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Where is the Giants’ Khris Davis trade?

The Giants aren’t very good at buying or creating the players they want, but maybe a trade is more plausible?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

107 wins in tricked us into thinking the San Francisco Giants had speedrunned a rebuild. The past couple of years have proved otherwise; but, they’re still headed in the right direction. If you look back at Farhan Zaidi’s introductory press conference, the team has stuck to the plan he outlined in November 2018 — except for one big and exciting thing.

He referenced a trade the A’s did during their last rebuild before this recent pre-Las Vegas purge and it has stuck with me over the years because it hasn’t happened yet for the Giants!

They traded for Khris Davis three offseasons ago, coming off a season when they won 68 games,” Zaidi explained. “And they traded a couple of prospects to acquire this player who was heading into arbitration. You look at that trade and it’s maybe not your typical move for a ‘rebuilding team,’ but I think their mantra was let’s go out and identify value where we see it, and just make this team better one move at a time.

He was referring, of course, to the A’s trade for Khris Davis in February 2016. Now, before Davis became Mr. .247, he was an average-minus corner outfielder who’d hit 60 home runs across the three prior seasons with the Brewers and posted a 119 OPS+ in 1,142 PA (321 games). The A’s needed a power threat and they got one, as Davis hit 42 for them in 2016.

That team didn’t wind up being a winner, but that’s not the point! If you’re trying to build while contending, then getting a 30-40 home run threat who’s pre-arbitration eligible is the kind of move you make when you see that window of contention on the horizon.

In theory, this is the point the Giants are at in their (they can’t say it but it absolutely is) rebuild cycle. A Davis-type is the exact kind of move you’d like to see them make and it’s the one last bit of Farhan Zaidi’s checklist — that is, if you, like me, converted his press conference talking points into a checklist — he hasn’t checked.

Of course, there are some other factors that complicate this. It’s not so easy to find a player like Khris Davis. It’s impossible for Oracle Park to permit a 30-40 home run threat. The Giants’ prospects aren’t actually all that great, at least in terms of how other teams perceive them — which we must admit is different from how the prospect scouts view them — and the way teams conduct trades is much, much different now than it was then.

On top of that, and perhaps more importantly, Farhan Zaidi has a list of transactions which might well obviate the need for a fun deal like this. We can start with the deal for Kris Bryant at the 2021 deadline, even if that didn’t work out. You can also discount it because it was a deadline move wherein they didn’t extend him at the end of the season.

Beyond that, you’ve got the Alex Dickerson, Mike Yastrzemski, LaMonte Wade Jr., J.D. Davis, and most importantly, the Thairo Estrada trades that really go a long way towards showing that the team has made plenty of trades that have helped them in the short and near terms. There’s also the smaller transactions like signing Darin Ruf in 2021, Joc Pederson in 2022, and getting Wilmer Flores for cheap. It all adds up to a group that’s ultimately greater than one Khris Davis.

But come on, we all know what our ids want from a statement like that. We want the Giants to trade some prospects for a dinger machine. A genuine slugger. Not a pitch selection gap hitter who platoons nicely despite defensive deficiencies. We know Farhan Zaidi can exploit that part of the market. The A’s were good at running down market inefficiencies in 2016, too, but Khris Davis wasn’t some hidden gem.

The problem is, replicating the conditions of that trade are quite difficult. The Milwaukee Brewers of 2016 were

  • in a rebuild
  • with a new GM in their first season (David Stearns was navigating his very first offseason as the youngest GM in Baseball history — he succeeded Doug Melvin in September 2015)
  • looking to add to prospects while clearing a path for another prospect (Davis’s move gave 24-year old Domingo Santana an everyday role)

The Brewers got two players: C Jacob Nottingham and RHP Bubba Derby. Brew Crew Ball’s trade analysis at the time:

Jacob Nottingham is the centerpiece of this deal for Milwaukee. The 20-year-old catcher was a sixth round pick by the Astros in 2013 and has now been traded twice in the last eight months, having joined Oakland as part of the deal that sent Scott Kazmir to Houston. Nottingham split time between the Low-A and High-A clubs with Houston and the A’s High-A affiliate, hitting a combined .309/.364/.493 in 479 plate appearances. He is No. 66 on the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list, giving the Brewers their fifth member of that list. He did not make the MLB Pipeline Top 100, but he was listed as their 8th best catching prospect.

Derby never made it to the majors and Nottingham has appeared in just 53 games in MLB since his 2018 debut with the Brewers and last year in his age-28 season split time in the Nationals and Giants’ minor league systems.

Today, a pre-arbitration position player with a 119 OPS+ across three seasons is the exact kind of player you don’t move unless the haul is massive. If the National League had the designated hitter at the time, the Brewers would’ve held on to him or asked for more.

