Welcome to the fifth installment in a series of articles profiling organizations that might match up well as trade partners for the Cardinals this offseason. The intent of these pieces is not to propose or analyze specific trade ideas (although I will suggest a framework trade or three, and kicking around specific ideas in the comments is encouraged). The idea is to provide readers with more information about organizations they might not know as well as they know the Cardinals, so they can be more informed for Hot Stove season. Previous entries can be found here.
The Giants were one of baseball’s least pleasant surprises in 2017. After making and winning the NL Wild Card playoff game in 2016, they looked to be in strong position. They had a good core of position players coming out of 2016, highlighted by shortstop Brandon Crawford (~5 WAR, depending on how you score his defense), first baseman Brandon Belt (4 WAR), and catcher Buster Posey (4 WAR). Johnny Cueto (5.5 WAR) and Madison Bumgarner (5 WAR) anchored the 2016 rotation. The bullpen had been a problem, but they went out and aggressively signed one of the best relievers on the market, Mark Melancon, to a $62 million contract. They were considered one of the favorites for the NL Wild Card again, although unlikely to take the division back from the mighty Dodgers.
Then they went out and lost 98 games.
Things to know from 2017
Almost everybody played beneath their level, played badly, or both. The sole exceptions were Posey and pitcher Jeff Samardzija (4 WAR each). Second baseman Joe Panik turned in a disappointing 2 WAR, but maybe that’s just his level. Derek Law (1 WAR) had a nice season in the ‘pen. [Edit: got my years mixed up; Law was good in 2016 but lousy in 2017. nobody in the bullpen topped 1 WAR this year.] But everybody else was miles below their projections, got hurt, or simply didn’t project well in the first place.
Cueto fell all the way down to 1 WAR, and it’s not clear he was or is physically right. Belt was having a decent season but it was cut short by a concussion. Crawford didn’t hit and fell back to 2 WAR. Hunter Pence, at age 34, played like a guy whose career is winding down (1 WAR). And Bumgarner, a model of consistent excellence from 2011-16, was hurt in an off-field accident, from which he returned midseason and pitched… not actually that well. Not badly, but a high strand rate masked subpar (for him) peripherals. Bumgarner posted just 1.7 WAR in the FIP-based FanGraphs version, and his FIP- (FIP scaled to league average) was the worst at his career.
Oh, and the bullpen sucked again, ranking 25th in the league in fWAR. Melancon struggled with durability and was not his formerly dominant self, and nobody but Law picked up much of the slack.
They ended up picking up Pablo Sandoval’s well-padded skeleton from Boston, with Boston paying nearly the entire value of the contract, because hey, free skeleton. It was very 2017 Giants that Sandoval played horribly for them, and then lost them the first overall pick in the 2018 draft by hitting a walk-off home run on the final game of the season.
One last thing worth mentioning: the Giants’ owners spent over $180 million fielding a team last year, in the expectation it would be a contender. And they tied for the worst record in baseball. Maybe they are patient, maybe they are not. But the reporting into their thinking thus far suggests that they do not intend to blow things up and try again in a few years. An expensive and bad team with (seemingly) impatient ownership points squarely at big moves a-comin’.
If they get bounce-back seasons from Cueto, Crawford, Belt, Pence, Melancon, and Bumgarner, then this goes back to looking like a team with a strong core just missing some complementary pieces. But that’s six “ifs.” And it is an expensive group of ifs, meaning San Francisco isn’t really in the position to add the needed complementary pieces with money; their opening day 2018 payroll already projects at nearly $190 million. So…
Posey’s really good. Crawford’s still a good player, though it’s probably best to think of him as more of a three-win guy than the five-win guy he was during his 2015-16 peak. Belt is a good player. Samardzija is very solid, and Bumgarner is likely still a 4+ win pitcher, although sustained off-field or not, somewhat decreased performance following an injury to his throwing shoulder isn’t great to see.
This is also an organization that hasn’t shied away from spending money to improve itself. They guaranteed Cueto $130 million prior to the 2016 season, and Melancon $62 million a year ago. Although they project to remain just below the luxury tax threshold, the Giants are one of the highest-spending teams in the league, with the market to support that level of spending into the future. So while they are unlikely to take on a contract like Giancarlo Stanton’s without corresponding moves to reduce payroll elsewhere, making those counter-balancing moves is feasible and would make them a candidate for a cash-expensive upgrade, whether through trades or free agency.
Their outfield was replacement-level as a group in 2017. They should fix that.
They have few prospects of note, although the farm lacks much in the way of impact projection or upper-level prospects of interest. Christian Arroyo is a major exception: although his lack of power projection limits his ceiling a bit at third base, he has a potentially elite hit tool and should be a major defensive plus at the hot corner. Others of note:
- OF Bryan Reynolds; second-round pick in 2016, had a strong year in the high-A California League. Kind of a Harrison Bader type, but with less minor-league game power showing up so far. Unlikely to be MLB-ready yet in 2018.
- 1B/OF Chris Shaw; he’s a riser in this system after showing considerable power at the upper levels. Still, the drag on his scouting reports has always been bat-to-ball questions, and a spike in strikeouts paired with a dropping walk rate in AAA raises questions about his ability to carry his game over to the bigs.
- SP Andrew Suarez; 2015 second-rounder who doesn’t wow anybody with his repertoire but just keeps getting good results as he’s risen. He’s likely to see the majors in 2018, and projects as a solid #4-5, with room to be a left-handed Mike Leake kind of guy.
A year ago, SP Tyler Beede would have merited a bullet point, but he really scuffled after a promotion to AAA. After that… San Francisco has undeniably been successful (much like the Cardinals) at cranking out MLB-caliber players who weren’t heralded prospects, and no doubt somebody from their mass of B-/C+ types will do it again, but there’s nobody who jumps off the page as worthy of your attention at this stage.
And that’s an issue for the Giants. As discussed above, there’s a legitimate chance the old core has a big collective bounce-back coming. But even if they get it – even if the six bounce-back candidates I mentioned to lead off the Strengths section really bounce back, and produce 15 more wins in 2018 than they collectively did in 2017 – we’re still only looking at a team the projects to be around .500, maybe a tick better. They still need to complement those players, and the farm system is unlikely to provide much (even Arroyo is expected to start next year in the minors) in the short term.
So they’re in a tough spot, if they want to leap back into contention in one offseason. They’d need to clear corresponding payroll before pursuing highly-paid guys like Stanton or Josh Donaldson, and their farm looks pretty thin to be pursing low-paid guys like Christian Yelich instead.
What they should do
Let’s take it as a given that the Giants’ leadership is sincere about being unwilling to take the tear-down step. So, whatever one might think of the merits, that’s off the table.
Current projections do expect a pretty solid bounce-back for many Giants. Based on those, the Giants project as 10-ish (-ish! It’s all very -ish, the October before) WAR away from contention in 2018. How can we get them those 10 wins?
First, let’s spend a bunch of money. $20M a year for J.D. Martinez bumps one of those outfield zeroes up to a 3. Pulling off a Marcell Ozuna trade costs them $11M more in 2018, plus the prospects. That bumps another zero-ish outfielder up to a 4. We’re getting there! But, now the Giants’ payroll (pre-luxury-tax) is around $220 million, which I’m guessing is higher than they want to go.
So, second, let’s shed a bunch of money. About $25M out the door gets them down under the luxury tax. Denard Span is owed $11M and projects to be worth roughly that if he plays full time, though it’s hard to find a team to take a one-win player and play him full time – maybe if they pick up half. Brandon Belt is owed $17.2M a year through 2021, and should draw offers at that price. Matt Moore at $9M or Joe Panik at (projected) $3.5M are potential ways to chip away. Finding a buyer for at least some of Hunter Pence’s contract ($18.5M) would go a long way, but seems tough.
Of course, trading those guys (the ones worth having, anyway) opens up holes. So, third, let’s find them some low-cost, productive players to fill the remaining or newly-opened holes. Which takes us to…
How they match up with the Cardinals
Once we assume they’ve committed to the above – and I have no idea how they think they’re realistically a contender without something like it – there are some good fits. The Giants could use Jedd Gyorko no matter what: that’s a three-win improvement over their barrel of nothing at third, right off the bat, at a modest 2018 cost of $6.5M. Randal Grichuk (projected for $3M) and Stephen Piscotty ($1.3M) would both slot in full time in their outfield as 1-2 win upgrades over Span, or 2+ over the zeroes they have in the corners. Greg Garcia (minimum) would be an intriguing option for a full-time job on the cheap. Luke Voit or Jose Martinez (minimum each) would be options for first base if Belt is traded.
There are so many moving parts in all this that it’s tough to guess at what exactly they’d want from the Cards and how the Cards would respond, but let’s not let that stop us. A couple ideas:
- Gyorko, Voit, and Grichuk for Belt and a B- type of prospect. Giants get about $8M cheaper, which helps them finance the other stuff they need to do. They also pick up around 1 win in net value on the field along with somebody to throw in the mix to replace Belt. The Cardinals move Matt Carpenter back across the diamond to 3B (I know…) and get a guy who has never posted fewer than 4 WAR in a full season. It’s not a totally clear 2018 upgrade for St. Louis, but they get a prospect and consolidate some guys. I’ll also admit to straining a bit here to create something that looks like a “buy” for St. Louis.
- Piscotty for most of Pence’s bad contract, Arroyo, and Suarez. Cut Pence. Giants kill two birds (outfield upgrade and freed-up salary for other moves) with one stone, Cards get prospects for an expendable piece and expendable cash, I get to indulge my twin passions of moving Stephen Piscotty closer to his family and encouraging the Cards to purchase prospects by assuming bad contracts.
All in all, the Cards’ strengths match up with the Giants’ needs better than vice versa, if we believe them that they’re not going to move their big guns (except maybe Belt). That doesn’t mean a trade can’t happen — it just means it’s more likely to be the Cardinals selling something from the MLB level and not getting the big upgrade they’re looking for. That doesn’t make a trade with the Giants bad, just probably unexciting.