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The Giants might only sort of get better, and that's the problem

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What the Diamondbacks learned from the Padres, and what the Giants and Dodgers can learn from both teams.

"28th handsomest manager? Kiss my derriere, Calcaterra."
"28th handsomest manager? Kiss my derriere, Calcaterra."
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The caveat to the article you’re about to read is that we’re still in the middle of the Winter Meetings, and everything I’m writing could look really stupid in 12 or 24 hours. Baseball has a way of doing that, though. Remember when the 2012 Giants got everyone healthy post-deadline? That was a really good lineup. For 24 hours. So I’m going to roll the dice on the relevance of this piece, and if it hits print moments after the mind-blowing three-team trade that puts Carlos Carrasco in a Giants uniform...well, at that point, "looking stupid" probably won’t be the biggest thing on my mind.

Seems unlikely, though. The Carrasco trade, not the looking-stupid part, and it’s all the less likely because at the time of this writing, the trade market of a cost-controlled young co-ace has been set at "HA HA WHAAAT?" Seriously, look at these quotes from Anonymous Executives. The Braves got a Jose Fernandez return for Shelby Miller, and the Marlins want a 2011 Clayton Kershaw return for Jose Fernandez.

(It almost makes you want to dangle Madison Bumgarner. Not to actually trade him, of course. Just...maybe the Giants could leak a fake rumor that they’re considering it and see what kind of lunatic offers they get. Madison could keep them in a file folder and look at them when he’s feeling down. It’d be fun to be on the other side of this for a bit, is all I’m saying).

Anyway, there’s a lot of pointing and laughing at the Diamondbacks. There always is, for some reason; have you noticed that? I think it’s because the grit-era D-Backs took themselves so dang seriously. But this time, instead of speculating on Kirk Gibson personally installing one of those "THERE IS NO P IN OUR OOL" signs in right-center, there’s actual baseball reasons. No, not the cyberpunk-little-league uniforms, baseball reasons. Look at those quotes again. "Worst trade I’ve ever seen." That doesn’t need any qualifiers.

The temptation is to join in, and here in the wide expanses of the NL West, we have a perfect, illustrative moral fable of what happens to teams who Win the Offseason. This time last year, A.J. Preller was out there re-enacting the Dikembe Mutombo commercial with other GMs’ cell phones. The Padres wanted to make a splash, and they did, but it turned out the splash was the sound of a concrete block tied to a body. Or possibly that’s just what it sounds like when Matt Kemp rotates his hip in the wrong direction.

Now we have another also-ran NL West team moving heaven, earth, and their entire Baseball America Top 10 to break into the two-team race. There’s a historical lesson in there, alright, but it’s not just for the Diamondbacks.

It’s for the Giants and Dodgers.

Look back at that manifestly insane Padres offseason, with the benefit of hindsight. What did the Padres need?

  • Hitters
  • No, seriously, just some major-league hitters
  • Anyone who can hit the ball even a little
  • I guess in the outfield, if we have to pick
  • Oh, and a top-line starting pitcher, that’d be cool too

That’s what they got...more or less. They got an entire new outfield, full of shiny credentials – the #1 pick in an all-time great draft, 2011’s should-have-been MVP, and 2013’s top prospect in all of baseball. Then they got the ace pitcher who that last guy was traded for. Also a good-hitting catcher somewhere in there. Quite a haul! But it doesn’t even take hindsight to see the cracks. That’s three starting outfielders, and not a center fielder among them, or even a plus defender in any spot. The catcher had some high-profile problems controlling the running game. The pitcher was certainly good, but not a dominant, world-beating ace. The Royals needed James Shields to #shove in the 2014 playoffs, and he didn’t #shove. You need a guy who can #shove.

So either the Padres went into the offseason with a loose, ill-defined goal like "hitters, just some hitters," or they aimed for "the best outfield in the majors and a shiny new ace" and...sort of got that. They got the local equivalent thereof. By a certain evaluation, they had a two-way superstar CF, flanked by a power hitter in his prime and an exciting young prospect with a possible monster bat. By another evaluation, they had...well, we all know what they had.

Now compare it to the Diamondbacks. What did the Diamondbacks need?

  • Pitching
  • Seriously, pitching
  • Ha ha look at this nonsense
  • The lineup’s kinda top-heavy, I guess, but who cares by comparison
  • Rubby De La Rosa led the team in starts, what do you fricking think we need

Okay, makes sense. So they signed the best pitcher money could buy, and then they traded for one of the better pitchers prospects could acquire. It cost a staggering amount in both cases, and that's its own problem – but last year, it cost the Padres a staggering amount to do whatever the heck they did. They didn’t get the best player available in either market. They got some promising, interesting players with question marks. The Diamondbacks did not get question marks, at least for 2016 or 2017. They got big, ludicrous exclamation points, which will also double as trouser piping for one of those stupid new uniforms.

