AT&T PARK — Hunter Pence was the first San Francisco Giant to take the field on Sunday, and he did it alone. After dashing out to center during warm-ups to applaud the fans, it was the fans’ turn to applaud the right fielder who’s been a fan favorite for six-plus seasons.
Pence took off his hat twice to salute the fans, and gave the crowd atop the brick wall in right field a thumbs up, as his own teammates applauded him from the dugout. The crowd stood, and the rest of the Giants took the field. Gorkys Hernandez ran over to give Pence a hug. After the game, he was awarded a new scooter, which he rode around the warning track to say goodbye.
With a new general manager hunt already underway, the departure of Pence after Sunday’s 15-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers is just the start of a new brand of Giants baseball, and a move away from the core that won three World Series in five years.
“That’s the last way we wanted this thing to go out,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “Disappointed. We wanted to at least win game or two. Obviously, we’d like to win all three, and we get a chance, the last day just got away from us.”
The Dodgers (91-71) finished the three-game sweep with a punishing third, scoring seven runs on seven hits and sending 11 men to the plate, with a two-run single by Matt Kemp and a home run by Brian Dozier. They tacked on three more runs in the fourth, with a two-run single by Kiké Hernandez and a second RBI single by Kemp, who exited after the fourth with a 3-for-3 day and three RBIs. They added another pair on a Max Muncy homer — the 44th splash hit by an opposing player at AT&T — to drive in two in the fifth.
San Francisco (73-89) ended the season in typical fashion, as the major leagues’ second-worst offense was two-hit by Rich Hill, J.T. Chargois and Julio Urias.
Andrew McCutchen — acquired this offseason and traded at the end of August — remained the team’s RBI leader with 55, 26 games after he left. He was also, until recently, the team’s home run leader with 15. No Giant has hit 20 or more home runs since 2015.
That the Giants are saying goodbye so heartily to Pence — the heartfelt and energetic joy with which he has played was honored with “#GR8FUL” placards handed out in the seats behind the home on-deck circle — presages a fundamental shift in organizational thought.
After a season that saw season-ending surgeries to Steven Duggar, Brandon Belt, Pablo Sandoval, Johnny Cueto and Buster Posey, persistent concussion problems for Mac Williamson that quashed a promising start, just 10 starts from an oft-injured Jeff Samardzija, a self-inflicted broken hand that sidelined Hunter Strickland for over a month, a broken hand inflicted by Dan Straily that sidelined Evan Longoria for six weeks, the reload-with-veterans strategy clearly didn’t work.
“It’s a hospital in there,” Bochy said after Sunday’s game.
Pence and his $18.5 million salary are now off the books. He has no concrete clans for winter ball, but will likely head to Mexico or the Dominican republic, and he’d like to play next season. In all likelihood, it won’t be for the Giants, barring a late-season trade. Still, in a postgame speech, he told fans that the darkest hour of the night is the one right before the dawn, and the dawn is coming for the franchise. It just may be as uncomfortable as Pence’s swing, which he, too, is overhauling, with the help of Doug Latta.
With the new man (or woman) in charge coming to AT&T, it’s not that far-fetched to think that the Giants will look very different in five months, and not just because the injured will be healthy once more.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Bochy said. “I’m already thinking of things I want to do different.”
Bochy began thinking about what he’d do differently next season as early as several weeks ago. It’s very possible that the front office has already considered will moving some of the other treasured veterans like Pence.
The new GM will be able to start re-making the roster right away. Because the Giants finished with the ninth-worst record (and Atlanta didn’t sign their top draft pick last season), San Francisco will be picking 10th in next June’s Major League Draft. The last two times they picked 10th, they got Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum.
Bumgarner may be one of those on his way out. His relatively-team-friendly $12 million salary could be trade bait this fall and winter. He’s under contract through 2019, but would figure to command more money than the Giants could — or should — muster, especially given the fact that, at 29 he is no longer at his peak, and in fact saw his walk numbers creep up and his strikeouts per game slide.
Bumgarner’s fielding independent ERA has gone from a career-best 2.87 in 2015 to a career-worst 3.99 this year, after ballooning to 3.95 last season.
His adjusted ERA (which accounts for pitchers’ parks and hitters’ parks, and measures a pitcher against league average ERA) has fallen from a career-best 146 in his All-Star 2016 to a career-low 119 this season, which is very close to league-average.
Add to that the fact that San Francisco got a lot out of rookies Andrew Suarez (despite his six earned runs allowed against the Dodgers on Sunday) and Dereck Rodriguez, and the Giants could easily keep with their mantra of pitching and defense by trading Bumgarner and adding another young arm, while still fielding a solid rotation.
Before getting blasted by the Dodgers on Sunday to the tune of six runs in 2 1/3 innings, Suarez had a respectable 4.22 ERA over 158 innings, with 130 strikeouts to 43 walks in his first big league season. He had never pitched more than 155 2/3 innings in a professional season.
