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What could “meaningful baseball as deep into the season as possible” look like in 2019?

The Giants won’t tear it all down, but they can’t maintain the status quo. So...?

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Well, it’s been nine days since the Giants introduced Farhan Zaidi as their new President of Baseball Operations and we haven’t gotten one trade or waiver claim or even a rumor about how the team might begin to reshape itself this offseason. There’s not even a GM in place or any suggestion that the team is close to making a hire for the position. It’s an agonizing radio silence after such an exciting move.

There are, of course, many logical reasons for that silence. Zaidi will need to review as much of the organization as quickly as possible to get himself up to speed. The Winter Meetings are when more action tends to happen in the offseason anyway, and those are still a few weeks away. The day after the introductory press conference, the team honored Willie McCovey’s life. Mainly, these things take time.

This is the first time in a generation where there’s no telling what the Giants will do this offseason. Had Bobby Evans kept his job, we might very well be talking about Andrew McCutchen’s imminent return. Had Brian Sabean been willing to oversee the front office for one last season, we might be hearing about a bunch of moves in short order, as he traditionally didn’t like to wait for the market to play out. Who might’ve been this year’s Edgar Renteria?

We just don’t know what will happen, but we might be able to infer a general team direction just based on the parties involved. Larry Baer has been pretty adamant about the Giants preferring not to rebuild and Zaidi more or less echoed that sentiment during the press conference in his answer to a question posed by Kerry Crowley of the Mercury News:

Crowley: You talk about wanting to play meaningful baseball as deep into the season as possible. How important is it to you to make significant changes to the roster this offseason to be able to do that right away?”

Zaidi: I think if you look back at the 2018 season, this was a team that was playing competitive baseball until some of the injuries really started side-railing those efforts. As you start thinking of what the next season can look like and maybe projecting better health and the improvement of some of the young guys that were brought along in 2018, you don’t really wanna throw the baby out of the bathwater, but kinda over-indexing on how the injuries affected the team’s performance... so I think that’s all going to be stuff to consider. I think you can have teams with a certain record that you say “We need to do a lot” and then you can have teams where you say “Hey, this same roster with better health and some better fortune could really turn that record around. So, I think that’s something we’re going to have to think through going forward.

Now, “projecting better health” feels like the baseball man’s fallacy a la the gambler’s fallacy, but it also makes a certain amount of sense. No baseball team can succeed with injuries to most or all of its key players, but it can mitigate the situation with depth. It’s this idea, I think, that will give Farhan the leeway to make some significant changes to the organization and roster without sacrificing the central tenet of “Thou shalt not rebuild.” On this point, Zaidi said:

No move is too small to not be worth a certain level of effort and detail. You know, waiver claims, minor league free agents... you know, second or third players in trades... there’s a lot of value to be had in identifying talent in those regards. Talent identification is key. There are many ways to do that. Having a strong scouting staff is obviously important. Having a strong analytics important is important. When you’re a franchise like the San francisco giants and you’re at that stature, your goal should be to be the best at everything. It shouldn’t be a choice of analytics or scouting or something else.

The Giants aren’t going to win the World Series in 2019, but they could win more than 73 games and make the Dodgers sweat a little bit more by simply retooling the major league roster and revamping the entire development system. Does that mean trading every recognizable face in the team’s constellation?

This panel discussion on MLB Network speaks to my next point:

The Giants have a lot of older, expensive players who suffered substantial injuries in 2018 and are either out for all of 2019 (Cueto) or questionable heading into it (Samardzija, Posey). The team could be in a tough spot because they could have enough talent to compete if healthy, but there’s no guarantee that the roster will be healthy.

If you watched that panel discussion, then you heard them say “if healthy” a lot when talking about next year’s potential team; but “if healthy” is a gamble. If you’re Farhan Zaidi, why not gamble instead on perhaps unproven players but ones with upside? Why not gamble on above average production for either a swap from depth or in exchange for salary relief?

A bevy of available players from Cleveland, the Phillies, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Royals, Diamondbacks, Orioles, and possibly the Cubs (CBT), Mets (new GM), Marlins (they’re the Marlins), Nationals (post-Harper retooling), Pirates (CBT), Reds (how else will they unload the remaining $28 million on Homer Bailey’s contract?), Toronto (rebuilding?), Rangers (still rebuilding), and Rays (they’re the Rays) makes a smarter reload than last offseason’s attempt very possible.

Additionally, it’s very possible the other front offices have decided to further collude to drive down labor costs by flooding the market with non-tenders. The Giants have the resources to scoop up a lot of these non-tenders and absorb a lot of these market-rate player contracts from disinterested teams. That could mean some familiar, friendly faces go away, but in return you get to watch a better baseball team in 2019.

A month after he was hired on as the Dodgers’ GM, Zaidi was a part of two big trades within a week of each other. The first sent starting second baseman Dee Gordon, coming off a breakout year, to the Marlins in exchange for Andrew Heaney, one of their top pitching prospects. They then sent Heaney to the Angels in exchange for Howie Kendrick who would become their new starting second baseman.

Also in that deal was starting pitcher Dan Haren. The Dodgers paid his entire salary ($10 million) as well as Gordon’s (around $2.5 million after salary arbitration). Not only did they get the valuable prospect Heaney (whom they could’ve put into the rotation but instead traded, only to add Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson to be rotation depth), but they got players who’ve become roster stalwarts — Enrique Hernandez, Austin Barnes — and a useful reliever (Chris Hatcher).

Then they moved Matt Kemp to the Padres for Yasmani Grandal and others. Kemp was coming off his age-29 season wherein he posted a 140 OPS+ in 150 games. The Dodgers traded their second and seventh-best offensive players in the same offseason and still won 92 games the following season.

In both cases, they received in return one more player than they traded away and in exchange for giving up a big piece of their own, got back several smaller but useful pieces that were crucial to their recent success. This is how teams can stave off boom and bust cycles — a little bit of pain now prevents a lot of pain down the road.

The Giants have famously focused only on their present needs with very little regard for the future. That has more or less worked for them recently. Three titles in five years assures their methods even if we view today’s standings as additional consequence... but sports don’t need to be this way.

Teams should be able to build and contend at the same time. If the brain geniuses running front offices these days really are as smart as they need to be, then many of them surely realize that not all haircuts are bad. The Giants should be able to clean up their look without having to shave their metaphorical head bald, and if Farhan Zaidi wants his team to play meaningful baseball for as long as possible while making every move count, then I think 2019 will look a lot like this year, but with perhaps a little more promise on the 40 man roster and plenty of activity that doesn’t just revolve around injury.

With very little actual information to go on, I’m predicting the Giants will make a lot more moves that would be considered a reload than a rebuild... even if they trade Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Belt, Will Smith, Tony Watson, and all your favorites.