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After Losing 98 Games Last Year, the Giants Are Getting Even Older and More Expensive

It’s an odd way to hit the reset button.

 

The exact date when the San Francisco Giants’ modern championship run ended is up for debate, but a strong contender is May 29, 2017. That was the afternoon that relief pitcher Hunter Strickland drilled Bryce Harper in the hip and set off a bench-clearing brawl of the most petty, spiteful, and embarrassing kind. As it unfolded, Buster Posey—the BS-averse 31-year-old at the heart of the 2010, 2012, and 2014 title teams—stood and watched, betraying the disgust we all felt. As players from both teams crashed into one another at the mound, Jeff Samardzija, the former Notre Dame football player turned gopher-ball-prone pitcher, bonked heads with Michael Morse, the six-foot-five would-be power hitter batting a dismal .194. Morse was placed on the concussion list. He didn’t play another game all year, and his career is likely over.

The 2017 Giants would have a few more Keystone Kops moments (Madison Bumgarner had already crashed his dirt bike; Brandon Belt would later be beaned in the head, ending his season), but none so perfectly encapsulated the flailing of a team coming unglued like this one. For longtime fans, it was a throwback to an earlier era of half-empty ballparks and R-rated bullpen work. (The front office even gave up the ghost and admitted that its 555-game sellout streak, long the product of gimmicky number crunching, had reached its end.) The store of goodwill and trust built up over three championship campaigns appeared to have finally run out, and many fans, including this one, pined for a housecleaning.

That the past two World Series champs, the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs, both hit the jackpot by bottoming out and gorging on high draft picks made the idea all the more attractive. Yes, such a method would, by design, produce a lot more bad baseball, at least in the short term. Yes, we’d have to say goodbye to beloved vets like Hunter Pence and, gulp, maybe even Posey. And yes, affable old manager Bruce Bochy would have to hang up his spurs, too. But there are levels to losing, and the kind the 2017 Giants engaged in was the worst: Gassed out and uninspired, their futility was more depressing than your run-of-the-mill mediocrity. Compared with that, tanking for a year or two in the service of a shining future seemed preferable.

And yet over the 2018 off-season, the team chose not to get younger or more athletic or even cheaper. Instead it did the opposite, chasing—and ultimately being spurned by—the two hottest free agents in the league, Giancarlo Stanton and Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani. In Stanton’s case, the rejection might have served as a wake-up call for the San Francisco front office: Reports were that his agents crunched the numbers and figured that even with the greatest slugger in baseball wearing black and orange, the Giants still wouldn’t be a playoff team. He ultimately chose the Yankees.

Instead, the Giants traded for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen, two over-30 former all-stars from tanking teams who, if advanced baseball metrics prove correct, figure to be in the early stages of career declines. The team also struck deals for two more competent if unspectacular pros, 31-year-old outfielder Austin Jackson and 32-year-old reliever Tony Watson.

Faced with the writing on the wall, the Giants essentially doubled down on the veteran club that stank up the joint a year ago. It seems a strange detour on the road to the inevitable rebuild. Especially when so many teams are doing exactly the opposite, following the Astros’ lead and sabotaging their seasons for top draft picks. (If you’re going to suck, the thinking goes, better to suck with a purpose—and on the cheap.) That hasn’t gone unnoticed: The players’ union has called out one-third of the teams in the league, including the eternally frugal Oakland A’s, for making little effort to improve their clubs. (As spring training began in February, more than 100 free agents had yet to be signed, by some estimates making this the slowest year ever for free agency.)

Ironically, it’s exactly this widespread race to the bottom that seems to have given the Giants the confidence to gun for a championship for an extra year or two. The newest market inefficiency, it seems, is competitive spirit. To be sure, the move is a gamble. The pricey contracts attached to Posey (nine years, $167 million), Longoria (six years, $100 million), Samardzija (five years, $90 million), Johnny Cueto (six years, $130 million), Brandon Crawford (six years, $75 million), and others probably won’t look any better a year from now. And management’s faith in the bullpen bouncing back—and not just being bad—is perhaps overly optimistic. Should the experiment go sour, as it did a year ago, the team will likely be forced to sell off its most expensive players at the trading deadline—and in a buyer’s market, no less.

For now, though, the team has pushed its chips to the center of the table, either out of a belief that 2017 was an outlier or because of a perfect storm of market forces. Either way, the result is the grayest roster in baseball (average age: 28.3, tied for highest in the game), albeit one that FanGraphs, the analytics-driven stats site, projects as the most-improved team in the league. Whether that improvement is enough to spur a return to the playoffs, we’ll see. A 20-win turnaround would still only put the Giants on the edge of postseason play.

But the run has been extended, at least for now. And playoffs or not, fielding a competitive team is an imperative for the Giants. Given the ongoing dominance of the Golden State Warriors (and their imminent move to Mission Bay, a home run’s distance from Third and King) and the warm fuzzies emanating from 49ers golden boy Jimmy Garoppolo, another terrible Giants season could fundamentally alter the hierarchy of local rooting interests. It isn’t the shadow of Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw that’s motivating the Giants’ decision makers these days. It’s something even scarier: the specter of irrelevance.


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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Email Ian A. Stewart at istewart@modernluxury.com
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