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Bernstein: Trading Madison Bumgarner would represent an understandable but unfortunate end of an era

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San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner delivers to home against the Oakland Athletics at AT&T Park on Friday, July 13, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The teardown trend that just hit the desert could soon make its way to San Francisco.

Over the past two months, the Arizona Diamondbacks have gutted their roster, trading MVP-caliber first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals before allowing outfielder A.J. Pollock and starting pitcher Patrick Corbin to sign free agent deals elsewhere. They preferred to save money and lose games — likely leading to a better draft pick — rather than maintain a shot at reaching the postseason in a division paced by the ever-dangerous Dodgers.

The San Francisco Giants, facing a third straight season without a playoff bid, could be next in line. It would start with trading ace Madison Bumgarner, still in the prime of his career at 29 and worth a significant bundle of top-tier minor league talent. It would also be a shame for the team to go that route — even if it makes logical sense — given what Bumgarner means to this organization and its fanbase.

The league is certainly moving toward cold calculation over sentimentality. Ever since the Houston Astros used a wholesale rebuild to craft a cost-efficient World Series squad earlier this decade, MLB teams have spurned mediocrity, effectively selling their souls for the right to be terrible until top prospects reach the big leagues.

New Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said on a recent KNBR appearance that he does not intend to deal Bumgarner at this point in time. Rather, he still believes the team can compete in 2019, and his initial approach seems to be to retool rather than rebuild.

But San Francisco’s roster appears due for foundational changes even under a traditional management approach. The Giants have lost 187 games over the past two seasons, and with an aging, overpaid squad not expected to significantly improve anytime soon, another bleak campaign beckons. Dealing Bumgarner, whose contract expires after the upcoming season, would at least accelerate a rebuilding effort currently centered around Single-A catcher Joey Bart. It would be a reasonable, yet still hard-to-process outcome.

What the Giants choose to do with their left-hander will say a lot about how much — if at all — baseball still values team identity. After all, they’ve consistently been one of the most loyal organizations in the league to their longest-tenured players — sometimes to a fault. For them to punt and trade Bumgarner would perhaps close the book on an era of baseball when franchises would re-sign their most popular guys in part because of their ability to keep fans happy.

This is the team, of course, that signed Matt Cain to a five-year, $106.5 million contract in 2012. Cain posted a 4.27 ERA over the life of the deal. This is the team that signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million extension in 2013 even though he’d been a below-average pitcher for the two previous seasons. Lincecum predictably struggled to live up to that payment. This is the team that found $5 million to extend Ryan Vogelsong’s stay in San Francisco in 2015. Vogelsong had a 4.67 ERA that year.

Will Zaidi, raised in an Oakland A’s front office known for its shrewd maneuvers, reverse course and adhere to the league-wide trend of offloading assets when contention becomes unlikely?

Signing veteran starting pitchers Derek Holland and Drew Pomeranz over the past month indicates a desire to at least give the current core another shot at making a surprise run. Zaidi said on a recent conference call that Holland and Pomeranz’s ability to either start or go out of the bullpen has value in a “playoff-type setting” — a sign his goal this season is to field a team that makes it that far. The moves also give Zaidi the flexibility to part with assets like Bumgarner midseason if the team is mired in another subpar campaign.

If San Francisco does wind up a seller, its new-look front office will encounter a swarm of teams lining up to add one of the greatest playoff pitchers in recent memory. Bumgarner’s 2.11 career postseason ERA and 2014 NLCS and World Series MVP honors will surely drive up his value, much like Jon Lester’s stellar October reputation led the A’s to give up Yoenis Cespedes for his services in a 2014 deadline trade with the Boston Red Sox.

Ultimately, that which makes Bumgarner so desirable also makes it so difficult to let him go.

The Giants shouldn’t be blamed if they decide to follow how the rest of the league approaches well-established players, particularly because of how desperately they need to juice up their farm system. That said, it will be heartbreaking for fans if this is the end of the road for a club legend.

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