The other day my wife asked when the Giants would be good again. No hacky jokes about red snapback hats here, it was actually a serious question. My answer was as noncommittal as you’d expect, given the sport in question.
I have no idea.
The Giants are a confounding team, because they were great enough to win three titles, yet never good enough to scare anyone until they celebrated their World Series triumphs. The loudest complaints from fans, which were understandably muted if they came from anyone with a granule of perspective after the team won those championships, was that they didn’t go the extra mile in certain circumstances. Left field has been mostly an afterthought since Barry Bonds, and they’ve been overly conservative when it came to targeting high-profile international players (while getting burned whenever they’ve decided to splurge on one). They’ve been a little too slow at times replacing their own guys. That sort of thing.
Mostly, the biggest problem was that they spent big money, but seemed almost content with rosters that were perennially close to, but not quite as talented as, the Dodgers.
Now they’re looking at up just about everyone. The Giants aren’t just the second-worst team in baseball based on record, they look like the worst. There’s nothing dynamic about this team, other than Buster Posey’s ability to collect base hits (mostly with no one on base, because the top of the Giants’ lineup has been wretched).
Going into this season I called the Giants “flawed,” but figured they’d end up with a win total close to their over-under (87.5) because … well … they always seemed to figure out a way to stay in the mix.
The core — with Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Brandon Crawford leading the way, but also including Belt, Pence and Joe Panik (as well as Johnny Cueto for as long as the Giants can keep him around) — simply wins.
Other than Posey, the “core” hasn’t produced. Bumgarner’s dirt biking accident was the main culprit for this feces-tornado of a season, but Crawford is getting on base less than 30% of the time, Brandon Belt is hitting .206 since May 1, Hunter Pence isn’t performing much better than Gorkys Hernandez, Panik is just kind of there, and Cueto clearly doesn’t want to be there any longer than he has to.
Throw in a bullpen that looks even worse right now than it did last September (Derek Law was optioned to Triple-A today to make room for Kyle Crick), and a smorgasbord of depressing losses that have caused players to openly wonder whether the team is cursed, and you’ve got the 2017 San Francisco Giants.
(When a player mentions a “voodoo curse,” whether it’s anonymous or not, it’s another sign that the season is done. Confident teams feel like they can pull themselves out of any mess; teams that know they don’t have the talent resign themselves to whatever fate the baseball gods have decided.)
The infield isn’t much of a concern … relatively speaking, of course. The Giants have Posey, Crawford, Belt, Panik, Eduardo Nunez (if they decided to keep him) and Christian Arroyo. They’ll hope for improved production from most of those guys in 2018, but overall this is the least worrisome aspect of the team.
The outfield is a joke, with Denard Span and Pence looking totally washed. The only hope is Austin Slater (who has played all of 14 games) and prospects like Ryder Jones, Bryan Reynolds and Steven Duggar can provide something as the Giants retool the roster.
Bullpen auditions are ongoing, and at some point the Giants will have to figure out whether the road issues faced by Shawn Estes 2.0 (Matt Moore) can be fixed. But this outfield situation, which seemed bad before the season but looks like the worst position group in all of baseball at the moment, is going to be difficult to fix. (According to Baseball-Reference, the Giants have the lowest left field, center field and right field WAR in the majors. All three positions! That’s hard to do. To put things in perspective, Gregor Blanco’s WAR of 0.2 for the D-Backs is better than every Giants outfielder except Slater’s 0.3.)
What will they do with so few tradable players (Cueto and Nunez won’t net much due to lack of contract control, and the Giants’ minor league system has never been seen as all that sexy to other teams) and a cold ballpark that most free agent outfielders won’t even consider?
The answer: They’re probably going to have to go through one more poor/mediocre year and hope to contend in 2019.
That’s because Pence and Span are both under contract for 2018. Even if they DFA one or both players (pretty unlikely), they’re still looking at being a luxury tax team — even after buying out Matt Cain for $7 million — because of some $26 million in raises due to Crawford, Belt and Mark Melancon (who’s probably dealing with some sort of arm issue and seems to get lit up on the rare days he’s used). Is this ownership group willing to add money to a team that underperformed to this degree in 2017? Doubtful.
However, unless Bumgarner returns relatively soon and lights a fire under this voodoo-cursed bunch, the Giants are going to end up with a top-two pick in the next MLB draft. That’s an embarrassing spot for a top-five payroll team to land, but it’s also a spot where a team can get a guy good enough to contribute within two years of being drafted, if not earlier.
So, if we’re being as optimistic as we can possibly allow, given the circumstances (a bad roster that has looked markedly worse than every team they’ve faced for the last 11 months), we’re looking at a possible return to respectability in an improving NL West in … 2019?
And that’s if the core mentioned earlier stays healthy and produces at close to their career norms, and if Bobby Evans and/or Brian Sabean (Evans’ future could get dicey after this season if they finish with over 100 losses) figure out a way to swindle a good outfielder away from another team, and if at least two or three of their prospects become above-average major league regulars, and if one of the players they drafted last week or will draft next June fly through the system and contribute earlier than anyone has a right to expect.
This terrible season probably won’t get much better, and it isn’t a fluke. MLB transitioned to being a power league again, and the Giants’ formula — nice, quiet boys making contact at the plate, while not making TOO much noise when their bats connect, and relying heavily on homegrown players who’ve had the same lockers for several years — looks antiquated. The Giants surely know they need to make huge changes, but without much flexibility or an open checkbook, it’s going to take more than a few months before I can tell my wife to look up from her phone when the Giants are on, because there’s actually something worth watching.