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Some bold(ish) predictions (kinda)

A few things that may happen over the coming months.

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Alex Cobb and Shohei Ohtani embracing. Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Presumably you’re here for an article about the San Francisco Giants, but I want to detour with a miniature rant or ramble or monologue.

There are certain columns that are very popular among sportswriters. Rites of passage, almost. You certainly are familiar with them: power rankings; MVP ladders; best case/worst cases; player reviews; etc.

One such standard fare column for a sportswriter is the Bold Predictions article. I don’t know how many articles I’ve written in my short career, but I’d put it somewhere in the 7,500 range. As far as I can remember, I’ve never written a bold predictions piece. Sure, I’ve given an answer when asked for a bold prediction in a podcast, a radio hit, or a round table. But an article? I don’t think so.

And there’s a good reason for it. I generally think the concept is stupid, because I think it’s fairly oxymoronic. The whole point of a prediction is that it’s something you think will happen; the whole point of being bold is that you’re putting faith in something that probably won’t.

There are, of course, times where a prediction is bold, but usually a “bold prediction” is actually just a normal prediction, or a bold guess at something you wouldn’t actually predict.

Saying Logan Webb will get Cy Young votes next year is a prediction, but it’s not bold. Saying the Giants will win 100 games next year is bold, but if you actually want to label it a prediction then I’m going to call you and offer you even odds, name your price.

But the time has come for me to make some claims that are kind of bold, and kind of predictions. Ahead of a pivotal offseason in which many in the fanbase are very pessimistic, it’s a little easier to find things I actually believe will happen that other people might find bold, even if I don’t. But that would also be a little bit boring. So I’m mostly bridging the gap: these are things that are a little bold, but not too bold; and they’re things that I maybe don’t think have a greater than 50% chance of happening, but merely have a pretty darn decent chance of happening.

With those caveats I’ve ruined the article before it even began. So that seems like a good place to start.

The Giants acquire a lineup-changing bat

This is a hard one to execute, because unlike in the last few years, there aren’t a lot of lineup-changing bats on the market. We all agree that Shohei Ohtani is exactly that, but after him?

Cody Bellinger is a lineup-changing bat if he repeats his 2023, but in 2022 he had the bat of a backup shortstop, and in 2021 the bat of someone clearly paying homage to it being the final year of pitchers hitting. Matt Chapman started the year with an MVP-caliber bat, but ended the year with a lower OPS+ than Joc Pederson and Mike Yastrzemski. Jung-hoo Lee would be a sensational signing, but he profiles more as an average bat who creates value by winning a Gold Glove and getting on base enough to steal a bunch of bags.

So this isn’t me saying the Giants will get Ohtani, the only sure-fire star bat out there. Maybe they do, but maybe they get Bellinger or Chapman or Lee (or Rhys Hoskins, or...) and they have the type of season that Yastrzemski and Darin Ruf had when they first came to the Giants. Or maybe they swing a trade for a big bat: Pete Alonso is likely available, and there’s a chance that Juan Soto, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, and Paul Goldschmidt are, too.

Ohtani would be the ideal, though. And on that note ...

They almost get Ohtani

Were it any other high-profile free agent, this would be the most tepid prediction. The Giants finished second for Bryce Harper and then second for Aaron Judge. They finished first for Carlos Correa before a doctor burst into the scene to dramatically say, “Farhan, you’re going to want to see this” as we faded to a commercial break.

Fair or not, the Giants have developed a nearly comical reputation for almost signing high-profile free agents, and it’s not just the current regime: you can go back a little longer and add Jon Lester’s rose and Giancarlo Stanton’s pseudo-free agency, too.

But Ohtani’s a different case. There were very few teams rumored to be willing to meet Harper and Judge’s price tags; Ohtani should have about a third of the league willing to write his check. There will likely be no opportunity for an over-the-top overpay for Ohtani, as there was for Correa. No, his services will likely be determined by lining up the 10 teams who show up with a blank check, and determining which one he wants to play for.

The Giants would have better odds of winning that competition if they had won 88 games this year instead of 78. But I think they have a much higher chance of signing Ohtani than most people think.

