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MLB preview 2019: The San Francisco Giants look to the future while tied down to the past

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The Giants have embraced change and new GM Farhan Zhaidi will be looking to return the team to relevance

With the 2019 season just around the corner, it’s time to catch up with the other teams around the division. Instead of trying to figure out what we need to know about them ourselves, we thought it would be a good idea to ask our friends at our neighbors here at SBNation to help catch us up.

We asked managing editor of McCovey Chronicles, Bryan Murphy, to answer a few questions for us about the upcoming San Francisco Giants season. You’ll find his answers below, edited for length and clarity.

What went right for the Giants in 2018? What, ultimately, went wrong?

They showed that their core players were still effective. They also failed so spectacularly literally everywhere else that it compelled ownership to radically remake the baseball operations side. The Giants are getting a much needed refit. Despite their protestations, it was clear that Bobby Evans and Brian Sabean were overmatched in the modern game. Maybe it’s because their peers are now much younger or maybe it’s because the overriding philosophy of baseball front office management looks unfamiliar to them. They didn’t have the borderline sociopathic day trader’s mindset that literally every other baseball team now operates under. So, in that sense, failing as big as they did brought about necessary change.

Everything else went wrong, though. Buster Posey’s hip surgery reminded us that everything ends. Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Belt, and Joe Panik torpedoed their trade value. The team posted its worst record for a single month in the entire history of the franchise.

But Pablo Sandoval did pitch a great relief inning against the Dodgers. We’ll always have that.

Last year seemed to be the team making one last shot at glory with the team that they had, supplementing with Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. Considering the results do you think that that was the right course of action, or do you think they should have started the rebuild one year earlier?

The Giants are in a tough spot where the core of the roster makes a lot of money and, while in some cases performs at or above league average, make too much money to be moved. They also don’t have prospects available to strap to those bigger salaries. So, they’re in this weird area where some of the players aren’t bad enough to outright release or they have so many years remaining on their deals that it’d be weird or irresponsible to release them right now and there are just enough of them to make you think that if the team around them was as good or better and cost less, the team could make some noise. That was the thinking behind acquiring McCutchen and Longoria, anyway.

I don’t think the Giants made the wrong decision here – although, in hindsight, it probably would’ve just been good enough to trade for McCutchen and then use the remaining money (the Giants were desperate to stay under the luxury tax last season to reset their penalty) to make some smaller moves – but back in 2017, I thought they should’ve traded Brandon Belt not long after Madison Bumgarner’s dirt bike accident, and that’s because I don’t believe in rebuilds.

The plan since 2014 has been to keep the competitive window open for as long as possible with as many of the championship era players as possible. The Giants were willing to do a lot to make that happen, but not whatever it takes. After using the farm system to build that championship core and acquire some players to fortify runs, they didn’t have much in terms of high-upside talent or roster depth. Sometimes, the tough decisions made in the short-term pay off huge in the long-term, and the Giants just never quite embraced that mode of thinking until it was long past the point when it would matter.

Trading Belt wouldn’t have salvaged the 2017 season, but it could’ve given 2018 a happier ending than the one we got.

Farhan Zaidi has returned to the Bay area, departing from the hated rival Dodgers. What difference has he made so far this offseason? Does he seem to have any kind of discernible long-term plan or is it still a mystery at this point?

There’s no mystery to his thesis: he’s going to build the best roster he can 1-40. The only thing that’s unclear is who he’s going to trade to accomplish that. The Giants have valuable players, but in every year of the Brian Sabean epoch, they’d hold onto the good relievers rather than trade them. They’d hold on to players in the final years of their deals or not pay down any of the remaining dollars in order to add unproven young talent. Everything Farhan Zaidi has done in his career suggests he’ll do the exact opposite of that, and given how he has no loyalties to these players, it’s unclear who’s safe. Maybe Buster Posey, but that’s about it.

The inevitable part of a rebuild process involves rebuilding the farm system. How is Zaidi going to go about doing that?

Draft and develop, add players via waiver claims, and trade players at their peak value.

The Giants were rumored to be in on Bryce Harper, who eventually went with the Phillies’ 13 year/$330 million offer. How real do you think the pursuit was and what was it like for fans following it?

I don’t know how good of a fan I am if I never got excited about it. There’s a clear pattern, particularly where Scott Boras clients have been concerned, of the Giants being used as leverage to gain better bids. They’re a wealthy team that wants to spend money to win and that makes them an attractive suitor. The draw of California, a team with recent success, and an engaged fan base aren’t enough to overcome the hitter’s hemorrhoid that is Oracle Park. Nice to look at, terrible to hit in. The Giants have been rebuffed enough by the #1 free agent of the offseason for me to get that any of these future pursuits are a pipe dream, and with Farhan Zaidi running the show, they will never be the top bidder.

