The Giants’ attempt to rekindle their even year magic began with a move in late December.
It took four players, but San Francisco netted themselves Rays All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria before the calendar flipped to 2018. That wasn’t all the Giants did. Less than a month later, they acquired a second All-Star in Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Four weeks, two All-Stars. The Giants were in business.
Now, we are about halfway into the 2018 season. In a competitive NL West division, the Giants look like they are the third best team. The Giants are 41-39, 4.5 games behind the division-leading Diamondbacks. According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, their chances of sniffing even the Wild Card Game are down at a measly 14.0 percent. Even still, the team has played worse than their record shows. That is, their -23 run differential and 37-43 Pythagorean record suggest that they have four more wins than they should.
Their offseason additions haven’t really been all that impactful.
On paper, the Giants are in a better position than at this point last year. At the 80-game mark in 2017, the team was 29-51, well on the way to ultimately securing the second overall pick in the draft.
But, really, what’s the point of being semi-competitive? “Tanking” might be a problem in Major League Baseball, sure, but until the clear advantages for non-competitive teams are mitigated, a franchise is much better off focusing on the future—even if it may mean sacrificing wins no —as opposed to finishing with 83 or 84 wins and missing the playoffs.
Longoria, for one, hasn’t done much, and he’s under contract through at least 2022 (with a team option for 2023). By that time, he’ll be 36 years-old. A decline could be in order, as his .246/.278/.434 line and 92 wRC+ would all be close to or at his career lows. His 3.7 percent walk rate, too, is alarming. Not to mention the fact that he’s currently on the disabled list with a fractured hand. If there’s any silver lining in that, it’s that a broken hand injury should not be something that lingers even as he ages.
McCutchen, on the other hand, has been solid, but he’s a shadow of his former, eight-win season self. He’s slashing .263/.351/.435 with a 118 wRC+ and is probably on pace for about 2 fWAR. That’s not awful, but he’s far from being the player that could be the face of the franchise like he was in Pittsburgh. He is a free agent next year, so if the Giants do not turn things around soon, it’s possible that McCutchen’s stay in San Francisco lasts all of four months.
Clearly, neither Longoria nor McCutchen have been the players that the Giants hoped that they would be. Yes, the team has improved, but they have not improved enough in order to make some noise in the National League. I count at least eight teams in the league—the Braves, Phillies, Nationals, Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers and Diamondbacks—that are clearly more talented than the Giants, leaving them likely on the periphery of the postseason. Still, those moves were made for the sole purpose of contending this season.
Where does that leave them, then? We’re about a month away from the MLB non-waiver trade deadline, and the Giants will straddle the buyer-seller line.
If the Giants decide to sell, the first place to look for potential trade candidates are impending free agents. Currently, they have six: Gregor Blanco, Derek Holland, Nick Hundley, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval and the aforementioned McCutchen. None of them will garner huge returns in any individual trade.
Since none of the Giants’ core players are impending free agents, this leaves them with two potential routes. First, they could trade from their plethora of talent that still have contracts beyond 2018. After all, team-controlled players are those who get the best returns. That might mean the trading of Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford or even Buster Posey.
Second, this same scenario means that the Giants’ window of contention is probably not closed. When the majority of your talent is under contract beyond the current season, it means that you have the ability to contend beyond said current season. Those four players are not getting any younger, of course, but one run could still be within them. A sell-off at this trade deadline would pretty much be the shutting the door of contention by the men upstairs rather than the men on the field.
The odds that the Giants decide to tear it down seem pretty low, if not zero. Yet I think it is fair to ask the question: how many more successful years does this core have? The answer probably cannot be determined over the next four weeks. If anything, the Giants front office should know now. You are not going to decide to trade, say, Belt in the middle of the season without having a complete understanding of where your team stands four weeks out. They could always wait until the offseason before doing anything drastic, too.
If the waiting game is the answer, is it time to buy at the deadline?
While this article has certainly had a negative slant on the overall fate of the Giants, it should be noted that the team is currently playing their best baseball of the season. After a 11-16 May, the Giants have turned things around thus far in June, going 15-9 with a +26 run differential. They hung around with their top three starters out due to injury for much of this season. Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto are likely to rejoin the rotation in July, following Bumgarner, who did not even make his first start of the season until June 5th.
With all of that in mind, the Giants still might decide to stand pat. They are close to the $197 million luxury tax threshold, a number they would like to avoid in order to make runs at some of this offseason’s biggest free agent fish, namely Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Staying under the tax has been the goal for many teams around baseball, and if the Giants want to add talent at the deadline, they might also need to unload a contract in order to make it work. This obviously complicates things.
That is the very essence of the headline. The Giants are at a crossroads, especially considering that they play in a league that has a huge (and increasingly bigger) gap between the contenders and the cellar dwellers.
I use this disclaimer far too often, but I’m just a baseball writer and not a general manager, so take my advice with a grain of salt. With that said, if I was at the head of the Giants’ front office, I would go for it as best as I possibly can. The 27th-best farm system in baseball, per Minor League Ball, won’t help me make major deals, but I’m going to try to defy the odds and make my run. My core talent isn’t getting any younger, we’re hovering just above .500, and some good additions here and there, alongside better health, could get us to 87 or 88 wins, potentially the magic number necessary to clinch a playoff spot.
Over the next four weeks, we might have a much better idea of where the Giants see themselves going forward. This is crunch time in San Francisco, as they look to either keep pace with the rest of the National League or make the unlikely decision to focus on the future.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.