As Major League Baseball's July 30 trade deadline inches closer, there's major potential for an arms race between the three leading contenders in the National League West.
Ironically, the leader of that particular pack might also be the underdog to win said arms race.
In San Diego, it's little secret (i.e., here and here) that Padres general manager A.J. Preller isn't afraid of making blockbuster deals. And in spite of the team's third-place standing at 56-42, ESPN's Jeff Passan reports that the Padres are willing to aim high for impact players even if it means surpassing the $210 million luxury-tax threshold.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the defending World Series champion Dodgers are in second place at 59-38 and haven't been in first place since all the way back on April 28. Yet they're determined to bolster their chances by adding to their depleted starting rotation.
As Mark Feinsand of MLB.com wrote on Monday: "I could see just about any available starting pitcher winding up with the Dodgers. There’s urgency there."
As for the San Francisco Giants, well, they've shocked just about every preseason prognosticator by going 60-35 to rise to the top of the NL West and all of Major League Baseball. Per conventional wisdom, that should have them adopting John Hammond's motto ahead of the deadline: spare no expense.
Whether they will, though, is just as fascinating a question as whether they should.
The Giants Have Tons of Trade Capital...If They Want to Use It
If we can grant that there is such a thing as a "perfect" trade deadline buyer, it's one that:
- A. Has prospects to deal
- B. Has room to add payroll
- C. Has more than one incentive to win now
The Dodgers and the Padres certainly have that third box checked, but there's room for debate with regard to the other two.
Though the Padres' farm system checks in at No. 8 in B/R's rankings, its actual depth doesn't look so great while left-hander MacKenzie Gore is saddled with a 5.85 ERA at Triple-A and shortstop CJ Abrams is done for the year with a leg injury. And even if they're indeed open to going over the luxury-tax threshold, the resulting penalties are surely a disincentive to do so.
For their part, the Dodgers' estimated $262 million luxury-tax payroll already puts them well over the threshold and therefore in line to pay especially heavy penalties. Even if they disregard that in trade talks, there's perhaps some question as to whether they have enough in their 11th-ranked farm system to go after the truly big fish on the trade market.
The Giants, by contrast, check all three of those boxes with aplomb.
Headlined by shortstop Marco Luciano, catcher Joey Bart, outfielder Heliot Ramos and left-hander Kyle Harrison, the Giants have a strong contingent of Tier-1 talents in baseball's ninth-best farm system. And we might even be underrating left-hander Seth Corry, who ranks at No. 84 in MLB.com's top 100.
At $158.8 million, the Giants also have a luxury-tax payroll that's nowhere even close to the $210 million threshold. And since they opened with a $200 million payroll just three years ago, they almost certainly can spend more.
Lastly, the Giants' win-now incentives are twofold. For one, they are winning now. For two, there's a ticking clock at play with starters Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani and veteran hitters Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt all due for free agency at the end of the season.
At least on paper, the Giants thus look like a team that can and surely can't wait to make a blockbuster deal or two. But in actuality, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi indicated to Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area that his approach will be of the restrained variety:
"We feel really good about the way we're playing. If there's the right opportunity to add to this team, I think we have a little bit of a different mindset than we did in 2019. But I think we're still going to be careful with anything that's involving our long-term plans and some of the younger guys we have coming up that we're really excited about."
Because the Giants are looking at not only making the playoffs for the first time since 2016 but also playing deep into October for the first time since they won their third World Series in five years in 2014, this probably isn't what their fans want to hear right now.
One way or another, however, Zaidi may have the right idea.
How Good Are the Giants, Really?
To be sure, the Giants' chances of snapping their five-year playoff drought must be taken seriously. FanGraphs, for example, put those chances at just 5.7 percent back on Opening Day. They're now at 94.7 percent.
There is a difference, however, between a team merely making the playoffs and winning its division. The latter is where the Giants still only have a 17.3 percent chance of finishing ahead of the Dodgers and Padres, so the road they're on most likely leads to a do-or-die showdown in the National League Wild Card Game.
Obviously, these numbers aren't gospel. And yet they do create a sense that the Giants are playing above their heads, which works as a sort of justification for Zaidi's reluctance to put all his chips on 2021. He would run the risk of having misread his team's tea leaves and thereby destroying a future that he's been cultivating since he got the job in 2018.
Unless, of course, his public reluctance to go big at the deadline is actually a smokescreen meant to disguise how much he actually believes in his team.
To this end, Exhibit A that the belief in these Giants is indeed warranted is an offense that's produced a league-high 144 home runs and which has actually upped its collective OPS on a monthly basis.
This is impressive stuff for an offense that doesn't even have the benefit of the designated hitter, much less one that's currently without Crawford (oblique), Belt (knee) and Evan Longoria (shoulder) because of injuries. The first two should be back in a matter of weeks, while Longoria will hopefully be back by September.
On the other side of the ball, the Giants pitching staff is perhaps less than the sum of so many parts that have thus far added up to a 3.26 ERA. Yet they have both a genuine No. 1 in Gausman, who has a 1.84 ERA, and a genuine No. 2 in DeSclafani, whose ERA is at 2.78.
Whereas projections and playoff odds can only see the Giants for what they might be, what they actually are is an undeniably great team. It's not just their record. It's also their plus-121 run differential and their solid 23-17 record against winning clubs.
If this is the reality that the Giants ultimately choose to lean into at the trade deadline, they may well walk away with some of the market's top prizes.
There's Good Stuff Out There for the Giants
Though Zaidi unsurprisingly wasn't making any promises when he spoke with reporters in early July, he nonetheless hinted that starting pitching would be his priority in trade talks:
Alex Pavlovic @PavlovicNBCS
Farhan Zaidi met with beat writers, said starting pitching depth remains biggest concern rest of season. Said Giants will have different deadline mindset than in past, but he really likes this roster & "we're still going to be careful with anything that impacts long-term plan."
Because the Giants don't necessarily need another top-of-the-rotation arm to complement Gausman and DeSclafani, this is one area where they might actually get what they want without having to sacrifice significant prospect or payroll capital.
But if they do want to go for broke, there are aces out there for the taking.
Atop the list of those likely to be moved is Texas Rangers All-Star Kyle Gibson, who ought to be well within even the Giants' most extreme price range. Though they're less likely to get traded, San Francisco could also potentially afford underrated Colorado Rockies right-hander German Marquez, Atlanta veteran Charlie Morton, Minnesota Twins ace Jose Berrios and even Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals' three-time Cy Young Award winner.
Yet as Will Smith reminded the Giants with his walk-off home run on Tuesday, the club's biggest need is actually in a bullpen that lacks a true closer. That's where they might have a shot at Pittsburgh Pirates righty Richard Rodriguez or, even better, Chicago Cubs eight-time All-Star Craig Kimbrel.
On the position player side, the Giants don't necessarily need to add to the core they already have. Yet they might do it anyway because A) they might not want to take anything for granted with the health of Crawford, Belt, Longoria and other 30-somethings like Buster Posey and Donovan Solano and B) because more is always better.
Which is to say that there may be something to a report from Craig Mish of the Miami Herald that the Giants are a team to watch in the sweepstakes for Marlins center fielder Starling Marte. They're even a potential fit for Rangers slugger Joey Gallo, who would equip their lineup with even more power and Gold Glove-winning defense in right field.
Any one of these players would put the Giants that much closer to capping their surprising season in style. Accordingly, any combination of them would practically put that outcome within reach.
Since it's not a question of whether they can be, it's really one of just how bold the Giants want to be over the next nine days.