The San Francisco Giants dismissed general manager Bobby Evans and reassigned executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean in late September. Their jobs sat open for six weeks. The team finally unveiled a successor, incoming president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, before the Bay Area media on Wednesday. What had caused the delay? CEO Larry Baer said, “We had a slight problem with Farhan. He was tied up in the playoffs, which went on for the better part of a month.”
Zaidi was not just tied up in the playoffs for the better part of a month—he was tied up in the playoffs for the better part of a month as the general manager of the Giants’ hated downstate rivals in L.A., who have won the NL West six years running and pennants each of the last two seasons.
You don’t hire from the enemy unless you’re hard-up. San Francisco did land its third World Series of the decade in the second year of the Dodgers’ streak, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them lately. San Francisco has posted a 137-187 record over the last two seasons, tied with San Diego for the NL’s second-worst winning percentage, and they’ve been a bigger letdown than the won-loss mark suggests. (Maybe the only bright spot is a 17-21 record against L.A., which could have been a lot worse.) The Dodgers, flush with young stars, are sitting pretty; the Giants, after a long, strong run, look pretty hopeless.
The wave of affordable young talent that swept the Giants to their 2012 and 2014 titles is neither young nor affordable these days. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford earned a combined $56 million in 2018 and produced 8.2 total wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference. That’s not a bad price, but it’s not an advantageous one, either—and the bill will persist for the next three years, even though all three players are on the wrong side of 30. Posey, fresh off season-ending hip surgery, is staring down an inevitable position switch. What’s worse, though, is that those three remain the Giants’ best position players. Evan Longoria, acquired last offseason and under contract through 2022, had his worst offensive season ever. Andrew McCutchen played passably before being traded to the Yankees in August. Joe Panik and Gorkys Hernandez barely hit. The Giants had the oldest lineup in the National League and finished 14th in both on-base percentage and slugging.
San Francisco’s pitching is characterized by three expensive free-agent mistakes. The Giants are on the hook for three more years of Johnny Cueto at nearly $22 million each, plus two more years apiece of Jeff Samardzija at $19.8 million annually and Mark Melancon at $19 million annually, factoring in his signing bonus. Cueto had Tommy John in July; it’ll be stunning if he pitches this year. A bum shoulder limited Samardzija to 10 ineffective starts in 2018; who knows what he’ll be going forward. Melancon has been marginally healthier than the other two, but his peripherals have fallen off from where they were a few years ago. He’s probably the only one of the three who’s tradeable, but he happens to have a full no-trade clause.
The staff is not without its bright spots—Madison Bumgarner hasn’t been the workhorse he was from 2011 through 2016, but he’s still Madison Bumgarner; rookie starter Dereck Rodríguez (Pudge’s son) looked very good after a midseason call-up; Will Smith looked great after coming back from Tommy John—but by and large it’s a money pit.
Worse still, there are no reinforcements on the way. The team’s highest-potential prospects, catcher Joey Bart and outfielder Heliot Ramos, are years away. And it’s hard to see any current Giant besides Bumgarner producing much in the way of trade value. Chasing a title every year while whiffing in five or six drafts can leave the cupboard pretty bare, and disastrous free-agent moves can make it even harder to restock.
But Zaidi, who has a PhD in economics, spent the first decade of his baseball career working under Billy Beane in Oakland. He knows how to wring value out of modest payrolls, which is what his task will be until he can shed some of those bigger contracts. Even Zaidi’s high-priced Dodgers teams were powered by unlikely finds, such as Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, and fourth-round pick Cody Bellinger.
In the news conference, when a reporter asked Zaidi if the team would be initiating a full-scale rebuild, he said he didn’t want to put a label on their undertaking. (Which was presumably his way of saying yes.) He invoked Oakland’s move to acquire Khris Davis after a 2015 season in which the A’s won 68 games—“Their mantra was, ‘Let’s go out and identify value where we see it, and just make this team better one move at a time.’” Davis has hit an MLB-best 133 homers for Oakland since his arrival.
It will take more than a few Khris Davises to vault the Giants back up to where the Dodgers are. There’s also the pesky matter of the Colorado Rockies, who have made the playoffs two years running, and the Diamondbacks, who have some nice pieces, and even the Padres, who have a farm system considered baseball’s most fearsome. But with Farhan Zaidi in the fold, and ownership’s eyes fixed firmly on the future, the Giants have signaled that they are back in the fight