San Francisco Giants 2019 season preview: The beginning of a new era of Giants baseball
The Giants overhauled their front office during the winter
The glory days of 2010-14 are over. The San Francisco Giants have lost 187 games the last two seasons, fifth most in baseball, and they overhauled their front office this past offseason. GM Bobby Evans was let go and Farhan Zaidi was hired away from the rival Dodgers to become the new president of baseball operations. A new era of Giants baseball has arrived.
"When you're a franchise like the San Francisco Giants and you're at that stature, your goal should be to be the best at everything. It shouldn't be a choice of analytics or scouting or something else," said Zaidi, and analytics savant, at his introductory press conference in November. "... Let's go out and identify value where we see it and just make this team better one move at a time."
The Giants have tumbled down the standings largely because they've lacked organization depth, and because some of the big money contracts they gave out to paper over the lack of depth went bad. They made a run at Bryce Harper over the winter, mostly because they recognized his market wasn't robust, and there was an opportunity to swoop in with an offer. It didn't work.
With the Dodgers, Zaidi helped unearth hidden gems like Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez. The Giants are now hoping he'll do the same with them, and get them back into contention sooner rather than later. Let's preview the team's upcoming season.
- CF Steven Duggar
- 2B Joe Panik
- C Buster Posey
- 1B Brandon Belt
- 3B Evan Longoria
- SS Brandon Crawford
- LF Mac Williamson
- RF Gerardo Parra
- Pitcher's Spot
The name value outweighs the on-field value in San Francisco's lineup right now. Posey slugged .382 last year and is returning from major hip surgery. Longoria posted a .281 on-base percentage a year ago. Crawford has strung together back-to-back below-average offensive seasons after peaking from 2014-16. Belt and Panik have dealt with lots of injuries in recent years.
Duggar and Williamson represent upside. Duggar is a speedy center field type who will punish a mistake while Williamson is a late-blooming 28-year-old who retooled his swing last season and started hitting home runs like this:
Williamson battled a concussion issues soon after that dinger and was never quite right after that. He's healthy now though, and because he is out of minor league options and can't be sent to Triple-A without passing through waivers, it is all but certain he will be on the Opening Day roster and in the regular lineup. Panik, Posey, Belt, Longoria, and Crawford are the familiar names. Duggar and Williamson are arguably more important to the franchise long-term.
Holland and Pomeranz were signed to low-cost one-year contacts to add depth while Johnny Cueto rehabs from Tommy John surgery. Rodriguez, the son of Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez, was a revelation last season, throwing 118 1/3 innings with a 2.81 ERA. The Giants signed him away from the Twins as a minor league free agent and he gave them a nice shot in the arm. The out-of-options Chris Stratton provides depth, as do Andrew Suarez, Ty Blach, and Tyler Beede.
Melancon is one of those big money free agent contracts gone wrong. Two years into his four-year, $62 million contract he owns a 3.78 ERA in 69 innings around injuries. That's not truly awful, but it's not $15.5 million per year production either. Watson is the opposite of Melancon. He's a free agent bargain. In year one of a deal that guarantees him $9 million across two years, he had 2.59 ERA in 66 innings last season.
Smith returned from Tommy John surgery last year and was as good as ever, throwing 53 innings with a 2.55 ERA, and taking over as the team's closer at midseason. He struck out 71 batters and walked only 11 unintentionally. Smith and Watson are both impending free agents -- Watson's contract includes a $2.5 million player option for 2020 -- who could find themselves on the move at the trade deadline if the Giants are out of the race. Both heard their names in trade rumors over the winter.
What is Bumgarner's future?
As expected, the Giants exercised their $12 million club option to retain Bumgarner for the 2019 season. That was a no-brainer. One of the easiest decisions of the offseason. Bumgarner will become a free agent next winter, however, so Zaidi and the Giants are now in "trade him or extend him?" territory.
"Where we are, everything has to be on the table in terms of how we move this team and roster forward," Zaidi said at his introductory press conference when asked about a potential Bumgarner trade. There were plenty of Bumgarner rumors in the offseason, but ultimately nothing close to an actual trade.
Bumgarner posted a 3.26 ERA in 129 2/3 innings following a fluke broken finger last year -- he was hit by a comebacker in spring training -- which is excellent on the surface. Look under the hood though, and there are some red flags that can't be ignored:
Swing & Miss Rate
Hard Contact Rate
Bumgarner turns 29 in August and he has over 1,700 big league innings on his arm between the regular season and postseason. Decline and wear and tear come with the territory. Former Giants Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were both done as above-average major league starters at age 28, remember.
Given his postseason excellence, there is an emotional component and a fan interest component in play here. Trading Bumgarner for young talent rather than give him a nine-figure contract extension may the smart baseball move. It would be an unpopular move though, one ownership may not be willing to make. (The decision to trade a franchise icon like Bumgarner doesn't get made at the baseball operations department level. That requires approval from above.)
For now, Bumgarner remains with the Giants and will likely remain with them until at least the trade deadline. Who knows, maybe the Giants emerge as a surprise contender this year. If that happens, there's no chance they'd trade him. At some point the club will have to make a decision about Bumgarner's future. There's a case for trading him and a case for extending him, and the clock is ticking.
