This is who the Giants have always been. Trading their best prospects, not blue chippers but guys with a decent chance at being decent major leaguers, for established veterans was a hallmark of the early Brian Sabean era. And for a while, it worked. The late ‘90s/early 2000s teams were perennial contenders, and while much of that was on the backs of Barry Bonds and, to a lesser extent, Jeff Kent, you can’t discount the importance of the guys who came in trade. From Livan Hernandez to Jason Schmidt, Robb Nen to, yes, AJ Pierzynski, building the team by trading for veterans was a largely very effective Giants strategy for almost a decade.
Now, before you start thinking this is an inherently critical point, well, they had lots of success with this model. From 1997 to 2004, blah blah playoff appearances, one World Series, joke about meteor, 8 meaningless games or whatever that meaningless games stat was I’m not gonna look it up, perennial national relevance. To you kids out there, that list wasn’t me being lazy, but my brain and fingers adamantly refusing to replicate a hoary talking point from days gone by.
This also isn’t to say that the Giants haven’t traded prospects for veterans in recent years, but the trades for Freddy Sanchez, Carlos Beltran, and Hunter Pence were in season complementary moves to bolster already contending teams. Those teams had young, homegrown cores; now, any possibility of a young core tomorrow is being shipped out of town for an upgrade today.
But is this a good strategy in 2018 at all, much less for the 2018 Giants? Prospects are much more highly valued today than they were 20 years ago, so teams are much more likely to look very closely at talent in a trade instead of just shedding salary. That means that the incredible good fortune the Giants had in the early Sabean years — before the Pierzynski deal, of the guys the Giants traded, only Keith Foulke really panned out, though Jason Grilli would eventually go on to have a very fine career — is extremely unlikely to repeat itself. That’s already been true in deals for more minor talents like Mike Leake and Casey McGehee, which the Giants certainly regret; the packages for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen cost them prospects more highly regarded, whose futures have a good shot at being much brighter.
So the strategy has actual costs now. But does it still work? After all, since the heyday of the Barry Bonds era, there has been a bit of a shift in aging curves*. And aging has hit both Longoria and McCutchen: Longoria’s had an OPS under .800 in three of the last four years, while McCutchen recovered from a down 2016 last year but didn’t come close to his former perennial 6 win self. Both bWAR and fWAR had them worth a combined 6 wins last year (and less the year before that); they’ve each had multiple years where they did that by themselves. Building a team out of guys whose best days are behind them, even if there are still probably pretty good days ahead, is a recipe for diminishing returns and disappointment.
Are the Giants even still good at identifying assets? After all, their last big trade was to acquire Matt Moore, who at least theoretically fit the Livan Hernandez mold of young pitchers with plenty of team control left, and after the 2016 returns on that trade were mixed, the 2017 returns were decidedly not mixed. And more importantly, the team hasn’t seen the massive upside they saw back in the day. Mike Leake didn’t turn into a modern day Jason Schmidt, Denard Span never had a year as good as Darryl Hamilton’s half season in 1998, and there just haven’t been the wild success stories of guys coming in from outside the organization to sustain this strategy of team building. You can’t just trade for a perfectly fine Eduardo Nuñez. You have to watch him turn into Jeff Kent, or it’ll be really hard to win, and the Giants haven’t hit those home runs (baseball term) in player evaluation in a while.
And then there’s the fact that the Giants were really bad last year. I have spent plenty of time harping on this. Bryan has spent plenty of time harping on this. But it’s worth repeating: the Giants are building a house on a bad foundation. It’s at an incline. The cement’s cracked. There’s a guy living in a tent and the city ruled that he has squatter’s rights and you can’t kick him out. Does that mean it’s impossible that the house will stand and look nice for, hey I don’t know let’s just pick a timetable completely at random here, six months before it collapses? No. Is that the thing you should bet on? I wouldn’t.
This is a strategy that has worked before for the Giants, and that’s why it’s possible that it will work again. But it’s also a strategy whose time may have passed, that the Giants might not be so good at anymore, and possibly isn’t worth trying even if they could pull it off. It’s a strategy that blew up in their face in 2005, when Barry Bonds got hurt and couldn’t carry the team all by himself, and it didn’t work too well in 2006 either, when the team mostly got the performances they should have expected out of everyone. If the Giants are selling out any possible future they have so they can have a regular bad season like 2006 instead of a shockingly bad one like last year, that’s probably not worth it. But they’re doing it because that’s who this front office has always been. They had success with it once, so they’re gonna cast their lot with it again, odds be damned.
Sure will be cool to see McCutchen in a Giants uniform though.