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Are the Giants sitting on a pile of fool’s gold?

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We assumed the quality relief arms might provide some trade value, but have bleeding edge analytics negated all leverage?

San Franciso Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Giants had the eighth-best bullpen in all of baseball last season in terms of Wins Above Replacement, fifth in FIP, and sixth in xFIP, and all that despite the team record being tied for seventh-worst. The bullpen was a bright spot. Perhaps the bright spot.

On paper, your 2019 San Francisco Giants figure to be at the very least decent.

2019 Bullpen Projections (fWAR)

Player ZiPS Steamer PECOTA
Player ZiPS Steamer PECOTA
Will Smith 0.9 0.9 1.0
Mark Melancon 0.6 0.3 0.6
Tony Watson 0.8 0.3 1.2
Sam Dyson 0.3 0.2 0.7
Reyes Moronta 0.6 0.4 1.4
Ray Black 0.1 0.3 0.6
Total 3.3 2.4 4.5

Not spectacular, but not a disaster. Projected to be third-best in the NL West, even, behind Arizona and Los Angeles. This chart doesn’t even factor in the recent addition of Nick Vincent or Rule 5 pick Travis Bergen, either of whom could provide more value than their zero-win projections once they find roles and throw some innings in Oracle Park.

Overall, it’s the type of bullpen that when combined with bounce back years from a veteran core of hitters, a Bryce Harper addition (lol), and maybe one more quality starter it could carry a team making a late-season charge for one of the wild cards.

Instead, what will probably happen — if all goes well in terms of health and performance — is a bunch of trades. Farhan Zaidi will flip a good number of these arms for prospects, names you’ve never even heard of and and players you won’t see in a Giants uniform — if you ever see them at all — for at least a couple of years. That’s the type of maneuvering the organization has shied away from this century, and for the most part, you’d have to say that it mostly worked out for them, but if they’re to engineer a quick turnaround, a fresh approach is required.

There are plenty of good reasons for a team looking to rebuild on the fly should unload relief arms at the trade deadline, the two most prominent being that it’s a quick way to bring young talent into the system and relievers should be fungible. Sure, arms like Will Smith or even Ray Black or Reyes Moronta don’t come through a system every year and it’s not often that a pitcher like Tony Watson is available for such a ridiculously low price in free agency, but relievers are a high volatile position, and turnover is expected.

Yes, the Giants had a bullpen core for several years earlier this decade, but that’s not the norm. That’s a situation teams find themselves in after high roster turnover because of the volatile nature of pitchers in general and relief arms in particular. So, don’t fret about losing Will Smith or Tony Watson or any of the relievers — that’d be a good thing, should these theoretical trades come to pass.

Trading the Giants relievers is not the worst possible outcome for the season. The worst possible outcome is that the Giants won’t be able to trade any of these relievers because of the way that baseball teams operate today.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist here, but have you stopped to think about the human beings who occupy front offices these days? They’re not competitors, they’re risk managers. Front offices have more in common with an insurance company than a dugout. They’re not acting rationally in the context of the theater in which they’re acting.

The past two offseasons in particular have demonstrated that all thirty teams have changed their approach to roster management and resource allocation. A marginal upgrade is no upgrade at all. It’s better to flex intelligence than the wallet. Cheap platoons are more valuable than solid veterans. And trades are primarily for salary dumping.

That’s the bigger point — very few teams feel motivated to act in terms of need or desperation during the offseason these days, so it’s logical to conclude that such thinking will carry over to the regular season and the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Baseball execs want to show off what they personally can do rather than what their teams can do.

The only reason for front offices to make trades in 2019 is to move bad contracts — “baseball money-laundering”. You won’t see any more “pure baseball deals” that works out for both parties, because that’s not the arbitrage. If someone is getting equal value, then it is a bad deal. Yes, the Mariners did get Justus Sheffield back in the James Paxton trade, but they also got mostly salary relief with all their other deals and it’s still pretty likely that the Yankees think they just left a flaming bag of poop on Jerry DiPoto’s front porch.

