With the Giants about to emerge from the All-Star break like bats squinting out of a cave, it’s time to assess what the second half of the season could possibly have in store – both for the players and for the fans. The team has a 34-56 record and is 27 games out of first place, so the postseason is clearly not a possibility.
For the fans, the most thrilling change will undoubtedly come this weekend, when ace Madison Bumgarner is announced as the starting pitcher. Bumgarner, who injured both his pitching shoulder and a number of ribs in an irresponsible dirt bike incident, has been out since April 20. Properly contrite, he is itching to return and, after some very sketchy rehab games in the minors, with 9.82 and 8.10 ERAs in AA and AAA, respectively, he threw six decent innings in AA San Jose on Monday. We need to keep in mind that he wasn’t exactly burning up the league with the Giants before his accident, something absolutely nobody has been talking about in the Bay Area; in fact, he was 0-3 in four starts. But his ERA was 3.00, and it helps to note that the Giants’ offense has been so lackluster that it would have been difficult for God himself to get a win with that lack of run support. So hope remains eternal.
To make room in the rotation, Coach Bruce Bochy announced on KNBR radio on Wednesday that starter Matt Cain would be moved the bullpen. Although there was some speculation that management could end up moving Ty Blach instead – for the sake of honoring Cain, the team’s workhorse who has been such an important component of Giants history and who will undoubtedly be gone after this year – overall no one was really surprised. Then again, considering the team’s abysmal misfortunes with injuries this year, Cain could be reinstated to the rotation at any moment, as soon as someone else tears a muscle. Or if Matt Moore or Ty Blach starts to falter even more. (Personally I’d rather see Moore replaced in the rotation; Ty Blach is young and hasn’t thrown a complete season’s worth of pitches yet.)
Of course, there’s also the possibility that Cain could be back in the rotation if the Giants end up trading Johnny Cueto.
With the July 31 trade deadline coming up quickly, the assumption seems to be that Cueto will be first in line to go. Cueto can opt out after this year, and it seems to make sense that, with a losing year in the forecast, the Giants might want to jettison the last four years and $84 million of his contract and hand him off to a contending team.
I don’t know, though. Matt Moore has had an overall lackluster, if not bad, year, and with Bumgarner not an absolute guarantee, and Cain and Blach being inconsistent, I’m not sure management wants to give up one of its best pitchers and risk alienating its constant-sellout fan base. If they do decide to surrender the rest of the year for a team rebuilding, they would like to ensure that next year’s team is at least a contender. And the 33-year-old Cain really cannot adequately fill any starter void based on his most recent numbers: a 7.55 ERA, with eight home runs surrendered over his last six starts.
Willie McCovey, the former Giants first baseman and Hall of Famer, says that the Giants have considerable talent and that it is just bad luck that so many of the guys are having a “down” year. He might be right. After all, Willie understands that baseball is a whimsical game, and its vicissitudes mean that any given player can slump badly for long periods of time. If the odds aren’t in the team’s favor, a handful of slumping players can tank a team’s fortunes badly. Many of the players on the current roster are the same ones who got the Giants to the playoffs last year.
Still, I think making some judicious moves at the trade deadline might breathe some life into the remaining players and potentially make room for some major-league-ready youngsters who could end up surprising the team with talent and mental fortitude that is completely unexpected. Witness the emergence of Joe Panik, who after only two months in AAA came up with the Giants in June 2014 and played a decisive role in their World Series victory that year.
Prevailing wisdom says that homegrowners Bumgarner, catcher Buster Posey, and shortstop Brandon Crawford are the only Giants considered to be safe from the trade sword.
First baseman Brandon Belt will start raking in $17+ million a year next year, and he could conceivably end up on the block. He’s an excellent defensive first baseman, but his power numbers just have never reached his potential. Right fielder Hunter Pence has lost some of his defensive prowess but he’s a clubhouse spark, so his value is a tossup – but that includes to other teams, who may be wary of his age and his injury liability. Third baseman Eduardo Nuñes is due back on Friday and could conceivably be trade-bait considering his speed and versatility. With infielder Christian Arroyo still back in the minors nursing a hand injury, and clubhouse favorite Jae-gyun Hwang filling in at third, the Giants could certainly afford to let Nuñes go. Reliever and sometime closer Hunter Strickland could go, too. He’s got a wicked fastball but also a wicked temper, and generally the Giants don’t appreciate that kind of guy in the clubhouse. I say good riddance if he goes.
Blach and Moore will likely stay, mainly because they are cheap. I hope left-fielder Austin Slater stays, too. He was having a terrific year before his injury, and even though he was likely to cool off at some point, he had a certain mature baseball presence that his minor-league compadre Christian Arroyo was still too young to demonstrate. But with Slater an uncertainty, a trade for a decent left fielder would make the fans happy.
When you think about it, with this lineup the Giants would have an adequate squad with which to finish the season and possibly continue to build in 2018: Posey (c), Belt or trade (1B), Panik (2B), Crawford (ss), Nuñes or prospect (3B), Pence (RF), Span (CF), trade (LF).
We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks.