If there’s one team that’s interesting and completely uninteresting all at once, look no further than the San Francisco Giants. For years, the Giants and their pseudo-dynasty were a mainstay in the playoffs, led by a homegrown core that won a stellar three championships and always seemed to defy some sort of odds. Later on, the Giants’ core began to wither and ownership and the front office decided to subsidize it with expensive veterans. If you’ve followed baseball at all in recent years, you’ll know most of these signings haven’t worked out, and the Giants have been reveling in mediocrity ever since their last hurrah in 2016.
That being said, they are one of the last few remaining teams with ancient contracts on their books from a previous era of frivolous free agent spending. That being said, a few things became clear. The first is that it shows a high level of buy-in from ownership; they want to win and they have all the money in the world to be able to do it. The second is, due to this spending and the ages of both core and veteran players…there is a cliff, and at some point, it will need to be fallen off of if the Giants want to win again in the near future. Being mediocre the last two seasons has not done them any favors, and there seems to be some sort of delusion from current players and much of ownership that the team remains a competitor.
Given the relatively dire circumstances the Giants face, they went ahead and made a change this offseason, hiring Dodger wunderkind Farhan Zaidi as President of Baseball Operations. Of course, Zaidi had come from another big-market team but with a bit of a different flair. It’s an insult to compare almost any team in baseball to the Los Angeles Dodgers under Andrew Friedman. He took on the seemingly impossible task of making an old, expensive team younger and cheaper, but he’s done just that. There is no fat on the Dodgers.
Considering this, let’s analyze the Farhan Zaidi hiring. The first thing that has become abundantly clear is that ownership is looking to embark on a new era. It’s a complete heel turn from how the Giants have been run in recent years. The days of spending big on veterans is likely over, at least for some time. There is now going to be an enormous shift towards analytics, and with that, a massive overhaul in player development. The Giants couldn’t beat the Dodgers by playing like the Giants. The only way to beat the Dodgers is to play like the Dodgers.
This isn’t just a needed change in the front office, either. The culture of the players in recent years has been hostile towards analytics. Aubrey Huff believes launch angle and exit velocity aren’t as valuable as being a good teammate and having heart, Madison Bumgarner is threatening to walk off the field for an opener that would never be used for him, and Jeff Samardzija believes the game has become too scripted due to player tendencies (article is either syndicated or extremely difficult to find, will update if I find the source). The “core” is aloof, and frankly a bit delusional about the current state of the team ever since their championships, the most recent of which happened over four years ago. With a new front office and the impending departure of Bruce Bochy and Madison Bumgarner, this appears to be a rather large transition year, the first in what figures to be a pretty bleak next few years.
I mentioned earlier the state that the Dodgers were in a few years ago when Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi took over. One of the things they are better at than any other team is the ability to identify value where others haven’t seen it. Justin Turner, Ross Stripling, Kenley Jansen, Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, Kiké Hernandez, Yasmani Grandal, Alex Wood, and Brandon Morrow are all guys the Dodgers have taken some sort of chance on and they’ve been major contributors to the Dodgers’ recent success. Even Tony Cingrani and Yu Darvish improved dramatically upon going to the Dodgers, and Manny Machado saw a huge spike in his DRS at shortstop.
If I had to guess, this is how ownership wants the Giants to be run moving forward. The sustained success the Dodgers have had is beyond impressive. This offseason they still have lots of financial flexibility and a strong farm system, while historically most teams only have one of these. The Dodgers realized that a common denominator for teams with sustained success was surplus value. If that value couldn’t be found in reclamation projects, it was found in a young core.
This hasn’t been a secret, and they are far from the only team that has reaped the benefits of having a young core, as the Red Sox, Astros, Cubs, and Royals have all won the past four years with an army of extremely talented youngsters. Ironically, in 2014 the Giants won with their core, however instead of focusing on building the next core of Giants they decided to surround their current core of players with expensive veteran players. After winning three championships from 2010-2014, you’d think they’d be okay taking their foot off the gas for a couple years to retool and create a sustainable winner.
The first thing they did was extend their core well into their thirties, as this team (which was never particularly dominant, hence “pseudo-dynasty”) must have had the “will to win” or something equally confusing. The problem was, other than a couple of players (Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey) it never seemed like any of them were actually that great. Combine this with an expensive slate of aging veterans, and now there was no young core or surplus value to be found. Any prospects of note were also moved in trades, and the Giants quickly became the “guy in college who wears his high school letterman’s jacket” of Major League Baseball.
Enter 2019. The team looks dire. It is currently projected to go 73-89 by PECOTA which also projects them as the seventh-worst team in baseball. As it stands, they have a payroll of $164,592,777 which means, not only are they bad, but they’re also receiving terrible value from their on-field product. So why, on earth, would the Giants possibly be interested in Bryce Harper?
Let’s start by getting one thing straight. Bryce Harper is a very, very good player. With a career wRC+ of 140 at age twenty-six and a WAR total that has him on a Hall of Fame path (30.7 fWAR), it might not be reaching to call him a generational player. However, this has its caveats of course. Harper has been rather inconsistent with health and performance for nearly all of his career, which is why most teams seem to be hesitant to give him the largest free agent contract ever. His WAR totals are as high as they are because he debuted at nineteen, and his wRC+ is propped up by his historic MVP year that happened over three years ago (197 wRC+).
