In a compelling offseason that featured an arms race atop the National League West, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner while the San Diego Padres acquired the 2020 runner-up and the 2018 American League Cy Young winner via trades.
The San Francisco Giants must get acquainted with seeing Trevor Bauer in Dodger blue and facing Yu Darvish and Blake Snell in the cavernous confines of Petco Park, but there’s a lot more for the organization to focus on internally than externally this year.
The Giants made significant progress in 2020, but still finished an abbreviated 60-game season at 29-31, a fourth consecutive losing record. The franchise has never posted five straight losing seasons, and that dates all the way back to its inception when the New York Gothams took the field in 1883.
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, general manager Scott Harris and manager Gabe Kapler have been given the leeway to take their time in rebuilding the organization to create a sustainable model for success, but fans are eager to see the franchise take bigger strides.
As the pressure begins to mount, we examined three big storylines that will define the Giants’ 2021 season and help dictate the club’s outlook on the future.
1. Is this the farewell tour?
The words “Giants” and “future” will be used in the same sentence thousands of times this season, but there’s a legitimate question as to whether references to the team’s next era will include Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford or Buster Posey.
Three of the most successful position players in the organization’s history will likely become free agents next offseason, as the club is expected to decline Posey’s 2022 option while Belt and Crawford are entering the final year of their contracts.
Zaidi was asked last week whether he thought the possibility of a “farewell tour” might be a distraction for the longtime Giants and quickly dismissed the notion, but there’s no doubt the players have already pondered what their futures might look like beyond this year.
Posey has been open about his desire to remain a Giant for the duration of his career and given Zaidi’s willingness to stockpile catching depth, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the two sides worked out a new deal to keep the franchise cornerstone in orange and black.
Belt posted the best on-base percentage and OPS for the Giants last season and as he enters the last year of his contract, the organization doesn’t have any elite prospects ready to take over at first base anytime soon. With a monster season, Belt could play his way into a qualifying offer. Regardless of how he performs, though, Belt profiles as the type of hitter Kapler loves having in his lineup and that could compel the Giants to pursue a reunion.
Given the elite free agent shortstop class next offseason, Crawford could be the player most likely to end up elsewhere next year. He’s also a Bay Area native who proved he has more left in the tank last season, so even if he’s expected to fill a part-time role beyond 2021, he may have a strong inclination to return.
There are a number of different ways things could shake out for the three longest-tenured Giants, but it’s difficult to guess what the future holds without seeing how the trio performs this season.
2. Who’s part of the next core?
It’s been a fairly busy offseason in San Francisco as the Giants have signed three starting pitchers, three relievers, two infielders and two catchers to major league deals while also acquiring a new outfielder in a trade, but the work Zaidi and Harris have accomplished may pale in comparison to what they must accomplish next winter.
The Giants are slated to have a massive amount of roster turnover and for the first time since Zaidi was hired in November 2018, many of the players whose contracts are expiring are key contributors.
In addition to Belt, Crawford and Posey, Johnny Cueto, Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Donovan Solano are all expected to hit free agency. Zaidi and Harris may work quickly to keep a handful of those players with the club, but the Giants’ 2022 roster could look drastically different when all is said and done.
One of the most important elements of the 2021 season for the Giants’ front office is determining which major league and minor league players can be counted on to contribute immediately in the team’s next core. There’s an expectation the Dodgers and Padres will finish ahead of the Giants in the NL West this year, but the fan base’s patience is running out and season ticket holders expect San Francisco to field a roster that can compete atop the division in the near future.
The Giants already know recent free agent signee Tommy La Stella will be around for the next few years and the organization is hopeful players such as Mike Yastrzemski, Alex Dickerson and Mauricio Dubón will surround him in the lineup. Accelerating the development of top prospects such as Joey Bart, Heliot Ramos and Hunter Bishop will be critical, but the Giants also need to identify starting pitchers who can fortify the rotation and neutralize the talented groups of hitters in Los Angeles and San Diego that promise to be ultra-competitive for years to come.
3. Will the seats stay cool for Zaidi, Kapler?
In two-plus years as the Giants’ president of baseball operations, Zaidi has developed a strong track record of adding value to the roster wherever possible and making smart moves even when they’re bound to be criticized.
Letting Kevin Pillar walk in free agency led to an outcry from fans, but it allowed the Giants to turn the center field position over to Dubón last season, who posted similar numbers, showcased more defensive range and has the potential to be a key part of the team’s future. Hiring Kapler to succeed Bruce Bochy was met with anger and resentment, but Kapler’s innovative 13-person coaching staff helped the Giants exceed expectations in 2020.
The greatest challenge Zaidi now faces is the race against the clock, as fans are bound to become less inspired by moves at the margins of the rosters that make subtle but positive differences. Simply put, expectations are increasing and Giants fans want to see a winner again.
With players such as La Stella, Yastrzemski, Dickerson and Solano leading the way, the Giants could be among the surprise clubs in the National League and challenge for the second wild card spot. They’ve steadily improved their depth, built out a lineup that’s filled with hitters who complement each other well and added depth in a bullpen that was one of the best in the league during the second half of the 2020 season.
There’s plenty of reason for optimism, but in a division featuring the Dodgers and Padres, it’s easy to see how things could spiral out of control.
What happens if the Giants merely meet or finish below their PECOTA projections and fail to rack up 75 wins? Will ownership sour on Zaidi? Will Zaidi sour on Kapler, especially if he has trouble managing a bullpen that should be a team strength?
The Giants are entering 2021 with an improved foundation, higher expectations and tons of internal support for the work Zaidi has done so far. Ownership believed it would take Zaidi at least three to four years to turn the ship around and he’s clearly given people within the organization a strong indication things are headed in the right direction.
The seats for Zaidi and Kapler aren’t exactly warming up, but in an organization where winning will soon matter a lot more, things can get hot in a hurry.