Playing Pepper 2020: San Francisco Giants

If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper!  For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear.  It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about.  It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.

San Francisco Giants
77-85, third in NL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Has the even year magic run out?  2016 saw the Giants lose in the League Divisional Series and 2018 was a sub-.500 year for the team by the bay.  In fact, the last three years have been sub-par for a team that was easily the team of the first half of the last decade.  Is there a rebound in store or will 2020 provide more of the same?  Let’s talk to some of our California correspondents to find out!

Blogger Site Twitter
Michael Saltzman Around the Foghorn RoundTheFoghorn
Craig Vaughn THE San Francisco Giants Blog 1flapdown77
Richard Dyer The Giants Cove

C70: Seems like there’s been a lot of turnover in San Francisco this offseason. What are your thoughts about what the Giants have (or have not) done?

Michael: Giants are in a full rebuild. It might not seem that way because of how veteran heavy the 26 man roster is, but they are trying to build for 2-3 years from now. The signings of Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval are exciting for a fan base in desperate need of something to cheer for in 2020, but they have clearly set their sights on 2022 and beyond.

They have not traded any of their top prospects in pursuit of short term fixes and while they did pursue Bryce Harper last year, he was clearly an outlier. They haven’t given big money to any free agent and they have tried to move a lot of their veteran pieces.  Any team trying to compete in 2020 keeps Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith. The Giants chose instead to get the draft picks and use the financial flexibility to help them to pursue free agents in future years.

Craig: Last year’s win total was inflated due to an impossible July run. They played way under .500 ball for 5 months. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Farhan Zaidi not re-sign Bum, Smith or Kevin Pillar. Still it feels to me like he doesn’t have a long term plan. He’s disguising the process for the fans by signing guys like Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval. To me, that’s an underhanded trick. I wish he would have just gone all-in on the rebuild. 

Richard: When President of Baseball Ops Farhan Zaidi was hired to run the Giants organization in November 2018 he inherited a severely damaged franchise—from the farm system right up through the executive offices. The old regime managed to camouflage just how badly the Giants organization had slipped over the years: starting with a half dozen toxic long-term contracts with older players; a player development model from the 1960s; and a series of poor performances in the first-year player drafts over the past ten years.

The reality? This is a total start-from-scratch rebuild of an MLB franchise, even if San Francisco’s ownership group and their PR spinners desperately want to convince their fanbase that it isn’t. One thing that San Francisco’s ownership knows is that most Giants fans will pretty much believe whatever they’re told.

Farhan Zaidi has done an impressive job reconstructing this franchise. Which involves much more than hiring a new manager and slate of smart coaches. There has been a global re-tooling of player development from the minor leagues up through the 26-man roster, and the Giants did a much better job in last season’s first year player draft. Most critically, Zaidi has completely changed how player performance is measured and valued by the Giants organization. Useless old school stats like batting average (where singles are counted the same as home runs and walks don’t exist); RBIs (which depend on the performance of other players); and pitcher wins and saves (again, wholly dependent on other players) are gone. Replaced by cutting edge analytical measures of actual individual player performance. The San Francisco Giants finally joined 21st century MLB thinking the day Zaidi was brought aboard.

C70: With Madison Bumgarner gone and another tough season from Buster Posey, that group of World Series winners seems far away. Who will be the player most likely to lead the next great Giants team?

Michael: Buster Posey’s replacement: Joey Bart. The number 2 overall pick in 2018 is showing to be the real deal and can likely step into the middle of the order when he arrives. Other young players like outfielders Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop and pitchers Sean Hjelle and Seth Corry should be a big part of the future. Marco Luciano seems like the best prospect the Giants have had in a long time that could make his debut in 2022. He would still be a teenager, but that seems to be the trend in Major League Baseball when you have a phenom.

Craig: Hopefully Ramos. But with the way the ball is juiced in the minor leagues right now (and yes, it has been juiced heavier down there than at the MLB level, check the stats) it’s tough to get a good handle on lower level stats transferring to the big league level. I hope it’s Ramos, he looks electric.

Richard: The player most likely to lead the next great Giants team is not on currently on the big league team or on San Francisco’s minor league rosters. It’s going to take a lot more than a couple of promising minor league prospects (like catcher Joey Bart, or OFs Hunter Bishop and Heliot Ramos) for the Giants to achieve true organizational excellence and be competitive again. And that’s the real key to sustained success. Not one or two talented players, but a minor league system that feeds talent to the 26-man roster year in and year out.

On another note, one of the promoted myths about the Giants is that Buster Posey is a potent offensive force who has only performed poorly recently because of injuries. In the pre-Zaidi version of the Giants, the front office routinely used player injuries as an excuse for losing. Every MLB team has impactful player injuries each season and the best organizations are built to expect injuries. But the injury excuse played in San Francisco. As I often point out, most Giant fans have no idea that in his eleven-year career Posey had hit 20 or more home runs only twice (24 in 2012, 22 in 2014). His lifetime slugging % is .456— the average SLG for all NL hitters in 2019 was .456.

Buster will be 33 this season and since his run production doesn’t play as a corner infielder his only value to the team is at catcher. Fortunately, Posey does still bring value as a catcher.

C70: Jeff Samardzija had a bounce-back season last year. He’ll also be a free agent at the end of this coming season. What are the chances he’s in a different uniform before August?

