In this decade, two professional teams have defined success in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Golden State Warriors are the NBA’s best show, a star-studded band delivering a rocking good time, a franchise transformed from downtrodden to elite by an ownership group that prided itself on disrupting the status quo.
“We’ve crushed them on the basketball court, and we’re going to for years because of the way we’ve built this team,” Warriors majority owner Joe Lacob told the New York Times two years ago. “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things. We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the NBA to deal with for a long time.”
The Warriors have won two NBA championships this decade.
The San Francisco Giants have won three World Series championships this decade. They don’t brag as much.
However, as they compete in the sport in which analytics have mostly upended conventional wisdom, the Giants are defiantly taking a page from the old-school playbook this season.
In baseball, 30 is the new old.
In San Francisco, the new guys all are over 30: five-time All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, three-time All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, outfielders Austin Jackson and Gregor Blanco, and pitcher Tony Watson.
In the year after finishing 40 games behind the Dodgers, the Giants have made abundantly clear their belief that 30 is not too old to be productive.
“I don’t think so, personally,” shortstop Brandon Crawford said. “I’m 31. I definitely hope not.”
When first baseman Brandon Belt turns 30 next month, every starting position player but one will be 30. The Giants have a thin minor league system, thinner still after they acquired Longoria by trading their top prospect among position players, 22-year-old infielder Christian Arroyo.
The Giants could have blown up their team. They are 94-140 since the 2016 All-Star break.
However, the way they look at it, they were one inning from forcing a decisive Game 5 against the Chicago Cubs in the National League division series two years ago, and Madison Bumgarner’s dirt-bike crash was only one of an unusually high number of injuries last year.
And, in a winter when few teams wanted to add veterans and fewer still wanted to add the contracts that came with those veterans, the Giants might have been a year too late to sell off Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija, Crawford and Belt for the killer prospect haul that would have been needed to justify a teardown.
Indeed, with the free-agent market flooded and the Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays selling, the Giants did not need to surrender the level of talent to acquire McCutchen and Longoria that they might have a year or two ago.
But this was not about the Giants seizing on a market imbalance by going old when the rest of the league was going young. And this was not about the Giants thumbing their three World Series rings at analytics. They use data too, even if no one writes a book about it.
“I think I was … surprised by the number of questions we got about why we don’t take a step back,” general manager Bobby Evans said. “It seemed like we were almost encouraged, at least by national media, to take a step back.
“We see the contributions of the younger players. No one is denying that. All the information is available to all of us now.”
The Giants’ business model had depended upon sellout crowds to help pay off the mortgage of privately financed AT&T Park, but that debt was paid off last year. The streak of 530 consecutive sellouts ended last year too.
No, this was about winning. If enough core players are in place so that contention is a realistic expectation, then why not try to win in 2018, instead of losing in 2018 in the hope of winning in 2021?
“We haven’t been in teardown mode the entire tenure of this ownership group,” Evans said.
In 1992, in their first move, those new owners signed Barry Bonds as a free agent, even before the purchase of the team had closed.
“I think it would have been a pretty big turn of plan not to find a way to continue to put ourselves in position to compete to win,” Evans said. “That has been this ownership’s commitment to the city, to the fans, to the front office, to the baseball operations department. That’s how we thrive. We know we’re going for it every year.”
McCutchen said he has no worries about joining the Giants in the year after they had lost 98 games.
“You forget, I played for the Pirates,” he said. “I know what it’s like to lose 98 games. I know what that feels like. That’s neither here nor there.
“This is an organization that understands what happened, but it also understands that doesn’t mean you need to hit the panic button. Just because the team lost 98 games? What are the odds of that happening again, especially with the acquisitions that they made? I was excited to get over here.”
He does not look around the clubhouse and see a team too old to win.
“I see All-Stars. I see MVPs. I see world championships,” he said. “That’s what I see. You know what you’re going to get from these guys. They’re good. They have a proven track record.
“People can say all they want. You don’t have to prove anything. You just have to go out there and do what you know you can do and shut them up.”
McCutchen finished in the top three of MVP voting for four consecutive years — he won in 2013 — but his performance has declined in the two years since then. Longoria was not an above-average hitter last year for the first time in his 10-year career.
The Giants are counting on revivals on the shores of McCovey Cove. There might come a year when this team gets old, in a hurry and all at once, but the Giants do not believe this is that year.
Crawford suggested as much, in a championship voice. Of the four teams that finished ahead of the Giants last year, three made the playoffs.
“This division is always tough,” he said. “Obviously, the Dodgers have won the division for, what, four or five years now?