Reduced to fighting with the Padres for fourth place in the NL West, the Giants have plenty of reasons to hang their heads.
The San Francisco Giants‘ clubhouse has been a bastion of stability during the team’s run of three World Series victories and six first- or second-place finishes in the National League West since 2009.
Catcher Buster Posey, the face of the franchise, has grown accustomed to looking around and seeing Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner and Hunter Pence in the immediate vicinity. Each summer, Posey and the other Giants mainstays take comfort in the knowledge that management will do everything in its power at the trade deadline to upgrade the club’s chances of closing with a rush.
It’s been a long time since “buy, sell or hold” was a topic of debate on chat boards and Bay Area sports talk radio.
The harsh reality of pending change is reflected in the NL West standings this year. The Giants are tied for last in the division with a massive amount of ground to make up to become relevant. The nucleus is aging, the roster has numerous holes, and for the first time in a while, the front office might have to think about sending players packing rather than seeking reinforcements.
“It’s really the first time in my career where we’ve been in the spot where that’s a possibility,” Posey said. “I guess it’s like anything else. There are always going to be rumblings about different things. You just have to try to do your best to keep that tunnel vision on trying to win.”
The Giants have been underwhelming enough in all facets of the game to wonder if they can get back to .500, much less compete for a postseason berth. Their minus-64 run differential ties them with the Phillies for worst in the game behind the Padres, and they’ve gone 53-77 since rolling into the 2016 All-Star Game with the best record in the majors. They rank last in the National League in runs and homers this season, 14th in the league with a 5.24 road ERA and 25th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus’ team defensive efficiency rankings.
“We’ve got to pitch better. We’ve got to hit better. And on defense, there have been times where we’ve played well and times where we’ve scuffled,” Posey said. “Honestly, I don’t think there’s really one thing to point to.”
So what factors will come into play as general manager Bobby Evans and the front office try to retool the roster and return the Giants to a state of prominence? Money, naturally, plays as big a role as talent or lack thereof.
The Giants’ Opening Day payroll of $181.5 million was the fourth-highest in the game, and the roster is filled with contracts that will be difficult to unload. Other than Bumgarner — who will earn a total of $24 million in 2018-19 if the Giants exercise their two club options — there’s not a Chris Sale on the roster who combines age, affordability and performance in such a way that San Francisco can expect to receive a mother lode of young talent in return.
Even if the Giants were to try to move Bumgarner, he has a full no-trade clause that requires him to sign off on any deal. So do Posey, Crawford, Pence and closer Mark Melancon, who are owed a combined total of more than $200 million over the duration of their contracts.
Brandon Belt ranks eighth among MLB first basemen with an .825 OPS since 2012, but he’s owed $64 million between 2018 and 2021. Would he fetch much in return?
Jeff Samardzija is 13-18 with a 4.02 ERA since signing a five-year, $90 million deal in December 2015, and he has a list of 21 teams to which he can’t be traded without his permission. The circumstances certainly seem to align toward him staying put.
Eduardo Nunez is eligible for free agency in November. Joe Panik is a nice complementary player who is probably worth more to the Giants than anything he would bring in a trade. Matt Moore might be appealing to clubs because of his reasonably priced club options in 2018 and ’19. but he’s a 28-year-old lefty who has shown enough flashes to make the Giants think he can be a solid piece of their rotation moving forward.
Johnny Cueto is likely to generate a lot of buzz, but any trade discussions involving him are complicated by his contract status. Cueto is in the fold for a guaranteed $89 million from 2018-21, but he can opt out of his deal after the World Series. So how does a potential trade partner even know what to offer? Does it assemble a package for the long-term Johnny Cueto or the two-month rental? Contract aside, Cueto has a 4.38 ERA and has served up 12 homers in 76 innings. He hasn’t performed like a $21 million pitcher this season.
Beyond the big league roster, San Francisco’s farm system needs a talent infusion. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Giants’ system 20th among the 30 MLB teams this spring, and pitcher Tyler Beede (ranked No. 62) was the only San Francisco prospect to crack his top 100. The organization’s top four minor league affiliates — in Sacramento, Richmond, San Jose and Augusta — have a combined 80-135 record in 2017.
As the Giants muddle along and jockey with San Diego for fourth place in the division, the clubhouse veterans are trying to maintain a kind of tunnel vision. They’re either doggedly determined or putting on a brave front, depending on your level of optimism.
“Who are we going to lose at the trade deadline? I don’t think any of us are thinking about that or worried about that,” Crawford said. “If you look at the standings, it can get a little overwhelming. You could say, ‘Yeah, we have no shot this year.’ Me, personally, I’m not looking at that. At this point, I think the only thing we can worry about is winning games ourselves and not worrying about what other teams are doing.”
Evans, executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy are paid to worry, and the 2017 product clearly isn’t up to the standards they’re used to seeing. At some point soon, the Giants might have to ditch their cherished continuity and take some bold, big-picture steps.
“Without question, we’re in a different situation,” Bochy said. “There’s a time when the brain trust will get together and decide what we do.”
The July 31 trade deadline looms, and the Giants’ decision-makers are about to ask themselves some questions that no one in the organization finds especially appealing. They might like the answers even less.