I’m not prepared to predict that they will sign him, which is why we’re left with a boring if amusing “bold” prediction. But I do think they’ll be in the running until the very end. I think at some point we’ll read a headline that reads Giants Brass Flies to Japan for Third Meeting With Shohei Ohtani, or a tweet from Jeff Passan that says Shohei Ohtani has narrowed his choice to the Mariners, Red Sox, and Giants, and has asked those teams to submit their final offers, sources tell ESPN.

There’s just a lot in the Giants favor. San Francisco was a finalist when Ohtani first came to the Majors, back when he seemed more intent on finding the right city and organization than a team he could win with. He got along well with Alex Cobb when they were teammates. Bob Melvin maintains a close relationship with Ichiro Suzuki, who is Ohtani’s idol. And while the Giants can’t point to an abundance of success over the last few years, they can point to a willingness to adapt their strategy and rotation to fit a player, which could be a game-changer considering that Ohtani is determined to pitch again (which many teams will want to dissuade him of), and adamant that he only pitch every six days, instead of five.

Anyway, get prepared to allow hope and excitement to creep in, only to then be crushed later. But if it’s any consolation ...

The Giants land two high-profile players

My personal offseason wish list is, in order, Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Lee. And given the reports of the last few weeks, I think you could reasonably make the case that the Giants are favorites for both Yamamoto and Lee.

That would make me happy.

Even with the Giants not wanting to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax (though I do think they’d make an exception for Ohtani), the Giants can fairly easily afford two stars. Pederson and Brandon Crawford are coming off the books, and (in my opinion) Sean Manaea and Michael Conforto are likely to opt out (and easily tradable if they don’t). That right there clears up enough money to take on two big contracts without even spending more than last year. And that’s why you develop young players, folks! To team-build around the absurd and archaic pay structure that Major League Baseball has set up!

I started this article before the Giants extended Farhan Zaidi, and I felt more comfortable in this prediction then; nothing facilitates short-term moves like a front office that feels like they need to win immediately to maintain employment. But this is a unique free agency period in that two of the best players (Yamamoto and Lee) fit the Giants timeline (they’re both 25). And for the first time since Zaidi took over, the Giants are entering an offseason with a lot of potential pieces to trade, and a trade market that might have a lot of movement.

I think they’ll be active. Which is good, because they’ll never hear the end of it if they aren’t.

They trade Mason Black and/or Carson Whisenhunt

You made it nearly 1,500 words into this article, so you deserve the treat of something you can yell at me over. So here it is: I think they’ll trade Mason Black and/or Carson Wishenhunt.

That’s the click-baitey headline used to convey the point I actually want to make: I think they trade two out of the bucket of Black, Whisenhunt, Hayden Birdsong, Trevor McDonald, Landen Roupp, Carson Seymour, Kai-Wei Teng, Tristan Beck, Keaton Winn, and Joe Whitman. Or maybe just Kyle Harrison, instead.

Why, you ask? Because that is what sustainably good teams do. Study what the Los Angeles Dodgers or Tampa Bay Rays have done over the last decade, and you’ll see a very clear trend: they create areas of strength, and then they trade from those areas, knowing that even if they miscalculate and end up on the losing end of the trade, they’ll still probably be better for it.

The Giants have a clear organizational strength, and it’s starting pitching. It’s the biggest strength of their Major League team, it’s the biggest strength of their upper Minors prospects, and it’s a decent strength of their lower Minors prospects.

Let’s play a hypothetical game in which the Giants sign Yamamoto to a five-year deal. And let’s assume they do what I think would be the smart thing to do, and put Winn in the rotation to start the season. Here’s what their rotation would look like on Opening Day:

Logan Webb: 27 years old, under contract through 2028
Yoshinobu Yamamoto: 25 years old, under contract through 2028
Kyle Harrison: 22 years old, under contract through 2029
Keaton Winn: 26 years old, under contract through 2029
Alex Cobb: 36 years old, under contract through 2024

If Harrison is half as good as the Giants think he is, Winn is half as good as I think he is, and Yamamoto is half as good as the world thinks he is, then the Giants have one of the best rotations on the planet, with 80% of it young and under team control for at least five years.

