The trade season has started.
Front offices typically only peruse the trade market during the first two months of the season, focusing much of their attention on the opening rounds of the amateur draft. Once that ends, the feelers go out, the major-league scouting runs deeper and trigger fingers are primed.
The Giants are entrenched in this approach. It started Friday night with executive vice president Brian Sabean and senior advisor Lee Elder working a Cincinnati Reds game in Chicago, presumably to get an up-close look at ace Johnny Cueto and possibly closer Aroldis Chapman. The pair was there again Saturday to see Reds right-hander Mike Leake.
“It makes sense. This is the time when all that gets moving,” a National League executive said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And you would have to assume the Giants are a team looking at pitching, more than a hitter, I’d think.”
Being swept over the weekend by the Arizona Diamondbacks — finishing with Sunday’s 4-0 loss at AT&T Park, in a series in which the Giants scored all of two runs — might make one believe otherwise. Then you look at how shaky the pitching was in the two games not pitched by Madison Bumgarner, and flirting with a pitching acquisition becomes more reasonable.
After Bumgarner threw eight innings and allowed one run Friday, Ryan Vogelsong and Chris Heston, coming off his no-hitter against the New York Mets, combined for 8 2/3 innings and gave up seven runs, one unearned, on 13 hits and nine walks in the next two games.
“This was not pretty. No getting around it,” manager Bruce Bochy said of the club’s performance as a whole. “We’re going to have to tighten things up.”
The offense has slumped the last three games, so the knee-jerk reaction might be to think they need another bat in the lineup. They went 14-for-88 (.159) and 3-for-18 (.167) with runners in scoring position over the series and hit into five double plays Sunday.
Even with that anemic performance, the reality is the offense will probably be fine. In the 26 games before getting swept by Arizona, the Giants offense produced a .293/.346/.454 slash line and an .801 OPS, averaging 5.4 runs per game. It is second in the National League in WAR and weighted runs created (wRC+) behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it will be even better when Hunter Pence’s wrist tendinitis is manageable enough to play through.
Were the Giants to shop for a hitter, sellers are hard to come by right now. And if they find one, its attractive offensive assets aren’t all that attractive under the microscope.
With Matt Duffy performing well as the team’s everyday third baseman, the infield is set. Assuming Pence does not need to miss more than a couple more weeks, the outfield is also in decent shape, even with Angel Pagan enduring a 5-for-47 (.106) slump.
Miami Marlins third baseman Martin Prado could be a utility option, but his numbers are unimpressive so far – .312 on-base percentage, 88 weighted runs created entering Sunday (93 is league average) – and Miami has yet to call their season a bust. Acquiring him would be strictly for platoons, which the Giants don’t necessarily need.
So what kind of move would shift tide in the National League West? It starts and ends on the mound as it has with each of the Giants’ recent World Series runs.
Even with Jake Peavy and Matt Cain slated to return most likely within a month, what they can actually contribute is still in question. Acquiring a frontline rental would eliminate suspicion and solidify a rotation that ranks sixth in the league with a 3.99 ERA and has only two starters – Bumgarner and Heston – with a Fielding Independent Pitching mark lower than 4.08. Heston and Tim Lincecum have been nice surprises with ERAs under 4.00, but they are not enough. It is still possible the Giants wait to make a deal until they see what Peavy and Cain look like.
“Depth in the starting rotation is always so critical,” Bochy said. “We never envisioned losing two starters.”
That is why Sabean, who is freed up to do more scouting in his new role, was on hand to see Cueto and, to a lesser extent, Leake. And if Cueto is in play for the Giants, then so are Oakland’s Scott Kazmir and even Miami’s Dan Haren and Philadelphia’s Aaron Harang.
The Giants’ farm system is not deep enough to land Phillies ace Cole Hamels, but Cueto, Leake, Kazmir, Haren and Harang are all free agents after the season and will not be eligible to give a club draft-pick compensation if they are traded. That means the price for them is incredibly lower than it would be for Hamels, or if the Giants had actually signed Jon Lester in the offseason.
The bullpen could use some help, too. It does not strike out enough hitters (7.6 per nine innings entering Sunday was good for 14th in the 15-team league), and Fangraphs.com had its value at third-worst in the league even after 5 1/3 scoreless innings Saturday. Closer Santiago Casilla has blown three saves.
There are dominant relievers to be had. Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Rodriguez and possibly Chapman are all quality arms that could help the Giants overtake the Dodgers in the NL West and avoid the crapshoot of a wild-card play-in game.