Monday, January 07, 2019

The Zaidi Fallacy

Christmas has come and passed and many Giants fans feel like they got a coal in their stockings because Next Gen Leader, Farhan Zaidi, has not done much so far, with the biggest acquisitions being signing L/RHP Pat Venditte and picking up Mike Gerber off waivers.  Then there were the two Rule 5 pickups, LHP Travis Bergen (from Blue Jays) and OF Drew Ferguson (from Astros).  And the recent purchase of multi-positional Breyvic Valera (from Orioles).  Since surprising by leaving six 40-man roster spots open, and creating some excitement for significant movement, five marginal players have been picked up, leaving only one spot open on the 40-man roster (at the moment). 

Leading some to wonder:  if this is all the Giants were going to do, then why fire Evans?

ogc big picture thoughts

Evans Was Never More Than Transitional

I think I'll start with the first misconception of some fans:  this move was about moving into the future, the next era of Giants baseball, as Evans was never more than a transitional GM.  He was expected to keep Sabean's successes as GM going, and got that opportunity.  Sabean wanted to back off of traditional GM duties and go back to his scouting roots, basically semi-retiring, so Evans was promoted to GM to see if he could succeed in keeping it going.  But I don't think anyone in Giants leadership really expected him to be the next visionary leader, they were just hoping that he could keep the ball rolling from Sabean's lead.  Ultimately, he failed, illustrating the Peter Principle.

Some will opine that Sabean has always been in charge during the Evans era, but I think it's pretty clear to most (except Naysayers who apparently never believed in Sabean, since they are still eager to tarnish his reputation) that Evans was the main person running things.  While a lot of the moves made during the GM Evans era looks like Sabean moves, the one prominent fact regarding how much autonomy Evans had is in the brief scandal that broke out near the end of the 2017 season, when Sabean was quoted as saying that he was glad he was not involved with the muck of the front office, and ownership moved to put Sabean back into the mix to a much greater degree.  Most point to Evan's firing as the first sign of ownership discontent, but this scandal and move to get Sabean more involved was actually the first significant and major rumbling of discontent with the way the front office was being run under Evans.  And some could say this was the second strike, the first being the bullpen blowup in 2016.

2018 was the opportunity for Evans to show that he could work as GM with Sabean helping to a greater degree, and the final results proved unsatisfactory, strike three and Evans out.  And so Evans was fired (and Sabean, Tidrow, and Barr are still around), and the move to look for the next Sabean, and find the Giants next visionary leader.  And Zaidi was the chosen one.

Zaidi Basically Said This Would Happen

Because of this anointment as Next Gen Leader, most thought that this meant that Zaidi was going to blow things up, and trade off assets like Bumgarner and, basically, confirm what they were thinking and hoping:  that the Giants were hopefully flawed and need a huge rebuilding.  But Zaidi made a number of comments in his early interviews (including press conference) that made it clear that he was taking it slow this off-season.

First of all, he said that the Giants were competitive until September.  That's not what someone who is about to blow up the team would say.  Why focus on the positive if he believes that the team needs to be blown up?  He would focus on the bad season's record, the bad "two and a half (tm)" years of baseball that many keep on pointing out as justification for blowing up the team.  He would note the bad 2017 record and the Top 10 pick the Giants earned with a bad 2018 final record.  By noting that they were competitive, it means that he saw a lot of good pieces that the team had, and saw the future as moving the needle from .500 as the base, and not from the 2.5 years that many point out.

Second of all, he didn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water.  This is a common phrase for him, he has used this exact phrase in at least three points of his MLB career, once while with the A's, once with the Dodgers, and in his first Giants press conference (that I've seen so far).  This means that he needs to get his hands around what is baby and what is bath water, so as to earn who he wants to keep going forward.  Which means a lot of talking with internal skill evaluators, triangulating with what he knew from studying the Giants while with the Dodgers, and doing his own analysis with the Giants internal data and knowledge.  He's also taking calls with other teams, learning over time which players they are most interested in, i.e. which Giants players are most valuable, and some baseline ideas on what they are worth, in the opinion of the MLB.  All of this takes time, making moves unlikely.

Thirdly, and most openly, given the chance to say that he was rebuilding, in his introductory press conference, he not only avoided calling what he's doing a rebuild, he refused labeling it as anything other than making the team better, one good baseball move after another.  He's keeping the baby, as well as extolling the benefits of being competitive deep into every season. That's essentially stating that the Giants under Zaidi is never going through a rebuild, that he'll always be building on whatever he has, a perpetual roster improvement.

