The 2009 Giants didn’t make the postseason. But they weren’t bad. On the contrary: They were a fascinating team, filled with potential and young pitchers in their prime. They weren’t bad. They were frustrating.
The 2011 Giants didn’t make the postseason. But they weren’t bad. They just lost their best player early in the season, and injuries and offensive struggles doomed them in the second half. With some better luck, they might have made it back to the postseason.
The 2015 Giants didn’t make the postseason. But they weren’t bad. They had a rough time pitching the baseball, but they featured line drive hitters up and down the lineup, which made for a surprisingly effective group. With some better luck — and some better pitching -- they might have made it back to the postseason.
The 2013 Giants were bad.
Ryan Vogelsong’s 5.73 ERA wasn’t the worst in the rotation. That was because of Barry Zito’s 5.74 ERA. The Giants were still working through the Tim Lincecum experiment, except this was also the start of Bad Matt Cain. Angel Pagan got hurt, and the team crumbled with him. The bench was miserable, and it took a late surge from Hunter Pence for the Giants to want to keep him. When the trade deadline came, they were supposed to trade Pence, Lincecum, and maybe Sergio Romo. Oh, and Javier Lopez.
Heard this: In talks with Giants about Javier Lopez, #Indians were told it would take prospect Danny Salazar. Not happening.— paul hoynes (@hoynsie) July 31, 2013
He’s pitching like Matt Moore for the Indians this year, so I’m thinking they probably should have just done it. Silly team. You could have had Javier Lopez!
The Giants didn’t trade anyone, though, not even Chad Gaudin. They lost and lost some more, but they weren’t sellers at the deadline. It was a mess ... until they won the World Series the next year. I keep going back to the disappointment of that season, the feeling that the window was closing, and then the elation the following year. It feels like a parallel.
It’s might not be the right parallel, but the comparison isn’t completely discouraging.
The biggest differences between 2013 and 2017, other than the former finishing in fourth place and the latter being on pace for the worst season in franchise history:
The 2013 team was much younger
The key cogs in the lineup:
Buster Posey (26)
Brandon Belt (25)
Brandon Crawford (26)
Pablo Sandoval (26)
Hunter Pence (30)
By my calculations, all five of those players have each aged one year for each season after 2013. Madison Bumgarner was just 23, and both Matt Cain were under 30 and bound to bounce back, ha ha, right? But this point is mostly about the four hitters up there and Bumgarner. You don’t give up and start a dramatic rebuild when you have an MVP catcher in his prime and a mostly homegrown and young infield.
Now take a look at the current squad:
Buster Posey (30)
Brandon Belt (29)
Brandon Crawford (30)
Joe Panik (26)
Hunter Pence (34)
It’s not exactly a group of grandpas, but there is a hitter who is at an age that you can forecast imminent or lasting doom (Pence), as well as a bunch of hitters who might not get better next year just because you want them to. Not to mention that the group from 2013 entered the offseason with reasons for optimism, whereas the second group is going to need a heckuva surge from Pence and Crawford to get back to the confidence the Giants had in them at the beginning of the season, and Panik is settling in as a mostly defense-first player instead of the potential offensive plus he was looking like early in his career.
The 2013 team didn’t have the same payroll commitments for their core
The 2013 team had some serious payroll commitments, some of them going to players who were going to be around for a while (Matt Cain, Buster Posey) and players they were patiently waiting out (Barry Zito), but they weren’t locked into Belt, Crawford, Sandoval, and Pence yet. They didn’t have Denard Span, Jeff Samardzija, or the will-he-won’t-he of Johnny Cueto. They had a cheap closer, not a premium closer from Nordstrom.
This year’s Giants team has several players who are under contract through 2020. That’s ... my stars, that’s a long time. Three years ago, the Cubs and Astros were horrible. There’s so much that can happen between now and 2020. The Giants might win 100 games with the help of Bryan Reynolds and Brett Gardner! Buster Posey might be a first baseman, and Brandon Belt might be an outfielder! Tim Lincecum might be back in the majors! I mean, there’s going to be stuff in 2018 that blows our minds over Yonder, much less 2020.
But those are funny, happy scenarios for 2020. The Giants might also be paying close to $100 million to players who aren’t productive anymore, which would essentially turn them into the Rays or Padres, trying to build a 25-man roster with the $100 million they have left. That’s the biggest reason they can’t entertain a Giancarlo Stanton deal. It’s why they’re unlikely to sign Josh Donaldson in a couple of years. They’ve already made their big payroll choices, and they go like this: Posey, Crawford, Belt, Samardzija, Cueto (maybe), Bumgarner (cheap now, probably more expensive soon), and Melancon.
If you’re looking for better news, or at least an ending that isn’t such a downer, I can help with that: The basic tenets of the 2013-2014 transition were based in a belief in a Posey-Crawford-Belt-Bumgarner-Sandoval core. That they would be good enough to carry a team that contended the next year.
This is the same thing, except there’s Panik instead of Sandoval, and most of the players in question are going to be 30 or 31 instead of 26 or 27. The good news is that 30 or 31 is still a reasonable age to count on. I’m not terrified about Brandon Belt next year. Same goes for Crawford, who’s probably going to be fine.
But while it’s not ludicrous to bring back that same core and try again in 2018, it’s obvious that a window is closing. That’s the main difference. The Giants aren’t dealing with 20-somethings who are going to be around for years, with their cheap contracts helping to subsidize the expensive veteran help on the rest of the roster. Those 20-somethings are the expensive veteran help on the rest of the roster.
If the plan is going to work, they’ll need new, cheap 20-somethings. Austin Slater was intriguing, and Ty Blach has been competent, but that’s been it so far. It can still happen with Chris Shaw, Ryder Jones, and Steven Duggar, but it doesn’t have to. The last Giants team did the hard part first. They had the 20-somethings making arbitration money, and that allowed them to go after the veterans. Now they have the veterans, and they need the 20-somethings.
That’s a much trickier thing to ask of an organization. And that’s why this season feels different.