I’ve written the word “if” a lot of times here, and that certainly is worth taking into account. But you can see where I’m going with this. The Giants are very clearly building a team that should have sustainable excellence in the rotation. And when you pair that with high-quality prospects, it’s time to start asking the Padres what pitchers would make them open to trading Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., or Ha-seong Kim.

Joey Bart gets traded, for value

It’s not a bold prediction to say that Bart’s time with the franchise is quickly nearing an end. Patrick Bailey is very clearly the team’s franchise catcher going forward, and Blake Sabol’s defensive growth and positional versatility make him a pretty clear favorite to be the backup next year.

There are reasons, however, for the Giants to hang onto Bart for a while longer. Rule 5 restrictions prohibited the Giants from letting Sabol get any AAA seasoning last year, so the Giants could start the season with Bart as the backup, and let Sabol get some everyday time in Sacramento to try and make some improvements with both bat and glove. And it goes without saying that it’s a position with a lot of injuries, so there’s no guarantee that Bailey and Sabol make it to March 28’s opener in San Diego healthy.

So I’m not ready to discount the possibility that Bart breaks camp with the Giants. Which he’ll need to do to stay in their plans because he’s out of options.

Which is why I think he’ll be traded. But that’s not very bold. It’s the “for value” part of the prediction that’s bold.

Many will point to the fact that Bart survived the trade deadline as proof that he doesn’t have much value, but I don’t think that’s the case. There are only two teams making trades at the deadline: contenders (who wouldn’t want Bart), and bad teams leveraging contenders who are willing to overpay (which the Giants were not).

But the offseason opens up the door for many other trades, and here’s the reality: Bart is still an above-average defensive catcher at the Major League level, who gets paid peanuts, and is under team control for five more seasons. It’s hard to fathom that last point, since Bart debuted three decades ago during the demonic 2020 season, but MLB’s ridiculous rules mixed with the Giants not playing him means that he comes with five more years of team control.

The 61-win Chicago White Sox had the worst catcher corps in the Majors last year, per Fangraphs, at -0.8 WAR, and Yasmani Grandal is entering free agency. Wouldn’t they want a high-caliber defensive catcher to pair with Korey Lee? The Cincinnati Reds were second worst ... for a team trying to make the playoffs, can they put all their eggs in the “Tyler Stephenson will rebound from whatever the hell happened in 2023” basket?

I’m not saying that Bart is going to headline a trade for Soto, but for a team that doesn’t need an immediate, sure-fire fix, five years of high-caliber catcher defense that comes with a side of raw power and prospect pedigree is still worth a bit. I think. We’ll see. Maybe.

Heliot Ramos will get an actual chance

This prediction looked a lot more bold when I started a draft of this article about a month ago. Since then, Farhan Zaidi has gone on KNBR to say — unprompted — that Ramos was the team’s best player in Sacramento, that he wishes they’d given the powerful outfielder more opportunities, and that he’ll compete for a job in camp.

That doesn’t guarantee anything, but it was nice to hear, and it will give comfort to those wondering if Ramos was in the Bart/Sean Hjelle/David Villar bucket of prospects whose time with the organization might be up.

But while Zaidi’s comments put a smile on this unabashed Ramos fan/believer’s face, it was actually comments he made long before that gave me the confidence to include this prediction. In his end-of-season presser, Zaidi repeatedly admitted that much of what the team was doing wasn’t working, and that they would need to try new things. He then suggested the team would target a managerial hire that would offer more dissenting opinions than Gabe Kapler had, and did exactly that by hiring Melvin.

Neither a new way of looking at things nor a dissenting opinion guarantees that Ramos will actually get run. But if there’s one area where the Giants have blatantly bucked industry trends in the last few years, its been in prioritizing swing decisions over hard-hit balls. I wrote the other day that nothing summed up the season more than Wade Meckler getting more Major League at-bats than Ramos, and I stand by that.

So it would certainly seem that if the Giants do look at dissenting opinions and new ways of doing things, it would probably start with putting a little more emphasis on hitting the ball hard.

