The Giants’ offseason lasted 41 hours. The 2017 regular season ended, mercifully, on Pablo Sandoval’s walk-off home run at almost exactly 6 p.m. on Sunday evening. And by 11 a.m. Tuesday morning, the team brass assembled in the guts of AT&T Park to talk about the future.
Sure, the past was mentioned, too. But after a 98-loss season that was endured more than enjoyed, it makes sense that most of the questions looked forward rather than backward.
Executive vice president Brian Sabean, president and CEO Larry Baer, general manager Bobby Evans and manager Bruce Bochy sat elbow to elbow at a podium in the Nick Peters Interview Room. Each wore a black coat in a way that reflected his persona. Bochy had a leather jacket over a dress shirt, as if he might need to toss the jacket in a corner, roll up his sleeves and hit some fungo at any moment. Sabean donned a sports coat over a shirt with open collar, accentuating the eccentric-millionaire look. Baer and Evans were more corporate in coat and tie, though Evans’ tie had a baseball print.
Here are some of the things they did not say at this 2017 postmortem:
“You’d better buy a program next opening day, because you’re not going to recognize our starting lineup.”
“Matt Moore? Gone. Brandon Belt? Gone. Hunter Pence? GONE.”
“Giancarlo Stanton Giants jerseys go on sale at all Dugout stores next Wednesday.”
The Giants mostly stood pat a year ago, counting on the resources they already owned to get them back to the playoffs. The strategy failed badly. Holes at third base and left field were never adequately plugged and the starting pitchers weren’t good enough, and yes, the team had some bad luck, too. San Francisco was eliminated from NL West contention on Aug. 20.
All of which has led for calls from many quarters to rip the current roster to shreds and start over. Scorch the earth at China Basin. Other teams have done it. Hell, the A’s do it as habit. Submit to a couple years of Triple-A-level baseball and emerge with a young and talented team, ready to make some noise.
The Giants understand your impatience. But they’re willing to meet you only halfway.
“We’re coming off three consecutive winning seasons, including the World Series back in ’14, (and) ’16 being a playoff season. So we believe we have the core to build around,” Evans said. “But we also feel that there’s needs to be addressed. So you can’t come back next season with the same roster and expect different results.”
Sabean was even less compromising.
“We had a last-place season. That can happen in sports, just like you have a lost year in life,” he said. “But we’re not last-place people. We’re not a last-place organization. We’re the furthest thing from that. … This isn’t a blow-it-up. This isn’t a rebuild. We hope it’s a reset.”
Hmmm. Sabean was the architect of teams that won three World Series between 2010 and 2014, so you have to place some trust in him. But a reset seems optimistic for a team that finished 30th out of 30 MLB teams in home runs and slugging percentage, 29th in runs and on-base percentage, 28th in defensive efficiency ratio, and 27th in home runs allowed and opponents’ batting average.
But reality is a Scrooge sometimes. The question isn’t whether the Giants should embrace a blow-it-up. It’s how they would accomplish this. Getting rid of everyone is easy. But how do you replace them?
Generally, there are three avenues to do this: via trade, through free agency and by developing your own minor leaguers.
Unfortunately, the Giants haven’t done a great job of the latter in recent years. Baseball America compiled a list of the game’s top 100 prospects at midseason, and exactly one Giant was invited to the party: No. 86 Chris Shaw, the first baseman (or possibly outfielder) who played 37 games at Richmond and 88 at Sacramento last year.
System-wide, the depth just isn’t there. Three of the Giants’ four farm clubs — Triple-A Sacramento, High-A San Jose and Single-A Augusta — finished last in their respective leagues or divisions in 2017, while Double-A Richmond finished fifth in a six-team race.
As the 2017 system went down in flames here, the Giants got a chance to look at some of their more promising young players. But few of them definitively proved their readiness.
Outfielder Austin Slater got hurt, corner infielder Ryder Jones slumped badly and infielder Christian Arroyo ran into a little of both. Tyler Beede, the Giants’ top pitching prospect, was solid at Sacramento (6-7, 4.79) but far from dominant. The team likes to point to pitchers Ty Blach and Chris Stratton as breakthroughs. Both were quite good in 2017, but Stratton is 27 and Blach will match him later this month; they’re not exactly kids.
San Francisco’s paucity of homegrown talent not only makes it unlikely that next year’s lineup will be full of this year’s River Cats; it makes it harder to swing trades for established major-league stars.
Take Stanton, for example. The new Miami Marlins ownership group has already signaled that it may be looking to dump salary, and nothing would save money like trading the guy who clubbed an MLB-best 59 home runs in 2017. Stanton is due to earn close to $300 million over the next 10 seasons; that is not a typographical error.
But if you’re the Marlins, are the Giants your most intriguing trade partner? How many Joe Paniks, Jeff Samardzijas, Christian Arroyos and Tyler Beedes does it take to equal one Giancarlo Stanton?
That leaves free agency as the most likely source of a turnaround, and there are a couple of favorable factors for the Giants. For one, Baer acknowledged Tuesday that ownership is probably willing to drift into the luxury tax (or competitive balance tax), as it has the past three years.
“It’s not a goal to be in it,” Baer said. “But as we’ve shown, for the right opportunity to make the team competitive and succeed on the field, if we want to be in the CBT, we’ll be in the CBT.”
The other encouraging trend is that the 2018 free agent class is shaping up to be a blockbuster, with stars like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon and Daniel Murphy due to hit the market, and possibly Clayton Kershaw and David Price, too, if they choose to opt out of their contracts.
It’s no given that the Giants can land any of these whales, though. Since 2009, when the ground began to shift in San Francisco baseball, this team has not been a major player in free agency. The biggest offseason signings since then have been Johnny Cueto, Mark Melancon, Jeff Samardzija and Denard Span. And that’s over a nine-year period.
Drawing power hitters has been especially difficult, because AT&T is almost certain to diminish their numbers.
“More of our philosophy has been to grow our players and sign them long-term,” Evans said. “I think that’s why our core is where it is. And trade for an (Angel) Pagan before he becomes a free agent, trade for a Pence before he becomes a free agent.”
You can’t blame the Giants for clinging to this doctrine. It helped them win rings in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The problem lately hasn’t been the philosophy; it’s been the execution.
Sabean and Evans simply must get their evaluations right this time if their team is to improve by increments. Because as Baer said when the press conference broke up Tuesday, the Giants probably get one mulligan per decade from their loyal fans. The do-over came in 2017. Next year, folks won’t be so forgiving.
You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.