For a team in the midst of a rebuild, one of the compensatory elements that the losing is said to bring is the opportunity for a team to “see what they have” in, say, Player X or Prospect Y.
The 2020 Giants were supposed to be no exception to this rule. A quick tour around Giants twitter — particularly in July and early August — would find endless calls to bench the vets and “see what they have” in the young guys. And we have gotten to see quite a few exciting glimpses (and some less exciting) from a host of young or inexperienced players — Mauricio Dubon, Joey Bart, Logan Webb, Tyler Rogers, Sam Coonrod — as well as players like Austin Slater, Mike Yastrzemski or Tyler Anderson who have been around for awhile but are still trying establish themselves and their role as big leaguers.
As for the vets? Anchor them to the bench…they were sunk contracts and there was no value to be had from playing them. The year didn’t matter except insofar as you could find future core pieces. But a strange thing has happened on the road through 2020…in “seeing what they have,” the Giants have found one thing they have is a bunch of newly reinvigorated veterans.
Thirty-year olds are leading the way as the reanimated team plays itself back into the expanded playoff picture. Barely 30, in the case of the team MVP, scrapheap diamond Mike Yastrzemski. But right behind Yaz on the Fangraphs WAR leaderboard for the team, there’s a host of the high-pay, low-production vets who dragged the Giants down much of the last three seasons.
Brandon Belt’s torrid August has him tied with Austin Slater for second on the team in fWAR, and other than Slater (whose season is so far paused at 59 PA), Belt leads the team in offensive production with a 179 wRC+. Evan Longoria, who has been giving The Shift a hardy “what for” of late, is likewise producing offensive numbers that compare favorably with his All Star and MVP caliber seasons with the Rays. His 123 wRC+ matches his full-season mark from 2016, when he was a 4.5 WAR player and got down-ballot MVP votes.
Belt and Longoria’s emergence as offensive weapons were a welcome addition to an offense that was being carried by Yaz, Donovan Solano and Wilmer Flores through the opening weeks of the season. Perhaps more important was the defensive stabilization that their return to the lineup brought the team. It’s no coincidence that the Giants’ greatest struggles on the defensive side came in the opening weeks, when they looked as though they were playing the game with their shoes stapled to their gloves, their sunglasses filled with someone else’s prescription lens, and their minds somewhere far away from the stadium. The absence of Belt and Longoria, probably the two most talented defenders on the club, forced all manner of out-of-position tomfoolery, much of which was inflicted on poor Flores and Solano.
A third element that helped calm down the defensive woes has been the re-emergence of Brandon Crawford as a mostly everyday player. Crawford, whose defensive numbers have been slipping the last few years (not shocking for a SS on the far side of 30) has been uneven in the field this year. But at least anecdotally to these eyes his glove has improved along with his recent batting proficiency. More importantly, the Giants determined that his absence on the left-side of the field led to significant breakdowns because of the lack of a true backup at the 6-spot. Crawford has always excelled at racing after pop-ups, and he’s put on some true displays in this regard on the last roadtrip, but it feels like his hands have gotten a wee bit quicker of late as well and the arm is still the same force of nature.
At the same time, Crawford’s bat has come alive after a slow start. Over the last 28 days, Brandon has hit .319/.395/.569 with all 4 HRs on the year, which has his season line at a 117 wRC+. Over a full season, that would be the best of his career.
Which brings us to a rub in all of this newfound Fountain of Youth stuff. Mike Krukow made the point before the abbreviated season began that in his mind, veterans should be the beneficiary of the short 60-game schedule, as they wouldn’t be as prone to the wear and tear of the long season. Although Belt and Longoria were felled by the fast ramp up of Summer Camp, on the whole this appears to be true. Counting Donovan Solano and Alex Dickerson, six of the Giants top 10 performers by WAR (among hitters) are over 30. And though off days are relatively rare this year, and much of that over-30 group has been playing daily, the entire assemblage seems to be staying fresh with just the occasional rest. In a normal year, we’d only be in mid-May after all.