And given the three points above, plus the strong probability that Bart should be ready by 2020-21, Ramos soon after that, it makes sense that he would be keeping some of the core going forward, to have those players be there when these young players matriculate, while transitioning the roster to be more like he wants:  flexibility, speed, athleticism, youth, strong defense to support the home park's low scoring environment.  These are all points he made in his interviews that he was going to emphasize as the Giants new leader.

As noted, he said that he did not want to characterize what he was doing as reset, rebuild, or whatever, but as making one good baseball move after another.  Building for today as well as the future.  And incorporating all of that is going to take a long time to shift the roster to his vision, as he's not throwing out the baby with the bath water, but adding his type of players, one by one, as he transitions the roster over the next few years, readying for the Bart-Ramos era.  And, really, what does "move by move" convey, other than "slow and steady", as he waits for the market to yield deals that he thinks would improve the Giants?

Zaidi's Vision of Giants Baseball

As I noted above, Zaidi said a number of statements already about what he's looking for in building a competitive team with the Giants.  I'll try to capture what I've heard and read, from interviews with him from his days with A's and Dodger's, to articles about him, to what he's said in interviews since he's been named.
  • He said it himself, his #1 priority for his roster is his vision for the Giants of a culture of selfless play.  He wants players who are team-oriented, willing to do the little stuff, like taking more pitches when necessary to tire out the pitcher, or hitting to move the runner along.  He feels that a team first culture is a differentiator, a competitive advantage.  He views the ideal combination for players is youth, athleticism, and selflessness. 
  • ATT Park is a low scoring run environment.  We need to take advantage of that in luring free agents to the Giants. We also need to have a quality defense, if not elite.  
  • The 40-man roster needs to be flexible (both in terms of players with options as well as players who can play multiple positions/roles; with a team-first attitude) as well as useful for the current season (his goal is to have each player on the 40-man roster be possible value producers that season, where you get "heartburn" when you are forced to DFA someone off the roster).
  • He acknowledges that every roster has value, and he don't want to throw "the baby out with the bathwater".  He also noted that playing competitive baseball is energizing for the fanbase, as well as the players.  In addition, he noted the Giants were competitive until September.  That's not what a GM says when he's about to gut the roster of talent and rebuild the team from nothing, that's what a GM says when he's going to try to improve the team as it is currently constituted, and see if he can get the roster to be competitive, good baseball move after good baseball move.  This also means that a tear-down rebuild is not happening under his watch, as a tear-down involves trading away your babies (like Miami, with Stanton and Yellich) for future magic bean prospects, and he's keeping his babies, unless it's a good baseball move.
  • While GM for the Dodgers, he did not have any big free agent signing other than internal signings of Kershaw, Turner, and Jansen.  Other than those two, contracts were either not too long or not too large, longest was four seasons, biggest was under $50M (three deals for that exact amount).  Also, many of his signings happened in the New Year, he waited for good baseball deals to come to him, instead of chasing down the big signing that fixes a hole in the roster.  This fits into the saber analysis that found that free agents generally are players that other teams have decided to let go have issues that made them decide not to go all out to retain.  By waiting late in the signing cycle, Zaidi can pick up cheaper but still valuable assets (MLBPA probably will address this in the next CBA, but that's another future problem), getting more value in this way.   
How this compares to Sabean/Evans GM era:
  • Sabean and Evans have lived and died by maximizing their pitching capabilities for their differentiation, both SP and RP.  RP is not fungible, they have generally kept their relievers long term, the keepers, signing as necessary to fill gaps.  SP they built up under Sabean, but after Barr came in, it became a lesser priority, requiring signing of a lot of free agents (Hudson, Cueto, Samardzija) and trades (Peavy, Moore).  
  • Sabean has always been talking about taking advantage of their home park's pitchers park tendencies, so Zaidi is aligned here.  Sabean has been saying since the early 2000's that he was going to shift the team to one focused on pitching and fielding defense.  But he never gone as far as Zaidi stated, and taken advantage of ATT as a drawing point for pitchers, and getting good value through free agency, the Giants have mostly paid top dollar to get pitchers for the most part under Sabean/Evans.  And defense is one thing that's been missing for a number of years now, in the Evan's GM era, overall defense under Sabean was a priority and a constant, because, when measured over multi-year periods, Sabean's teams were among the top in defense, but that changed under Evans, it has been bad during his tenure.  Zaidi noted this problem as something he hopes to fix this off-season, particularly corner OF defense.
  • The Giants have been hamstrung in recent years because of players on the 25-man roster who had to be carried because they were out of options.  The Giants appeared to talk the talk about positional flexibility, showing interest in guys like Zobrist, and stepping up in recent years with Sandoval, Kelby, Slater, and Hanson, but there were always prospects on the 40-man who hamstrung the ability of the Giants to man a full 25-man roster when there are serious injuries, whereas Zaidi's goal is for a 40-man that holds players who could contribute to the MLB team at some point during the season.  One key illustration of this difference was how Zaidi let both Fernandez and Gardeck go, as well as not placing Fabian on the 40-man, moves that we all know Evans would probably have done if he were still GM. 
  • Giants never had a rebuild in the Sabean/Evans Era, as their M.O. has been to keep the baby and get rid of the bathwater, as much as possible, in order to keep the team competitive as deep into the season as possible.  Looks like Zaidi have the same marching orders, and he's hewing to that organizational goal. 
  • Giants went for a lot of big contracts, both under Sabean and Evans.  Zaidi did not do that while GM with the Dodgers, his biggest being the $93M/3 year deal he negotiated with Kershaw just before joining the Giants, but for external players, the biggest he gave was $48M, in three deals.  Meanwhile, in the same time period, which overlaps with Evans as GM, the Giants signed Cueto, Samardzija, Melancon to deals larger than $50M, while also resigning Belt and Crawford to larger deals.   
Based on his publicly stated baseball strategy, Zaidi was clearly not going to be moving fast. Finding selfless players is not easy to do, requiring a lot of talk with free agents and long-term observations of other teams' players.  Good pitchers and fielding defenders are not cheap to get, nor readily available on the free agent market, you have to wait out the market.  Maximizing the 40-man also clearly takes time, as those types of players are goals, not, again, readily available.  And if he's maximizing the chances of each roster to win deep into the season, again, there is no magic bullet to acquire those players necessary to that goal, perhaps not even possible for that season, as he's approaching his duties as a move by move sequence, building over time, and he's got a 5-year contract to get the team into his vision.  And signing the big name free agent is the way to rebuild faster, but he's never made a big splash in the free agent market, picking up mid-range talents instead, which are deals that happens later, not earlier.

