The Carlos Correa and Aaron Judge episodes exist within the larger saga of the San Francisco Giants and their pursuit of top of the market free agents. They were both more sensational than the usual song, dance, and rejection that has been the plot of every prior episode, and so they feel a lot more deflating than in years past. What can we learn from any of this as the Giants prepare to muddle through another season?
The free agent saga stretches back as far as Adam LaRoche, who wasn’t a top of the market free agent, but whose public rejection of the team was the first sort of “Hey, wait a minute,” about the weight of the Giants’ brand and their stadium and the players’ perception of the organization. Who doesn’t want to play for the Giants?
Andrew Baggarly mentioned the San Francisco “culture” having been a previous concern, but there’s always the ballpark and its impressive ability to suppress hitting lines;
Belt is looking forward to being in a better ballpark for hitters.— Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness) January 11, 2023
“That’s part of the reason I felt good about coming to the AL East.”
SF is “a tough ballpark, that’s just the way it is.” Said it sounds like excuses, but lots of balls he thought were hits there got caught.
a perpetually embarrassing farm system that might have been a factor in scuttling negotiations with the likes of Zack Greinke, Giancarlo Stanton (not strictly a free agent signing, of course), and Bryce Harper; and maybe just weird vibes from the front office:
“Buster put his hand out and said, ‘Hi, Jon, I want to be your catcher for the next six years,’” said Larry Baer, the Giants’ chief executive, who was among the team’s contingent along with Manager Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean, the head of baseball operations.
The Giants just don’t get their man. Ever. Until they do, right? There are probably a series of perfectly logical and valid explanations as to why A+ free agent pursuits don’t work out, but after this offseason, it just feels a lot more like dumb bad luck.
But that’s not an interesting lesson to learn, even if it’s the most significant one. And the Giants’ failings at the top of the market spotlighted — at least to me — some other aspects, both good and not so good.
The Giants are not risk averse
Maybe people want to focus on the Giants stepping back from a 13-year deal, medical report be damned, but it’s unserious to argue that all evidence points to the Giants being anti-risk. They just have their own checklist for what constitutes an “acceptable risk,” which might be a distinction without a difference for the “medical report be damned” crowd.
The Giants offered Carlos Correa thirteen years. They offered 31-year old Aaron Judge nine years. That’s despite knowing the aging curves for middle infielders. Despite knowing the aging curves for incredibly tall players. And the financial commitments — $350 million and $360 million respectively — were the largest deals the team had ever offered.
Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger have combined to play in just 55.5% of all possible games (1,092 between the two of them) since 2019. The Giants handed two post-prime guys with long injury histories hefty short-term AAVs, almost begging the baseball gods to render them another Tommy La Stella situation but with the upside being that they could actually get a pair of 3.5-4.0 WAR players the roster desperately needs.
Rushing to judgment is bad — the truth can hurt just as much
This was originally going to be a point that fans are dumb. The truth is that only I am dumb. I am the only dumb fan. The only one who rushed to judgment.
Giants’ ownership didn’t get cold feet over the Correa deal. The front office did. For a good reason. On the podcast, as much as I felt that ownership killed the deal they had negotiated, I couldn’t drop the idea that baseball ops was heavily involved.
It’s a baseball decision, after all, and between the two parts of this equation — ownership and the front office — I think the front office would be more comfortable with egg on their face than ownership when it comes to a strictly baseball decision. In other words, to avoid the Giants looking bad to the public, I would think Greg Johnson would’ve been more inclined to stick with Carlos Correa’s Pop Rocks ankle.
Zaidi, meanwhile, seems to take great pleasure in not caring what people think of the team; and, killing this deal over a legitimate concern ought to be something the President of Baseball Operations can do, otherwise the title has no meaning.
I presumed that Scott Boras would not lie quite as much, particularly with details that could be disproved, but I neglected to consider the time element of the whole affair. He controlled the narrative by being first! This might be crisis management 101. And from the Boras Corp. perspective, it was crisis management. Not so in the Giants’ case.
In the case of Aaron Judge, he and his reps set out to use the Giants’ interest as a stalking horse from the very beginning. As far back to Spring Training 2022 when the Yankees leaked their offer as a means of smearing him in New York. The Giants can say all they want that they believe his team negotiated in good faith — they sort of have to say that — but there is no rational basis for this. The Giants were in a position where they had to go through the motions of trying to win over someone who never wanted to be a Giant. It’s nothing but bad luck that put them in that position.
The Giants are really poor communicators
That’s not really a negative for most fans, because most fans don’t really care about how teams communicate. They just want the team to succeed.
There were reasons to avoid telling Brandon Crawford they’d need him to move to third base until after reaching an agreement with Correa. There were reasons to avoid speaking publicly about the Correa deal falling through. There were reasons to schedule the press conference before the physical. There were reasons to not reengage with Boras right after raising medical concerns. There were reasons to slow play contact with Belt.
And tying in the prior point — did the Giants really want Carlos Correa? I’m sure they did, up until they got the medical report on his ankle. Ghosting appears to be a part of their comms strategy. Now, I don’t know what the opposite of that would do, and that’s why I think the way they communicate doesn’t really matter, but I recall Farhan Zaidi saying that communication is something the organization does value. I think it’s okay for us to infer that he means “between the coaches and the players” and not really the team and the public.