Despite only putting the ball in play 36 times last year, Ramos was second on the team in maximum exit velocity, with a 112.7-mph mark that was exceeded only by Pederson. He was sixth on the team in average exit velocity, behind only Marco Luciano, Pederson, J.D. Davis, Austin Slater, and Mitch Haniger.

It’s also worth noting that Ramos had something of a transformative 2023, and only turned 24 at the very end of the season. Had he been a 2021 college draft pick instead of someone drafted when he was 17 who has accrued prospect fatigue, the conversation would probably be more “he’s putting it all together!” and less “ehh, he’s proven he can’t play.”

The Giants need to get younger, they need to get more athletic, and, for the love of Mays, they need to hit the ball a lot harder. Ramos — younger than Bailey, Casey Schmitt, and Tyler Fitzgerald — helps those areas, and deserves a chance.

I think he’ll get one. And on that note...

Austin Slater gets traded

It’s very easy to see me being wrong on this one. The Giants really like Slater, and the contract they’ll have to tender him in his final year of arbitration eligibility is an automatic yes. He also underwent surgery in the offseason that shouldn’t cut into the season, but might impact his trade value.

But I’m still having a hard time making this all work. Even assuming Conforto opts out, the Giants will enter the offseason with veteran outfielders Slater, Yastrzemski, and Haniger. Zaidi has been very open about the team prioritizing a center fielder, and it seems like they will go to great lengths to sign Lee ... with Bellinger or a trade being fallback options that they’ll aggressively attack if they don’t land Lee.

And on top of that, Ramos, Meckler, Fitzgerald, and Luis Matos are all on the 40-man roster, with expectations of contributing next year. It would seem that something has to give. With only one of those four youngsters hitting left-handed, and Conforto likely gone, I would assume Yastrzemski’s job is safe, especially given that he’s climbed towards the top of the team’s leadership rankings, which is extremely critical right now. The Giants would likely have to give up a prospect or eat a lot of money to trade Haniger’s contract, and given their power shortage, it seems unlikely that they’d be eager to part with someone who recently had 39 homers, considering that Yaz’s 25 big flies in 2021 would then be the highest total by a player on the roster (assuming Pederson and Conforto are gone).

The Giants are also trying to move away from platooning, and it’s clear that they don’t think Slater deserves an everyday chance, while they remain optimistic that those four youngsters can become players to hit righties and lefties.

Slater’s a good player. But it’s becoming harder and harder to build the Giants their best 26-player roster and keep him on it.

The Giants have a quiet Rule 5 Draft

The Giants have been extremely active in the Rule 5 Draft lately, taking a player in all three of the December drafts since Zaidi took over. In 2019 it was Dany Jimenez, with a Spring Training trade for Rule 5 draftee Connor Joe. In 2020 it was Dedniel Nuñéz, who still has a Giants hat on in his Baseball Reference picture, despite never playing a regular season game for them or any of their affiliates. And last year, of course, the Giants effectively picked Sabol (they technically traded for him minutes after the Reds drafted him).

I’d be very surprised if the Giants added a player this year. Generally the Rule 5 Draft is for teams that are rebuilding (which the Giants are not), or who don’t have a ton of depth (since the lack of optionality is harder to deal with if your 40-man roster is full of players who should be playing).

The Giants are an exceedingly deep team. Of the 45 players who ended the year on the 40-man roster, only two of those players have yet to appear in an MLB game. They have too many options at every position to envision them thinking they can carve out an active roster spot for an unproven player.

San Francisco could lose a player in the Rule 5 Draft, though they’ve only had one player selected in the MLB portion since Zaidi took over — and that player, RHP Nick Avila, was returned before the start of the season. And I’d guess they’ll lose a lot of players in the Minor League portion, after losing a stunning eight such players last year (none of which have come back to bite them).

But while the Sabol experiment has been a big success, don’t expect the Giants to try and repeat it this year. It’s time to add proven players, and nothing else.

And there are my bold predictions, though you might need to put air quotes over the “bold” or the “prediction” for some of them. What are yours?