A year ago at this time, the San Francisco Giants were the biggest surprise in baseball as they rolled through the 2021 regular season with an MLB-best 107 wins. This year? Not so much. San Francisco is instead entering the final weeks of the 2022 season looking up at the .500 mark — not to mention the NL West-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.
As the Giants prepare to play the Chicago Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball (8 ET on ESPN), we asked MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Tim Keown and Buster Olney to break down San Francisco’s decline — and lay out the moves the Giants should make to help get back to the top of the standings.
After their 107-win season, what’s the biggest reason for the Giants’ drop-off this year?
Doolittle: The Giants threaded a lot of needles to get to 107 wins last year. That’s not a criticism but a tribute. Repeating that has proved to be difficult. Ever since Farhan Zaidi took over the operation, the roster has been one of constant churn. One marginal upgrade after another.
Last season, the Giants got lots of value from this churn. This season, not so much. Then you had a lot of players performing near the upper ranges of the projection probabilities last year coming back in line, and there you have it. An overachieving team slips from the stratosphere and lands right in the middle of the road. It seems like a letdown but this is still better than where we figured the Giants would be at this point when last season began.
Keown: This is what happens when a team built on depth no longer has it. Gabe Kapler is mixing-and-matching and playing the percentages just as he did last year, but the system-wide lack of production — up and down the lineup, in the bullpen — turned last season’s alchemy into this season’s futility.
Olney: In 2021, future Hall of Famer Buster Posey had one of the best seasons of his career — and then retired; at 34, Brandon Crawford had his best offensive showing ever; a 33-year-old Brandon Belt bashed 29 homers and posted an OPS just under 1.000. And all three were very strong defensively. If you didn’t expect a significant regression, well, you weren’t paying attention, and the Giants have taken a big step back, especially on defense.
Gonzalez: The bullpen is certainly among the most prominent reasons. The Giants’ relief corps went from either first or second in the majors in ERA, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio last year to the bottom third in all three of those categories this year. No man personifies that better than Jake McGee, who went from being a lights-out co-closer in 2021 to released at midseason in 2022. Tyler Rogers, who shared ninth-inning duties with McGee, also took a step back, as did Dominic Leone. It should be noted, however, that the Giants’ bullpen benefited from plenty of batted-ball luck last year and is not doing so this year.
Which team is more indicative of San Francisco’s true level: last year’s 107-win club or this year’s that has hovered around .500?
Doolittle: This season, no doubt. Again, that doesn’t undermine what the Giants accomplished last season. Those wins are in the books. But that team was playing way over their collective heads. The Giants’ current record is roughly in the range of what you’d expect based on quantitative-based projections.
Keown: A little of both, and I say that because they’re two different teams in terms of both vibe and personnel. Everything went perfectly for them last year; very little has gone right this season. This year’s version at times has had to scramble just to field a representative nine. At one point they were forced to trade for a shortstop (Dixon Machado) because both big league shortstops and their top two minor league shortstops were injured. That’s just weird. So, in short, both seasons were aberrations, making cogent analysis nearly impossible.
Olney: The Giants played to their peak potential in 2021, and without Posey and without a healthy Crawford and Belt, they are exactly who they’re supposed to be in 2022. They need foundational position players, desperately.
Gonzalez: This is who they are. The Giants vastly exceeded expectations last year in large part because, as Buster has pointed out, Posey, Crawford and Belt tapped into something we didn’t think they still had in them. Now the Giants seem to be facing something of an identity crisis.
ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranked their farm system 14th in his latest rankings last month, and their best prospects aren’t necessarily close to the majors yet. Joey Bart has yet to pan out, Mike Yastrzemski is having a down year, and looking forward, the Giants will venture into the offseason with several holes throughout their lineup. The good thing, though, is that they have some decent financial flexibility.
Who is one player who underachieved this year but you expect more from in the future?
