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Just how cute will the Giants get this offseason?

Is it better to be smart than good?

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Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

I feel a little bit icky doing a postseason speculation post when the San Francisco Giants are still in playoff contention (lol), but yesterday for The Athletic, somebody suggested they trade Camilo Doval to supercharge the rebuild. Well, I had a post in my brain queue that was along those same lines, only about J.D. Davis! So, I’m writing it now, but with a twist:

What would trading away the Giants’ few good players actually do to make them better?

Whoever else you want to throw on the list of Players Who Could Help the 2023 Giants, J.D. Davis ought to be on it, too. After coming over from the Mets in what may wind up being one of the greatest trades in San Francisco Giants history, Davis has hit .289/.386/.544 (.930 OPS) in 43 games (132 PA).

His 7 home runs just with the Giants have him tied for 11th with David Villar, just behind LaMonte Wade Jr.’s 8. His OPS+ of 160 (since joining them) leads the team, with Joc Pederson a distant 142 and the next two regular players on the list being Austin Slater (113) and Thairo Estrada (108).

Davis also ranks 16th in baseball (7th in the NL) in barrels per plate appearance percentage, at 9.1% — but that’s actually a three-way tie for 14th in MLB (5th in NL) with Marcell Ozuna and... Bryce Harper. In just pure hard hit rate, he’s #1 in the National League at 57.3% and third in MLB, behind Aaron Judge (62.1%) and Yordan Alvarez (60%). He has been a gem.

He also doesn’t need to be platooned. For his career, he’s hit .271/.351/.441 against righties and .263/.354/.445 against lefties. This year, it’s .262/.346/.433 and .253/.350/.429. He has two more years of team control, which might wind up amounting to ~$20 million. So, he’s affordable, hits for power, doesn’t need to be platooned, and has some positional flexibility, playing first, third, and left field. All of that suggests he’s a guy the Giants should keep.

If Joc Pederson’s wariness about this season suggests he won’t come back next year

“It’s been nice,” Pederson said of playing close to home. “I’ve really had fun. First-class organization. They do everything the right way. And I’m glad that I got to be a part of it for a year.”

then the Giants will find themselves in a spot where they’d need some power, from any side of the plate. And as much as picking up Evan Longoria’s option made sense just a couple of months ago, it would seem to me that keeping Davis at his arb number ($4-$7 million range) plus Longoria’s $5 million buyout is both cheaper and likely to give similar production without tying up two roster spots.

But consider this: J.D. Davis will be 30 at the end of April 2023. His defense is a net negative (-8.1 Defensive Runs this year, per FanGraphs, -24.6 over 445 career games). His baserunning isn’t great (-2.6 runs in 2022, -8.1 career). A 132 plate appearance sample is so small that it’s noise and a .426 batting average on balls in play in 43 games supports this. Sure, you hit the ball hard and the odds of getting a hit instead of making an out go up, but if you’re striking out 33% of the time like Davis is (9th-worst in baseball with min. 300 PA), then your opportunities overall go down. And, again, 43 games is a miniscule sample.

Earlier today on MLB Network Radio’s Power Alley, former GM Jim Bowden said that Farhan Zaidi had “orders from above” to spend money this offseason in order to improve the team, and while that sounds exciting and suggests the Giants might very well take our dare to have a $200 million payroll in 2023, it’s just not in line with the Farhan Zaidi we know.

When Buster Posey retired suddenly, the Giants simply reallocated his money. If he had come back, would they have pursued Carlos Rodon? I admit it’s hard to say one way or the other, but it worked out pretty well for them that Rodon simply slotted into Posey’s salary line on the spreadsheet, and the team spent less this year than they did last year.

They have a lot of money coming off the books this offseason, so if they were to spend $60-$80 million in free agency, that would look like a lot and make it seem like they did spend money this offseason, but it will probably just get them back to around $155-$165 million by Opening Day, which is about where they were this year.

For all the chatter around the team this year about bringing back Longoria, their Wilmer Flores extension, Brandon Belt’s knee being better than ever, Farhan Zaidi openly discussing a Joc Pederson extension, it doesn’t quite make sense. The traffic jam of corner infield right-handed bats (Flores, Longoria, Davis, Villar) and the platoon-y old lefty power guys who could help but might cost too much or simply be ineffective in 2023 (Belt, Pederson) are too many red flags. The roster needs a shakeup.

