LOS ANGELES — For all the challenges the San Francisco Giants have faced in recent years while attempting to sign a star position player, they’ve enjoyed and attempted to leverage one perceived advantage on the free-agent front. They developed a reputation as a preferred landing spot for pitchers, especially those seeking a platform to reestablish their health and/or their market value.
But some industry insiders believe that the Giants damaged that reputation this season. Because they responded to early-season struggles from Alex Wood, Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling by putting them in bulk reliever roles, as the line of thinking goes, they opened themselves up to doubts from the next crop of free-agent starters. Would the Giants’ next potential rotation targets be concerned that they’d be subjected to a similar fate if they didn’t get off to a good start?
Also, how much will the loss of director of pitching Brian Bannister, whose surprising departure this past week to take a similar position with the Chicago White Sox, impact how the Giants’ pitching infrastructure is viewed throughout the industry?
In the view of several prominent baseball minds outside the organization, the Giants’ atypical usage patterns with both pitchers and hitters — their only true rotation pieces over a lengthy stretch of the summer were Logan Webb and Alex Cobb, and on the position player side, nobody on the roster has been immune to a platoon partner or pinch hitter — will make it difficult to cultivate trust with players they attempt to sign this winter.
To wit: Outfielder Mitch Haniger, whose $43.5 million was the largest guaranteed sum the Giants handed out this past offseason, has found himself in a bench role after he struggled upon returning from a fractured forearm three weeks ago. Haniger, who met over the weekend with Giants manager Gabe Kapler, is keeping a stiff upper lip — and a stiff lower one, too — in his public comments.
“Not being in the lineup every day is because I haven’t produced,” Haniger said. “If I produce, I’ll be in lineup and so I’m just trying to make the most of every opportunity I get. I feel like if you’re swinging the bat really well, you can force the manager to be in the lineup and unfortunately I haven’t been doing that. So other guys are getting opportunities and I’m just gonna focus on getting better and working hard.”
That’s what rookies are supposed to say. Not someone who is an established veteran — and is getting paid like one.
So what happens the next time the Giants want to pay the next established veteran? Or starting pitcher? Would those players fear being made to feel like they were rookies all over again, under constant pressure to perform to hold onto their spot?
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi pushes back against those industry opinions. He contended that the pitching usage this season was a matter of circumstance and not part of a long-term disruption strategy. And he maintained faith that the Giants will remain an attractive destination for pitchers in particular because of their ballpark and their coaching staff.
“This was an unusual year for us from a pitching standpoint in that we had a lot of pitching depth especially after the emergence of (rookies Tristan) Beck and (Keaton) Winn,” Zaidi said. “When we got off to a poor start as a team and in the rotation, that depth probably led to us being more proactive about ways to make the overall staff more effective than if we just had five starters and had no choice but to keep running them out there.
“We still have a good park to pitch in and I am confident that we can sell our pitching infrastructure and overall track record with pitchers.”
Zaidi’s other contention when it comes to attracting pitchers: Some of this is a moot point.
“With all our young pitching in Double A and Triple A, it’s unlikely we pursue short-term deals for the type of pitchers who might even think about the dynamic you mentioned as a concern,” he said.
That’s not to suggest the Giants will be out on free-agent pitching. The inventory on the open market offers more choices on the pitching side and the Giants expect to be in the bidding for several of the top choices — names so significant that there would be no question about how they would be utilized. The Giants have scouted Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the hard-throwing right-hander with a world-class curveball and splitter who has won two Sawamura Awards (Japan’s analog to the Cy Young) and will be posted by the Orix Buffaloes this winter. Another potential target, Minnesota Twins right-hander Sonny Gray, leads all major-league starters in home run rate (he’s allowed eight in 180 innings) and fits the Giants’ ethos to find or develop pitchers who throw strikes and suppress damage.
And the Giants still enjoy perhaps the biggest advantage to attracting free-agent pitchers: the expanses and ambient temperature of their home ballpark.
Why might the Giants spend big on pitching when upgrading their lineup would seem to be a higher priority?
It’s a matter of supply and demand. The list of free-agent options that can address their need for star power and lineup continuity is a short one: Chicago Cubs center fielder Cody Bellinger, Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman and Jung-hoo Lee, the speedy 25-year-old center fielder who was the KBO MVP last season and will be posted by the Kiwoom Heroes. All three free agents are represented by Scott Boras.
Then, of course, there is Shohei Ohtani.
Even if the Giants sign one of those players (and given their recent forays into free agency, there’s no reason to feel overconfident that they’ll finish first on any of them), they understand that their lineup requires more than a one-player fix. So they expect to be active on the trade front, exploring deals for hitters while tapping into what they perceive to be an ample supply of young pitching.
The more they can bolster their rotation with a free-agent signing, the more confident they might feel subtracting from that pitching depth.
“You can see a rotation forming with Webb and Keaton Winn and Tristan Beck and Kyle Harrison in a way we haven’t seen since we’ve been here,” said Kapler, adding that some of the rookie position players they introduced this season could be valuable big-league performers. “You have to dream on a few things. We recognize that. But I don’t think we’ve been able to say that since we’ve been here.”
The Giants will have to keep developing pitchers without Bannister, whose innovations particularly in the areas of pitch mix and seam-shifted movement helped the Giants establish an organizational strength.
Why did the Giants permit such a lauded member of their coaching staff to depart for a job that isn’t a clear promotion? Someone so important that they accommodated to work remotely all last season because he was not in compliance with Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements?
Zaidi said Bannister’s contract was expiring and so he informed the 42-year-old former right-handed pitcher that the Giants would grant permission to anyone who called. Bannister, who operates a private coaching and consulting business on the side, told Zaidi that the White Sox opportunity offered greater work/life balance. Bannister also is a former Kansas City Royals teammate of newly hired White Sox GM Chris Getz. He also still has some White Sox connections from when his father, Floyd, pitched on the South Side.
