No team has done more losing over the past year than the Giants.
Their 98 losses in 2017 tied for the most in baseball. The team lost its 530-game sellout streak at AT&T Park—a byproduct of those 98 losses. Madison Bumgarner lost himself on a dirt bike last April, falling during an off day in Colorado and injuring his shoulder. He missed nearly three months.
But Friday brought the Giants’ biggest loss yet. Again, it’s Bumgarner. He fractured his left pinky knuckle in the team’s last spring training game after the Royals’ Whit Merrifield lined a ball off Bumgarner’s pitching hand. The Giants didn’t provide an immediate prognosis, but ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that Bumgarner is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.
San Francisco opens its season in Los Angeles on Thursday against the Dodgers, and like every other team, the Giants will be 0-0. But it feels as if they’ll be 0-10, the minimum number of starts Bumgarner will miss if he returns eight weeks after his surgery on Saturday. It’s just about the worst news possible for a Giants team watching its window of contention close a little each day.
The front office doubled down on its commitment to an aging core by bringing in Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, Austin Jackson and Tony Watson, but even they cannot compensate for the void left by Bumgarner’s absence. It’s a small miracle the Giants inspired hope in a team that stood on the doorstep of 100 losses, but much of it fractured when Bumgarner’s left hand did.
The Giants know the importance of starting this season well after a 9-17 opening month last year set the tone for a miserable season. That’s where Bumgarner’s injury hurts the most. He’s almost surely losing more than 10 starts because the left-hander could have taken the mound for three of the season’s first nine games on normal rest, thanks to a pair of early off days.
Instead the team will lean on veteran righty Johnny Cueto to lead the rotation—which is also without Jeff Samardzija for up to a month with a strained right pectoral muscle—followed by Chris Stratton, Ty Blach, Derek Holland and a fifth starter to be named. That quartet doesn’t inspire a lot of hope, especially with 19 games on tap against 2017 playoff teams through the end of April. The Giants finished with a .381 win percentage against those squads last year, a good barometer to show just how far the Giants were from contending.
But Bumgarner’s presence, perhaps more so than any other piece of the Giants’ championship core, convinced team ownership that another run to the Fall Classic was within reach. So while the rest of the sport trended younger and cheaper, the Giants did the opposite.
General manager Bobby Evans brought in a slew of veterans that nicely complemented the Giants’ roster while masterfully pulling off some financial gymnastics. Evans parted with costly veterans Denard Span and Matt Moore in separate deals to ensure the team could barely duck the competitive balance tax. That allows the Giants significantly more flexibility to pursue next year’s talented free agent crop—or a player of their own.
In one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball history, the Giants signed Bumgarner to a five-year extension for $35 million in April 2012. The deal included a pair of $12 million team options for 2018-19. To say Bumgarner is underpaid for everything he’s achieved in a Giants uniform is to say the sun is hot. It’s painfully obvious, and has been so from the first year he inked that extension.
Despite having every right to request a new deal that approaches his market value, the terse left-hander has said all the right things about his contract. But what’s left to say now?
This season was supposed to be about Bumgarner putting the dirt bike fiasco behind him, trying to prove that he’s still worth $30-plus million per year. Evans even said last month that both parties had “mutual interest” in an extension. Even if that interest still holds, this injury may very well change the Giants’ calculus.
They’ll be left with a smaller sample size to determine if Bumgarner warrants the largest investment in franchise history. Yes, his October wizardry alone likely merits whatever dollar figure Bumgarner seeks. But it’s hard to keep playoff performance top of mind after finishing 40 games out of first place.
If the team continues its downward trend from last season, why would the Giants sink themselves in a deeper financial hole (with $127 million already committed to the 2020 team) in the years to come? No other player could replenish a farm system that badly needs it like Bumgarner.
These are the questions Evans, VP of Baseball Operations Brian Sabean and CEO Larry Baer need to mull over. First they must see if their team can survive without its ace.
No matter the Giants’ record when Bumgarner returns, the team’s biggest loss this season happened before it even began.