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Here’s why the Giants didn’t sell at the MLB trade deadline

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Not only do they think they’re still in it this year, but they think the same thing about next year.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The Giants didn’t have a choice this last offseason. Aside from Madison Bumgarner, they didn’t have veterans who could be traded for top prospects. They had a handful of fine players who were being paid market value, like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford, but they didn’t have any young, underpaid contributors, which meant it wasn’t feasible to hold a fire sale. This is how an old, declining team could add old, declining players and somehow make sense.

This July, the Giants had a choice. They decided not to sell. Now we get to scrutinize them all over again and ask what in the heck they’re doing.

The problem with the idea of a fire sale is that the Giants aren’t a normal team, and not just with the fairly compensated roster. They’re a brand and a destination. The worst attendance for the Giants in the AT&T Park era was 2.8 million. Before this last July ended, the Giants had already drawn more paying fans to their home games than all but one team that played at Candlestick. They draw.

But the crowds were definitely smaller last year, and the weeknight games against uninspiring opponents are sparsely attended this season. Another season threatening 100 losses would be box office doom. The people on Twitter screaming, “GET YOUNGER” are a very vocal minority. The majority is filled with people who give Hunter Pence standing ovations when he jogs out to right field for a rare visit to his old home.

The Giants’ choice this time around was a little different. Will Smith is looking like he stole Andrew Miller’s glowing amulet, and he could have been the best reliever traded at the deadline. Tony Watson is on a ridiculously below-market contract for another year at bargain rates, and he’s having one of his best seasons. Sam Dyson exorcised his 2017 demons and is back to being the pitcher he was with the Rangers.

All the Giants needed to do was trade these fine relievers for all of the prospects, rebuild the bullpen in the offseason, and explain to the fans that five games back is a much bigger hurdle than you might think.

Good luck with that. To most people, five games back is synonymous with “Ah, yes, a five-game winning streak away from the top of the division.” If the fans wouldn’t understand a fire sale in the offseason, they’re sure not going to understand the decision to give up on a team that still has a chance.

Well, see, the Giants’ Pythagorean record is actually not encouraging, and ...

Shut up, nerd. Five games back.

The fans weren’t the only consideration for the deadline, though. The Giants are holding on to their controllable bullpen because ... they actually expect to contend next year, too.

This is a big paradigm shift. My guess is that the Giants were trying to build a .500 team this year because .500 teams are watchable, if frustrating. And look at that, the Giants have built a .500 team that might be the most watchable-if-frustrating team in baseball. They knew that being abjectly terrible again would be murder for their brand, so they at least wanted to be watchable, and there was a fair chance that they would contend at the same time. Mission accomplished.

But how they got there is another story. Aside from the usual suspects, three of the top 11 rookie pitchers by Baseball-Reference’s WAR are on the Giants (Dereck Rodriguez, Reyes Moronta, and Andrew Suarez), and they’re getting contributions from youngsters like Alen Hanson, Austin Slater, and Steven Duggar. They look like a roster that might be able to reload sensibly in the offseason, when they’re free of luxury-tax restrictions.

It’s a wild development for a team that entered the season with this plan:

  • Have Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija pitch well
  • Get Evan Longoria to rake for at least one more year
  • Acquire Andrew McCutchen to be a middle-of-the-order dynamo
  • Assume Mark Melancon will come back at full strength

None of that happened, yet the Giants are still over .500 and contending. That’s a testament to the infield, which is filled with known quantities, but it’s also a testament to the found money of this season. They’ll have Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez and hopefully a young outfielder or two next year, which will allow them to spend.

TL;DR: The Giants looked at this year’s roster and figured the reasons they’re competing this year will still be a reason they can compete next year. They’ll have more money to spend, and they won’t be counting entirely on aging pitchers like they were before this season.

So I get the decision to stand pat.

I strongly disagree with it — it’s been a treat to watch Smith and Watson this year, but take what’s in the box — but that is what the Giants are thinking. They might use these players to contend next year, and in the meantime, the consolation prize is that they still get to contend this year, too.

The Giants’ farm is in a better way than it was two years ago, but it still could have used an infusion of talent at this deadline. Trading three relievers in a reliever-giddy market would have been the perfect way to make up for the inability to rebuild like a normal team. They could have reset their plans and attacked next season with the same plan and more prospects. The only additional concern would have been the need to find a new bullpen.

It would have been worth the risk. Instead, the Giants would like to announce that they’re not just building a team centered around a last gasp. They’re going to try again this offseason and the next, and while they’re trying, they’ll keep their best cheap relievers.

It’s not the only strategy that’s available to them. They actually came to a fork in the road this time. Last year they were pushed down a cliff, but this time they had a choice. They’re choosing to keep at it.

I would have taken what’s in the box and reloaded for next year, but we’ll just have to agree to disagree. The Giants entered this season as a team looking to capitalize on one last gasp. Now they’re thinking of themselves as a team that’s at least partially sustainable, which means they want to hold onto their best players.

Even if you disagree with the strategy, it’s hard not to be impressed with the shift. The Giants were counting on three starting pitchers, and two of them broke, which should have created an unbelievable mess. Instead the Giants are still hopeful, even if they probably shouldn’t be.