Despite giving up five runs on Saturday, Rodriguez finished with a 2.81 ERA to lead the staff. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he’ll be one of the Giants’ top three arms next year.
“You look at what he’s got, sure,” Bochy said on Saturday. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but that gives us a sense of comfort. With all that’s happened this year and our offensive woes, pitching was pretty good this year. It was real good. Better than anticipated when you lose your top three starters. I agree with that.”
Derek Holland — a free agent who has stated his desire to return, and is incredibly well-liked in the clubhouse — posted his best ERA since 2014 (3.89) and since the All-Star break, has gone 2-1 in 15 appearances (12 starts) with a 2.83 ERA. He threw two scoreless relief innings on Sunday, allowing just a walk.
The Giants could also easily part with Belt. This year’s Bill Rigney Good Guy Award winner has played more than 150 games just once in his career. When he played 156 in 2016, he was an All-Star and hit .275 with 17 home runs and 82 RBIs. For all his purported power, he’s never cracked more than 20 home runs in a single season. He’d be a good piece for a club that needs a left-handed bat, but for San Francisco, $16 million is a lot to pay for someone whose absolute ceiling seems to be 20 home runs and 85 RBIs.
Moving Belt would open up first base, which, after having season-ending hip surgery this year, seems to be the spot for Posey to land, once top prospect Joey Bart is ready for the big leagues.
There are also some bad contracts the new head of baseball operations will need to unload if the Giants are to have any kind of freedom, especially if they insist on staying under the competitive balance tax, as was the mandate this season (which is why you saw the trade of Austin Jackson and Cory Gearrin). Jeff Samardzija made $1.98 million for each of his 10 starts this season, and when he’s been healthy, he has a 4.33 ERA with the Giants.
Mark Melancon was signed to a $62 million deal to be the closer, but Will Smith has done the job just fine at $2.5 million. He’s eligible for arbitration in 2019, and so would make more money, but nothing close to what Melancon is pulling in at $14 million per year.
In that vein, it’s hard to think the new Grand Poobah of baseball operations would want to keep Hunter Strickland, who followed up Suarez’s misfire with a spectacular flame out, allowing three runs on four hits Sunday, and who took himself out of the bullpen when he punched a door after a blown save in June.
Strickland told SF Bay News that his anger issues are under control, attributing them to medication he takes for ulcerative colitis, but even with those solved, Strickland’s FIP — fielding independent pitching, which functions like ERA and takes into account only that which the pitcher controls and strips away defense— has gone up every year since his debut. This year, it sits at a 4.14.
His ERA this season is a career-worst 3.40, suggesting he’s benefitted from above-average defense, which the Giants have thanks to Belt, Brandon Crawford and the former Gold Glover Longoria.
Since returning from injury, though, not much has been able to save Strickland. He’s allowed 10 runs in 13 2/3 innings for a 6.59 ERA.
“Never really got in sync when he came back,” Bochy said. “The delivery, his release, you saw a couple times today how much he was missing his target. I don’t know if there were still some side effects from that hand … There could be something there that he’s not seeing … We’re talking about our closer, and he just wasn’t quite right … It looks like he needs a winter off to get completely healed up.”
Then there are pieces that aren’t expensive, but could be packaged to make some of those bigger contracts more palatable, pieces like Aramis Garcia. When Sandoval went down with season-ending hamstring surgery, Belt went down with his season-ending knee surgery, and Ryder Jones saw his season end on the disabled list, Garcia — a catcher by trade — stepped in and played a marvelous first base.
With four homers since he debuted, Garcia showed that he can swing it at the big league level. He could be very intriguing trade bait, especially since the catching position is locked up for the foreseeable future with Posey and Bart.
Joe Panik is still under team control for another three years, and with as well as Alen Hanson did in his first season with San Francisco, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he, too, could be packaged with some of the larger contracts to make them easier to swallow.
Panik’s average 162-game season: 10 homers, 58 RBIs and a .277 batting average. His career WAR in five seasons is 7.0, but 3.3 of those came in his All-Star 2015 season. Since then, his WAR has been 1.3, 1.3 and -0.1.
This year with the Giants, Hanson hit .252 with eight homers and 39 RBIs, playing second, short, third, left field and right field across 110 games. His WAR was 0.5, a major up-swing from his three straight years of -0.3 where he played 133 games combined.
The Giants have plenty of youngsters who should get even more extended time next season, like Austin Slater — whose sprained elbow should be healthy by spring training — along with Duggar, Williamson and Chris Shaw, though the latter needs to cut down on his strikeouts to be an everyday outfielder.
The Giants could look very different the next time they take the field, and it may a sad thing for some, but may not a bad thing. Remember: When Barry Bonds retired, the Giants were freed to go younger, and it paid off in three World Series.