Just to give you an idea of what today’s Khris Davis might look like: here’s a list of players with a minimum of 1,000 PA who’ve played their age 25-27 seasons over the last three seasons (2021-2023):

Nathaniel Lowe (TEX), 121 OPS+ | .276/.359/.441, 62 HR
Austin Hays (BAL), 109 OPS+ | .261/.313/.439, 54 HR
Willy Adames (TB/MIL), 108 OPS+ | .238/.314/.448, 80 HR
Lane Thomas (STL/WSN), 108 OPS+ | .252/.315/.435, 52 HR
Thairo Estrada (SFG), 105 OPS+ | .266/.320/.416, 35 HR
Alex Verdugo (BOS), 103 OPS+ | .277/.334/.417, 37 HR
Ha-Seong Kim (SDP), 100 OPS+ | .245/.325/.393, 36 HR
Franmil Reyes (CLE/CHC/KC), 100 OPS+ | .237/.294/.432, 46 HR
Amed Rosario (CLE/LAD), 99 OPS+ | .276/.313/.398, 28 HR
Cody Bellinger (LAD/CHC), 92 OPS+ | .236/.294/.420, 55 HR
Pavin Smith (ARI), 91 OPS+ | .239/.318/.378, 27 HR

Just from this list, it’s clear an argument can be made that Thairo Estrada IS Farhan Zaidi’s Khris Davis trade, and it’s even better than the actual Khris Davis trade because the Giants only spent cash instead of prospects and they got him during his pre-peak years. Plus, with Estrada’s near-elite defense up the middle, the WAR valuation is basically a wash. But a dinger machine Thairo is not.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this list when attempting to conjure up a similar trade with current players is that Davis’s 119 OPS+ comprises his first three MLB seasons. Only Ha-Seong Kim will be entering his fourth season in 2024. So, maybe the Giants should work hard to trade for him? Except, he’ll be a free agent next season, and so maybe avoid the prospect loss and in-division pricing and simply sign Cody Bellinger? But that’s not a trade!

Only 9 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances under their belts will be entering their fourth big league season in 2024:

Cal Raleigh (SEA), 59 HR
Andrew Vaughn (CHW), 53 HR
Chas McCormick (HOU), 50 HR
Jonathan India (CIN), 48 HR
Bryan De La Cruz, 37 HR
Ha-Seong Kim (SDP), 36 HR
Akil Baddoo (DET), 26 HR
Brandon Marsh (PHI), 25 HR
Geraldo Perdomo (ARI), 11 HR

Hmm. Interesting list. There’s Ha-Seong Kim again. I’ve had my eye on Chas McCormick for a minute, but the Astros will need him in a post-Bregman world, although with Dusty Baker now advising the Giants it might be fun! Raleigh, Marsh, and Perdomo aren’t going anywhere and it seems like Jung Hoo Lee removes the need to even consider Akil Baddoo (and Scott Harris might have already positioned the Tigers to contend in the Central this season). Vaughn and India are both in year one of their arbitration eligibility. And anyone younger than a 25-27 group would have an exorbitant trade cost.

David Stearns being the youngest GM in history needing to quickly rebuild a roster setup the opportunity for the A’s, but there isn’t a similar situation today. Not even the post-Stearns Brewers. So then, there’s not really a Khris Davis comp for 2024. If you drop the plate appearance minimum to 750, the list doubles to 20 names, but only Jake Burger appears in the slugger category — .501 slugging, 43 HR in 765 PA (207 games) — which means Kim Ng pulled off the Khris Davis trade in her sole year as a GM. How about that!

Nathaniel Lowe is an interesting comp, though. It’s sort of the inverse of the Davis-Domingo Santana situation, though, because Lowe had been blocked by 1B Ji-Man Choi. He was also pre-arbitration at the time of the deal and he’s in year two of arbitration now. He’s about as bad a defender in the field as Davis was at the time the A’s got him. But let’s say that the Giants are more willing to take on an arbitration player than the A’s were then and let’s assume that Lowe or a player with his profile is the baseline.

The Rangers gave up their #19 (Osleivis Basabe) and #23 (Heriberto Hernandez) prospects along with an 18-year old position player. That’s today’s Giants’ equivalent of Jairo Pomares and Carson Seymour plus an 18-year old position player prospect (Juan Perez?), but also assuming that today’s prospect rankings are equivalent to whatever they were at the end of 2020 when the Lowe trade went down which might not be the case. Inflation is everywhere! And if the trade was actually for Lowe, he’d cost more now with his playoff experience.

The Giants have failed to draft and develop sluggers. They’ve failed to woo top of the market dinger machines. They’ve had a modicum of success pumping and dumping slugger-ish guys, but the youth + team control component of the Davis move is what’s been missing from Zaidi’s portfolio. That type of move suggests sustainable success across a longer term — which is what we all want, right?

There’s a value to adding players like this a year before a contention window opens, too, if we’re to assume that’s where the Giants are in their rebuild. Certainly, with Robbie Ray probably not able to contribute much this season and Jung Hoo Lee needing at least a season to get acclimated to MLB pitching (if he can at all), 2025 seems like the year when heads will roll if they miss out on the third Wild Card again. The A’s jumped from 75 wins in Davis’s first season to 97 the next. The Nationals signed Jayson Werth to a large free agent deal for the 2011 season and went 80-81, but then won 98 in 2012.

So, this year might be the year to make a moderately big(ger) splash (than signing Jung Hoo Lee).