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Madison Bumgarner and a winning philosophy

Does the Giants’ most prominent pitcher reflect the organization’s prominent goal?

Colorado Rockies v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Madison Bumgarner is happy enough in his present circumstances and wants to remain with the Giants , but the Giants don’t want to remain in their present circumstances as a team treading water / sinking into an abyss. Does a separation merit consideration or will the team need him as a key asset of their next good team, whenever that may be? It all depends on what kind of energy and culture the Giants want to surround that next good team.

Bumgarner represents a link to the team’s immediate past. He’s exactly what the organization has desired since the 1980s: a dominant, #1 starting pitcher with the ability to beat any team at any time and be the face of the franchise.

He’s been the star of their last two postseasons and his 2014 performance literally changed the way teams approach pitching in the playoffs. He also shows every key indicator of significant decline, well on his way from being a semi-power pitcher to a soft-tossing and crafty lefty. It’s unclear if he’ll make that transition successfully and it’s unclear if his physical health will even hold up for much longer. We’ve all perhaps underrated the dirt bike accident he suffered in 2017.

The Giants have been stuck in the nostalgia gear since Bumgarner’s magnificent playoffs streak, intent upon keeping the band together for as long as possible. Back in June, I argued that they’d never trade him because he’s a legend, and you simply don’t trade legends. But all legends end, and if the Giants really want to turn the page and start a new chapter — and there’s no reason for them not to — that might be a key consideration for the next decade.

There’s certainly a very strong chance the Giants simply play out a permutation of the past few seasons one more time holding onto Bumgarner and his $12 million salary and simply trying to build around an eroded core of Posey, Bumgarner, Belt, and Crawford. Every article you read about the team’s plans all arrive at the same conclusion: there is no obvious solution.

Jon Tayler presented this idea to a national audience last week for SI.com:

Now the question becomes what path the Giants choose to walk to solve the problem that was the 2018 season. The team is already on the hook for $138 million next season and $124 million the year after that; future large free-agent expenditures could be a financial step too far. There are young players who could be dealt, but that would leave San Francisco once again trying to contend with an aging roster and no depth. Building around players like Dereck Rodriguez, Chris Shaw, and Austin Slater is a better bet than hoping on players like Longoria turning back the clock.

From the outside, there’s no obvious answer to the Giants’ woes. They’re unlikely to land a franchise-changing free agent like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, and their farm system, while improving, isn’t capable of producing an Astros- or Cubs-style turnaround. The best bet may be to unload what veterans they can and try to get younger around the diamond while hoping for better health and results next year.

In this sense, Madison Bumgarner is the physical manifestation of the Giants’ decline. But are his and the team’s fortunes intertwined or is this just Baseball and the team needs to focus on success, individual players be damned?

One more year of Bumgarner and the same core of players means one more year of performance decline. Do the Giants need that? It’s very hard to maintain the same hard edge and winning ways when the body isn’t able. That’s the biggest problem here: Madison Bumgarner can police Yasiel Puig and Ryan Braun all he wants, but at some point he won’t be able to backup his tough talk on the baseball field and he’ll have to try something else.

“At some point” is right now, though, and the Giants would be wise to move on from his way of playing — which at some point became the team’s way of playing — and figuring out a way that actually works. It’s not simply a matter of “shaking things up” to “make the team better”, it’s about making things different.

In sports, “new” doesn’t automatically mean bad, but bad rarely turns around to become good again. That’s the limit of athletic ability and human mortality: there is no permanence, only degradation. Sustained success — winning — is all about having the stomach to acknowledge bad situations for what they are and taking measures to address it.

We’re already seen Madison Bumgarner adjusting to his new circumstances, not to get better, but just to survive his diminished skill set. On the other hand, because the Giants don’t have to worry about mortality in the literal sense, any change they make might very well be an improvement, and the only way they’re going to survive is by getting different... such as acknowledging the uncertainty that comes with an aging legend who’s no longer the player you need.