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The Giants really think they can contend in 2018, and it’s adorable

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But they’re not just doing this because they’re in denial. They’re doing it because they have no choice.

Giants & Tigers v MLB All Stars - Friendly Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

The San Francisco Giants were bad last year. Their hitters failed. Their starting pitchers failed. Their bullpen failed. Their outfielders couldn’t catch the ball, and they couldn’t throw the ball. Their farm system took a step back, even though it was already on the edge of a cliff. They lost 98 games and finished 40 games behind the Dodgers, which is their worst finish in team history.

That description does not describe a team that should be trading one of their best prospects for a 32-year-old third baseman owed $83 million and coming off his worst season.

But the Giants traded for Evan Longoria, and it almost makes sense. I’m as confused as the rest of you.

It almost makes sense because the Giants are going to be horrible in a couple years, just unfathomably bad. It’s always tricky to project three or four years out — think of what the Astros’ future looked like in 2012 — there are warning signs about the Giants that are impossible to miss. In 2020, they’ll owe Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Mark Melancon, and Longoria about $130 million. Belt will be the youngest at 33 years old. It’s likely that some of those players won’t be productive enough to be a key contributor. It’s possible that absolutely none of them will help a team win in 2020.

If they get help from their farm system, it’s possible that they’ll avoid outright catastrophe. But it’s not likely. They’re going to be so, so bad, everyone.

So here’s where you, a smart, wizened baseball observer, point out that the right move would be to rebuild. Tear it down and start over. As long as we’re talking about the Astros, we can point out the masterful tank-job that got them back to the postseason. That’s the template, right?

Kind of! But not in the way that you think. The Astros didn’t have a fire sale to get rid of all their high-priced talent. The fire came to them. They were still pretending to be contenders as late as 2010, when they finally gave up and traded Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt for far less than they could have got before the season started. Those were the only two players with value, which made that fire sale more like a garage sale that was stocked with fingernail trimmings and half-eaten yogurt cups.

That is what a Giants fire sale would look like. Madison Bumgarner would command a huge package, complete with two or three of the best prospects in baseball. But that’s about it when it comes to the franchise-building trades. Buster Posey is certainly tradeable, but he’s also owed $85 million over the next four years, just as he’s approaching the age where most catchers get sucked into a black hole. The Giants would either have to send money or accept second-tier prospects. Brandon Crawford is probably making close to his market value, if not a little more, so he wouldn’t bring prospects back, and that’s before you consider that the shortstop market isn’t all that hot right now. Brandon Belt will look underpaid compared to Eric Hosmer, but he’s coming off his fourth concussion and is something of an enigma. Mark Melancon might interest teams in theory, but he’s coming off surgery and a lost season. Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto would be popular if the Giants paid some of their salaries.

Or, to put it another way: I could see the Giants absolutely gutting the roster, paying $100 million to have these players not play for them, and still ending up with a middle-of-the-road farm system. Attendance would crater, and there would be no guarantees that any of the prospects would provide immediate value, if they would provide any value at all. They would still be awful, and the point of clearing all that salary would be to ... spend it on aging free agents again? They certainly wouldn’t need it to lock up their good young players, whom they wouldn’t have in the first place.

If you think the Giants could turn this roster into a top-10 farm system, we’ll have to agree to disagree. It sure looks from here like the entire 25-man roster would bring back far fewer prospects than, say, the White Sox last year, and it would also cost the team scores of millions and be a PR disaster.

The alternative to that hellscape is a different hellscape, in which the Giants attempt to squeeze just enough lemonade out of this bag of lemons for one more year. Bumgarner will still have value in July. Maybe Melancon will have more value. Maybe Cueto will have the kind of year that would have teams tripping over themselves at the deadline. Maybe a contender will lose their shortstop at the worst possible time, but see Crawford as a logical replacement.

It’s also possible that everyone will lose even more of their value, that Bumgarner falls off a taller, rumblier dirt bike, and the Giants will have missed a window. That is a risk.

Still, the important point is that nothing they do right now will net them as many prospects as the White Sox received last year. So what the Giants have to do is look at these projections and remember that they were optimistic for a reason:

The 2017 San Francisco Giants, projections vs. reality

Player Projected WAR Actual WAR Δ
Player Projected WAR Actual WAR Δ
Buster Posey 5.1 4.0 -1.1
Brandon Belt 3.3 3.0 -0.3
Joe Panik 2.8 1.3 -1.5
Brandon Crawford 4.3 2.1 -2.2
Eduardo Nuñez 2.4 0.3 -2.1
Jarrett Parker 1.4 0.6 -0.8
Denard Span 1.6 -1.1 -2.7
Hunter Pence 2.3 0.3 -2.0
Madison Bumgarner 5.5 2.9 -2.6
Johnny Cueto 4.7 1.7 -3.0
Jeff Samardzija 3 2.4 -0.6
Matt Moore 1.5 -0.3 -1.8
Matt Cain 0.1 -0.5 -0.6
Mark Melancon 1.4 0.1 -1.3

I did not cherry pick those players. That’s the starting lineup, the entire rotation, and the closer. Every single one of them was worse than their ZiPS projection. Every single one. And it’s not like ZiPS projections are super aggressive, either. They were modest predictions to begin with. I’ve never followed a team like that, and I hope to never follow another one. Of the seven teams that FanGraphs projected to be at the top of baseball, six of them won their division. The other one was the Giants.

It’s not bananas to look at a season like that and think all of these players can be better. Here are some projections from FanGraphs for next year:

2018 Giants projections

Player Actual 2017 WAR Projected 2018 WAR Difference
Player Actual 2017 WAR Projected 2018 WAR Difference
Buster Posey 4 4.5 0.5
Brandon Belt 3 3.2 0.2
Joe Panik 1.3 2.4 1.1
Brandon Crawford 2.1 2.9 0.8
Third base 0.3 3 2.7
Left field 0.6 0.1 -0.5
Center field -1.1 0.4 1.5
Hunter Pence 0.3 1.4 1.1
Madison Bumgarner 2.9 3.4 0.5
Johnny Cueto 1.7 2.5 0.8
Jeff Samardzija 2.4 3.5 1.1
Fourth starter -0.3 1.4 1.7
Fifth starter -0.5 0.7 1.2
Mark Melancon 0.1 1.1 1

That’s an upgrade of nearly 14 wins before left field and center field are addressed. All the Giants had to do for those projected wins was get the hell out of 2017. An extra 13 wins above their Pythagorean record would put them at 81-81. You can be sure that Gorkys Hernandez and Jarrett Parker aren’t two of the three starting outfielders, too. The reason the Giants made this deal instead of signing Todd Frazier is because the inclusion of Span allows them to spend nearly $15 million before getting into luxury tax territory. There are more moves coming.

Just imagine if they complete that long-rumored Giancarlo Stanton trade. I’m superstitious, so I haven’t been checking the news, but I have a good feeling about this one.

No, .500 isn’t very exciting, but it would be a step closer to placating the season ticket holders, and all the Giants are forgoing is a chance at turning a bad farm system into a half-decent farm system. And there’s always the possibilities that they’ll outperform some of these projections, too.

The current roster might still be a mess. The future roster is an unbelievable mess. But the deal for an expensive veteran coming off a career-worst year somehow ... makes sense?

A little bit of sense, at least. If the Giants are as bad as I think they’ll be in 2020, it really isn’t going to matter what they’re paying Longoria or anyone else. Might as well throw some more logs on the pyre and have one last party. Let’s see if they’ll be able to see these flames from space.