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) September 22, 2023
“Nothing nefarious,” Zaidi said. “I told him we wanted to keep him, but we weren’t going to stand in the way if there was an opportunity he preferred for whatever reason.”
Several Giants pitchers including Wood and John Brebbia cited their work with Bannister and called his departure a significant loss.
“He’s one of the smartest pitching guys I’ve been around and he has a lot to do with a lot of guys signing here,” Wood said. “Banny had a knack for identifying things you could do to be better, and also how to accomplish those things. He was really good at coming up with solutions you could try to propel yourself forward. But so are (pitching coaches) J.P (Martinez) and Andrew Bailey. He’ll be tough to replace but they have good people here.”
“That’s why I came here to begin with,” Brebbia said. “Looking around the league, seeing the pitchers who had come in and come out, there’s a distinct advantage to being a Giants pitcher. There are definitely other teams that are good at it. But it was pretty clear the Giants were in the elite level of teams.
“There’s no question Banny is elite at what he does. Up and down, our staff on the pitching side — and that’s all I know because they haven’t worked with me on hitting, which in fairness, probably would be a waste of time — is incredible at what they do. It stinks to lose a guy like that. But anything Banny added to the organization, our current coaching staff can do.”
Bailey added one more thought: Bannister might be leaving, but everything that pitchers and fellow coaches learned from him is still in the bank.
“We can carry on his thoughts and perspectives and the ways he was able to educate myself and others in the organization,” Bailey said. “One of his strong suits is working with pitchers in the moment and understanding data points from a higher point of view. I’m very confident moving forward with the staff we have here and throughout the organization to continue to develop pitchers both at the major-league level and minor-league levels. … Hopefully we’ll bring someone in who will broaden our knowledge and make us even better.”
Zaidi cited another example to support the health of the Giants’ pitching infrastructure: the club signed right-hander Spencer Howard, a former top prospect, to a minor-league contract over the weekend. Howard, 27, was the Philadelphia Phillies’ second-round pick in 2017 out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and leapt onto top-100 prospect lists when he zoomed through the minor leagues. Shoulder issues set him back and the New York Yankees released him shortly after acquiring him from the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline, but Zaidi said there was robust competition to sign him.
“He was sold on our pitching department and training staff,” Zaidi said.
Marco Luciano was the top draft pick in the Dominican Winter League two years ago. He wants to play for Escogido this winter, especially after the recurrence of a lower back injury cut short his stint with the club last year. But the Giants haven’t granted him permission yet.
Kapler said those discussions are developing. But the Giants are resolved that they want infielder Casey Schmitt to gain more experience playing winter ball. They also have specific asks for outfielder Luis Matos, who has displayed major-league hitting ability as a 21-year-old rookie along with significant deficiencies in the rest of his game.
“He has not been a good defender in center so far,” Kapler said. “He’s been fine in the corners. He needs to be better at all three outfield positions. He needs to be more physical. At 21, it’s totally fine. At 22, 23, 24, he should be more physical. If we look back (in three years) and he’s not significantly more physical, then we’ve failed him. But he needs to be able to play all three positions and he needs to be marginally quicker.”
Kapler said he hopes Matos will spend a significant amount of time this winter at the club’s Papago Park complex in Arizona. But Kapler also acknowledged the difficulty of that request. Matos’s brother and parents have been unable to travel to the United States to see him play this season because of travel restrictions that impact Venezuelan citizens. Because the U.S. Consulate in Caracas shut down, Matos’s family traveled from Bobures, Venezuela, to Brazil, to apply in person for a travel visa. Their application was denied.
So Matos, understandably, is eager to return home.
“He loves his family and he wants to be around his family,” Kapler said. “So we’ll have to figure out how to thread that needle.”
The Giants and San Diego Padres ended Sunday in a tie for third place in the NL West and which team finishes in third will probably be decided over the next three games when the Padres arrive to begin a series in San Francisco. The Cy Young Award might hang in the balance, too. Webb and Blake Snell, two of the top candidates, will oppose each other on Monday. The Giants will follow with Harrison on Tuesday and Manaea on Wednesday.
Kapler appeared surprised when asked if Webb would make one additional start in the Oct. 1 season finale, assuming the Giants have nothing at stake.
Webb, 26, leads the major leagues with 207 innings. But Kapler said he didn’t see the harm in making one more start, adding that the coaching staff likely would defer to the right-hander’s wishes.
Beck pitched well and LaMonte Wade Jr. hit a tying two-run home run in the fifth inning Sunday but Chris Taylor’s walk-off single in the 10th inning against Camilo Doval sent the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 3-2 victory in their regular-season home finale. (If you’re wondering why Thairo Estrada tried to bunt with the bases loaded, it’s because he told coaches he couldn’t see in the shadowy conditions. If you’re wondering why Kapler didn’t walk the bases loaded with one out and a runner on third base in the 10th, he said Taylor was a better matchup than either of the next two lefty hitters, Jason Heyward and David Peralta.)
The Giants lost three of four in Los Angeles and eight of 10 on what was a critical road trip to maintain their faint playoff hopes.
Those hopes are fainter than ever. Even if the Giants win their final six games, they’d the following to happen: the Cincinnati Reds must lose at least two of their last five games; the Miami Marlins must lose at least four of their last six; and either the Chicago Cubs must lose all six remaining games or the Arizona Diamondbacks must lose all seven remaining games.
Even Jim Carrey with a bowl haircut wouldn’t like those odds.
(Top photo of pitching coach Andrew Bailey (right) and Anthony DeScalfani: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)