I think the Giants would admit that this was not an 80-grade communication offseason for the organization; but I don’t expect that to improve because there’s no upside and no downside. This is Brandon Crawford’s last year, no players of value are going to stick around the team for very long to get offended, and the competition model, brought down by Billy Beane himself from Mt. Moneyball says that we pig fans will watch as long as the team wins.
Positive outcomes are indistinguishable from luck
That’s why the obsession with process. That’s why modern front offices always push the process narrative. One way to avoid criticism or blame is to demonstrate that nothing you did had any impact on what happened — if it’s bad. If it’s a positive outcome, full credit! The process created the luck that led to the success.
There’s nothing the Giants could’ve done to make Aaron Judge rethink his strategy of boat racing the Yankees until they caved to his demands, but they at least had to demonstrate that they have a process in place to woo marquee players. They offered Carlos Correa exactly what he wanted, too — the most money. Just incredibly bad luck that his ankle is made of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Giants value a free agent win above replacement at about $8 million
That’s $7.35 million with a 10% markup (so, $8.085 million) on account of having to coax players into playing in the dreary, miserable, extremely not the politics of 99% of baseball players San Francisco Bay Area. And if you look at the larger deals the Giants gave out this year (by AAV), the $8.085 million/WAR figure sort of works out:
Joc Pederson ($19.65MM)
Michael Conforto ($18MM)
Mitch Haniger ($14.5MM)
Sean Manaea ($12.5MM)
Ross Stripling ($12.5MM)
Taylor Rogers ($11MM)
The Pederson figure distorts the calculation, and they’re paying him that basically out of necessity — they desperately need a left-handed power bat in the lineup. $19.65 million works out to about 2.4 WAR and the qualifying offer was the easiest way to keep him — basically his 2021 (2.1 fWAR). His Steamer projection is 1.7. Taylor Rogers’ is 0.7, but the Giants are paying him like they expect something closer to 1.3, so, let’s take those values — giving us 3 WAR — and figure the rest of the group averages out to about 2, or 8 wins total. Plus that 3 gives us 11, times $8.085 million and we get $88.935 million AAV. The above group combines for $88.15 million AAV.
And if you look at the Correa offer, that 10% markup becomes clearer still. For one thing, the Mets offered Correa: 12 years/$315 million. Literally 90% of the Giants’ offer in total dollars. Now... what’s the basis for this figure? The Giants and Mets must’ve had similar long-term projections, or else accepted Scott Boras’ premise for what Correa’s value would be long-term, which, let’s say, was 43 WAR. I’m using that figure because it would basically give Correa a career WAR of 75.
You can dispute that idea, but from a negotiating standpoint, Scott Boras might’ve pitched his 28-year old client as being as good as Derek Jeter (career 73.1 fWAR). I can see it. Doesn’t take much to imagine that as being the hook and for a team like the Giants, looking to sign a marquee player, having to negotiate this deal with Boras at the ownership level, simply accepting the premise to get their foot in the door.
Does that make any sense, even from a baseball ops perspective? Sure. I can imagine that. Let’s take a look at the 13-year version of the projection, since that’s what the Giants signed up for, initially:
2023 / 2024 / 2025 = 17 WAR
2026 / 2027 / 2028 = 13 WAR
2029 / 2030 / 2031 = 9.9 WAR
2031 / 2032 / 2033 / 2034 = 3.1 WAR
So with a 43 WAR projection, using the anywhere-but-SF $7.35 million free agent $/WAR, we land at $316 million. With the only-in-SF $8.085 million $/WAR we arrive at $347.7 million.
The farm system is in dire straits
Working backwards from the Giants’ actions — their process — they do not project to have any 2-win players who can help them next year, so, they had to go out and buy some.
Melissa Lockard wrote about the system yesterday, and as dire as it sounds despite her efforts to polish the turd — Marco Luciano didn’t play this winter because of his back! Yikes! — she spent a lot of time this past year trying to remind us all that player development isn’t linear. So, come Spring Training, Heliot Ramos could very well put it together. Jimmy Glowenke could become A Guy. Strange things could happen.
So, yeah, the farm system sucks until it doesn’t. Which could happen any day now, because baseball is unpredictable and outcomes are 100% luck. But it’s this absence of talent and hope in the player development pipeline — literally the most important part of Farhan Zaidi’s plan for the organization — that causes us to lose our minds every offseason when one of these big ticket acquisitions fail to materialize.
In the Bonds years, the team had Bonds to fall back on. In the Posey years, they had Posey — and elite pitching — to fall back on. In the Zaidi years, we have the front office’s platoon schemes and pitch sequencing to fall back on. Good enough for some fans, but not all.
I think we learned a lot about the Giants this offseason, but not so much that we can’t escape the obvious: the team had a tremendous amount of luck in landing Barry Bonds and managing to rebuild after Bonds with a championship core, and now they are in a run of bad luck that the fans will just have to weather. No amount of intellect can outsmart luck.