All of this to say that I can envision the Giants trading J.D. Davis. And maybe even Alex Cobb (comparable WAR to Gerrit Cole, has been a better pitcher than $23 million/year Robbie Ray). Yes, of course Camilo Doval, too. Even John Brebbia. I can’t imagine much of the roster is bolted down, except for maybe Logan Webb. I think the Giants are open to any scenario that makes the team better. Trading away every decent to great player on the roster wouldn’t accomplish that, but maybe one or two trades would, especially if they do intend to go a little nutty — though still within the contours of their preferred payroll shape — in free agency. They could make some calculated gambles.

The Farhan Zaidi era has, so far, been driven by gambling. They gambled on Michael Reed and Connor Joe, Scooter Gennett, Will Wilson, Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez, Alex Wood, Wilmer Flores, Darin Ruf, Tommy La Stella, standing pat with the bullpen in 2020 and running back the 2021 roster for 2022. I’m not covering every transaction, not just because there have been a lot of them or because I want to focus on the ones that haven’t worked out, but just to point out that the Giants prefer to win big through the lottery. Yes, they want to live in a mansion, but they want to get there by spending as little as possible. That means a few bucks a week on a Lotto ticket instead of squirreling away a hefty percentage of their take home pay for a massive down payment. (That’s how home buying works, right?)

I think most fans conceive of improving their favorite team in a linear fashion: count the good players on the roster and add to that number, ditching the rest. I think — wait, no, we’ve all been told — that most teams view improvement through arbitrage: buying an asset in one market and then selling it in another for a profit. The Giants are no different. And after landing Davis, Thomas Szapucki, and two prospects for Darin Ruf, they might even feel emboldened to roll the dice again this offseason.

Doing stuff like trading Davis or even Doval, then, makes a lot of sense. If they buy slugger Aaron Judge in the free agent market, then selling a slugger vaguely similar in the trade market could generate profit in two ways: adding prospect depth or low-cost major league roster talent while regaining a little bit of payroll flexibility. The point of Grant’s post on Doval is that the Giants have other young arms in the system. The Giants might be able to replace J.D. Davis with Villar or Schmitt or simply go with Longoria.

But it’s just easier if they spend money. We know Farhan Zaidi is brilliant and even if most of us are too dumb to understand the intricacies of his Unified Theory of Baseballing, we know he is capable of putting together a very specific kind of organization pointed in the general direction of success. The only problem he has right now is that his player development pipeline has clogged up on him. That pipeline is both the metaphorical and literal backbone of his entire strategy. Now what?

The Giants will probably wait it out one more year to see if the pipeline unclogs itself. That would be a sensible strategy for a rebuilding team that has no shot in its division for the next couple of decades. At the same time, if the team has pushed its fans to focus more on process over outcomes, then it seems like they’re in a bit of a jam what with that process plainly not working. By now, the Giants expected their player development pipeline to help. Instead, it hasn’t, and it probably won’t in 2023, either.

Spending big in free agency is also not a part of the process because it limits what you can do in the future while committing you to players and situations that could be tough to leave. The Tommy La Stella deal was a complete disaster, but it was just three years and they’ll just be walking away from $11.5 million if they cut him. And, he was their gamble. Everybody wants Aaron Judge and Carlos Rodon and their talent is obvious. A seventh year on Judge or a fourth or fifth year on Rodon exceeds the Giants’ risk tolerance because both would be paid close to what their actual value will wind up being. With the La Stellas and Cobbs of the world, there’s wiggle room for more value than the deal!

Rodon, Davis, Cobb, Doval, Brebbia, etc. have been good for the Giants. Will the Giants be better with them on next year’s roster, worse, or the same, and does trading those they can trade make them better, worse, or the same? It doesn’t all boil down to that, but those questions are a part of the larger calculation. Just as it is with every organization every year. Fans see those names and think, “Keep and add to,” but teams see risk and opportunity.

If you’ve never heard the phrase “get cute,” it basically means being clever with a tinge of disrespect. Like a smart alec. Fans want to see the Giants get better by acquiring obviously good players or developing such players. They’re paying money and time to see one of the crown jewel franchises in Baseball playing in one of the wealthiest corridors of the country, but they’re being asked to wait for the team to get better until the cheaper players arrive.

So it’s hard to argue against the idea that there’s a tinge of disrespect in all this; and if the team’s process limits what they can do in free agency and the farm system isn’t there to back them up, then the only avenue left for improvement is via trade. How “cute” will the Giants get with improving the roster? If all we have to go on is their acquisition track record and public statements about their philosophy and goals, then the answer is Extremely Cute.