I want to be really clear about is there’s not hold back financially. The trade deadline wasn’t really about financials, it was about prospects, who are you going to add that will make a difference and what will it cost you in prospects not in dollars.
So there’s constant conversation about what we can do to improve and get better. The financial piece of it is not a constraint. Not now and it won’t be going forward into the future. Farhan [Zaidi] or the group are not under some hard cap or hard constraint that’s not going to allow us to do what makes sense.
I actually can’t imagine that ownership is very happy right now. Attendance is sinking like a stone. They will bleed more season ticket holders this offseason. And–this might be the worst thing–the Giants are being embarrassed. This is a proud franchise with a lot of recent success, and I’m not just talking about the three championships. They were the talk of baseball last year.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Honestly, I don’t really know. The easy answer is “spend more money.” A lot of fans’ prescriptions include: “Extend Carlos Rodón, sign Aaron Judge, sign Trea Turner, then get Shohei Ohtani the next year.” It’s an “easy” answer because the Giants have money and that might be about the only thing going for them right now. But it’s easier said than done. Judge plays for the Yankees and Turner plays for the Dodgers, and those are two of the best teams in baseball right now. You assume, especially in the case of Judge, that their current teams will want them back. Why would either leave successful, winning franchises for this mess of an organization? Why would Rodón want to come back?
The harder answer, the “road less traveled,” is that to go forward with any kind of success, the Giants are going to have to do better at building from within. They need to draft better and they need to develop better. I read Melissa Lockard’s interview with player development director Kyle Haines that came out in The Athletic yesterday, and I saw the criticisms here and in the comments following that article that it was a “puff piece” with “softball questions.” I’m a big Melissa Lockard fan, and I don’t agree with those takes, and I thought Haines was honest about players that have struggled (Matos and Pomares, in particular) and that the system overall has had a disappointing year. But here’s one thing that did strike me: Haines referred to a minor league season by Nate Schierholtz and how he got hot on August 1 and ended up having a pretty good year, and “that’s what we’re hoping happens” with some of these guys. Two things: First, Nate Schierholtz was traded away from the Giants ten years ago now, and his minor league career was even further back. Haines has been around the Giants a long time–maybe too long, considering that most observers consider the Giants’ scouting and player development over the past decade to be a cataclysmic failure. Second, Nate Schierholtz was a mediocre fringe outfielder who had some good moments here and there, but–that’s the model Haines is holding up? “Just try to be like Nate in 2009 (or whenever it was)?” I mean…
This is to say that maybe the Giants need some new blood at the top of the player development side. And while we’re at it, Michael Holmes hasn’t shown much talent as the head of amateur scouting and drafting so far. His approach seems to be “NC State is close to my house, so let’s draft guys from NC State.” I’m sure that’s an unfair oversimplification, but it’s hard to argue that the Zaidi-era drafts have been any better so far than the Sabean/Evans/Barr years that preceded them.
The Giants will have to spend money to get themselves out of this mess anytime soon, but the answer is probably somewhere in the big region between “Sign Aaron Judge for ten years” and “Pick up some guy for cash considerations.” They will have to take some risks. And they need to prioritize athleticism and stop just adding more DHs to the 40-man roster, please. Get younger, get more athletic, get faster. Oh, and how about promoting your own prospects when there’s a hole instead of dumpster-diving for other teams’ cast-offs? (No reason why a River Cat couldn’t have come up for a week instead of DoorDashing Dixon Machado from the Iowa Cubs when Estrada got beaned. What difference what it have made?–They still lost all four games to the Dodgers, and they sent a bad message to guys like Isan Diaz, Archimedes Gamboa, and Shane Matheny. And how many schmoes from the Mariners did they try before giving David Villar the shot he’d earned?)
The team also needs to do some deep thinking about Gabe Kapler. He got a contract extension after last season, and I don’t think he’s going anywhere–as already mentioned, it’s not fair to make him the fall guy for poor roster construction decisions. But perhaps there needs to be some feedback and intervention about how he’s using players and how he’s communicating with them.
There are no easy answers. The good news, as we saw last year (and unfortunately this one, too), is that MLB teams’ fortunes can turn around quickly if various things go right. The bad news is…well, the Dodgers and the Padres are still playing in California.
A Few Bright Spots
Let’s not kid ourselves. There aren’t many. But we’ll take our glimmers of hope where we can get them.
- The starting rotation is pretty good and still for the moment includes Rodón. It should be good again next year even without him.
- Joey Bart had a good home stand and actually looks like he might be a major league hitter. This is a huge development for the next few years if he can keep it going.
- Camilo Doval has a new pitch that he just broke out in mid-July. It’s easy to criticize him for running scared with his fastball, but he’s only 24. Lots of upside there. We’re thinking “future,” not “playoffs,” right now.
- Estrada, Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Joc Pederson should all return from the injured list this next week. While we can point out the warts on those guys, too, at least those are major leaguers instead of some of the horrifying lineups we saw against the Dodgers this week.
The Bay Bridge Trophy
Do we still care? I do. The Giants just have to win on Sunday and they will take it home again this year. The Giants and A’s play at 4:07 p.m. today in Oakland. Rodón is pitching against some guy I never heard of. Let’s do this. Lefty out.