The 2018 San Francisco Giants Refuse to Rebuild
They enchanted the city for years, then hit the skids in 2017. After savvy moves this winter, will ‘Hey, not bad’ be good enough for a fickle, distracted fan base?
Say hey, that went fast. We blinked, and now the 20-year mark of the San Francisco Giants’ waterfront ballpark looms on the horizon.
Pretty soon, stories of Candlestick Park — like the ones I shared with you from 1968 — will sound like the reminiscences of our parents or grandparents about long-gone Ebbets Field (Brooklyn) or Crosley Field (Cincinnati) or, gulp, Seals Stadium.
I blame the Giants for this. They left Candlestick behind with a vengeance, filling the new park with Barry Bonds in the first decade, followed by the greatest seven-year run in the franchise’s San Francisco history. From 2010 to 2016, there were four postseason appearances and three World Series titles. (And don’t forget the team was excellent from 2000, the park’s inaugural year, to 2004, losing the 2002 World Series in seven games and averaging nearly 95 wins a year.)
This week, players began reporting to Arizona for spring training. For Giants fans in this latest era, the ritual has meant true anticipation — not just “everyone’s got a chance in spring” delusion — and high expectations.
But for the first time in a long time, the Giants could be facing a drought. Years of baseball La Niña, if you will. The trouble began in mid-2016. They went from a juggernaut to the worst team in the second half, barely making the playoffs. Then in 2017, they tied for worst record in the bigs.
Smart observers think the team can, at least near-term, turn fortune around. The brass has restocked the team without too much farm-system depletion, while keeping the payroll under the sport’s luxury tax threshold. (More on that in a moment.)
But reloading, instead of rebuilding, is as much as about the team’s relationship to San Francisco as it is about competitive calculus. This is an expensive town, full of transients. How many times have you met someone who grew up in San Francisco? When you do, is it hard to contain your surprise?
A disproportionate amount of people aren’t from here. They have brought hometown allegiances with them. Or they’re happy to root for the Giants casually—when the team is on a roll and the park is full and buzzing. Or they’re into tech or art or robots or polyamory or politics or social justice or drugs, and they don’t give a crap about baseball.
If the Giants don’t win, and they keep not winning, they’re likely to see more of what happened down the stretch last year: Painful patches of empty seats, like the bare skin of a mangy dog, amid the official end of a long streak of sold-out games.
Already squeezed by the nation’s highest or second-highest cost of living (depends who you ask), our discretionary entertainment dollars have a ton of competition. A few years of intentional badness, plus an economic dip, and suddenly the bells and whistles of the home park — the great views, the urban location, the, uh, garlic fries (do people still eat those?) — don’t distract as much from the cold nights, the menacing seagulls, and of course, the crappy baseball.
With its 28-acre Mission Rock development project just south of the ballpark, the team has a plan to compensate for baseball’s inevitable karmic cycles: real estate. Which is some kind of karmic cycle itself, because the ballpark was instrumental in turning South of Market and Mission Bay into ground zero of San Francisco’s ongoing transformation.
Tapping into the property boom they helped grease, on top of ending the debt payments for their privately financed ballpark, would seem to offer the Giants drunken-sailor levels of future spending. This year, however, they’ve stayed sober and under baseball’s $197 million payroll threshold not just to avoid massive immediate surcharges, but to give themselves leeway to spend ridiculously next winter, when a slate of stars, including Washington’s Bryce Harper and Baltimore’s Manny Machado, hits the free market.
Meanwhile, the bridge to that potential spending spree is no longer built with rotting shoelaces and Legos. A losing 2018 is not inevitable. The Giants traded, in essence, their incumbent center fielder Denard Span, a couple well-regarded minor leaguers, and a relief pitcher for two former superstars, Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, who were beloved in Pittsburgh and Tampa, respectively, where they had spent their entire careers until now.
There are two operating principles in play: One, pray that the declines McCutchen and Longoria have shown recently don’t accelerate. Two, hope all the team’s incumbents who sputtered or got injured last year — first baseman Brandon Belt, outfielder Hunter Pence, ace pitcher Madison Bumgarner, co-ace pitcher Johnny Cueto, and most of the relief pitchers — do better across the table.
More than for any team in baseball, in fact, the latter could happen. The stat-nerds call it positive regression. Others call it good players bouncing back from a collective bad year.
The team has obvious flaws, so it would be a miracle if they finished 2018 ahead of the (boo) Los Angeles Dodgers. But the Giants should be interesting to watch and — what the ticket-sellers truly hope for — remain in the thick of competition for much of the summer.
Some people ask why bother striving for a ceiling of “Hey, not bad, Giants!” They would prefer the team trade their stars and start the rebuilding process. After all, the three World Series champs since the Giants last won it all — Astros, Cubs, Royals — reached the mountaintop only after a ruthless, multiyear exile to Death Valley.
But as they said in 1990s sketch comedy: “Homey don’t play that.” Even in the dreadful mid-aughts, the team was loath to trade too many aging veterans. They stubbornly spent too much on mediocrity because — well, we never quite figured that out.
But I’ll take an educated guess. It’s the same reason they want to reload for 2018 instead of rebuild. If the Giants aren’t good, they at least have to pretend they’re trying. Or have Barry Bonds chasing a home run-record. That always helps.
Alex Lash is editor in chief of The Frisc.