How in the last season the Giants have gotten away from their blueprint and traded the future for an uncertain tomorrow
The San Francisco Giants less than two months ago were owners of baseball’s best record heading into the All-Star break. Since then, in dramatic fashion, they have been baseball’s worst second-half team at 11-23 and have now succumbed to the underperforming and dysfunctional Los Angeles Dodgers.
They will face Los Angeles eight more times before the end of the season, but Tuesday’s 9-5 loss with their ace Madison Bumgarner getting knocked out in the fifth set the probable tone. The Giants’ All-Star starter Johnny Cueto faces Dodgers’ latest ace via the Oakland fire sale Rich Hill who returns to the mound after a month recovering from a blister Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
The Dodgers (-138) are the heavy favorite.
San Francisco’s eight-game mid-July lead has disintegrated. The Dodgers, terrible in their own right, are only three games over .500 since the break. It is a battle in the West for who wants it less.
At this point, the only surprise is how long this season’s demise took.
While the Giants are on pace to continue their historic slide all the way to the end of September; their all-in wager to trade away much of their top talent from the farm as well as Matt Duffy — the man many Giants fans were hoping would anchor third base for the next decade with his slick fielding and quick bat — in exchange for Matt Moore, a mid-level lefty whose career was wilting on the vine of baseball’s biggest argument for contraction, Tampa, may be blamed in immediate hindsight.
…But it is merely a part of a larger, more disturbing recent front-office trend.
The problem isn’t whether the Giants will contend this year, or next — as they hope to give their core battery mates Buster Posey and Bumgarner another shot at the postseason in their prime — it’s that they’ve gone away from the blueprint that built the closest thing to a baseball dynasty this century.
Post-Bonds era, the franchise has managed to reload from within and plug holes with no-risk veteran free agent cast-offs whose careers were given one last chance to thrive, and certainly did, in orange and black. Players you’d never heard of or hadn’t heard from for a while the likes of Aubrey Huff, Ryan Theriot, Cody Ross, Pat Burrell and Marco Scutaro became unlikely postseason greats and the cornerstones of a franchise that won three consecutive even-numbered year World Series starting in 2010.
The trend away from this philosophy resembles a gambler chasing at the tables with rent money.
It started off innocuously enough. At the trade deadline last year, the Giants had cycled through eight starters and were dealing with injuries to its veteran arms including Matt Cain, Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson. Then 27-year-old right hander Mike Leake was surrendered by the Cincinnati Reds — the same franchise that almost ended the Giants’ 2012 playoff run in the divisional round — which was embarking on a major rebuild.
And Leake had the look of a potential All-Star starter. In exchange, the Giants gave up a single-A righty named Keury Mella and an undersized corner infielder named Adam Duvall.
Duvall had not been underperforming. To the contrary, the Giants organization seemed to be blessed with homegrown corner infielders; the formidable Brandon Belt at first and the aforementioned Matt Duffy at third who was hitting well above .300 and deft with the glove, giving Giants fans every reason to place their Panda hats curbside.
Leake came to the Giants with a 3.56 ERA with 5.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 and a 51.5 percent ground-ball rate in 136 2/3 innings. And the pitcher-friendly confines AT&T park seemed a natural fit. It wasn’t. Leake finished his career as a Giant at 2-5 with an ERA over 4 and made haste for St. Louis in the offseason.
Since then, the then 6’1”, 180-pound Duvall honed his swing and put on about 30 pounds of muscle, taking the field for the Reds as its opening day left fielder. Duvall has been a monster thus far with 28 home runs, 24 doubles and 82 RBIs and one of the few bright spots for the last-place Reds in a rebuild campaign.
In the Giants’ case, it was a bit of misjudgement about where to put Duvall that ultimately cost them in exchange for a two-month rental on Leake. Duvall played mostly third and first base in the Giants’ system and seemed like he’d be mired, barring injury, in the minors for another year or two waiting for an opening.
The Giants made up for the Leake gaffe with the signing of front-line arms Jeff Samardzija and Cueto in the off-season. Samardzija started off the season with an inning-eating hot hand but has followed suit with his team’s demise and is now 10-9 with an ERA above 4. The Giants, it should be noted, have lost six of Samardzija’s past seven starts, and he has been so ineffective in his 12 starts since just before the break with a 6.30 ERA, that the five year, $90 million commitment to an AL pitcher is beginning to seem ominous.
While Cueto takes the hill Wednesday at 14-3 and likely the only pitcher right now showing consistent enough stuff to deliver the Giants from this malaise, it may be a case of filling the dam cracks with bubble gum.
Cut to the Giants post All-Star break skid, where the front office decided to double down and reload by trading away some of their minor league system’s greatest hits. On July 28, they acquired infielder Eduardo Nuñez from the Minnesota Twins for AAA pitcher Adalberto Mejia who has made one unsuccessful start with the Twins but shows major league promise. Duffy was traded for Moore who hasn’t pitched more than 150 innings in the last four seasons and brought a 4.08 ERA with him to San Francisco. He is 0-3 as a Giant with a 4.70 ERA.
If Moore leaves fans with hands scratching heads, the trade for left-handed reliever Will Smith shipping top pitching prospect (6’4”, 200 lb. righty Phil Bickford, who looks like he’ll crack the Brewers’ starting five next spring) and catcher-in-waiting Andrew Susac — essentially establishing Milwaukee’s battery for the next decade-plus — is confounding. Since with the Giants, Smith (0-1, 7.71 ERA) has been anything but effective on the mound and is a major symptom that the Giants’ bullpen overhaul is long overdue.
After slumping mightily for his first three weeks, Nuñez is now hitting a respectable .253. Duffy, meantime, has found his groove in Tampa and is batting .333 since joining the AL East.
Though the Giants have spread top prospects throughout the MLB like dandelion seeds over the past 18 months, GM Bobby Evans maintains there is plenty of front-line talent in the wings and indeed righty Tyler Beede and outfielder Bryan Reynolds seem to be top of their class and ready for their audition should the 2016 campaign continue to fade.
But unless the Giants go back to the philosophy of drafting and grooming talent and giving young players an extended shot while trying to contend, the next decade may show the success of the early ‘10s built a template the rest of baseball noticed — and perfected…while the creators were left behind.