The first week of the new year has come and gone, but baseball’s hot stove remains cold to the touch. There’ve been hardly enough substantive rumors to ignite the pilot light, let alone any action to provide some real heat. So let’s focus on one of the few fun rumors out there: Madison Bumgarner to the Milwaukee Brewers?
Jon Morosi of MLB.com reported on Monday that if San Francisco is going to move the pitcher before Spring Training, the most likely destination will be Milwaukee. The “if” is key there; a month ago, reports indicated that a trade would be more likely at the midsummer deadline rather than over the winter. There are conflicting visions of the team’s future in those two possibilities: If San Francisco’s seriously thinking about holding onto Bumgarner until July, it would seem that it’s seriously thinking about seeing if it can contend. If San Francisco’s ready to ship him out right now, meanwhile, it would seem that it’s not. What’s the club’s best path, then?
The Giants’ 2018 was an improvement on their 2017. That’s not saying very much—just from fifth place to fourth, as a record of 64–98 gave way to 73–89. Their 2019 doesn’t look like it will be dramatically different. There’s been the departure of a few free agents (Derek Holland, whose surprising performance made him the team’s most consistent starter in 2018; Hunter Pence, who struggled significantly in his final year with the club; Nick Hundley, who offered a capable veteran presence at catcher) and, with any luck, there will be the continued development of a few promising young players. That set should include names like starting pitcher Dereck Rodriguez, fresh off a sharp rookie season, and corner infielder Ryder Jones, whose year was cut short by a knee injury. This is all to say that the 2019 Giants might be a little better than their counterparts from last season, and they might be a little worse. Without any big moves from the front office, though, it’s hard to imagine that they could move too far at all—in either direction.
Maybe there will be some big move from the front office, though. They’re working under a new president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi, brought over in November from the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he hasn’t yet done anything to make his mark on the roster. (The team’s biggest offseason move has been a one-year deal for switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, who’s never thrown three dozen innings in the big leagues in a season.) If San Francisco is going to gather momentum in any direction, rather than remaining adrift in sub-.500 purgatory, Zaidi & Co. need to do something. But there aren’t a lot of strong options immediately available to be that something. The roster isn’t fit to seriously contend. There isn’t any significant help on the way from the farm system. By extension, there aren’t too many valuable trade chips here—but there is Bumgarner. Just how valuable might he be, though?
There isn’t a glut of strong choices available for teams looking to upgrade their starting pitching, with Patrick Corbin and Yusei Kikuchi off the market and James Paxton already traded. This should work in the Giants’ favor, but it likely won’t be enough to trigger a huge return. The 29-year-old has one year remaining on his contract, which will make him an option for a team that has no doubts about contending in 2019. (Hence the connection to the Brewers.) But Bumgarner’s short-term-rental status will also make a serious impact on what that the team can get in return. A trade for one year of a player is always tempered by risk, and that’s an even larger factor for a pitcher. So it’s unlikely that San Francisco will be able to bring back, say, what St. Louis got for Paul Goldschmidt earlier this winter.
A few years ago, Bumgarner might have seemed like the exception to this rule—a pitcher so consistent that his involved risk felt negligible. But the last few seasons have chipped away at the reputation. After pitching 200 innings or more in every season from 2011 to 2016, he slipped with his infamous dirt bike accident in 2017 and a fractured finger in 2018. The first, of course, wasn’t a conventional baseball injury, and the second didn’t seem to be a serious lingering issue after he made his return in June. But last year also brought a dip in his performance, and that’s probably going to be more concerning for prospective buyers.
In 2018, Bumgarner was still solidly above average. He just ... wasn’t quite as much above average as he typically has been. His 119 ERA+ was his lowest since 2014. His strikeout rate dipped below 20% for the first time since 2010, and his walk rate was the highest it’s ever been (7.8%). Entering last year, Bumgarner’s career strikeout-to-walk ratio was 4.3; for 2018, it was 2.5. He gave up more hard contact than ever before, which marked the third straight year of an unfortunate trend for him—of all the contact he’d given up until 2016, he’d never had more than 30% classified as hard-hit. This rose to 31.6% in 2016, to 35% in 2017, and finally to 41.6% in 2018. He’s lost a tick off his fastball, too, and he’s been using it less often. He’ll turn 30 in August.
Again—Bumgarner is still a very good pitcher, even with all of this! And there’s a fair chance that some of these trends might reverse themselves. But there’s substantial reason for a team to doubt that before deciding to invest in a single year of Bumgarner, which now carries far more risk than it once projected to. It seems hard to imagine that premium prospects will be involved, or that this will be the type of deal that can level up the organization’s barren farm system on its own.
This doesn’t mean that San Francisco wouldn’t be smart to pursue a Bumgarner deal, though. On the contrary, it might be one of the best options available to the team—but it will likely only serve as a starting point in a journey back to contention, and this journey is one that might require a lot more.