Doolittle: When a 35-year-old player like Brandon Crawford tumbles so precipitously, you do have to wonder if he’s simply done. While I wouldn’t expect him to have another MVP-esque season like he did in 2021, I think it’s reasonable that the Giants could expect to get at least another above-average season from Crawford. His knee problems have undermined his performance this season and sapped his ability to cover ground in the field and hit with much pop. But he’s been better during the second half and hopefully an offseason of rest and healing will position him for a bounce-back in 2023.
Gonzalez: I’ll go with Mike Yastrzemski, who has yet to replicate the breakout offensive showing he provided during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. Yastrzemski had a down year offensively in 2021, but he still hit 25 home runs, provided elite right-field defense and ran the bases well. This year, everything has been down. But he’s still playing above replacement level and the Giants still seem to consider him as a central member of their team. He’s still only 32, and he should be better.
Keown: The easy answer here is Brandon Crawford; he played at a near-MVP level last year and a near-replacement level this year. But since the question includes “the future” I’m going with LaMonte Wade Jr. I thought he was headed for a breakout season this year, but injuries slowed him early and he never seemed to fully recover. I still think he’s a 25-homer guy who can be an anchor in the lineup.
Olney: This is what’s so difficult about projecting what the Giants will do as they move forward — it’s very difficult to look at their roster of position players and see long-standing pieces around which they will build. I’ll say Joey Bart, because he’s a relatively young player (25) on a roster filled with a lot of older players.
What is one move you would make this offseason if you were running the Giants?
Doolittle: This team has the resources to spend big and if there is one thing I’d splurge on, it would be that big run-producing slugger that Gabe Kapler can just pencil in and leave alone. And, yes, Aaron Judge is the first name that leaps to mind.
Gonzalez: Sign Aaron Judge. The Giants have the financial resources — and Farhan Zaidi has the wherewithal — to supplement the major league team while building up the farm system. And both are necessary right now. The Giants need much more than just Judge, of course; they need a first baseman, a third baseman, some bullpen help, and they’d probably like to re-sign Carlos Rodon. But Judge headlining an offense that can mix and match with the best of them when the pieces are right would instantly make this team a threat.
Keown: If we’re talking overall philosophy — which we’re not, but whatever — the Giants need to commit to getting younger and more athletic. This may mean coming to the harsh realization that a short-term rebuild may be in order. If Farhan Zaidi is not interested in that approach, he’ll have to employ his skills of persuasion to get the team owners to open the checkbook wide for Northern California native Aaron Judge. I’m betting on the rebuild.
Olney: I’m echoing the chorus here: Aaron Judge. He would give them everything they need in the moment — a face of the franchise, a power hitter, a leader, someone who will help to sell tickets.
When will the Giants next make the playoffs again?
Doolittle: I’ll hedge my bets and say sometime in the next two years. It’s a tough division. The Dodgers aren’t going anywhere, ever. The Padres have an elite core to remain a factor for the foreseeable future. The Diamondbacks are getting better fast. But the Giants are smartly run, willing to adapt their processes (or iterate them might be the more appropriate term) and have considerable economic clout. And the minor league system is fertile, if not quite elite. There is no excuse for this team to be anything other than an annual contender in a 12-team playoff universe.
Gonzalez: The Giants have one player signed through 2024 (Anthony DeSclafani) and nobody beyond that. This front office has done a good job of not tying itself to long deals before the team becomes a legitimate championship contender, which means … the Giants can really spend this winter. If they do it the right way, and some of their key guys bounce back, and Joey Bart takes a step forward, I think they can make the postseason as soon as 2023. They might not be any better than the third-best team in their division, but that can still get them in, of course.
Keown: Being one of the best six out of 15 isn’t a particularly high bar, but the Giants are in danger of letting the NL West run away from them. It’s not only the Dodgers and Padres, it’s now the Diamondbacks, too. So: 2024.
Olney: Assuming they pick the right players and make the right moves in the next two years, I’ll say 2025. They are miles behind the Dodgers’ juggernaut now, in the respective evolutions of the two teams, they aren’t as prepared to contend in 2023 as the Padres are and they are even behind the Diamondbacks in their rebuild. But they do have a lot of payroll flexibility and will be dangerous, if they choose wisely.