When Farhan Zaidi sat alongside Giants CEO Larry Baer at his introductory press conference in November 2018, the franchise’s first president of baseball operations set forth a relatively modest goal for the organization.
Zaidi said he wanted the Giants to play “meaningful baseball” as deep into the 2019 season as possible, which represented a sharp contrast to the objective of his predecessors.
Under former general managers Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, the Giants were adamant about contending for playoff berths and World Series titles on an annual basis. Even after the club lost 98 games in 2017, marking one of the worst seasons in franchise history, the ownership group and front office believed the club’s win-loss record was “an aberration,” and the Giants could avoid a multi-year rebuilding process.
“We had a last-place season,” Sabean said at an end-of-season press conference. “That can happen in sports. Like you have a lost year in life. But we’re not last place people. We’re not a last place organization. We’re the furthest thing from that.”
With a push from Baer and other members of the ownership group to surround a core group of homegrown players with veterans from the outside who might be able to keep the Giants’ championship window opened, the front office executed two high-profile trades.
In December, 2017, the Giants sent four players to Tampa Bay in a deal that brought Rays franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria to San Francisco. Less than a month later, outfield prospect Bryan Reynolds and reliever Kyle Crick to Pittsburgh for Andrew McCutchen.
The trades helped prove the Giants were not a last-place organization. In 2018, they finished in fourth in a National League West division that has five teams.
One year after attempting to convince fans the Giants would be back in the running for a playoff berth, the franchise went through its most significant front office shakeup in a quarter century. Evans was fired, Zaidi was hired and the process of rebuilding and modernizing the Giants was underway.
“We needed to take a fresh approach with baseball operations,” Baer said before hiring Zaidi. “We’ve had a very successful group here a long time, but we’ve got to bring a new approach to Giants baseball and take a look outside.”
Stability had been a hallmark of the organization since Sabean ascended to his role as the team’s general manager in 1997, but Baer and others acknowledged 98- and 89-loss seasons would require the Giants to recalibrate. They sought an outside perspective and a “next-gen” leader and settled on Zaidi, the Dodgers general manager who was partially responsible for turning the Giants’ rival into a juggernaut.
It didn’t take long to see the Giants’ approach to building a roster shift.
At his introductory press conference, Zaidi noted that “no move is too small to not be worth a certain level of effort and detail.” The minutiae became the mainstream.
From 2001-2018, the Giants made 16 waiver claims. In Zaidi’s first nine months on the job, he topped that number. He claimed outfielder Alex Dickerson on waivers, signed Donovan Solano to a minor league deal and traded a relatively unknown pitcher, Tyler Herb, for a longtime prospect who never cracked the majors in the Orioles organization, Mike Yastrzemski.
Zaidi also made plenty of moves that didn’t work. The ones that did were negligible to the team’s payroll and kept the rebuilding Giants from the embarrassment of another 90-plus loss season.
At the 2019 trade deadline, the Giants hit a minor milestone in the rebuilding process as they were eager to “sell,” in an effort to acquire prospects. Yet after trading a slew of relievers in deals that helped bolster the farm system, the team still had Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith on the roster through the end of the season.
Instead of completely stripping the roster down, Zaidi kept enough of it intact for the Giants to finish at 77-85.
A 77-win season in Bruce Bochy’s final year as the club’s manager was disappointing to fans on many levels, but inside the organization, the Giants saw progress. Zaidi maintained future flexibility by avoiding multi-year contracts in free agency and showed there are ways to add value to a roster through minor transactions that make a team better in the long run.
Entering the 2020 season with new manager Gabe Kapler at the helm, the Giants once again considered “playing meaningful baseball” as deep into the season as possible their primary objective. Neither Zaidi nor Kapler publicly used the term “rebuild,” but they finally admitted the Giants were focused as much on developing players who could contribute to a winning culture in the future as they were on improving in the present.
After exceeding fairly low external expectations to remain in the playoff race until the final day of an abbreviated 2020 season, the Giants finally committed to raising the bar.
“That disappointment that I think a lot of us are feeling, mixed in with a lot of pride in what we accomplished, that disappointment is going to fuel us to have greater aspirations next year,” Zaidi said in his end-of-season press conference. “It’s certainly going to be a goal of ours to be a playoff team next year.”
The reigning World Series champion Dodgers and upstart San Diego Padres have dominated offseason headlines with high-profile acquisitions, but as the Giants prepare to open spring training on Wednesday in Scottsdale, the goal remains the same.
“I don’t know how else you can start a season other than having the playoffs as the goal,” Zaidi said Friday.
Despite the long odds produced by projection models that suggest the Giants will likely finish with 74-78 wins this season, it’s more realistic for the team to open spring training with the playoffs as a goal than it’s been at any point in the last five years.
The Giants have an offense that ranked among the top 10 lineups in the majors in several key categories last year, a bullpen that was one of the best in the league during the second half of the 2020 season and a front office that’s demonstrated it can identify inexperienced players poised to make the most of opportunities.
In the eyes of many fans, the Giants’ rebuilding process has taken too long and a front office led by Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris hasn’t been willing to spend enough money to improve in the short term. Regardless of how the Giants fare in 2021, the organization will be obligated to use its financial resources next offseason as a huge number of players including the longest-tenured Giants, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, are expected to become free agents.
With prospects such as Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos closing in on the chance to become impactful everyday players and the chance to supplement a new core of homegrown talent through free agency right around the corner, the Giants could be closer to the end of the rebuilding process than many fans realize.
The front office has set higher expectations, the next wave of Giants coming through the farm system appears increasingly promising and after four consecutive losing seasons, there’s a greater sense of pressure to produce results.
When pitchers and catchers hit the field at Scottsdale Stadium on Wednesday, the franchise will take another step toward a more promising future. The Giants’ rebuild isn’t over, but the darkest days appear to be in the past.