Zaidi So Far

Zaidi is clearly slow-playing the market.  He's been gathering information from other teams as to the value (in their minds) of the Giants players (leading to the non-tenders of Gorkys and Strickland), as well as learning from internal resources like Sabean, Tidrow, and Barr.  He's been talking to free agents that he's interested in, but none has been at a price that he's willing to pay. He's willing to wait for the free agents that will be available close to the start of spring training, and getting them at better pricing than he would have had he tried to sign them soon after joining the Giants.  If he sees value in the trade or free agent market, he'll pull the trigger but so far he's been remodeling the roster on the edges, not in any substantial way with the key 13 roster positions:  the 8 starting position players, the 4 starting pitchers, and the closer.

I see people ticking off the current roster, but I think it's way too soon to be doing such analysis.  We don't know what will fall into his lap, or if he'll make any substantial changes. I don't think what he does this off-season will be a cookie cutter view of what he'll do in future seasons, either.  He's taking a cautious approach to studying the roster, and studying what's available to the Giants in terms of trade and trade interest.  Once he learns this, he'll probably move faster in future off-seasons, to get what he wants.

He's also been giving a freedom that Sabean/Evans never had:  a gimme season, perhaps two, to not push the pedal down to maximize the team's playoff chances.  He has a five year contract to figure things out, makes sense that he's taking the time to learn about what he has.  If the team really is as bad a many fans think, 2019 will prove to be another bad season, and he can move on from some players, as he prepares the roster for his vision of Giants Baseball, as well as gain  good draft pick position again.  And that really makes a lot of sense. We are still early in understanding what the Giants have in their system.

2019 Is and Was a Transitional Season

2019 is key to understanding where the Giants top 2 prospects are, as well as on the edge prospects like Shaw, Slater, Adon, Anderson, Webb, Miller, Luciano, Hjelle, Wong, Coonrod, Williams, Fabian, as well as the guys with MLB experience, in Williamson and Slater, Hanson and Okert.  There is also the 10th pick overall in the 2019 draft, which could yield good results immediately (Lincecum, Bumgarner) or questionable future prospects (Grilli, Wheeler).  He also mentioned the goo d young arms in the system, and how he needed to learn what their time tables are.  The farm system could look very good after this season if prospects continue to step up or look even worse if most don't.

