ORACLE PARK — Jandel Gustave handed Kevin Pillar a pen and the lineup card from his first major-league save. Gustave wanted every man who played that night to sign it, and Pillar — the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mac Award winner — was one of the starters that night in Los Angeles.
“Really? Me? Of course, man,” Pillar said as both of them packed up their lockers for an uncertain offseason, following a 9-0, season-ending loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday.
The two of them — a rookie who came back from Tommy John and a veteran acquired on the cheap — were emblematic of a Giants team in flux, a team that saw a lot of firsts, a lot of rookies and a clutch of legacy players still riding heroics half a decade old. As much change as fans witnessed this season, they’ll see even more over the next six months.
“As an organization, we continue to be in a transition,” said president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, in a post-season post-mortem at Oracle Park on Tuesday morning.
Nine Giants made their big league debuts as San Francisco used a National League-record 64 players this season (welcome to Major League Baseball of 2019), the first of what’s expected to be a multi-year rebuild. The Giants were expected to part with some of their older players to stock up the minor league system. Zaidi accomplished the latter while keeping most of the core that won three World Series.
Zaidi kept arguably his most tradable assets in closer Will Smith and ace Madison Bumgarner, unexpectedly competing through the end of August, getting retiring manager Bruce Bochy to 2,000 wins and also acquiring pieces for the future in infielder Mauricio Dubon and outfielder Jaylin Davis, who was the fastest player on the roster by season’s end.
Year Two of that rebuild, though, will see even more change as the Giants position themselves for the long-term future. From altering the park dimensions to hiring a new manager and general manager, the infrastructure of the team will look very different when fans return to Oracle Park for the preseason Fan Fest in late January.
There was no more stark reminder of that than the fact that Zaidi was the only speaker at a 30-minute press conference on Tuesday. In years past, the manager, general manager, assitant GM and club president (Larry Baer) would be present. Instead, only managing general partner Robert Dean stood off to the side, silent, an indication that Zaidi has unprecedented latitude in reshaping the franchise.
Moo-ving on from the Sacred Cows
However the Giants decide to reconfigure the park to goose the offense, and whoever they hire to guide the team, San Francisco needs to figure out what to do with the fan base’s three sacred cows: Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford.
With Bochy now gone, it’s perhaps a bit easier to move on from an aging group that’s fast becoming a liability. Zaidi already did it with World Series hero Joe Panik.
San Francisco doesn’t have much choice: 2019 was by far the worst year of attendance at Oracle Park in its 20-year history (2,707,760 — more than 150,000 below the previous low in 2009). The plus side: They have ready-made solutions.
For all Crawford’s defensive flash, he was worth zero defensive runs saved, fewer than third baseman Evan Longoria or left fielder Mike Yastrzemski (seven each). This year, the SABR defensive index (used in awarding the Gold Glove) had him in the bottom third of National League shortstops. Still, his defense has a reputation, and maybe one that’s valuable enough to net prospects. Trading Crawford could be one of those elusive all-sides-win deals.
And Dubon would be there to step in. He had an extrapolated defensive runs saved per year of 19 at second base this season, which would rank him among the best in baseball. A natural shortstop, he could easily flip over to the other side of the diamond and allow Donovan Solano — another midseason add by Zaidi who hit .330 in 81 games — to take over at second.
Belt is probably the most tradable at this point, particularly for teams with more hitter-friendly parks. He’s coming off four years of declining OPS and OBP, not to mention the worst offensive year of his career. That decline has been exacerbated by Oracle Park’s spacious dimensions, but his defense had somewhat mitigated it. That’s not the case anymore. Belt’s defensive value, per the SABR SDI, was 0.9 in 2019, by far the lowest of his career. Last year, it was 9.6, and 10.7 in 2017.
After slashing a career-worst .257/.320/.368, Posey’s biggest value moving forward is as a mentor to top prospect Joey Bart — who could be up by May — and a sometimes first baseman. Playing first part time, he would help transition Bart, and when he is behind the plate, he’s still a top-flight defender, ranking third on the SABR defensive index among National League catchers (fifth among all big league backstops).
Bart — the No. 2 overall pick in 2018 who reached Double-A this year — is raking in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .409 (third), with three homers (second), eight RBIs (fifth), a .864 slugging percentage (second) and a 1.600 OPS (second).
“He’s making me pay attention,” Zaidi said.
Zaidi would not comment on the potentially six free agents San Francisco has headed into the offseason. Closer Will Smith told The Examiner that he wishes to return, as did Pillar, who’s under team control, but could still get non-tendered. Also set to hit the market: Backup catcher Stephen Vogt — a clubhouse favorite.
Pablo Sandoval said he wants to retire as a Giant, though Tommy John surgery may force him into the American League if he wants to play a full 2020. Reliever Fernando Abad earned himself a shot at a big-league deal and Tony Watson will likely decline his player option and hit the market.
