The deal was, they were supposed to be bad. They were supposed to be dismal, hopeless, and boring—unwatchable, even. And for a while, they were.
Then they started to win.
It is July 23, eight days before the 2019 MLB trade deadline, and the lowly San Francisco Giants are good. If you look at the right sliver of a sample size—the month of July—you might even conclude that they are the best team in baseball: This month, they’ve won 15 of their last 18 games. In that window, they have the most hits, the most runs, the most RBIs, the most extra-base hits, and the most runs per game (6.8 through Sunday) of any team; in the National League, they have the third-best July ERA and the second-most strikeouts. They have won close games. They have won blowout games. They have overcome blown saves. They have battled back-and-forth for the lead in high-scoring slugfests and emerged victorious. They have won in extra innings, including three times in the last week. They have, in short, been very fun, not to mention very good. Just eight days ago, San Francisco was in last place in the NL West. As of Tuesday morning, the team is instead tied for second place and two games back in a close race for a wild-card berth.
And now the Giants have a week and a day at most to decide: Will they carry out the plan that makes perfectly good sense and ship off talented players, most notably pitcher Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith, to teams that had a shot before July 1, or will they spurn other teams’ offers of untold prospects and gun for the postseason themselves?
These things are not supposed to happen in years ending in odd numbers. Post-2016, when the team plummeted through the second half, improbably squeaked into the postseason, and then fell to the eventual World Series champion Cubs in the NLDS, these things weren’t supposed to happen at all, or at least not for a long while. Since then, the Giants have been dreadful, and commitedly so: They were the worst team in the NL West in 2017 and the second-worst in 2018, losing 98 and 89 games respectively; through the vast majority of this season, they were once again at the very bottom. The problems have been manifold and mostly obvious, the inevitable bill for three World Series victories at the start of the decade (2010, 2012, and 2014): The team’s batters are the oldest in the majors, the farm system was depleted by win-now trades for talent, and the payroll is devoted in large part to the gradually declining stars of yesteryear. Even the fans—responsible for a seven-year sellout streak beginning in 2010—have slowly begun to drift away, presenting the worst year-over-year attendance record change in the majors early in the season.
So for the Giants, the 2019 trade deadline was supposed to mean one thing: a firesale, so that a much-needed rebuild could begin in earnest. Shipping off Bumgarner would have been the official debut of the Giants as committed trade-deadline sellers—the official plunge down on the dynamite-blasting machine. So certain was this fate that I wrote about the seemingly inevitable farewell to the resident snot-rocketer for The Ringer’s MLB preview this spring. “[I]f everything—or at least everything Madison Bumgarner–related—goes great, it will almost certainly mean the end of MadBum in San Francisco,” I wrote, and has it ever: While he’s carrying a 3.65 ERA for the season, that number has dipped down to 1.55 through his last five starts. The market for him and for Smith, who has 24 saves in 26 opportunities plus an additional three wins in a year of dismal bullpens, is significant. Rumors have floated about players such as the beloved and perpetually underrated Brandon Belt, who would be a star given almost any other home ballpark. And while the Giants farm system has slowly started to recover with genuinely exciting young players like catcher Joey Bart and outfielder Heliot Ramos gradually working their way up (both toward the majors and on Baseball America’s top-100 prospects list), there’s still much to be done. Giants fans would shed some tears when it was time to say goodbye to MadBum, yes, but they’d get it: It had to be done.
But then July happened.
As Ray Ratto wrote Monday in Deadspin, the chaos of the approaching trade deadline is heightened by the fact that Farhan Zaidi (the team’s president of baseball operations) and Rob Dean (who took on increased responsibility after Larry Baer was suspended in March) are both brand new in their respective jobs. They also must now—as in, pretty much right now—decide whether they’d like to be the putzes who actually believed the 2019 Giants were worth a damn, or else be the cowards who gave up and flung the team’s best players into the abyss. (Or, worse, to the Dodgers.) Zaidi was brought in for the explicit purpose of razing the miserable, aging, prospectless Giants and building a whole new team from the rubble. Instead, just as that plan was about to take shape, just as it was obviously the right and best and smartest thing to do, it all went to shit. The Giants are good, at least for right now, and Zaidi and Dean won’t get to wait and see how August goes. They either blow this team up now, or else not at all.
It has all been a fluke, of course. San Francisco certainly will not keep winning at the team’s July rate. The Giants’ lone loss to the Mets in a four-game series over the weekend was an 11-4 thumping in which the team’s ho-hum pitching (courtesy of Jeff Samardzija on that particular day) and meager offense looked very much like the distant days of June. This is a team, after all, that even after a blazing hot streak still carries a run differential of negative-41, and which now has a vaunted record of … one game above .500. The team has not magically improved since its springtime doldrums—no injured star returned, no singular prospect set loose on a tear. Alex Dickerson, who was DFAed by the Padres early this season before being traded to the Giants, has a preposterous .397/.463/.795 slash line in 24 games in San Francisco (Bay Area denizens: Please do not stop trying to make the “DICK! DICK! DICK!” cheer happen); Kevin Pillar, acquired in April from the Blue Jays, has had a great season both offensively and defensively and leads the team in RBIs and hits; and Coors Field happened to go all, well, Coors Field, to the tune of a 19-2 win in the midst of a four-game sweep. There’s luck here, and sample-size skullduggery.
And yet this is a team that has always—or at least in recent years—been one that thrives on flukes. See: the 2014 season, in which the Giants were no one’s idea of the best team in baseball, but made it to the postseason courtesy of the wild-card game, and graduated to the World Series courtesy of a walk-off home run from … Travis Ishikawa. During the last decade, the Giants have been the most “so you’re saying there’s a chance” team in baseball—and golly, it sure does sound like there’s a chance here. Sprinkle in the magic, real or imagined, of this being manager Bruce Bochy’s last season before his announced retirement, and, well. Take a sip of water, or don’t.
And, and, and: That last road trip, through Milwaukee and Colorado, saw them go 6-1 against teams that they went 1-11 on the road against just last year, and suddenly the Giants have young players where there were none before. Sunday saw the debuts of Conner Menez and Zach Green, and it was Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of Carl, who hit a walk-off home run. So can they “drop the load on their big horse”? Bumgarner certainly, never terribly inclined toward introspection, seems to think so: “I don’t give a shit,” he told reporters last week about trade speculation. “I’m here to win games for this team, and that’s what I’m doing.”
So is going for it a bad idea? Probably. Almost certainly. Eat your vegetables; floss; trade your stars. But cavities are a whole lot more fun.