For those looking forward to 2021, that bears keeping in mind. All three of Belt, Longoria, and Crawford are currently posting career-best wRC+ — but anticipating them repeating the feat over a full-season schedule would be ill advised. While the presence of the trio has stabilized the infield defense, the Giants likely won’t want to repeat their mistake of constructing a roster where Longoria is literally the only player who can satisfactorily man the hot corner and where Crawford’s absence from the lineup causes fans and coaching staff alike to recite the poetry of W.B. Yeats (“things fall apart/the center cannot hold”). Perhaps Daniel Robertson will be able to help with both of those items…we’ll have to see what they have there.
Another lurking question is whether Oracle Park’s suddenly offensive park factors might turn back to pumpkins next year with fans (hopefully, maybe) back in the park and the wind whipping through the archways again. And what such a re-transformation might do to the veteran players who are no doubt enjoying the sense of well-being that comes from being rewarded for well-struck baseballs rather than having to left-turn towards the bench after another 400’ out.
A more sustainable factor in the vets’ ascension comes from the Giants’ new coaching staff, as Crawford himself has taken pains to point out this week.
One of the compensations of age is the benefit of experience and wisdom. The young, innovative, and large new coaching staff brings all the information a wise-old vet could ask for to help make up for that lost-step or micro-second of bat-speed. Though my writing has long focussed on baseball prospects, it’s one of my core beliefs that really all players are “developing” and all players, at any level, are “prospects.” The new coaching staff’s ability to get important information into players hands and heads isn’t just important to developing the kids; it’s equally critical to the continued development — and survival — of their veterans. These guys are all learning, even the ones who seen it already.
That’s how we get to stuff like Longoria making teams pay for their defensive alignments continually:
and Crawford regaining his power stroke of 2015:
So what are we to make of all this New Revivalism? What does it mean that the Giants have more successfully “seen what they have” in their old-timers than they have with a lot of the kids (remember all the talking up Jaylin Davis and Joe McCarthy got this summer)?
Well, it could mean quite a few important things — first and foremost that this September’s Giants games are meaningful and worth watching. But long term, it could be that the rebirth of some of their veterans has meaning to the rebuild as well.
All three of the players above are no doubt rebuilding their market value. It’s widely believed that when Farhan Zaidi first took over with the Giants he spent a good deal of time and effort exploring the possibility of moving many of his long-term contracts, and Belt, Crawford, and Longoria are almost certainly included in that group (Johnny Cueto, too, but he’s a different article). But two years ago, with multiple years left on their deals and declining production on the field, that proved tough to do. Both of the Brandons have already given the Giants a level of production that justifies their extensions — Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus estimated at the time of Crawford’s extension that roughly 9 WAR over the length of the contract would provide market value, and both Crawford and Belt have exceeded that benchmark during the course of their deals — but other teams weren’t so willing to take the declining back end of the contracts off Zaidi’s hands.
But now, with just one year left on the Brandons’ deals and two for Longoria’s, the calculus begins to move back into the Giants favor. IF they choose to reconstruct their roster without one (or more) of these vets, this winter likely will be a more favorable environment to do so (though both Crawford and Belt also hold full or partial no-trade clauses and would have something to say about that).
But the Giants ability to work with their vets to help get them back to peak-level production (with some health) could have even more exciting consequences for the rebuild by keeping them. What we’re seeing this year is that these three former All Stars aren’t “done.” Their production abilities haven’t been tapped, sapped, and capped. They’re not sunk costs (as all are giving back production value well in excess of their salaries in this prorated year). As the Giants continue to seek to build dynamic, flexible, multi-various rosters, they can look at Belt, Longoria, and Crawford’s spot on the roster and consider that there is real value to be had there. Indeed, it seems unlikely they’d be able to replace Longoria’s value at the same costs, as the former Ray was a league average starter in 2019 and has been well better than that in 2020.
