Barber: Giants should give Farhan Zaidi free rein


The Giants’ brain trust voted for president on Tuesday. The choice was Farhan Zaidi, who accepted the title of president of baseball operations. Larry Baer was already Giants president and CEO, so I guess the organization now has two presidents.

Constitutional crisis? Not if they can act as separate branches of government. Baer will be in charge of the cash flow, Zaidi in charge of the baseball. And the more the Giants honor that, the better off they’ll be.

Zaidi is immediately likable. He has a belly laugh. His predecessor as personnel honcho, Brian Sabean, sat in the front row Wednesday in an interview room at AT&T Park as Baer and Zaidi met the press. I have always admired Sabean’s candor and humility, but I don’t recall him offering too many belly laughs. A deep-diving Los Angeles Times story from March of 2017 noted that when Zaidi first interviewed with the A’s in 2004, they liked that his suit didn’t quite fit. On Wednesday, I noticed that the new president’s undershirt, which barely peeked over his button-down, was frayed at the edge, as some of mine are. I don’t say this to be petty, but to honor a man who still cares more about scouting than fashion.

Of course, now that the introductory press conference is over, Zaidi’s charm will get him nowhere. He must bolster the Giants’ depleted farm system. He must take a team that is 170-226 since the 2016 All-Star break and mastermind a return to the playoffs. He must produce.

There is reason to believe he can. The A’s made the playoffs three consecutive years between 2012 and 2014. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been there every year since, with World Series appearances in 2017 and 2018. The common denominator was Zaidi, a Billy Beane protégé who started as a pure analytics guy but has gained respect among traditional baseball scouts.

Zaidi turned down several offers when he was in Oakland before finally taking a job as Dodgers GM. He was coveted in L.A., too. The Giants landed him with a five-year contract, to their credit. Now they should get out of his way and let him attempt to fix this thing.

There were indications at Wednesday’s event that the Giants will do just that. There was also a hint that the organization might put limits on his decision-making.

One question that attaches to any regime change in sports is how the personnel chief will interact with the manager or coach. That’s certainly a question here, where Bruce Bochy has achieved lion-in-winter status after leading the Giants to three World Series titles. The buzzword in front offices these days is “collaboration” - think Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, or Bob Myers and Steve Kerr, or (if you can keep from laughing at the lie) Jon Gruden and Reggie McKenzie.

Zaidi signaled a similar approach with the Giants. When someone asked him who would have the final say in San Francisco, him or Bochy, Zaidi asked, “In what?

He continued: “As far as managing the roster goes, I think that’s in the purview of the front office. As far as the day-to-day management of the team – lineups, pitching rotation, bullpen, usage, that kind of thing - that’s the manager’s job.”

That makes sense. Let Zaidi pick the players and plot the course. Let Bochy move the chess pieces during games.

The bigger question is how free Zaidi’s hand will be when it comes to roster moves like signing free agents and swinging trades. It sounds like he doesn’t know the precise course he’ll set for the Giants yet, but that, for the most part, he will be the navigator.

Zaidi said, for example, that he wants to hire a general manager to handle much of the day-to-day scouting, the role he filled in Los Angeles, but that he won’t be rushed; it’s possible the Giants will play the 2019 season without a GM.

Someone asked Zaidi whether the Giants will allow him to spend beyond Major League Baseball’s luxury tax line, also known as the competitive balance tax. It sounds like that’s on the table.

“I think it comes back to the theme of where the opportunities lie on the player front,” Zaidi said. “The extent that our best option is to go out and trade for young players and play some minimum-salary guys, then it doesn’t come into play. If there’s a free agent out there who potentially makes sense, who really starts moving the needle, payroll-wise … With the Dodgers, and I’m sure it’s gonna be the same with the Giants, those decisions are driven more by baseball need and opportunity than kind of working backwards from a payroll.”

Someone asked him about the possibility of signing a mega-star free agent; Bryce Harper’s name wasn’t mentioned, but he is the subtext. Zaidi said it’s probably not the way he’d go at this time, but he didn’t rule it out, either.

“A lot of times with free agency or kind of paying a premium to get the first few years of a deal, you have to be willing to take on the risk off the back-end years,” he said. “It just depends on what your long-term outlook is, and how you’re valuing those first three or four years of the contract, and whether you’re willing to take on the liability further out. I think that really depends on where you are in your competitive cycle.”

In short, Zaidi remains a small-picture guy. He made it clear that the answer to what ails the Giants is not the blockbuster free agent, or trading for an army of young prospects, or plumbing the international market, or scouring the waiver wire. It’s about doing all of those things and building incrementally. That’s what the Dodgers did to create a World Series team.

Only one element of the press conference raised a red flag. It was Zaidi’s insistence that the Giants are best served by maintaining a competitive team.

“Kind of playing out the string in a season where you’re totally out of the playoff race, it takes its toll on the fans, the players, the entire organization,” he said. “Our goal is to play meaningful baseball as deep into the season, and as soon as we can.”

On the surface, that sounds like a no-brainer. The goal is always to be in the hunt in September. But are the Giants overly obsessed with filling seats at AT&T, their cash cow, in the short term?

It’s entirely possible that Zaidi needs to blow up this roster. Some people think that should have happened two years ago, or one year ago. Others point to the young players who emerged in 2018, and to the Giants’ lack of veteran trade value, and argue they should tinker rather than detonate.

I’m not arguing either way, not here. I’m saying that the Giants knocked one out of the park when they hired Zaidi away from their archrivals. They should let him do whatever he feels is best for the team - including a dreaded rebuild if that’s the conclusion he reaches.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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