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Column: Giants are best example of National League mediocrity making trade market murky

Madison Bumgarner
Giants starter Madison Bumgarner was expected to be heading to a playoff contender at the trade deadline, until San Francisco climbed back into the wild-card chase.
(Rob Carr / Getty Images)

The absurdity of the National League wild-card race can be summed up in one sentence, which was not applicable as recently as a week ago: The San Francisco Giants are in it.

Yes, the Giants. They have surged into contention through a combination of an extended winning stretch and the general mediocrity of the senior circuit. Heading into Saturday’s games, the Giants did not have more wins than losses. They stood precisely at .500, which in the National League meant they were only two games behind the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals for the second entry into the wild-card game.

The rise of the Giants provides an unexpected wrinkle for a playoff situation that did not appear to be accepting new applicants. By winning 14 of their last 16 games before Saturday, the Giants had complicated both the playoff race and the trade market before the July 31 deadline.

About two weeks ago, the picture looked clear. Farhan Zaidi, the former Dodgers general manager now at the helm as San Francisco’s president of baseball operations, would trade both starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner and closer Will Smith before August. Bumgarner, the 2014 World Series MVP, offered a postseason pedigree unmatched by any other player available. Smith, a left-handed All-Star who has struck out six times as many batters as he has walked this season, might be the best reliever on the market. The Dodgers, certainly, would be one of several teams making inquiries.

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Except ...

The Giants still retain several members of their championship core from 2010, 2012 and 2014. Manager Bruce Bochy has announced he will retire after this season. The players and the fan base sound uninterested in a fire sale. Bumgarner made his point clear after pitching in a victory over the Mets on Friday.

“I’m trying to win games for the Giants, and we’re trying to get into the postseason,” Bumgarner said. “And we’re making a push. We’re coming.”

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He added, “If we manage to keep this going and sneak in, I don’t think anybody will want to match up with us.”

That bravado might sound silly, but it was the same internal logic that carried San Francisco to its three titles earlier this decade. It certainly plays better in the National League than the American League. If the season had ended Saturday, the Cleveland Indians (16 games above .500) and the Oakland Athletics (14 games above .500) would meet in the AL wild-card game. The NL features a bunch of teams much closer to the waterline.

The Giants, by most objective standards, should not be considered a good baseball team. They had given up 36 more runs than they had scored before Saturday, and their Pythagorean win-loss record, which estimates how a team should perform based on run differential, was eight games below .500.

Among their hitters with at least 150 plate appearance, Pablo Sandoval leads with a .788 on-base plus slugging percentage; the Dodgers, in contrast, employ six hitters with an OPS above that mark, plus Corey Seager (.788 OPS) and Chris Taylor (.787 OPS). In a season of heightened power, no Giant has hit more than 13 home runs.

Bumgarner, San Francisco’s best starting pitcher, has a 3.65 earned-run average, the worst since he debuted in 2009. The Giants bullpen does rank fifth in the game in ERA, but their rotation sits at 20th.

Yet the team has taken flight thanks to a series of shrewd acquisitions by Zaidi. He reshaped the roster on the fly, taking chances on unheralded acquisitions such as outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (acquired from Baltimore in March) and outfielder Alex Dickerson (acquired from San Diego in June). He brought in veteran outfielder Kevin Pillar from Toronto in April. A minor league deal for catcher Stephen Vogt has paid dividends, with Vogt slugging .512.

Zaidi has not tipped his hand about what he will do as the deadline approaches. He offered an equivocal answer to San Francisco radio station KNBR last week.

“Not every trade that’s made leading up to the deadline is a pure buy or sell deal,” Zaidi said. “Sometimes it’s a need-for-need deal. That might be the direction we go.”

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To enter the race, the Giants have feasted on the other would-be contenders. This hot streak started with a sweep of the Padres to open the month. The Giants took two of three from the Cardinals and then two of three from the Milwaukee Brewers. After a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, the Giants returned to Oracle Park to face the perpetually struggling Mets.

Both the Cardinals and the Brewers have played below expectations this season. The Brewers are on pace for an 83-win season, a significant dip from their 96-win campaign last season. The complimentary pieces around reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich have regressed, and the team has yet to pick up the pace since losing six of seven before the All-Star break.

St. Louis continues to wait for the arrival of the version of Paul Goldschmidt who tormented opposing pitchers while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Goldschmidt, the 31-year-old first baseman, entered Saturday with a .767 OPS, nearly 150 points below his career average.

If the season had ended Saturday, the Cardinals and the Phillies would have played in the one-game playoff to see which club would face the Washington Nationals, who have revived themselves after a wretched start to the season.

The Phillies salvaged a split with the Dodgers earlier this week despite a series of rain delays and bullpen collapses. Philadelphia looked lackadaisical during a 16-2 thrashing in the first night of the four-game set, but recovered to win a walk-off game against closer Kenley Jansen on the second night and pummel the Dodgers bullpen again in the series finale.

The season has been challenging for second-year manager Gabe Kapler. He has weathered criticism for the team’s early-summer swoon, which saw them fall from first place in the NL East to third. But thanks to the mediocrity of the league, the Phillies — like, improbably, the Giants — are in the race.

“You go through periods of time where that doesn’t look like the strongest possibility,” Kapler said. “We know that we have the talent to go after that prize. And we’re going to keep fighting for it. We’re going to fight for it relentlessly.”


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