And that should be helpful to the youngsters they are developing. It should make it easier for Joey Bart if he’s not the team’s centerpiece; if his struggles aren’t weighing the team down. It should be a benefit, not a challenge, that he has Buster Posey on the bench with him next year to talk with and bounce questions off of. It should help Heliot Ramos’ transition to MLB to have successful vets like Mike Yastrzemski and Alex Dickerson and even Donovan Solano around him to teach him the path to success.
The first rule of a Rebuild is: Add Talent. Marco Luciano’s talent won’t be arriving for some time. Neither will Hunter Bishop’s or Alex Canario’s or Seth Corry’s. And even Joey Bart’s and Ramos’ might take awhile to percolate. Right now it appears that one of the quickest routes to adding talent might be helping the older guys on hand rediscover some of their own.
If they can continue to do so in 2021, the Rebuild takes a step forward, the hill is a little less steep. And us fans get a little bit more leash to keep writing, #Belted!
This Date in History
2010: San Jose roared back from a 6-0 deficit to defeat Visalia 7-6, eliminating the Rawhide and clinching a first round bye in the Cal League playoffs. The Giants had been put in a hole by a familiar foe when Paul Goldschmidt hit a bases loaded double in the top of the 1st — his 41st double of the year to go with 35 HRs in what was a true breakthrough for the unheralded prospect. But a San Jose lineup that included seven future major leaguers clawed its way back with a four-run 6th. In the 7th, Juan Perez’ two-run homer gave them the margin of victory. The Giants would go on to win their fifth title of the decade and final one (so far) this century, when they beat Mike Trout’s Inland Empire team in one of the most dramatic Cal League finals in recent memory.
2017: Down by 5 in the bottom of the 9th on the final day of the season, Sacramento sent the home fans happily into winter with a dazzling power display. They hit four home runs, including back-to-back-to-back to open the frame, on their way to an improbable 10-9 victory over El Paso to end the year. The big frame started with consecutive homers from Jeff Arnold, Juniel Querecuto, and Slade Heathcott. After two groundouts and a single, Chris Shaw pounded the game tying shot, his second of the day. Heathcott would join Shaw in the multi-round trippers club when he ripped his second HR in two innings, a walk-off shot to end it in the 10th. What a way to conclude a year!
2017: The AZL Giants overcame a monster night from Texas’ Sam Huff to advance to the AZL Finals. Huff, then a rather anonymous 7th round High School pick who would go on to be Texas’ top prospect, had a four-hit, four-RBI night that included a double and two HRs. But led by Ismael Munguia, who had three hits and three runs scored at the top of the order, and Jacob Gonzalez, who drove Munguia in all three times, the Giants came back to secure a dramatic 6-5 victory in the league semi-final. The Giants scored four times in the 7th and 8th innings to tie the game and in the bottom of the 9th, Diego Rincones’ RBI single walked it off. The Giants were missing their star, as Heliot Ramos was under concussion protocols after being hit in the head ten days earlier. His absence would weigh heavily in the finals when they lost a best of three series to the Cubs.
RIP to Fresno’s own Tom Terrific. It wasn’t the only time I ever saw him pitch, but I remember begging off from a Graduates Assistant’s meeting in September, 1986 to go see him pitch, thinking it might be the last chance I’d have. Nearly 42 at the time, he threw a brilliant 8 innings, getting out of a bases loaded jam in the 6th by starting his own 1-2-3 double play. He allowed 2 runs and left with a 2-1 lead. Bob Stanley vultured what would have been the 312th, and final, victory of his storied career. I wrote a long thread on twitter about this the other day, but the drama of watching Tom Seaver on the mound in the 9th inning of a playoff game, facing Johnny Bench with a one-run lead, that’s something that is mostly gone from our game today. Perhaps for the better, perhaps not. Changes will always come and nostalgia for “the old days” won’t and shouldn’t stop it. But for those of us who still remember, we should bear witness to the extraordinary theater of those games…
Have a great Labor Day Weekend everybody!