The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres have made it clear: no one is winning the NL West without making aggressive moves. So when will the SF Giants play their cards?
When the SF Giants replaced Bobby Evans as the head of baseball operations with Farhan Zaidi in 2018, the franchise’s ownership delivered a clear message: they wanted the organization’s approach to change. Evans, who had spent years working alongside his predecessor Brian Sabean, had taken a more traditional approach that prioritized acquiring proven veteran talent to younger unproven options. Zaidi, on the other hand, came from front-offices in Los Angeles and Oakland that had prioritized more modern prospect-heavy approaches.
The shift has been obvious over the last couple of offseasons. After acquiring players like Andrew McCutchen, Evan Longoria, Mark Melancon, Denard Span, Jeff Samardzija, and Johnny Cueto in Evans’ tenure, the Giants have only agreed to one contract with more than $10 million in guarantees under Zaidi (re-signing right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman to a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer this offseason) and only handed out just one multi-year commitment (signing Wilmer Flores a two-year deal last winter).
Yet, as the Giants have folded their hand, much of the NL West aggressively played their cards. Last offseason, the Arizona Diamondbacks traded for Starling Marte and signed Madison Bumgarner to a five-year, $80 million deal. The Los Angeles Dodgers traded for star outfielder Mookie Betts even though they had just won 106 regular-season games. This year, the San Diego Padres were easily the most aggressive team in the league at the MLB trade deadline, and that mindset has carried over to the offseason. In the last couple of days alone, the Pads have added Blake Snell, Ha-Seong Kim, and Yu Darvish to a playoff roster.
While things did not go well for the Diamondbacks this season, the Dodgers and Padres finished with the two best records in the NL, and the Dodgers won the World Series. There’s now an argument that the Giants will have to get past the two best teams in baseball to win their division.
Perhaps most frustrating of all for Giants fans is how far they have already come in Zaidi’s tenure. The farm system has taken a massive step forward and is stronger than it’s been in years. Zaidi has added players like Gausman, Flores, Alex Dickerson, and Mike Yastrzemski on low-risk deals that have already paid off. Even aging veterans like Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford posted resurgent 2020 campaigns. Still, they have even further to go.
Of course, this is the reality of rebuilding. Fans and analysts love to celebrate it, but it’s far from a guarantee of competitiveness. In fact, returning to contention almost always requires the costly forays into free agency that led the Giants to rebuild in the first place. This is just the reality of MLB.
While most teams have continued moving toward less and less spending on scouting, player development, and players, it has seemingly had two opposite effects. First, more teams are willing to spend less because it is less costly to remain relevant. However, it has made spending even more requisite for teams looking for a World Series title. Below is a list of the last five champions by their biggest move of the prior offseason:
2020: Dodgers (Mookie Betts-Trade)
2019: Nationals (Patrick Corbin-6-years, $140 million)
2018: Red Sox (J.D. Martinez-5-years, $110 million)
2017: Astros (Josh Reddick-4-years, $52 million)
2016: Cubs (Jason Heyward-8-years, $184 million)
For most teams in recent years, even prior to 2020s expanded playoffs, homegrown talent and minor movement around the edges was enough to push them into contention for a wild card or even their division. When they reached that point, they could choose to more aggressively spend and trade prospects to take them to the next level.
In the same division as the Dodgers and Padres, though, that is no longer an option for the SF Giants. If they want to compete for a division title, homegrown talent will not be enough. They will have to spend. It’s unlikely to be this offseason, given how large the gap is between them and the two teams at the top of the division. However, looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, when the Giants should reap their farm system’s riches, that will need to change.
There are more reasons to expect ownership to be willing to increase payroll than not. Most importantly, they ran some of the highest payrolls in baseball during Evans’ tenure. Last offseason, San Francisco paid roughly $12 million of Zack Cozart’s contract to acquire prospect Will Wilson, a move that a team like the Tampa Bay Rays or Miami Marlins would never make. Of course, there’s still reason for caution. The Giants also laid off 10% of their full-time employees earlier this offseason, and MLB ownership groups around the league are cutting payrolls.
Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic (subscription required) spoke with Zaidi after the Padres flurry of moves. The Giants president of baseball operations was clear, “We’re not going to react to it… But we’re not going to be excited about it, either.” Zaidi clearly has a long-term plan for the team and has earned fans’ trust after the team’s progress thus far. Still, at some point, the buck will stop with ownership. They will decide how much Zaidi can spend.
The SF Giants do not need to sign a top free agent like George Springer or Trevor Bauer this offseason to catch the Padres or Dodgers. The reality is, they are more than a couple of moves away. However, San Diego’s series of acquisitions this week has made it clear. When the Giants want to be a serious NL West contender, they will not be able to rely solely on their own homegrown development. It will take star power that comes with a cost.