When the pitchers and catchers of the San Francisco Giants reported to camp a few days ago, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi assembled the group for a meeting.
During a decade with the Oakland Athletics and four seasons as Dodgers general manager, Zaidi developed a reputation for his embrace of innovation and his distaste for dogma. Now he sought to dispel any worries about the repercussions of that philosophy, specifically as it related to his willingness to use relievers to open games.
Zaidi pointed to relievers Pat Venditte and Tony Watson, who played for the Dodgers.
“Do you guys remember us using the opener 50 times a year?” Zaidi said he asked Venditte and Watson. “Or ever?”
Both players agreed that it was not a common practice. After the meeting, pitcher Madison Bumgarner approached Zaidi. A few days before, manager Bruce Bochy had generated headlines when he revealed Bumgarner had told him that if the Giants used an opener on his day to pitch, “I’m walking right out of the ballpark.” Bumgarner assured Zaidi it was a joke. Zaidi insisted he wasn’t concerned.
“I have no problem with what anyone wants to say publicly, as long as we’re talking about it privately,” Zaidi said.
In his first spring in charge, Zaidi intends to transform a roster and reshape a culture while building relationships with the pillars of a franchise that won three championships in five seasons this decade. Granted autonomy to run a baseball operations department, Zaidi does not intend to reinvent the wheel. He wants to resuscitate a dynasty. That might be a larger challenge, even if the Giants land Bryce Harper.
The immediate expectations are limited. PECOTA projects the Giants to win 74 games; FanGraphs projects 76 victories. Both figure the Giants will reside in the basement of the National League West, which is a reasonable prediction for a team that has averaged 68 victories the last two years. Neither would be an acceptable result for the veterans on the club.
“I think they’re dead wrong,” first baseman Brandon Belt said. “We’ve got very high-caliber ballplayers on this team. We’ve had an unfortunate past couple years, and a lot of it had to do with injuries. I can see why people might think that, if having these injuries is the norm. But it’s not. The norm is having us all out together on the field playing baseball games.”
Added Bumgarner: “Pretty much every year we’ve won, we were not expected to win.”
The perspective of Belt and Bumgarner reflected the curious duality of the Giants. Zaidi inherited a franchise harboring the hubris accrued from its achievements but saddled with a threadbare roster.
In 2018, on their way to a fourth-place finish, the Giants excelled at giving opportunities to subpar players. Only four of their hitters were worth more than one win above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Evan Longoria led the team with 16 home runs. Gorkys Hernandez made 451 plate appearances. The quartet of Hunter Pence, Austin Jackson, Gregor Blanco and Kelby Tomlinson combined to produce -3.2 WAR.
The pitchers were better, but still unremarkable. With lackluster depth, the Giants suffered when the cornerstones slumped. Bumgarner sat out the first two months after he broke a pinky. All-Star catcher Buster Posey slugged .382. All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford was a below-average hitter. The right elbow of starter Johnny Cueto blew out.
The injuries exposed the organization’s lack of depth and reliance on outmoded practices. In late September, the Giants fired general manager Bobby Evans, who had been the chief assistant to Brian Sabean during the championship era.
In collaboration with Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, Zaidi had unearthed low-profile, low-cost gems like Chris Taylor and Max Muncy. In San Francisco, Zaidi found a team with needs that matched his expertise.
“Coming in, it was pretty clear that that second level of depth just wasn’t there for the organization,” he said.
Over the offseason, Zaidi trained his sights on incremental improvements. The heavy lifting of the rebuild has not begun. He has not traded Bumgarner, who will be a free agent in the offseason. He has not signed Harper, although a meeting this month with the organization’s brass sparked a flurry of rumors. He has not given out a multiyear deal to a free agent.
Instead, the Giants added nearly three dozen players to the organization, nearly all of them on minor league contracts, to bolster the 40-man roster. Giants players joke about the parade of new faces streaming into the clubhouse each day.
“There’s not very many empty lockers in here,” Watson said. “Everybody knows how the Dodgers have done it the last couple years with the roster moves, and the depth they’ve created. I think that’s the way the game is evolving.”
The churn has not ceased. On Tuesday, the Giants signed catchers Rene Rivera and Stephen Vogt to minor league deals. On Wednesday, the team shipped cash to the Washington Nationals for reliever Trevor Gott. On Thursday, Zaidi landed outfielder Gerardo Parra on a minor league deal. On Friday, it was infielder Yangervis Solarte arriving on a minor league deal.
For Zaidi, these classify as higher-profile moves, because the players are relatively recognizable. Below the radar are the additions like catcher Hamlet Marte, pitcher Kieran Lovegrove and first baseman Zach Green.
“I think a lot is made of some of the success stories we had in Los Angeles, like Muncy and Chris Taylor,” Zaidi said. “Nobody was writing about those guys when we traded for them. And really, a lot of the organizational success with those guys was not even necessarily their acquisition, but giving them opportunity.”
As the Giants report for camp, Zaidi intends to schedule meetings on an individual basis to build trust and set expectations. He has stressed to players that he will be present in the clubhouse and can make himself available. Belt and Bumgarner mentioned they were curious to hear from Zaidi about his plans to compete in 2019.
“That’s always a concern, because players, especially the guys who have been here and have somewhat of a handle of what goes on, we also want the best team out there, and want to win,” Bumgarner said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m sitting in on meetings with him, but it’s definitely a concern.”
Bumgarner paused for six seconds when asked what aspects of the Dodgers’ approach might translate in San Francisco.
“Obviously, they’ve had success, but we’ve got three titles,” Bumgarner said. “So it’s kind of a toss-up. Obviously, they’ve been there more often. I do respect what they do.
“You can tell that they’re there to play ball when you suit up against them. From what I see, they don’t look like they’re taking games off, by no means. And that’s what you’ve got to have.”
The spring will follow a peripatetic winter for Zaidi. After he joined the Giants, he stayed in a hotel near Oracle Park on Monday through Thursday. He commuted to Manhattan Beach for the weekend. He and his wife are searching for a home in the Bay Area.
Zaidi tied up one connection to the Dodgers just before Christmas, during the playoffs of the team’s fantasy football league. After winning the league for three years in a row, Zaidi fell in the finals to a team run by Clayton Kershaw, Ross Stripling and video coordinator John Pratt. Zaidi sent the trio a message that evening.
“Farhan group-chatted us saying something along the lines of ‘Congratulations, guys. Neither one of our teams deserved to be there,’ ” Stripling said. “Because we both stunk. Our teams were not very good. He was like ‘Glad you guys won.’
“And Kershaw replied, ‘Don’t be nice about it. That makes this way less fun.’ ”
So one dynasty ended, as Zaidi prepared to reinvigorate another. He took one small consolation from the fantasy season. In the semifinals, Zaidi beat Friedman.