What is Posey's future?
Posey's season ended in August last year when he underwent surgery to repair an impingement and torn labrum in his right hip. Also, he turns 32 in less than two weeks, and that is often an age when even the most productive catchers turn into a pumpkin. Posey is an all-time great Giant who I think deserves serious Hall of Fame consideration when the time comes. It sure seems like we are witnessing the beginning of the end of his time behind the plate though.
Fortunately, the Giants have a worthy heir apparent in Joey Bart, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft and the 22nd best prospect in baseball according to MLB.com. Bart is likely at least a year away from joining the Giants, however. Following the hip surgery, it stands to reason the Giants will reduce Posey's workload behind the plate this year, which means more games at first base and more games on the bench. Catching 120 games or so seems unlikely, though I guess it is possible.
This is not a "trade him or extend him" situation like Bumgarner. Posey has three years and $70.2 million remaining on his contract, so you can be sure the Giants will do whatever is necessary to keep him healthy and productive as long as possible. Easing him back into things following his surgery -- Posey is already catching in games this spring -- makes sense, as does reducing his workload behind the plate this year, especially if the team won't contend.
Belt has three years at big money ($16 million annually) remaining on his contract, which complicates things. The Giants can't simply move Posey to first base full-time. We're getting ahead of ourselves through. Posey is still the starting catcher and likely will be until Bart is ready. At some point the hip and age will mean Posey is no longer a starting catcher for a championship caliber team. We're starting to see signs that indicate that time is coming sooner rather than later.
A potential breakout year for Beede
Five years ago the Giants made Tyler Beede the 14th overall pick in the draft. He reached the big leagues last season and it didn't go well (seven runs in 7 2/3 innings), and neither did his Triple-A season. Beede pitched to a 7.05 ERA with 56 walks in 74 Triple-A innings. MLB.com ranks him as the team's 24th best prospect and says "his control, consistency and confidence deteriorated so much last year that the Giants aren't really sure what to make of him or what role to use him in." Ouch.
Beede turns 26 in May and his career reached a crossroads last year. Something had to change. So, over the winter, Beede embraced analytics and reinvented himself as a pitcher. He abandoned the traditional sinker/slider approach and started spinning the ball more and getting swings and misses. Here's what he told Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic last month:
I'm really happy about some of the adjustments I made. I did change my grip. When I used to hold the four-seam (fastball), it was kind of a wider, spaced out grip with my fingers, because I figured that would give me a little bit more control. But the way it came off my fingers, it wasn't working. Now I'm able to get behind the ball more, get more true spin, get a little bit more ride in the zone. All of which is what I've seen from Rapsodo.
And then the curveball was my other grip I changed, and that's had a huge difference for me. My spin rate has gone up 300 revolutions from last spring to this spring. It's closer to 2,500-2,600, which is above average. And that's just from the change of grip. So it's been great, man. I've also worked on making my arm path more efficient, as well as other things that might not seem like huge, glaring differences when you watch me pitch. But yeah, I mean, it's been a game-changer and allowed me to be more efficient, more repetitive, more repeatable with all my pitches. So it's been great.
I eliminated the two-seamer and cutter and the slider. That's three pitches eliminated and so I can focus on three primary pitches that I can work on: four-seam, curveball, changeup.
The early spring training returns are promising. It is only spring training though, so we have to see how it plays during the regular season and whether the small sample size success lasts. What I do know is Beede was not a guy who pitched upstairs with a four-seam fastball and buried a curveball in the dirt the last few years. He's doing that this spring. To wit:
What Beede was doing last year was not working. He made changes over the winter -- fairly significant changes, at that -- to better fit the modern game. The Astros turned Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole into ace caliber starters by getting them to abandon sinking two-seam fastballs and embrace high-spin elevated four-seamers. Beede is doing the same thing. Will it have the same impact? Maybe! It doesn't hurt to try after last season.
Payroll headaches aren't going anyway anytime soon
The Giants managed to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold last season and, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, their 2019 Opening Day luxury tax payroll sits at $171.6 million. They have quite a bit of breathing room under the $206 million threshold. Still, the Giants have a lot of big money contracts on the books. Look:
- Buster Posey: $70.2 million through 2021
- Johnny Cueto: $68 million through 2021
- Evan Longoria: $66.5 million through 2022
- Brandon Belt: $48 million through 2021
- Brandon Crawford: $45 million through 2021
- Jeff Samardzija: $36 million through 2020
- Mark Melancon: $28 million through 2020
That is $361.7 million in salary obligations to seven players, all over the age of 30, who combined for 10.8 WAR in 2018. That is: Not great. The Giants look to be where the Phillies and Tigers were a few years ago, meaning they have a lot money on the books with a not great farm system. That's a bad place to be. The Giants have the fifth most losses in baseball the last two seasons and it's easy to understand why given their contract commitments.
The payroll relief won't begin to arrive until after 2020 and it won't be until after 2021 that San Francisco is free from most of these contracts. Clearly, the team still has money to spend. They did make a run at Bryce Harper this winter, after all. They are probably a few years away from a serious free agent spending spree, however, which means any roster upgrades figure to come from within or through the kind of low-profile trades Zaidi executed so expertly during his time with the Athletics and Dodgers.
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