Then there are the guys who looked like they would be on the 2019 25-man  roster.  We need to see how good young inexperienced players like D-Rod, Suarez, Stratton, and Moronta really are, and whether Blach, Duggar, and Black can take another step up.  There are also the veterans, seeing if Samardzija, Longoria, Panik, Melancon can find the key to be productive and healthy over a full season, or if they are not producing as expected (per contract salary) for another season.

Then there are the flukier injuries.  Belt said and was doing exactly what he was going to do, utilize his best mechanics all season long, until he was sidelined by his appendicitis.  Similarly with Bumgarner, looking good in spring training until he was sidelined by a line drive.  Healthy seasons from both could add a couple of wins, injuries would keep production low.

And, one of the bigger questions, how will Posey look after serious hip surgery, both offensively and defensively.   2019-2021 looks very differently depending on what Posey is capable of doing, now that his hips are healthy, but with uncertainty about what that means for a catcher, who was never considered a sturdy bodied catcher, in his 30's.  If he's just broken, it is probably best to move on from the core, but if he's back to his normal goodness, the Giants might step things up and push for one last championship during his contract.

Only the bullpen looks like a sure thing, with Smith, Melancon, Watson, Dyson, Moronta, Venditte, and a rotating crew of relievers, plus a long reliever, probably Blach, maybe Stratton, depending on who Zaidi acquires.  And who knows who Zaidi will trade away.

People assume Smith is gone, but he kept Jansen around, heart issues and all, which illustrates that he understands how important having a good closer is.  Plus, Smith is young, whereas Watson is much older, and will be getting a big pay raise in 2019.  Watson, to me, seems the more obvious trade piece that Zaidi will pull the trigger on, once the free agent LHRP market settles down after the big names are gone, I think he's waiting to get a nice package of players/prospects for at least one of his relievers.

However, I assume the Giants are broaching a long term extension with Smith right now, in conjunction with his arbitration contract.  It will be telling if there is an extension or not, for if he'll be gone anyway after the season, then I can see the Giants trading him away.  But for now, I'm assuming Zaidi would rather keep Smith, who is young and athletic.

Even before Zaidi was hired, one could see how transitional the 2019 Giants were going to be for evaluating their future circumstances.  With so many questions marks, and things that won't be revealed until players start performing in spring training, it is hard to get the value you hope for certain players, as well as figuring out how competitive the Giants look in 2019.  A still broken Posey is probably two wins or more lower than a productive Posey.  Even more so for Samardzija.  As well as what D-Rod, Suarez, and Stratton, for each, we could be talking a swing of 2-4 wins, depending on how they do in 2019.  Duggar producing over a full season as he did in his short time would swing the Giants up by a lot of wins, as the Giants were -1.5 bWAR in CF in 2018, and he produced at a roughly 4.5-5.0 bWAR seasonal rate.

If things swing in the Giants direction, they could be competitive in 2019 without major additions.  If things swing as they did in 2017-18, with many injuries and poor performances, it could be time to clear the decks sooner for Zaidi's players.  Zaidi needs to see what happens in 2019 to get a better handle on how bad or good the roster currently is, as it could be very good with development, very bad with regression.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks again for another solid and informative piece.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome.

      This is part of my change to my blog going forward. I'm going to focus on the big picture view of things.

      Also, I'm going to do more analysis. I'm going to learn how to use R properly, and see what analysis I might do with the data at hand. I've collected draft data and will play with that. I also plan on studying playoff success, and incorporate those findings into my business plan series.

      Of course, the above takes a lot of time, so I'm probably not posting as often or even for the small stuff, like Rule 5 and smaller free agent signings. I'll probably not do my Big 6 Prospects, plenty of Giants prospect writers out there, but will definitely give my view on the 2019 season and how that fits into future seasons, when Opening Day arrives.

      I'm not sure what I'll be doing with PQS. I'm not entirely happy with the changes made, hence why I had alternate PQS data too. Perhaps with what I'm learning with R, I might tackle creating my own PQS (OQS? :), the skies the limit.

      But first, I need to learn R...

      Delete
  2. Enjoyed your analysis. So far, you are exactly right on.

    ReplyDelete

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