From 2006 through 2008, the San Francisco Giants used their first round selections in the MLB Draft on the following players, respectively: Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey.
I’m not sure where that ranks historically in terms of best three-year runs in the draft, but it’s pretty damn high, especially when you account for the team not having a top-four pick, and only one top-nine pick.
So far that trio has produced 9 rings, 14 All-Star appearances, 2 Cy Youngs, 1 MVP, 1 World Series MVP, 2 no-hitters, countless automotive commercials, and one of the greatest postseason performances in MLB history.
But the run wouldn’t last, as the Giants followed it up with some pretty bad selections in the next seven years, before finally getting back on track in the last three drafts (they didn’t have a first-round pick in 2016). We don’t know how good Heliot Ramos (2017), Joey Bart (2018), and Hunter Bishop (2019) will be, but for now they all look like very strong selections.
This week at SB Nation has been “What If” theme week, and I’ve been wondering a very simple yet intriguing question: What if the Giants had made better draft picks?
With the benefit of hindsight, every baseball team is bad at drafting. It’s just impossible to reliably predict how a player’s body will grow and adjust, and what skills they’ll hone or develop. Every draft features a plethora of first-round picks that never make the majors, or make the majors but are never good; and every draft features a handful of All-Stars taken after the first round. It’s just how it goes.
So what if, from 2009 through 2015, the Giants simply took better players than they did in the first round? What if, with the benefit of hindsight, they took the best player on the board?
I wanted to keep this semi-realistic, so I made one key rule: It had to be a player that was drafted after the Giants first-round pick, but before their next pick. Josh Hader was taken 582nd in 2012 (two spots after Matt Duffy!) — there was absolutely no chance the Giants would have taken him with the 20th pick. Which, with the benefit of moral hindsight, I’m totally fine with.
So let’s see who the Giants would have taken, and just how good they would be:
The pick: With the 6th pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, the Giants selected right-handed pitcher Zach Wheeler.
What happened: Wheeler eventually proved to be a solid pick. Despite struggling with injuries, he was worth a combined 7.7 rWAR over the last two seasons, and signed a five-year, $118 million contract over the winter with the Philadelphia Phillies.
But he never pitched for the Giants, who traded him in 2011 to the New York Mets for Carlos Beltran and cash.
The new pick: Mike Trout, centerfielder.
The Los Angeles Angels selected Trout 25th overall. Despite being drafted out of high school, Trout made his debut just two years later, and won Rookie of the Year in 2012.
In eight full seasons, Trout has won MVP three times, finished second four times, and added a fourth-place finish. At just 28 he’s already amassed 72.8 rWAR, and put himself in the conversation for greatest player in MLB history.
The pick: With the 24th pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, the Giants selected outfielder Gary Brown.
What happened: Brown never developed the way the Giants hoped. He was an average hitter in AA, and a notably below-average hitter over two years in AAA. The Giants called him up in 2014 for 7 plate appearances, which was the entirety of his MLB career.
The new pick: Noah Syndergaard, right-handed pitcher.
The Toronto Blue Jays took Syndergaard with the 38th pick. He’s struggled with injuries, but the talent is too much to pass up, even if he’s out for all of 2021 after having Tommy John surgery. But when he’s healthy, there are few better pitchers than Thor, who had a 2.80 FIP in 2018.
The pick: With the 29th pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, the Giants selected second baseman Joe Panik.
What happened: Panik was tremendous for a very short while. As a rookie, he played a role on the World Series team in 2014, then made the All-Star Game in 2015, then won a Gold Glove in 2016. In the three years since then he’s been worth just 1.0 rWAR, and the Giants released him last year.
The new pick: Trevor Story, shortstop.
There weren’t a ton of good options here, but Story — who was drafted 45th by the Colorado Rockies — stands out as the heir apparent for Brandon Crawford. Story made the majors in 2016, and over the last four years has made two All-Star teams and been worth 18.6 rWAR.
The pick: With the 20th pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, the Giants selected right-handed pitcher Chris Stratton.
What happened: Stratton debuted in 2016 and, four years later, has never had a season with a sub-4.00 FIP. He did have one decent year with the Giants, but has essentially been a replacement level player for his career. At the start of the 2019 season, the Giants traded him to the Los Angeles Angels for Williams Jerez.
The new pick: José Berríos, right-handed pitcher.
If you prefer, you can take Joey Gallo, but I’m going with Berríos, whom the Minnesota Twins took with the 32nd pick. Just 25 years old, Berríos is a two-time All-Star who was worth 3+ rWAR in each of the last two years.
The pick: With the 25th pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, the Giants selected shortstop Christian Arroyo.
