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Are the Giants really a darkhorse in the NL West race?

Rich Allen Avatar
January 5, 2018

At the beginning of this decade, the San Francisco Giants sat alongside the Chicago Cubs as the two teams with the longest running championship drought. Five years into the decade, the Giants suddenly found themselves winners of the World Series a staggering three times and had established themselves as an even-year dynasty. And it’s an even year.

We’ve seen this dance before. The club by the bay has lulled us all into a sense that they were an afterthought because of a season of poor play and then emerged as a powerhouse. And it appears as though they believe they can repeat this magic again in 2018. But should we?

On Dec. 15, we wrote about how the Arizona Diamondbacks were likely conceding contention in the National League West in 2018, turning the division race into a two-team contest between the Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Over the last week, the Giants have attempted to slide into that conversation. They traded their No. 2 prospect for third baseman Evan Longoria on Dec. 20 in a tried-and-true, prospect-for-veteran, win-now move at best—a shipment of solid assets for a depreciating one at worst. 

Next, not 12 hours after that trade, news broke that there was mutual interest between the club and right fielder Jay Bruce. These moves don’t put the Giants back into the thick of it, but they are waving frantically in the rearview mirror… and getting closer.

For Longoria, the Giants moved a package centering around Christian Arroyo, who was the top position player in their farm system. Peak Longoria is a better player for sure, but the longtime Tampa Bay Ray is coming off what may be his worst season in the big leagues at an age where decline is not uncommon. His ground balls went way up while his line drives and fly balls went way down in 2017. The result was nearly halving his home run numbers from the previous season.

His pedestrian slashline of .261/.313/.424 put him at a below league average wRC+ for the first time in his career and below 3 fWAR for the first time since his injury-shortened 2012.

The Giants are taking a gamble on his 2017 being an outlier, and are now on the hook for more than $80 million through his age-36 season at least. Banking on a return of power, even discounting his in-air contact rates, is asking a lot of a player moving from Tropicana Field to AT&T Park.

But even best-case-scenario Longoria may not be enough to return the losers of 98 games to postseason contention and threaten the Rockies. Yes, the pitching that ranked exactly middle-of-the-pack in MLB in ERA despite pitching in AT&T will be better. That is, so long as the team keeps Madison Bumgarner away from dirt bikes.

Even with their ace, though, the Giants did not play winning baseball in any month of the season. Where the team suffered the most was on offense, and gambling on Longoria may already have taken them a step backward after the inclusion of outfielder Denard Span in the trade. Span actually outpaced Longoria in wRC+ last season, posting a 102 over the star third baseman’s 96.

In a vacuum, the Giants have taken a step backward in offensive production at least in terms of last season’s production. The team did radically improve on their offensive output at the third base position. And they needed it there, ranking dead last in MLB by a wide margin in fWAR, wRC+, walk percentage, isolated power and slugging percentage. Plus, Span’s production is easily replaced, especially if Bruce is signed, but it still isn’t enough offense to get the team back into a place of contention.

Their outfield offense, even with Span and Hunter Pence, was the worst in baseball. By fWAR, they ranked 19th at shortstop and 21st at second base to pair with their struggles at the hot corner and outside of the infield. Catcher Buster Posey and first baseman Brandon Belt were very good, putting the team in top five in fWAR at their respective positions, but two bats don’t make a lineup. And four, with the addition of Longoria and potentially Bruce, is not significantly better.

This, paired with a lackluster rotation and a bottom five bullpen (again by fWAR) pretty readily explains how the team nearly lost triple-digit games a year ago. There is some hope for Giants fans in that Pence and closer Mark Melancon have been elite players in the game at certain points in their career, but neither produced at that level last season. Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija have both been All-stars but, similarly, look like shadows of their former selves.

Ultimately, the Giants are going to be reliant on too many “what-if’s” and best case scenarios. For a team that needs to convert roughly 25 losses into wins, they have stayed remarkably stagnant. Yet, the moves they have made imply they think they can win.

Of course, 2018 is an even year, so we’ll see you in November when they’ve somehow won the World Series.

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