Nearly two weeks ago, I asked the question of what the Cleveland Indians would do when the trade deadline rolled around. At the time of the article, the Indians were 50-38 and had climbed back into the American League Central divisional chase, standing just 5.5 games back of the Minnesota Twins at the start of the All-Star break.
Cleveland has opened the second half with an 8-4 record in their first 12 contests, and have since cut Minnesota’s lead to just three games. Whereas they once appeared to be sure candidates to sell the likes of starting pitcher Trevor Bauer and closer Brad Hand, it now seems more likely that the Indians will retain most–if not all–of their tradable assets to make another run at the divisional title.
The Indians are not the only team that have experienced a massive turnaround. Entering play on Wednesday, the San Francisco Giants were the hottest team in baseball. The Giants were 35-47 on the last day of June, but have since won 17 of 20 contests to climb all the way to second place in the National League West, and just two games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second Wild Card spot.
What was sure to be a huge deadline for the Giants in terms of selling off notable pieces like Madison Bumgarner and a host of bullpen arms is now far more complicated.
Although San Francisco is unlikely to compete for a World Series with the current roster–which still has plenty of holes–the fact that they are in contention for a playoff spot could drastically alter how new President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi operates leading up to July 31.
Despite acknowledging a potential need to revamp the organization when he entered the position, Zaidi has said on numerous occasions that he is committed to winning.
So the question must be asked: will the San Francisco Giants be buyers or sellers at the 2019 MLB Trade Deadline?
The case for buying…
No, the Giants are not going to catch the Dodgers in the NL West. But a Wild Card spot is extremely gettable.
The teams at the top of the race (Nationals, Cardinals, Phillies and Brewers) also have a slew of issues that they hope to address at the deadline, and none of those teams really appears primed to break away from the rest of the pack.
As per usual, the Giants have struggled to score runs, and their starting pitching leaves much to be desired. Still, they have no shortage of quality relief arms in the bullpen, and their team defense ranks eighth in terms of Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs.
There are also reasons to be optimistic with respect to the lineup and the starting rotation. Young guys like Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski have shown a lot of promise at the plate, while players like slugging catcher Stephen Vogt offer a lot of depth options. Austin Slater has been in a bit of a funk after a tremendously hot start, but he also provides some slugging.
In the rotation, the staff could be galvanized by the potential return of Johnny Cueto, who continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery. Cueto is nearing a potential return in September, which could really make things interesting for San Francisco.
Cueto had actually gotten off to a decent start in 2018, posting a 3.23 ERA in his first nine starts before he was shut down. While it may take some time for him to get reacclimated on the mound, there is no reason that Cueto cannot step in and provide quality innings for a Giants team that could still be in the thick of the Wild Card race.
Another reason for Zaidi to look to buy is that it may inspire confidence in terms of Bumgarner’s willingness to re-sign with the Giants. After all, the veteran left-hander is a major reason for the team’s resurgence, having posted a 2.00 ERA over 36 innings in his last six starts.
The concern with retaining Bumgarner would be a subsequent failure to re-sign him in free agency, thereby failing to capitalize on his trade value. But Bumgarner has had nothing but praise for San Francisco, and the team’s desire to reward his winning attitude could go a long way in helping them extend Bumgarner this winter.
As crazy as it may sound, Bumgarner will only be turning 30 years old on August 1. He still has plenty in the tank, and San Francisco would likely love to make Bumgarner a Giant for life if they were able to assemble a winning ball club around him.
Unfortunately for the Giants, there is no real way for them to be certified “buyers” without giving up some premium assets.
San Francisco has one of the weaker farm systems in the majors, and they lack the kind of positional talent that might otherwise yield a quality starting pitcher in return (plus, their positional needs are too overwhelming for them to deal someone like Dickerson, Slater, etc.).
Of course, this is all to suggest that the Giants may have to trade a number of their relievers. Fortunately–as previously alluded to–they have a number of players that might be able to net a good return, especially if they can find the right trade partner.
Will Smith has been one of the best closing pitchers in all of baseball this season, and Tony Watson, Sam Dyson and Reyes Moranta all have sub-3.00 ERAs and pretty decent peripherals. Relief arms such as Mark Melancon and Trevor Gott have practically become afterthoughts, but they have both managed to have effective seasons and could certainly have value in the market.
The Giants could exploit all of this relief depth by exploring numerous deals. Teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays may be willing to part with some of their positional depth in order to acquire bullpen arm(s), including promising youngster Michael Brosseau.
While it is highly unlikely that the Giants would be able to get a premium player in exchange for one or some of their bullpen arms, there are options for them to add to their bench and acquire some bats that could make the difference in a potential playoff run.
They could also see whether or not trading someone like Smith would be able to yield a big-league ready player as well as a top-level prospect in return, because that would almost certainly be a move that San Francisco would consider pursuing.
The case for selling
You have to start somewhere, right? As has already been established, the Giants do not have enough talent to actually win the World Series this season, and they have an extremely weak farm system.
With the kind of assets that they have–particularly Bumgarner and Smith–San Francisco would be able to reload their farm system with one bold stroke. That temptation may be too much for Zaidi to pass up as he looks to the future.
Smith is a pretty good candidate to be traded, regardless. He will be an unrestricted free agent after this year, and although he has good career numbers, relief pitchers can be extremely volatile. Especially given the kind of contract Smith will command in the open market, the Giants might not be comfortable giving him so much money even if he expressed a desire to return.
Bumgarner’s case is different. He has surpassed Buster Posey of the face of the Giants, and is most certainly one of the best pitchers in franchise history. Bumgarner is beloved in San Francisco, and the team would undoubtedly prefer to bring him back.
Even though Bumgarner is a decent candidate to re-sign should the Giants elect to ride out the rest of the season with him at the helm, there is still a chance that he leaves in free agency if he feels that another team presents a better option to win a World Series in the coming years.
Given the status of their farm system and somewhat limited payroll flexibility–thanks to the contracts of guys like Posey and Evan Longoria–can the Giants really take the risk of letting Bumgarner walk while getting absolutely nothing in return? Sure, they would get a compensatory first-round pick from any team that signs him in the winter, but that would likely pale in comparison to what they could acquire at the deadline.
San Francisco is in a vastly different position from teams like the Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox. While both of those teams are also dealing with extremely depleted farm systems, they each have plenty of core pieces to build around. The Giants have no such luxury. They do not possess building blocks like a Kris Bryant or a Mookie Betts.
If Zaidi fails to acquire promising young pieces for the future, there is a good chance that the Giants could be stuck in a perpetual cycle of being good enough to contend for a playoff spot, but not nearly good enough to contend for a World Series.
The Verdict: Sell Now!
A playoff run would certainly do a lot to inspire in San Francisco, and maybe the Giants could sneak into the divisional round. But even if they do make the playoffs, they are not going to win the National League pennant, much less a World Series title.
If the Giants had a few more young and established core pieces, this might be a different story. Instead, they owe a ton of money to the likes of Posey, Cueto, Longoria, Melancon, Jeff Samardzija, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, all of whom are signed at least through 2020.
No executive really wants to blow things up when their team is in contention, but that is what the Giants need to do if they hope to be competitive in the future. Their top prospect–Joey Bart–is a catcher, which should about sum it up for Giants fans.
Zaidi can rebuild this team from the ground up. Since the Giants have plenty of desirable players–and given that quality relief pitchers tend to cost a fortune at the trade deadline–they can cash in on value now in the hopes of acquiring young talent that will lead the organization to a World Series in the future.