In the strictest sense, screwing the other guy is about as much competitive fire as front offices seem willing to demonstrate these days. It’s fair to say that good faith deals — “Okay, here’s a solid baseball trade, maybe we’ll see you in October” — is a thing of the past. Baseball’s winter meetings look like this now:

So, where does that leave the Giants and their rebuild? Do the Giants’ relievers not actually have much trade value? The most recent big reliever deal that nearly disproves the entire point of this article actually happened last July. The Padres traded Brad Hand and Adam Cimber to Cleveland for Francisco Mejia, who was the #1 catching prospect in baseball at the time and #26 in MLB Pipeline’s Top 100.

Hand is a 29-year old hard-throwing lefty closer (averaged 93.8 mph with his four-seam fastball last year). Cimber is a 28-year old sinkerballer who had the 11th-best groundball rate among relief pitchers last year (57.2%). Right off the bat, the Giants have two pitchers who profile very similarly: 29-year old lefty closer Will Smith (averaged 92.6 mph with his four-seam fastball last season) and 30-year old Sam Dyson, whose 61.3% groundball rate was #6 in all of baseball among relief pitchers last year.

So, the Giants are all set to grab a top 100 prospect this season, right? Probably not.

Last January, the Padres signed Brad Hand to a three-year, $19.75 million extension. That 2+ years of team control and basically below market average annual value is extremely attractive. Cimber is under Cleveland’s control for the next five seasons. Will Smith’s $4+ million deal is for one year and then he’s a free agent. Sam Dyson is making over $5 million in what’s the last year of his deal.

GM priorities mandate team control and cost effectiveness be a part of any transaction, to the point that control is seemingly more important than actual talent. Maybe that’s because with control comes time and with time comes the possibility of unlocking potential and maximizing a player’s abilities — or maybe it’s just managing the risk of having too much of the roster in flux and at an unknown cost.

Going down the rest of that bullpen doesn’t exactly offer a lot of “surplus value” for GMs of teams in contention at the trade deadline and not enough quality to justify a top prospect.

  • Mark Melancon will earn $14 million this season, but thanks to the creative structure of his deal, his cap hit will be $15.5 million in 2019 and 2020. And he has a full no-trade clause. And he’s yet to prove he can stay healthy through an entire season... although he does seem to be trending in the right direction just a couple of seasons removed from serious arm issues.
  • Tony Watson pitched so well last season that the bonuses in his deal have raised his 2019 salary into the $7 million range, which mutes a little bit. The fact that he still has an option for 2020 adds back some of that diminished value, but it’s removed just as quickly by the fact that he’ll be 35 in 2020.
  • Ray Black will turn 29 at the end of June and has a lengthy injury history. He hasn’t shown he can pitch effectively multiple times in a week despite his 100+ mph fastball. Still, if he can put together a strong couple of months before the deadline, a couple of teams could become interested. He’s not arbitration eligible until 2022.
  • Reyes Moronta is perhaps the Giants’ biggest trade chip, because his age (26), ability (156 ERA+ in 65 innings / and 30% strikeout rate — 28th best in MLB), and years of control (arb eligible in 2021) are exactly what every front office desires. Never mind that the Giants could use Moronta over the next few years, a good chunk of the league — even the not-trying or outright rebuilding teams — would want him on their roster. He’s just that young, cheap, and controllable. And also really, really good:

His lack of a track record and high walk rate (14.1% — 6th-worst in MLB among relievers) means he’s unlikely to be the centerpiece of any deal, though, and that’s the problem:

The Giants don’t have any centerpieces.

There’s no single Giants reliever who would compel a team to give up one of its better prospects, and that’s exactly the kind of deal Farhan Zaidi would be looking to make. He can’t afford to give up two good relievers for one good prospect, even if that’s what the Padres did, because that won’t speed up an eventual turnaround.

More importantly, teams know that this is what the Giants are planning to do with their inventory. If teams didn’t feel compelled to act much in the offseason to add good talent, then why would they change tactics in the middle of the season? Teams are profitable whether or not they make it to the postseason and too “smart” to make a trade that reduces future possibilities, prospects are perhaps wildly overvalued these days, and execs seem more interested in submitting their lowball offers at the same exact time than working independently to make their team better.

Come July, we might find out that the Giants aren’t in as good a position as we had imagined before the season began or this article will be brought up every year for the rest of my life after the Giants trade for Jesus Sanchez and Yordan Alvarez and both become Hall of Famers.