Even in baseball, there can sometimes be advantages to getting older. Older ballclubs tend to have aging stars who might not be as great as they were at the height of their abilities, but remain pretty damn good.
Naming just one recent example: The Ryan Howard-Chase Utley-Jimmy Rollins-era Phillies eventually fell apart, but at the tail end of their five-year run of NL East titles, they were still really good, and also really old.
What's really insidious is when a team gets old, and those aging players were never superstars to begin with. Even worse is when that aging club tries to add more past-prime talents hoping to regain their lost skills.
Such was the case for the 2018 Giants, who fielded the oldest group of position players in the National League. Hunter Pence was a very good player in his prime, but not an MVP-caliber talent the way those Phillies stars once were. So when Pence reached his mid-30s he didn't have as far to go to fall into complete obsolescence, which is exactly what happened to him last season. Brandon Crawford at his best was a better-than-average player and nothing more, which is why entering his age-32 season next year he'll be a player who makes too many outs at the plate, and not as many as he used to with his glove.
- 2018 Result: 73-89, fourth place in NL West
- Key free agents: Hunter Pence, Nick Hundley, Gregor Blanco, Derek Holland
- Needs: Outfield, starting pitching
The declines of Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria hit harder. Posey was the NL's Most Valuable Player back in 2012 as both an elite hitter and superior gloveman. He still possesses solid bat control and can still run a pitching staff, but he also hit just five home runs all last season. Adjust McCutchen's numbers for AT&T Park's offense-punishing dimensions and he produced a solid season, but he too isn't the MVP-caliber player he used to be. Meanwhile Longoria completely fell apart, hitting a woeful .244/.281/.413 in 2018 ... with four more years and more than $73 million still left on his contract, as he too enters his mid-30s.
The Giants didn't give up any top-shelf prospects in trading for McCutchen and Longoria, so they didn't necessarily kneecap their potential to reemerge as a winning team. But the core of Posey, Pence, Crawford, Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner and the loaded bullpen crew that won three World Series in a five-year span hasn't been equipped to do it again for a while now. Still, there's a ton of work left to be done: Losing 89 games while being one of just two teams to spend more than the luxury-tax cap qualifies as a disaster.
All of this means that for the first time in a decade, the Giants could conceivably make some tough choices, rather than simply sprinkling a few old guys into a stew of other old guys. The question is, how far will they be willing to go?
The first wave of changes will be easy. Pence was the emotional leader of the last of those three World Series-winning teams as both a deadly hitter and magnetic personality. He's also probably got nothing left in the tank at this stage of his career, and his free agency creates an easy way for the Giants to move on. Veteran relievers Sam Dyson and Tony Watson are extraneous pieces for a team that's a huge long shot to make the playoffs, and they could be viable trade chips with a combined 2019 salary of just $8.5 million. Same goes for Will Smith, who shook off past injuries to become the team's surprisingly effective closer, and figures to command around $4-5 million in arbitration in his final season before free agency.
Trading Bumgarner would be the logical next step. The man who nearly single-handedly won the Giants the 2014 World Series is now 29 years old, with 1,740 ⅔ innings under his belt between the regular season and postseason. After forging a reputation as arguably the most durable pitcher in the game, Bumgarner's made just 38 combined starts over the past two seasons. After slinging his fastball at 93 mph a few years ago, he now throws an eyelash over 91. His strikeout and walk rates have eroded, to the point that he was no better than a league-average starter last season.
Still, given his hugely impressive track record and the tiny commitment of one-year, $12 million (compare that to the Nats recently buying lefty Patrick Corbin for six years and $140 million), Bumgarner would be an attractive acquisition for any number of pitching-needy teams, with the Giants acquiring prospects to upgrade one of the worst farm systems in the league. Whether or not that happens is another matter altogether, with the latest reports suggesting the Giants aren't anywhere close to consummating that kind of trade.
Beyond Bumgarner, the bigger issue is if the Giants do go in a different direction now that they've hired former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi to run the baseball side of their business. Zaidi helped recast the Dodgers into a younger, more financially flexible organization, one that made two straight World Series. If Zaidi is truly a magician, he'll find a way to unload the onerous contracts of albatrosses like Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Mark Melancon, and Longoria.
He has more attractive commodities he could shop too, if he's willing to overlook emotion and local ties involved. Indeed, the Giants could be justified to go way beyond shopping walk-year players and veteran relievers, and entertain offers for literally everyone. That includes Posey, who remains one of the best catchers in the game even if his power never comes back, has three years and $69.5 million left on his contract, and would be a huge get for the Dodgers and other catching-deficient teams.
These are radical concepts to consider for a team that's been among the most conservative in the game for so long. When you spend this much money for too little in return, they're also necessary discussions to have.