From left, Giants president and CEO Larry Baer, vice president and general manager Bobby Evans and manager Bruce Bochy speak at a news conference on Oct. 5 in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Smug Giants D-backed against the wall

What exactly are the Giants doing, anyway? They play in a ballpark long established as a pitcher’s paradise, where they may as well take down the SPLASH HITS sign at lonely McCovey Cove. It’s an arms-and-strategies game in AT&T Park, where metrics continue to rate it dead-last as a hitter’s haven and only 109 home runs — by far the fewest in Major League Baseball — were hit last season.

Wind patterns, cool evenings, the 25-foot wall … you know the deal. The Giants won three World Series in five years by leaning heavily on a deep pitching staff, with quality starts leading to specialized relief, all handled expertly by the ideal manager for this scheme, Bruce Bochy.

So why are they apparently heading into next season with only one front-line starting pitcher and no lockdown closer while the Arizona Diamondbacks — say it again, the Arizona Diamondbacks — stunningly have assembled a fearsome 1-2 punch atop their rotation? And why do the Giants suddenly think they can win a championship via offense, potent as it can be, when that formula never translated to a World Series title as Barry Bonds was doing his monster mashing on the waterfront? It was disconcerting enough when Giants management, wanting no part of paying another luxury tax next year despite the franchise’s public politicking for its Mission Rock real-estate development, allowed the previously sleepy desert rats to win the Zack Greinke bidding at $206.5 million over six years.

But then came the double-whammy at the winter meetings: The D-Backs, now operated aggressively by Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart, turned around and finalized a whopper trade with Atlanta for All-Star right-hander Shelby Miller, who also would have looked good behind Madison Bumgarner. Arizona gave up the overall No. 1 draft choice, shortstop Dansby Swanson, and two other talented kids, prompting the usual industry carping from executives who are protecting money and prospects and don’t like upstarts aiming for quantum leaps. Some are calling it baseball’s version of the lopsided Herschel Walker trade in the NFL, which inspired the Dallas Cowboys to take advantage of a mother-lode return and win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

Screw the whiners. The D-Backs have just one-upped the Giants and possibly the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. With a formidable No. 3 starter in Patrick Corbin, an MVP candidate in slugger Paul Goldschmidt, a star in centerfielder A.J. Pollock, a sound defense and an offense that scored the second-most runs in the league, they no longer want to be that irrelevant team that plays in an oversized airplane hangar with tumbleweeds rolling past.

“Our ownership stepped up in allowing us to get Zack Greinke. It puts us in a position to get better as a team, but we weren’t complete. We needed an additional piece to our rotation,” Stewart said.

“A team,” acknowledged Bochy, “to be reckoned with.”

The Giants? They were announcing the official signing of pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who led the majors in hits, runs and earned runs allowed; led the American League in home runs allowed; and posted career lows in strikeout percentage, earned-run average and opponent OPS. No major-league pitcher has lost more games over the last four seasons. The Giants rave about his good health and durability and would like to think pitching coach Dave Righetti can cure the problems that Don Cooper, Samardzija’s pitching coach with the Chicago White Sox last season, could not.

Numbers don’t lie, though. He is a fix-it project with a $90 million price tag, which saves the Giants more than $100 million compared to what Arizona paid for Greinke and Boston for David Price. But will we see another parade anytime soon when other clubs are spending their TV windfalls? The Giants print money on King Street. They should be using their considerable resources to maximize their rotation, reward their sellout-streaking fans and always go for the jugular in what has been a wonderful decade.

Instead, they’re locked in denial, believing the overburdened Bumgarner — be very careful with this man’s arm, for it is not bionic — is ably supported by Samardzija, Jake Peavy, Matt Cain and Chris Heston. A rumor in Nashville had the Giants “in on” Miami phenom Jose Fernandez, but that was until the Marlins demanded a heist — asking for all three of the Dodgers’ hottest young talents: Corey Seager, Joc Pederson and Julio Urias. What, is Bonds already calling the personnel shots down there?

So, to recap, the Giants have lost out on Greinke, lost out on Miller and lost out on everyday wizard Ben Zobrist to the Chicago Cubs, who also beat them to pitcher John Lackey in what is a much smarter deal (two years, $32 million) than Samardzija’s iffy windfall. General manager Bobby Evans says he wants a productive outfielder, but again, at what price? Jason Heyward could command $200 million, so he’s likely out when CEO Larry Baer has said the Giants won’t crash the luxury-tax barrier again. Alex Gordon or Dexter Fowler could make sense in their financial world. Yoenis Cespedes was a summer revelation in New York but might bring too much drama to a chill clubhouse. Justin Upton has said he doesn’t like hitting at AT&T, which could be a problem in luring any of the above.

“We feel like we have a strong club, a good club, and that we’re going to contend,” Bochy said.

Merely contending is not winning a World Series. At present, the Cubs, Cardinals, Mets, Pirates and Diamondbacks are better than the Giants. The Dodgers, even with Hisashi Iwakuma replacing Greinke, also are better with Seager and their spectacular youth.

The operative word here is smug. The Giants think their way is time-proven and supreme, and for five years, it was. But times change. The competition adjusts and invests.
And suddenly, you’re D-Backed against the wall.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.

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