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At first, the San Francisco Giants were a pleasant April surprise. Then, it looked like they were following their persistent pattern of surprising competence with an aging core. But unlike 2019 and 2020, when they merely stayed on the periphery of contention into the summer, they now have the best record in baseball with just a month to go before the trade deadline.
A team no one really envisioned as a serious contender is hanging on to the top spot in baseball’s toughest division — for now. They’re a game-and-a-half up on the rival Los Angeles Dodgers after dropping the first two games of their series, and three up on the loaded San Diego Padres. That means Farhan Zaidi, the architect of San Francisco’s shockingly good team, is suddenly baseball’s most interesting decision-maker.
Despite the pristine 50-29 record, oddsmakers, projection systems and conventional wisdom still don’t buy the idea of the Giants being able to hold off the Dodgers and Padres for a full 162 games. Their +750 odds to win the NL pennant at BetMGM are only fifth-best, and they also remain longer shots than Los Angeles and San Diego to win the NL West, sitting at +425 at BetMGM. FanGraphs gives them only a 6.6% chance at the division crown, while the PECOTA system at Baseball Prospectus is even less optimistic at just 2.9%.
All of those outlooks, however, are mostly predicated on the current version of the roster — and on what we thought we knew about those players.
There is also some undeniable math: Even if they are eventually usurped atop the NL West, the Giants are overwhelmingly likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016, with FanGraphs giving them 79.8% playoff odds entering Wednesday’s games.
The decision at hand for Zaidi, then, is two-fold: Are the Giants good enough that they could transform their surprising winner into an expected, understandable winner through trade deadline upgrades? And then, if so, how much of a meticulously cultivated future are they willing to sacrifice to make the 2021 NL West a three-way tangle of titans?
Do the Giants think the Giants are contenders?
One thing to remember is that an MLB front office is not deciding how good its team is by looking at the win-loss record. Zaidi previously worked for Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s and under Andrew Friedman assembling the juggernaut Dodgers that he now must contend with. He’s assessing the Giants’ chances not only by how well they have played, but by how well they are likely to play going forward.
The public projection systems, as we noted, do not have a rosy view of their chances of winning the NL West’s ultimate game of king of the castle.
That’s not the entire meaning of being a contender, though. For one thing, wild-card teams frequently make deep runs — just ask the Even-Year Magic Giants, who look suspiciously like current Giants. And for another, the projection systems that fuel playoff odds and the public understanding of a team’s true talent are designed to take the long view. They are intentionally slow to believe that prime Buster Posey and Evan Longoria have reemerged in their mid-30s, or that perpetually average-ish starter Kevin Gausman is now a fire-breathing, splitter-flinging god on the mound.
Fundamentally, preseason projections are a better baseline for future performance than the results thus far, even when the season is well under way. That would be bad news for the Giants, who were forecast as a sub-.500 team.
But just because most half-season outlier performances are fluky doesn’t mean there aren’t real revelations mixed in. Deciphering how much of their eyebrow-raising success is “real” could inform just how aggressively the Giants are on the trade market.
Baseball Prospectus recently incorporated a new method of learning about players’ recent performances into its projection system, and there was some good news for the Giants. Gausman’s projection improved significantly, and the system also boosted Longoria’s outlook (if he can return to health). But most of their key contributors — especially on a pitching staff sporting a 3.21 ERA, third-best in MLB — have not moved the needle.
Take Anthony DeSclafani. The Reds import has been terrific, posting a 2.91 ERA so far that would be by far the best of his career. But under the hood, everything about the 31-year-old righty looks virtually the same.
He’s striking out 23.7% of batters (compared to a 21.2% career average) and walking 7.1% of batters (within half a point of his career norm). He’s allowing fewer homers, by virtue of a more favorable home park and a deader ball, but even simple metrics that drill down just one level will tell you what the projection systems see: He’s largely the same league average-ish pitcher he has long been.
That’s still a very useful member of the rotation, but the odds of the Giants going 11-5 in his next 16 starts are realistically just not great. Where his actual results have been 24 percent better than average, his FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching, a metric that estimates ERA based on things a pitcher actually controls) is 3.67, only 6% better than league average once adjusted for park.
The Giants have a lot of guys pulling a DeSclafani, to some extent or another, where the Dodgers and Padres are more likely to have some guys pull a reverse DeSclafani and align with their track records by performing better (or simply returning from injury).
With that new information added in, Baseball Prospectus gives San Francisco 24.5% odds of making it past the wild-card game and into the division series — which trails, say, the Padres (68.6%) by a fair margin, but is still wildly higher than what it projected in March.
So the stellar start has undoubtedly changed our understanding of what the 2021 Giants can be, but Zaidi and the front office have to grapple with how many games the team should even be expected to win in the second half.
Could the Giants go all in and top the Dodgers and Padres?
The Giants will clearly be buyers at the deadline. But there’s a difference between buying like the Padres have recently — the Hold On To Your Butts Route — and buying in a way that quietly bets against this year’s team really being the one to count on — the Hedge Route. In all likelihood, Zaidi and his front office will opt for the latter in 2021, patiently wait for 19-year-old shortstop phenom Marco Luciano and the rest of their top prospects to matriculate, and leave San Francisco’s mid-range darkhorse status for 2021 roughly intact.
But there are some scenarios to watch for to spot a serious contender in the making.
As Giants writer and aficionado Grant Brisbee has detailed at The Athletic, the most obvious target for the trade deadline is a pitcher, any pitcher, who will allow them to bolster a good staff and create a more reliable bullpen.
Max Scherzer is not walking through that door, no matter how many rumors fly, but Twins starter Jose Berrios would make for a Hold On To Your Butts Route candidate. He’s under team control for more than just 2021, and has been a consistent top-of-the-rotation force. On the rental front, perhaps they will call the division rival Rockies about Jon Gray, whose good season might be even better in the less homer-prone confines of San Francisco.
But in the more likely Hedge Route, the Giants would go smaller and add assorted bullpen parts, or a less consistent Twins arm like Michael Pineda, throw it all into the mix and see what sticks.
The other glaring need is a reliable bat in the outfield. Aside from Mike Yastrzemski, the Giants are trotting out a parade of hitters who either flat out aren’t performing or can’t be expected to going forward. The Hold On To Your Butts Route calls for a blockbuster deal to bring in either Kris Bryant (if the Cubs fade) or Texas' Joey Gallo. Either one can slot into a corner outfield spot with solid defense and would immediately become the Giants’ best hitter. Bryant could also fill in at either corner infield spot, which might be useful since both Brandon Belt and Longoria are hurt.
If they take the Hedge Route, filling this need may look decidedly less exciting. They could turn to Tigers on-base specialist Robbie Grossman for a small, yet meaningful upgrade.
With offseason addition Tommy La Stella facing another injury delay, one player who makes a ton of sense in either scenario is Pirates second baseman/outfielder Adam Frazier. He’s batting .326 this year, rarely strikes out and won’t be a free agent until after 2022.
The reality is eclipsing the Dodgers or Padres in true talent will be nearly impossible to pull off midseason. What the Giants can do is leverage their great start and get Kevin Gausman primed for a shot at wild-card game glory. As the pennants at Oracle Park will attest, anything can happen from there.
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