Andrew Baggarly published a great story about Brian Sabean’s 1996 rookie year as the Giants’ general manager (The Athletic subscription required) which focuses on everything that needed to be done to turn around a moribund franchise that was trying to build a new stadium. Their directive was to win, and the only way that could be done was by dramatically remaking the roster.
Farhan Zaidi has no such edict this year, and he said at his introductory presser that he’s most interested in building a roster that can compete for as long as possible. The 2018 Giants were 68-68 heading into the season’s final month before one last run of injuries led them to the worst September — the worst month — in franchise history. A lot of the team can’t be moved for various reasons, but as Kenny discussed, the projections for both the hitting and pitching aren’t so dire that a teardown — which will never happen anyway — would automatically make the team better.
The current roster can be improved and keep them interesting in 2019. Not World Series-competitive, but competitive. That’s why you’ve heard the Giants interested in names like the discarded Troy Tulowitzki (whom Farhan Zaidi is personally scouting) or Mike Fiers or someone like Kevin Pillar, and that’s why the small moves they’ve made so far have been for fourth outfielder and middle relief types. The Giants need their good players to be good again, if for no other reason than they can’t do anything else with them at the moment.
The new front office has very likely determined that the best course of action is to compete with what they have and supplement it with worthwhile depth and hope that the core of the roster rebuilds value over the first half of the season. And then, it’ll be Farhan Zaidi’s time to shine, using other team’s desperation and glaring weaknesses to help the Giants reload. As soon as Brandon Belt shows he can go three months without injury and posts an .850+ OPS, he’s gone to the Yankees. Will Smith could be traded now for a haul or at the deadline to the next Cleveland team in an Andrew Miller-sized deal.
In the meantime, he just needs to make the current team decent. Going off of those Steamer projections that Kenny discussed, the Giants’ hitters are projected to put up 16.5 fWAR and the pitching 9.8 fWAR. If you factor in that a team of replacement-level players would win about 48 games, that means the Giants are projected to be about a 74-win team. Using these very rough estimates, I’m saying the Giants need to add about 10 wins to get them onto the “interesting” tier. 84-86 wins was frequently Brian Sabean’s target win projection, knowing that luck could push a team 5-10 wins in either direction.
Last week, I talked about the Giants having a boring offseason, assuming they were just going to build a team of unremarkable players knowing there’s very little they can do to get into the postseason. I cut out the part where I thought making the team worse would cajole the four players with no-trade clauses (Belt with a limited clause, but Posey, Crawford, and Melancon have full no-trades) to waive theirs in July and my cynicism was largely the result of extreme boredom from the Winter Meetings. The Giants might very well have a boring offseason — save Kikuchi — but it will be by design.
They are already trying to buy those 10 wins. They’re being very methodical about it. Again, there’s no reason for the team to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax in a mostly non-competitive year, but with about about $50 million in payroll space before the tax threshold, the rumored moves start to make a lot of sense — if you buy the idea that they’re aiming to add 10 projected wins to a 74/75-win projection.
Mike Fiers was mentioned as a target over the weekend. Steamer projects him to be worth about 1.2 fWAR and he’ll probably make in the realm of $5 million. Kevin Pillar, whom Alex Pavlovic mentioned specifically, will make between $4-$5 million in arbitration and still projects to be a 2-win player despite his declining defense and low offensive value. The aforementioned Troy Tulowitzki could be a 1.3-win player, per Steamer, but let’s just say after missing a full season, he’s probably closer to 1, which is the same total ZiPS projects for the Rule 5 draftee Drew Ferguson, who will earn the minimum $555,000 with the Giants, same as Tulowitzki (after the Blue Jays released him with two years remaining on his deal).
The Giants will need to trade prospects or maybe even take on payroll to get someone like Pillar, but ignoring that part of the transaction for the moment, adding him and the other three players is a 5.2-win boost in projection. They’re halfway home and would’ve spent a little more than 20% of their available salary space to get there. Now you can start talking about Yusei Kikuchi a little more honestly. Even if he earns $8-$12 million and is a 2-win player, the Giants will still be spending about $3.24 million per win this offseason, when the industry standard is about $8-$9 million per.
It’s not a sexy strategy and it’s dependent upon free agents becoming desperate to sign as Spring Training draws closer, which is pretty not great from a labor standpoint. Still, it also makes a ton of sense — it’s what Bobby Evans should’ve been doing since 2015. If a franchise commits itself to a core of players and ties up payroll commensurate with that commitment, then it only makes sense that brainpower needs to be used to create an effective roster outside the superstars.