Michael: The Giants traded Mark Melancon, Sam Dyson, Drew Pomeranz, and Ray Black at the deadline last year. I’d expect Samardzija, Kevin Gausman, Drew Smyly and Tony Watson to be traded at the deadline this year.  Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria, and Johnny Cueto have a lot of money owed on their contracts but then again, so did Mark Melancon.  Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford have no trade clauses that are trickier to move.  I’d expect Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris to be hard at work to find homes for all of their veterans.

Craig: Hopefully 100%. Zaidi caved in to the wishes of the vet players and didn’t trade everyone he could have or should have last season. Maybe ownership pressured him too, I don’t know. Either way, it was an absurd attempt to stay relevant in 2019 when the team never had more than an 8% chance of making the post season and that was AFTER their impossible to sustain run in July. Most of the time they were at 2% or below. Bum, Pillar and Smith SHOULD have been traded. I am hoping that with a year of experience under his belt Zaidi won’t feel the outside pressure to keep guys all season long.

Richard: There’s little doubt Samardzija will be in another uniform by the trade deadline, and it would be great if he can be traded sooner than that. Samardzija is the poster boy for the mediocrity of the San Francisco Giants over the past four years. The 4.10 ERA and 1.18 WHIP from 2016-2019 are horrible returns for a 5-year $90 million contract. Add to that, Samardzija isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and resists using the current information available to improve his performance. He has been outspoken about his disdain for advanced analytics and change—in other words, the perfect player under former GM Bobby Evans.

C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?

Michael: I think the expectation is to finish last in the West. That being said, the numbers of the players they have brought in suggest that they might get similar production from the new faces as they got from veterans like Kevin Pillar, Bumgarner and Smith.  With all the noise surrounding Nolan Arenado’s displeasure in Colorado, it’s possible we see the Rockies implode and restart. That could open the door for a 4th place finish.

Craig: If everyone stays healthy and they find a few diamonds in the rough as they did last year (Yaz, Pillar and Dick for instance) I don’t think they’re going to be terrible. But, they will trade pieces at the break so guessing on a win total is tough. I think they’ll hover 4-5 games under .500 till the break then crater when the trades hit.

Richard: The Dodgers continue to produce top talent from their farm system (C Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz, 2B Gavin Lux, RH pitchers Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Josias Gray). LA will not only win the NL West, they’re very likely headed back to the World Series. Arizona and San Diego have both seriously improved this off-season and it’s hard to believe that the Rockies bullpen won’t be resurgent in 2020. As the worst team in the NL West that leaves the Giants leaning toward a last place finish this season.

C70: What’s the main topic Giants fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?

Michael: When the prospects will be called up. Will Bart come up by May or not until September? Will Ramos join him this year? Will any of the other top prospects make it to the show in 2020? Which prospect will have a 2020 similar to Seth Corry’s incredible 2019? What other prospects can we get for our veterans at the deadline? Will we find diamonds in the rough like we did in 2019 with Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson and Donovan Solano?

Craig: I don’t think casual fans are discussing Giants baseball at the level we discuss it at oneflapdown77.com. That’s next level stuff but hit up the website if you think you can hold your own.

Richard: With all due respect, a large percentage of Giant fans embarrassingly tend to focus on player branding, and sentimentally bonding with marginal players simply because they wore a Giants uniform. I mean what other MLB fanbase would be sad to lose a player like Kevin Pillar, with his .287 OB in 2019 and his 7-year career .701 OPS?

To be fair, Giant fans feed off the local San Francisco baseball media, who have an “old school” focus and remain happily stuck in the 1970s. An SF Chronicle sports writer recently wrote that the Giants could finish in 2nd place in the NL West– so the local media is as out of touch with actual baseball as the fanbase.

The main topics of fan discussion? Things like “remember when we won those World Series 10 years ago”; or, “it’s great to have Hunter Pence back— hope he rides his scooter to the ballpark again”; and, “I think Brandon Crawford is still the best shortstop in baseball”; also, “why do we need automated balls and strikes?”

C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?

Michael: A healthy Johnny Cueto, the possible call up of Joey Bart and hopefully a renaissance with Buster Posey, who is finally fully healthy.  I spent every off-season between 2013-2017 hoping Matt Cain’s injury troubles were behind him, but he never seemed to be able to get healthy after 2012. Watching Buster Posey continue to struggle to be healthy and seeing his numbers plummet, I’d love to see him be healthy again.

Craig: For me, mostly personal goals. Catch a foul ball at a game. Stay awake for the entire train ride home. Stuff like that. 

Richard: Watching a very smart group of baseball execs and coaches reform and rebuild the entire San Francisco Giants franchise.

Giants fans who are focused on the embarrassing return of Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence are missing the significant history happening right in front of their eyes: the most comprehensive rebuild in their team’s history. Sure, it’s going to take time– I don’t expect the Giants to be truly competitive for another three years. But the process is fascinating especially when you realize that a lot of other NL teams also have smart front offices and their teams will also continue to improve while the Giants are rebuilding. But to see it happen in real time is a rare and exciting baseball education.

Series Navigation<< Playing Pepper 2020: Cleveland IndiansPlaying Pepper 2020: Boston Red Sox >>

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Last updated: 03/26/2020

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