When Nationals host Giants, a path back to contention will be on display

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When Nats host Giants, a path to contention will be on display originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Nationals return to their home ballpark Thursday to host the first-place team atop the NL West, owners of the best record in baseball.

No, it’s not the reigning World Series champion Los Angles Dodgers, nor is it the loaded San Diego Padres. It’s the San Francisco Giants, surprise contenders that have emerged as a legitimate threat to compete for the division title despite having to fend off two super teams that spent the offseason adding even more talent to their rosters.

Just like the Dodgers and Padres, the Giants have built their success this season around starting pitching. Kevin Gausman, who re-signed on the qualify offer last winter, has taken a dramatic leap in production this year, posting an NL-best 1.27 ERA with a 7-0 record over 12 starts. He’ll take the ball Friday, likely against Erick Fedde once he’s activated off the COVID IL.

Anthony DeSclafani (5-2, 3.51 ERA) and Johnny Cueto (4-2, 3.70) are expected to start Friday against Max Scherzer and Sunday against Joe Ross, respectively, before Alex Wood gets the call to face Jon Lester in the series finale Sunday. As a whole, the Giants’ rotation ranks second in wins (26), fourth in ERA (3.11), fourth in home runs allowed (32) and 11th in strikeouts (328).

Yet, as good as the pitching has been, the Giants would not have their +74 run differential — which ranks second in the NL behind only the Dodgers at +86 — if not for a couple of 34-year-old World Series winners dipping into the fountain of youth at the plate. Buster Posey (10 HR, .988 OPS) and Brandon Crawford (14 HR, .912 OPS) have been unexpected heavy contributors for an offense that leads the majors with 90 homers this season.

The Nationals are catching the Giants at a time when Evan Longoria, Mike Yastrzemski and Tommy La Stella are all on the Injured List, but Yastrzemski could return to the lineup as soon as Saturday. Yastrzemski was San Francisco’s best player last season, leading the club with 35 RBIs before finishing eighth in NL MVP voting.

Managed by former Philadelphia Phillies skipper Gabe Kapler, the Giants are hoping to snap a four-year streak of consecutive seasons without making the playoffs. The team hired former Dodgers executive Farhan Zaidi as president of baseball operations after the 2018 season, when San Francisco had a losing record in back-to-back seasons on the heels of a 10-year run as contenders that included three World Series titles.

Zaidi has since rebuilt the roster mostly through free agency and trades. Working around the Giants’ pre-existing core of Posey, Crawford, Brandon Belt and Cueto, Zaidi signed players such as Gausman, Wood, DeSclafani, La Stella and Wilmer Flores — none receiving a longer guaranteed contract than La Stella’s three-year, $18.75 million commitment from last winter.

Meanwhile, the team’s farm system has been rebuilt into a fringe top-10 prospect pool in all of baseball. Headlined by shortstop Marco Luciano and catcher Joey Bart, the Giants’ farm system should allow them to add even more major-league talent to their roster should they choose to go all in on their 2021 club.

However, expiring contracts for Cueto and Posey coupled with an already-low payroll give the Giants an opportunity to build a long-lasting contender this offseason, when a massive crop of former All-Stars hit free agency including Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Javier Baez. By holding onto their top prospects, the Giants could put themselves in a position to contend with the Padres and Dodgers for years to come.

This weekend, the Nationals will get a front-row seat to see the Giants’ retooled roster in action. With Washington scrambling for a foothold to pull itself up in the NL East — and a potentially critical trade deadline looming — there may be no better measuring stick series than this four-game set with the NL West’s top dogs.

If things go awry for the Nationals, a team that’s spent the last 10 years contending for the playoffs with a World Series ring to show for it, they may have to take a look at Zaidi’s playbook and see for themselves whether they need to follow a similar blueprint back to contention.