How the overachieving Giants skipped a full rebuild and found success this season

On Friday night, the San Francisco Giants became the first team to win 100 games this season. That’s always quite the accomplishment, but there are times when the team doing it isn’t all too surprising (the 2016 Cubs, for example). 

This time around, in the present, it wasn’t a shock. Had we gone back and bet on it in March, however? That’s a whole different story. Had we polled the entire baseball world — fans, players, media, front offices … basically anyone in the world who cares about Major League Baseball — the list of teams higher on the list of “who will be the first team to 100 wins this season?” would have been robust. 

At say, at minimum, the Rays, Yankees, Blue Jays, Indians, White Sox, Twins, Astros, Athletics, Mets, Braves, Cardinals, Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers and Padres would have been above the Giants in this fictional poll. Don’t believe me? The over/under win total for the Giants before the season started at Caesars was 73.5. That was 22nd in baseball. The only teams below were the Marlins, Royals, Mariners, Tigers, Rangers, Orioles, Rockies and Pirates. There are three current last place teams that had higher totals (Twins, Nationals and Diamondbacks). 

Now, allow me to shower this front office with praise. 

Rebuilding has long been part of baseball, but it’s gotten extreme in baseball this past decade-plus. It’s become so mindless, too. Likely in light of the extreme teardowns the Cubs and Astros did that seemed to lead to World Series titles, the craze when new general managers (or club presidents, whatever the title they are given for the person in charge of baseball operations) are hired, the plan seems to almost always involve a massive teardown. Strip the payroll to the bones, tank a few years, stockpile high draft picks, gets prospects for all your veterans and then hope everyone hits at once. 

Look at the Orioles right now, though. Excluding the faux-2020 season, they are now in the midst of the worst three-year stretch of full seasons in franchise history. They had one 100-loss season between 1955-2017. They’ve now had three full seasons in a row of 100-plus losses. And while it’s a different topic for a different day, they aren’t even close to contending again any time soon. 

I bring this up because it would’ve been the easiest thing in the world for Farhan Zaidi, upon taking over as president of baseball operations in November of 2018, to look at the state of the Giants and just decide to tear everything down and start over. They were coming off a 64-98 season. What was left of the core that won three World Series appeared to be aging past their primes. The 2018 Giants only went 73-89. 

Heading to the 2021 season, Zaidi was looking at a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2016 and hadn’t won a playoff series since 2014. 

The roster had some of the following coming back: 

In the hands of so many baseball ops people across the league, the offseason job would have entailed offloading every single one of the veterans listed above for pennies on the dollar, just so long as the Giants got out of as much salary as they could. Then, they would have filled the roster with replacement-level players and tanked to the tune of 100 losses. If any veteran player on the roster had a breakout season, he’d have been traded on July 30 for a prospect package. All eyes would be on 2025 or so. At the earliest. Because that’s just how front offices these days zig. 

Only Zaidi zagged. 

He brought back Kevin Gausman on a qualifying offer (one year, $18.9 million). Gausman made his first All-Star Game and will get down-ballot Cy Young consideration. Fellow starters Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani were brought in on cheap deals. 

Tommy La Stella was signed. Zaidi brought in LaMonte Wade, Jr. on a trade. 

Jake McGee — who has 31 saves — was also signed. 

Without much payroll flexibility, Zaidi grabbed six key players when it looked like he was just filling a roster at the margins. 

The most important thing here, however, is the lack of off-loading. The only player Zaidi traded was reliever Shaun Anderson, who has pitched for three teams this season. That deal brought back Wade, who has been valuable this season as a corner outfielder and first baseman playing roughly two-thirds of the time. Everyone else of note came back. There was no slash and burn. 

No, the Giants certainly didn’t do anything approaching “winning the offseason,” nor did they make what appeared to be big enough splashes that we all thought they’d be this good. Almost no one did. And it’s entirely reasonable to point out that it’s sad I’ve spent this much time praising someone for trying to do a good job instead of purposely doing a terrible job in the short term.

Unfortunately, that’s just where we are in baseball. In looking at a team that appeared to be in terrible shape, the person in charge of baseball operations decided to try and win instead of completely blowing his team up. Even if it was more “let’s see what we have and maybe sell in July,” that’s a hell of a lot more commendable than what we’ve seen in several places elsewhere. 

Now, the Giants have the best record in baseball and might just be collecting their fourth World Series championship in the past 12 seasons. But hey, the Orioles might be good in like four years, so maybe we shouldn’t go too overboard with praising Zaidi’s methods, right? The sarcasm is for a reason: The Giants deserve great praise for trying to win now specifically because of teams like the Orioles who are tanking for years on end. Kudos, Mr. Zaidi and your entire front office. 

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