Now, it’s easy to pick and choose here but actually it’s not. It’s actually very irresponsible to eliminate one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time. Why? Because baseball is very hard. And it’s been played for a very long time. You need to be an elite talent to even sniff the company of his 2015 season. And better yet, this establishes a ceiling for Harper’s abilities going forward. The other thing about baseball being hard, is that players don’t just debut at nineteen. Again, you need to be certain level of talent that is virtually unheard of, and he more than held his own in his first two seasons.
So here we are, and the twenty-six-year-old Harper remains unsigned. Logically, he’d sign with a competitor or someone who is around that eighty-six-win projection where they really need him. It’s why the Phillies make so much sense, and why they should outbid everyone. But, frankly, it’s not like Harper is twenty-nine or thirty and only has a few more productive years left. He’s young; abnormally young and abnormally good. These players do not grow on trees. In fact, he’s so young, that a team like the Giants could use Harper to build around as the first piece of their next core. Would I spend $32 million a year to find out? Quite frankly, I would.
I understand that I’m likely the most aggressive on the timeline for the next competitive Giants team, but frankly I don’t see it taking more than three or four years. Remember, three years ago the Padres “won the offseason” after acquiring Wil Myers, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Matt Kemp, and James Shields, taking on a massive amount of salary and mortgaging their farm. Three years later they have one of the two best farm systems in baseball and just added Manny Machado. They’re relevant and are a legitimate 2020 threat. Or the Cubs who won the World Series in the fifth year of their famous “five-year plan”. Or the Astros who, when Jeff Luhnow came on in 2011, were the worst team in the modern era with no farm or tradable assets and became a playoff team as soon as 2015. A lot can change in just a few years.
For teams with serious money, these rebuilding years are virtually painless and the Giants have money. The richest teams still benefit immensely from the international market and have the ability to take on salary to acquire better prospects, and of course money allows you to expand your front office and improve facilities and player development where other teams simply can’t or don’t want to. If all else fails and only a couple guys work out at the highest level, you can always spend your way out of it (i.e. Phillies).
The Giants’ attention is no longer focused on the eroded core at the major league level. Frankly, the most interest the front office has in them is trying to eat salary or waiting for the contracts to run out entirely. However, there may be a period in 2021 or 2022 where the Giants have a budding young core or strong farm system developed. If Bryce Harper were a free agent at twenty-nine with these conditions, would the Giants be interested in a seven-year deal for $200+ million? It’s not entirely unreasonable to think that they would be, especially given that his strong profile of plate discipline and power is likely to age well. With the universal designated hitter all but certain to happen here in the next couple of years, some of that risk is also mitigated.
The fit is still a little awkward, all things considered, but four-win players are hard to find and necessary to build around. Signing Harper gives the Giants something they can build around and widens the margin for error with the rebuild enough that it might be worth it. It would prevent the Dodgers from having Harper, another very relevant reason, and say the Giants are accidentally good in the next couple seasons. It’s nice to have a guy like Harper around when you need him, and truthfully even when you don’t.
One of the very real possibilities that I feel has been somewhat spurned by pessimists this offseason is that we may not have seen prime Harper yet. Yes, 2015 will likely turn out to be an anomaly, but I don’t think multiple 5-7 WAR seasons are out of the question given the length of the contract and the talent he possesses. I don’t think he’s injury-prone. Adam Eaton is injury-prone. Jacoby Ellsbury and Troy Tulowitzki are injury-prone. There is certainly a timeline where Harper cements himself as one of the top ten or so players in baseball, and if he gets there the next couple of years he may make this contract look foolish. I don’t think this is an outrageous possibility. I also don’t think it’s outrageous to think that Zaidi can unearth more talented players in the mold of Max Muncy or Chris Taylor, or that he can rebuild a farm in three years. It’s a huge bet, but this would make the Giants both relevant and a consistent force if they already have Harper in the fold. What are good teams realizing now? You just need to get to the playoffs. Why were the Giants so successful from 2010-2014? Because they just needed to get to the playoffs.
There are people who swear by tanking instead of rebuilding, and it is a viable strategy that has worked. Well, it’s mostly worked. It certainly isn’t guaranteed to work. You can rebuild and add Bryce Harper. It certainly isn’t the best value to have arguably Harper’s most productive years come when the Giants are rebuilding, and there is that risk. However, it’s not like this vaults the Giants from bad to fringe contenders. This makes them bad but not so bad that fans won’t come to the ballpark. If we use PECOTA’s projections and add Harper, their draft position moves down something like three spots. Given how much of a crapshoot the draft is, that difference is negligible.
Of course, it’s not like the Giants have given any sort of mandate to cut payroll, either. That much is evident by their interest in Harper given their current payroll situation. The interest from the Giants is serious because it satisfies two of the biggest stakeholders; ownership and Zaidi. Ownership gets a watchable team for the next few years and doesn’t feel like they’re tanking while the team is rebuilt, and Zaidi gets an important piece to the next Giants’ core. There are worse investments you can make than signing a twenty-six-year-old generational talent who also happens to be the most marketable player in the sport.
Let me be clear. The Giants interest in Harper means they are betting on themselves to rebuild by 2022 which is bold, but not completely unrealistic given the recent history of rebuilding teams with serious money and front office brainpower. This is also a massive bet on Harper, since the Giants will need him to be better in the future than the Phillies need him to be right now. This has been one of the most exciting stories to develop recently, an unusual but feasible plan, and a whole lot of hypothetical baseballs deposited into McCovey Cove.