“We have certain level of interest in bringing all those guys back,” said Zaidi, who’s already spoken with Sandoval, with whom there is clearly mutual interest. He also expressed optimism that the team could bring back Smith, who has added value as a veteran left-hander who can mentor younger arms, and get both lefties and righties out. That will be even more important next year, with a new rule going into effect mandating a three-batter minimum for relievers (unless they end an inning).
San Francisco will have to finagle the roster to bring any or all of those players back, since Trevor Gott will be returning from surgery by spring training, as will Steven Duggar, with Reyes Moronta (shoulder) back by the middle of the season.
Then there’s Bumgarner. Zaidi wants to bring in a front-line starter, but with $39 million already committed to Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto in 2020, and starting pitching as expensive as ever, the smart move may be to bring back San Francisco’s ace of the last decade. His 207 innings are a lot to replace, and they aren’t going to come from Dereck Rodriguez or Andrew Suarez.
The scuttlebutt, though, is that Bumgarner wants to get paid after signing a team-friendly deal with the Giants in 2012.
Bumgarner was as good as he’s ever been for stretches of the season; though he posted a career-worst ERA of 3.90, in the month of August he held opposing hitters to a .191 average and posted a 3.16 ERA, striking out 37 in 37 innings while walking just seven.
“He’s got a tremendous track record as a starting pitcher,” Zaidi said. “Every team in baseball could use starting pitching that you can rely on.”
When it comes to any of the free agents, Zaidi implied the Giants won’t set the market, but will see what market develops, but Bumgarner — a part of that World Series core — may be the one member of the old guard the Giants can’t — and shouldn’t — part with.
The Starting Rotation
Whether or not the Giants re-sign Bumgarner, Zaidi has to fill out the rotation beyond Samardzija and Cueto.
“We have some other starters that are in the upper minors that I can imagine a year similar to this year, in which we give some other guys opportunities,” Zaidi said.
Bleacher Report ranked the Giants’ farm system 27th in baseball to start the season, but Zaidi’s machinations had moved it up to 14th after the trade deadline.
Immediately preceeding and during the championship era, starting pitching was seemingly all the Giants system could produce, graduating the likes of Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry, Kevin Correia and Jonathan Sanchez to the big leagues. Yet, it’s the one area Zaidi’s system-building hasn’t really touched.
San Francisco has four prospects in MLB.com’s top 100, but none are pitchers. Sean Hjelle, the Giants’ second-round pick in 2018, is closest, having finished 2019 at Double-A, where he posted a 6.04 ERA in 25 1/3 innings, after going 5-5 with a 2.78 ERA at High-A San Jose.
Shaun Anderson made his big league debut this season, and was soon moved to the bullpen, but the organization still sees him as a starter. Suarez and Rodriguez could again compete for spots, but they’re known quantities at this point (Rodriguez hopes to build on the lessons he learned this year in the winter league). Tyler Beede and Logan Webb showed promise, but they were inconsisent, and not yet ready to take over the load of being a top-three starter.
San Francisco could, Zaidi said, use some of the depth he’s built up throughout the organization to trade for pitching.
“Everything is going to have to be on the table,” he said.
After unexpectedly competing for much of 2019 — the Giants were 2 1/2 games out of a wild card spot on Aug. 26 — it could easily be said that San Francisco was ahead of schedule in its rebuild. There’s still plenty of work to be done — arguably the hardest work, emotionally, for fans. Seeing Crawford’s two daughters play with Longoria’s son in the clubhouse they grew up in, on the final day of the season, drove that point home.
“We were juggling a few different objectives this year, and with good reason,” Zaidi said. “We wanted to compete, with the group of veteran players that we have, but we also recognize the need for us to regenerate talent a little bit, surround the veteran group with some younger players that could bring some in energy and added production.”
Zaidi plucked Yastrzemski off the scrap-heap, and he became an everyday outfielder. Alex Dickerson was a revalation, when healthy, posting a .880 OPS in 56 games (1.222 in 30 games in June and July). Zaidi called Dickerson “high impact,” and after missing two years of baseball, Dickerson is excited to go into the offseason without having to rehab anything.
Pillar had the best offseason of his career at age 30, setting career-highs in RBIs (88), OPS (.719), home runs (21), runs (83) and total bases (264). He thinks he can be even better, his offensive skills play to Oracle Park and he’s a run-saver in center field.
None of what wound up as San Francisco’s four main outfielders (including Davis, who figures to be a longterm piece) were even in the organization at the start of the season.
“Last offseason, I said for us to have a successful season, we’re going to have to have some guys emerge that our fans don’t necessarily know their names, and we may not even know their names yet,” Zaidi said. “We’ve seen some of those players emerge who are going to be a part of our future that, a year ago, we didn’t anticipate … Obviously, with our record and sitting here today doing this press conference and not getting ready for a playoff game, we know we have a long way to go to reach our goal.”