What happened: Despite some early talks of fast-tracking, Arroyo never developed. His stint with the Giants was short and not sweet, and he eventually headlined the package that landed the Giants Evan Longoria. Actually, that’s not true. The Giants being willing to take Evan Longoria’s massive contract headlined the package, but Arroyo was the highlight of the rest. He’s been worth negative rWAR so far in his career.
The new pick: Aaron Judge, outfielder.
Seven picks later, the New York Yankees took Judge, banking that they could turn a powerless hitter who looked like the Hulk into a player with usable power. He hit 52 home runs as a rookie, so I’d say they banked correctly. Judge has been worth 19.4 rWAR over the last three years.
The pick: With the 14th pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, the Giants selected right-handed pitcher Tyler Beede.
What happened: Beede debuted in 2018, and so far he hasn’t been good. In fact, he’s been sub-replacement value. He looked strong in Spring Training this year though, and seemed in line to make the rotation out of camp. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a UCL injury and underwent Tommy John surgery right as the season was getting suspended. He’ll get his chance in 2021, if the world still exists.
The new pick: Matt Chapman, third baseman.
The other Bay Area team took Chapman with the 25th pick, and four years later he was getting MVP votes. Chapman is a legitimate star with both the bat and the glove, and has put up back-to-back 8.3 rWAR seasons.
The pick: With the 18th pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, the Giants selected right-handed pitcher Phil Bickford.
What happened: The Giants deserve some credit and some blame here. On the negative side, they traded Bickford after just a year, for a reliever (Will Smith). Trading your first-round pick, after a year, for a reliever, is never good. On the positive side, it was a great move for the Giants, as Smith was tremendous and earned them a compensatory draft pick in the 2020 MLB Draft, and Bickford hasn’t done anything yet. So props to the Giants for knowing when to say goodbye.
Bickford has put up good numbers in the minors, but he hasn’t progressed past A+ ball, due to injuries and drug suspensions.
The new pick: Walker Buehler, right-handed pitcher.
The Giants get two wins for the price of one here, by not only drafting a pitcher who’s already an All-Star, but by keeping him off the Los Angeles Dodgers, who took him with the 24th pick. Buehler might be the best pitcher in a rotation that includes Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Julio Urías, and Alex Wood.
If you eliminate the butterfly effect, and assume the Giants made all the same moves as before (including the Longoria trade, which was 100% doable without Arroyo), the 2020 roster looks something like this:
With whatever bullpen you want to make, and Noah Syndergaard waiting in the wings for 2021. That’s a damn good lineup.
Let’s go a step further and dig into the butterfly effect, with some of the biggest moves and non-moves the Giants have made the last few years.
Giancarlo Stanton non-trade
Prior to the 2018 season, Giancarlo Stanton demanded a trade from the rebuilding Miami Marlins. The Giants made an offer that essentially consisted of taking Stanton’s entire contract, which was pretty much all they needed to give.
The Giants were coming off a 64-win season, and Stanton rejected the trade, making it clear that he wanted to go to a winner. He chose the 91-win Yankees, despite reports that he preferred being on the West Coast. If the Giants are better in 2017 — which they would be with the likes of Trout and Story — maybe Stanton ends up in the Bay Area.
Evan Longoria trade
The Giants trade for Longoria was a desperation move that they surely don’t make if they’re already contenders and have Chapman at third base. That frees up a lot of money, which brings us to . . .
Bryce Harper rejection
Last offseason, Harper’s free agency came down to the Giants and Phillies. He’s since made it clear that he chose Philadelphia because he saw a better path to winning in the short term. If the Giants are full of star talent, Harper — who openly has an affinity for San Francisco — opts to spend the rest of his career in orange and black. The Giants end up having to trade Brandon Belt to free up a little more money, and because they now have too many good players.
Andrew McCutchen trade
Trading for Andrew McCutchen was also a bit of a desperation move, and one that looks really bad in hindsight. The Giants gave up prospect Bryan Reynolds, who immediately blossomed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and put up 4.1 rWAR last year as a rookie. They don’t make that trade, because they don’t need to.
Jeff Samardzija contract
With the Giants not in as much of a need for talent, they don’t sign Jeff Samardzija prior to the 2016 season. This not only saves them some money, but also means they don’t sacrifice their 2016 first-round pick, either, and they use it to select second baseman Gavin Lux.
Madison Bumgarner’s departure
With the Giants a powerhouse and perennial 100-game winner, Madison Bumgarner no longer wants to leave the only team he’s known. He re-signs with the Giants for four years.
Mauricio Dubon trade
The Giants are no longer in a position to trade roster spots for prospects, and never signed Drew Pomeranz to begin with, so Dubon is still with the Milwaukee Brewers.
So here’s your new roster:
Aaron Judge (converted to first base)
With Noah Syndergaard on the 60-day IL.
Your 2020 and 2021 120-win Giants, everyone.