It was supposed to be a farewell. Tuesday night in San Francisco was the potential end of an era—the last home start of Madison Bumgarner’s Giants career, with the trade deadline and his possible departure looming a week away. Coming off back-to-back losing seasons and with an aging, talent-depleted roster, time was up for the Giants’ core that had won three championships. And in Bumgarner—the ace of the rotation but a free agent after the season—new general manager Farhan Zaidi had the prize of the summer for any contender willing to pay up.
This would be it, then, this midweek outing against the Cubs. Here was one more chance to cheer Bumgarner and show what he’d meant over all those years and innings and October nights when he’d carried the franchise to World Series titles. If you had a ticket to Tuesday night’s game, you were blessed and cursed: You got to be there to say goodbye.
But is this actually the final chapter? A situation that seemed so simple and straightforward going into the season and through a miserable first two months has suddenly become the most complicated question in baseball. Can the Giants—written off before the year, left for dead at the end of June, but now a world-beating machine in July—actually trade away Bumgarner?
It’s a dilemma that Zaidi couldn’t have imagined even a month ago, when his team was sinking to the bottom of the NL West. All he had to look forward to then was July 31, when Bumgarner and Will Smith (another free agent to be) and whoever else wasn’t nailed down to the floor would be shipped out for the prospects that would form the next great Giants core. But San Francisco—decrepit, dreary, full of no-names and has-beens—seemingly won’t let him. On Tuesday, the Giants rallied early, gave up a lead late, persisted into extra innings, and then finished it in the 13th inning—their fourth walk-off win in their last six games. For the month of July, San Francisco is now a staggering 16–3, going from a last-place afterthought to two games out of the second NL wild-card spot. The Giants—seriously, the Giants!—are the best team in baseball, and therein lies Zaidi’s conundrum: Can you sell when you’re this hot?
Perhaps the more important question for Zaidi, though, is this: How much of this is for real? Can any of these results be trusted? Is this a mirage leading the franchise to inaction and disaster, or is the foundation of this run something that can be built upon? And as the Giants keep winning and winning and winning, how can you justify trading players away when you’re just a few games out of a playoff spot?
The answers to all of those queries aren’t obvious. On the one hand, it’s hard to fluke your way into a 16–3 stretch (though the Mariners, their 13-2 start and subsequent slide into oblivion might have something to say about that). Once one of the weakest hitting teams in the game, San Francisco is now clobbering the ball. Once featuring a hopeless outfield of cast-offs and Triple-A filler, the Giants have gotten consistent production from surprising names like Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski. (Before you ask: Yes, he’s related to Carl.) Once stuck watching former All-Stars like Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford and Jeff Samardzija turn into dust, the Giants have seen their resident graybeards find fresh legs. Everything is working, including Bumgarner, who came into July with a 4.02 ERA and has given up a mere five runs in 23 innings since.
It all adds up to a team now flirting with a playoff spot and bringing new life to a moribund Oracle Park, which was shedding fans by the thousands in the spring. But does that mean Zaidi will keep the band together? Or does this surge simply boost trade values across the board?
For as good as the Giants have been, that’s how good they’ve needed to be simply to get to this point, a couple games above the break-even line and within spitting distance of a one-game playoff. And despite having reached that point, there’s still plenty about the team that suggests this shouldn’t be seen as the new normal. San Francisco’s run differential is still in the negative. Posey, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik and Kevin Pillar are struggling to do much more than be league average at the plate. The back of the rotation is a mess. Believing in the Giants means believing that Dickerson and Yastrzemski and Donovan Solano and Austin Slater can keep this up, and that Crawford and Bumgarner and Samardzija won’t start showing their age once more, and that the bullpen can continue to be one of the best in the game.
That last one might be the most credible. Between Smith, Tony Watson, Sam Dyson, Reyes Moronta and even the long-lambasted Mark Melancon, the Giants have a plethora of above-average relievers who can comfortably hold leads. But everything else feels built on sand or made out of air. And if that’s the case, then July 31 can’t come and go without the Giants making the most of the pieces they have to offer.
It’s a weird place to be for Zaidi, caught between the hard reality of the numbers and the starry-eyed hope of a miracle run. To keep Bumgarner, Smith and the rest is to have faith at great risk; to trade them away is to embrace pragmatism at the potential cost of the clubhouse and the fans and, most crucially, what might have been. But maybe Zaidi can have it both ways. If he keeps Bumgarner, he misses out on the prospects, but the Giants can still recoup a draft pick should the lefty decline the qualifying offer after the season. Zaidi could instead deal Smith, hoping that the rest of the bullpen can cover his absence while still recouping the ransom that elite relievers command at the deadline. Maybe he can be practical and wishful all at once.
It’s the thinnest of tightropes to walk, and no one save Zaidi knows whether he’ll even attempt it. So you can understand why, when Bumgarner came out of the game in the seventh inning, the 39,747 fans in attendance—the second-biggest home crowd of the year for the Giants—gave a standing ovation for their exiting ace. Maybe this is in fact the farewell they figured was coming. It’ll take another week to know for sure.