With best years behind them, Giants face tough task of starting over

There is perhaps one positive way to look at the San Francisco Giants' 2018 season. In 2017, the team lost 98 games and finished 40 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West -- the furthest out of first place the franchise had finished since 1943. In 2018, the Giants finished just 18 games behind the Dodgers. Improvement!

If you really want to spin things, you can even point out that the team was 68-68 entering September, just 6 games out of first place. OK, so the Giants lost 11 games in a row and torpedoed the final month with a 5-21 record to finish 73-89, concluding the franchise's worst two-year stretch since they lost 196 games in 1984-85. Hey, they were just one great month from a playoff spot!

The reality, of course, is that the Giants weren't close to making the playoffs and were outscored by 96 runs. They were an old, expensive and bad team. It cost general manager Bobby Evans his job with a week left in the season, although former longtime GM and current executive VP Brian Sabean kept his, as did manager Bruce Bochy, who has one season remaining on his contract.

Last week, the Giants hired Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, who was Billy Beane's lieutenant in Oakland and then part of the multiheaded chain of command in Los Angeles under Andrew Friedman. Team president and CEO Larry Baer said Zaidi will have full authority to run baseball operations.

The question without an easy answer: Where do Zaidi and the Giants turn this offseason? At his introductory news conference, he didn't give away any immediate game plan. "I'm eager to get opinions from a wide range of people on what they think makes sense in terms of a broader direction, and I think where we are, everything has to be on the table in terms of how we move this team and roster forward," he said.

The lack of clarity is understandable. Rebuilding isn't an easy option when you've drawn 3 million fans nine seasons in a row, and winning is expected after claiming three World Series titles from 2010 to 2014. Plus, the team lacks the kind of players who could bring in a nice haul of prospects anyway. Even franchise icon Madison Bumgarner, who has one season left before free agency, would appear to have limited value at this point.

As Buster Olney pointed out a couple of days ago, Bumgarner's average fastball velocity has dipped from 92.1 mph in 2014 to 90.9 mph in 2018, and while Bumgarner has never relied on high-octane velocity, his four-seam fastball was tagged hard in 2018, as opponents produced a .954 OPS against it -- up from .785 in 2017 and .619 in 2014. His overall strikeout rate, which peaked at 27.5 percent in 2016, dropped to 19.8 percent, his lowest rate since his rookie season in 2010.

In other words, with the decline in peripherals across the board, Bumgarner is more valuable to the Giants right now than another team.

The rest of the core players are essentially untradable because of their contracts in combination with their recent level of production. Look at what this group is owed over upcoming seasons:

Mark Melancon: $28 million through 2020

Jeff Samardzija: $36 million through 2020

Brandon Crawford: $45 million through 2021

Brandon Belt: $48 million through 2021

Buster Posey: $67.2 million through 2021

Johnny Cueto: $68 million through 2021

Evan Longoria: $72.5 million through 2022

That group produced 10.8 WAR in 2018, not completely useless, but not worth the drag on the payroll. Posey's 2.9 WAR was the highest of the seven -- and he underwent hip surgery in late August to repair an impingement and torn labrum. Recovery was estimated at six to eight months, but even if he returns healthy, Posey is a 32-year-old catcher coming off surgery.

Aside from that, Cueto underwent Tommy John surgery and isn't expected back until late in the 2019 season. Samardzija didn't pitch after July 14 and finished with a 6.25 ERA. Belt has missed significant time each of the past two seasons.

Of course, that's what happens to old teams: They get hurt. The Giants had the oldest group of position players in 2018, at an average age of 30.5 (weighted for plate appearances), according to TheBaseballGauge.com data. Oh, and they finished 14th in the NL in runs scored with that aging lineup.

I did a quick study of old lineups, looking at all teams from 2013 to 2017 that had an average positional player age of at least 30. Those 24 teams averaged 83.2 wins in the year of the study and fell to 77.5 the following season. In the second season after the study, they averaged 80.7 wins -- a figure boosted by the 104-win Dodgers of 2017 and the 100-win Yankees of 2018.

That doesn't account for quality of the lineup, however, as even old-but-good lineups can fall apart in a hurry. The 2013 Red Sox won the World Series with an average age of 30.2, but fell to 71 and 78 wins the next two seasons. Luckily, the farm system produced Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi, and they were back in the playoffs in 2016. The 2013-14 Tigers were old and good, but fell from 93 and 90 wins to 74 and are still trying to dig out of that hole. The 2015 Blue Jays were an offensive powerhouse, leading the American League in runs scored with 891. They've gone from 93 wins to 89 to 76 to 73 and scored just 709 runs in 2018.

And those were the good teams, mind you (and none of that accounts for the pitching side of the ledger, of course). With no obvious impact offensive players in the minors, the road to recovery for the Giants isn't so simple -- outside of opening the wallet for Bryce Harper. Except Zaidi is obviously aware that Harper alone won't turn the franchise into a contender.

"Baseball is about the entire 25-man roster," he said at his news conference. "No one player and no one move is going to turn the fate of a franchise around. It takes hard work and it takes humility, taking one step forward at a time, making one good baseball move after another, and I really feel like that's how we're going to get where we hope and intend to go. I think when you have that attitude and aren't too myopic about, 'We're rebuilding, that means we're not going to sign free agents, that means we're not going to acquire veteran players,' you're going to leave a lot of opportunities on the table. ... As [an] organization right now, we have to cast as wide of a net as possible and not put too many labels on what this process is going to be other than to make smart, sound decisions."

Here's the thing that looms over this offseason and the immediate future: Even if Posey is healthy and Belt is a little better and Crawford is a little better, this is still a team that hasn't won 90 games since 2012. The Giants snuck into wild-card spots in 2014 with 88 wins and 2016 with 87 wins, but what's the likelihood of this group -- in their post-peak seasons -- suddenly reemerging as a 90-win team?

That's why it will take much more than Harper.

With the A's and Dodgers, Zaidi's special talent was finding what I call free talent -- such as acquiring Chris Taylor from the Mariners or signing Max Muncy as a minor league free agent. Indeed, Harper can't exactly be dreaming of going to AT&T Park hitting 400-foot fly balls to the warning track in right-center, so the Giants will need plans B, C and D.

Good luck.
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