Here’s where the San Francisco Giants come into this article on a San Francisco Giants fan blog. The Dodgers, too, hopping in together like the world’s most contentious three-legged sack race.

The [Giants/Dodgers] came into the offseason with a lot of exciting young players who, while they could be trade chips, probably worked best as a part of the club’s future. The [Giants/Dodgers] needed another great pitcher to pair with their left-handed ace, and also some stability in the middle of the rotation. Also, the Giants needed an outfielder, and the Dodgers needed a bullpen. But that great pitcher was priority one, and since they had the same great pitcher in mind, it was pretty clear what was going on. Until the Xtreme Diamondbackz screwed everything up!

So the [Giants/Dodgers] still needed a #2 pitcher, and they got one...sort of. The Giants paid reasonable money for the enigmatic Jeff Samardzija, who might be a hard-throwing co-ace, unless he’s one of the least effective pitchers in baseball, unless he’s something in between. Meanwhile, the Dodgers signed a guy who’s spent his MLB career as an effective second fiddle to an ace. Hisashi Iwakuma is a literal #2 pitcher! He’s also 34 years old, with a history of shoulder problems and a resume full of insane NPB pitch-counts.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Both of these guys fill a need...sort of. They’re question-mark players. And that’s generally fine and unsurprising, because they can’t all be exclamation points. Baseball is full of question marks, as well as semicolons, asterices, weird little footnotes, and sentences where someone was apparently typing in Wingdings. But there comes a point where you have to evaluate the goals of team-building against the reality, and too many goals sort-of-met can be a dangerous thing.

It wasn’t just the starting pitchers. The Dodgers theoretically went for a top-flight solution to their bullpen woes, acquiring Aroldis Chapman. Only the question marks were still there – first at the end of "What does this do to Kenley Jansen, our only other good reliever?" and then "Wait, is Aroldis Chapman a repugnant human being who shouldn’t be within miles of our clubhouse?" And they’re not getting Jose Fernandez. It’s a weird, unsettling offseason in Los Angeles, which is funny, but would be funnier if the Giants weren’t bordering on something similar.

The Giants still need an outfielder, and they could really use a pitcher. The stated outfield goal is a corner outfielder who can handle center, as an alternative to Angel Pagan’s sproingy knees this season and full-time in the future. The organizational philosophy is for players who can play good defense, get on base to keep the line moving, and if they’re left-handed, hit with line-drive gap power so AT&T is their cuddly triples-granting friend and not their dinger-robbing nemesis.

Exactly! Jason Heyward is exactly who the Giants need. He has the ideal skillset, plus he’s young, he’s exciting, and he sends a message to season-ticket holders that the Giants aren’t going to take this Diamondbacks nonsense lying down. Of course, he’ll be incredibly expensive, so maybe…

Sure! When he’s not starring in that recurring nightmare where Brandon Crawford drops the cutoff throw, Alex Gordon is a stellar defensive left fielder who can plausibly handle center. He’s older, but that means he’ll get a short deal. He’s now full of playoff experience, so you don’t have to worry about him taking a (totally rational) casual jog down the first-base line at the worst possible time.

I mean...huh. Okay. Gerardo Parra had one really good year recently, then a couple bad ones. But maybe he’ll be cheap wait no he won’t. He’s a rich man’s Gregor Blanco. That’s a perfectly useful player, but when you already have Gregor Blanco - and could almost certainly extend him for two more years for less than Parra will cost - what’s the point?

The point is probably that Parra fills a need and fits a profile...sort of. You can do the same exercise with Mike Leake and the middle of the rotation, if you like. The Giants came into this offseason needing two pitchers, one really good and one reliable, and a starting outfielder. There’s some very believable scenarios in which they come out with all those spots filled by guys who, you know, more or less fit the bill. Kind of. They might be great! They might stink. They’ll probably be kind of frustrating. And they certainly won’t be the best possible solution to a problem.

And if that happens, the ghost of A.J. Preller’s Good Intentions will be hovering over Bobby Evans’s shoulder, shaking his head sadly. The Padres made two mistakes last year, but one of them was a calculated risk. And the Diamondbacks were paying attention, so when it was their turn to burn down the farm, at least they invited the best players in the neighborhood to the party.

This doesn't mean the Giants are doomed if they don't blow past the luxury tax. Unlike the Diamondbacks and Padres, they didn't burn down the farm. But they are in danger of coming into an offseason with very clearly defined needs, and leaving it having exhausted their available resources (money and years) on players who – say it with me now – sort of meet those needs. Baseball is full of imperfect, middling solutions to pressing problems; that's most of building a roster. But you can't sort of get it right too many times. That's how you literally finish fourth in your division.