For the Real Fans, though, there was excitement. Think about it: they’ve watched the Giants lose 232 games (including the postseason) since the second half of 2016. Every player they love has grown old and been injured or simply suffered from skill erosion that comes with age. 2014 was a looooooong time ago. They went 5-21 just six months ago, the worst month in the 129-year history of the franchise. The Giants’ most expensive move of the offseason has been the addition of a $10 million scoreboard. Bryce Harper is just 26 years old. He’s exciting. He’s a spark of life, a light in the darkness. Just enough echoes of Bonds and how he came to land on the team back in 1993 to act as a salve for the team’s unavoidable rebuild.

By every indication, this was a real pursuit by the Giants. They offered 12 years and over $300 million. I’m less surprised by the dollar amount than the years. I figured that was a number that broke all sorts of sabermetric rules. But Farhan Zaidi is a behavioral economist and smarter than I will ever be, so my caveman brain has chosen to believe that he knew Boras’ interest was an elaborate ruse and played along, the benefit being that it made him and the team look like they were super serious about fielding a good team in 2019.

Last spring there were questions about the rotation and many of those fears now seem justified. What is the sense about the rotation, especially regarding Madison Bumgarner and his health? Is Derek Rodriguez the answer?

Derek Holland’s resurgence was a welcome surprise and Dereck Rodriguez’s performance really did come out of nowhere. Madison Bumgarner’s decline is unmistakable, but not surprising. Either the dirt bike accident that damaged his shoulder sped up his physical decline or the 1,499 regular season and post season innings from 2009-2016 meant he was always going to hit a wall and steep decline.

Beyond those three, the Giants are counting on Drew Pomeranz to vaguely resemble his 2017 self (137 ERA+ in 173 IP) and Jeff Samardzija to build off of a nice Spring Training and be a lot more like his 2017 self (94 ERA+ in 207 IP) versus his injury-ruined 2018 (62 ERA+ in 44 IP).

That’s not a great rotation. On paper, it projects to be a little more than average. It’s the bullpen where they really expect to be competitive. Will Smith, Tony Watson, Reyes Moronta, Sam Dyson, Travis Bergen, Nick Vincent, Mark Melancon, and maybe Trevor Gott figure to be their answers.

Who are some unheralded players we should keep an eye on this season? Prospects, role players, free-agent signees, etc. We’re particularly curious about old friend Gerardo Parra

Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos are their top prospects and Bart at least is someone to keep an eye on in terms of a potentially getting a call up in 2019 (though I think the odds of that are very small); but, our minor league writers will send me strongly worded Slack messages if I don’t mention international signing Marco Luciano. He’s a big bat who’s just 18, so, he’s not going to be getting any major league action for a while, but he excites scouts throughout the industry, a rarity when it comes to a Giants prospect. Travis Bergen, one of their Rule 5 picks, has a knack for getting out both lefties and righties; Reyes Moronta could wind up being the closer by season’s end; and, Yangervis Solarte could be one of their best hitters (a low bar, I know) if he has fully recovered from a pair of oblique injuries the past two seasons. Or, Farhan Zaidi will acquire someone in the next 48 hours who winds up becoming the team’s sole All-Star representative.

Parra will probably be a starting corner outfielder. His standing on the roster was established pretty early, and if you’re wondering about the competition or the organization’s OF depth, I say again that he was basically made a starting outfielder soon after they signed him to a minor league deal.

What do you think is a realistic best case scenario for the Giants this year? What’s the worst case scenario? What would a successful season look like for the Giants?

The Bobby Evans Frankenteam of 2018 began September at 68-68 and went 5-21 because after Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Buster Posey went down with knee injuries, they really didn’t have much going for them in terms of good young players or decent depth. A lot of that team returns in 2019, and some of those injured players are healthier. I’m bullish on Buster Posey’s hip, even if the thirty catcher transactions the Giants have made in the past 24 hours makes most people a little concerned.

What will be the best part of watching the Giants this year? Or, put another way, why should the casual fan (who’s not scoreboard watching) watch a Giants game this season?

They’ll still have all your favorite players, at least for a little while. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Madison Bumgarner, and Brandon Crawford’s defense are all worth watching. If not every night, then every so often.