After one half of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, one end of the storyline spectrum contains the Houston Astros, Aaron Judge and other notables that leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
At the other end, you'll find the ongoing cringefest that is the downfall of the San Francisco Giants.
A year ago, San Francisco awoke with a 51-32 record that placed it among the best teams in the majors. That fit like a glove. It had won titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Of course it would be on its way to another in 2016. That was the way of things.
But a fourth straight even-year title didn't happen. And the 2017 Giants, constructed for a franchise-record $180 million, awake on Independence Day Eve with a record of 33-51.
It's as if San Francisco is in its own version of The Upside Down from Stranger Things. Accordingly, there are only two questions to ask: How did it get here, and is there a way out?
Perhaps it's easiest to point fingers at Mark Melancon.
It's no secret the 2016 Giants were blown up by a bullpen that was a ticking time bomb all along. San Francisco relievers committed more meltdowns—a FanGraphs specialty based on win probability—after the All-Star break than all but one other team. Hence the Giants' stumble to a final record of 87-75 and a bullpen-induced early exit from the postseason.
Cue San Francisco sparing no expense with Melancon, signing him for $62 million over four years.
"It gives the club peace of mind, with so many close games that we play, that we have a lockdown guy for the ninth inning," Giants senior vide president and general manager Bobby Evans said in December, per Chris Haft of MLB.com.
Though well intentioned, the plan has already fizzled. Melancon blew his first save opportunity on Opening Day and has since landed on the disabled list twice and pitched to a 4.35 ERA when healthy.
Given that Melancon averaged 74 appearances per season and a 1.80 ERA from 2013 to 2016, though, it's hard to say San Francisco should have seen this coming. These things happen.
Rather, the proper hindsight perspective is it shouldn't have figured that spending $62 million to fix one problem would also fix all its problems.
That was a dicey proposition on multiple fronts, particularly at two lineup spots: left field and third base. The Giants lost their everyday left fielder when they let Angel Pagan walk in free agency and never got around to finding a solid replacement. At third base, they were going to trust the notoriously unpredictable Eduardo Nunez.
You can't help but wonder how much things would be better if, instead of bringing in Melancon, the Giants had splurged on a hitter. Perhaps Justin Turner, who re-signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for four years and $64 million. Or Josh Reddick, who got four years and $52 million from the Astros.
But therein lies another catch: A better version of this team would still be pretty bad.
Just in the National League, San Francisco ranks 14th in OPS and 13th in runs. That's a bad offense. But its problems extend beyond just left field and third base, and they can't all be traced to a lack of front office foresight.
Hunter Pence's rough 2017 was preceded by injury woes in 2015 and 2016 that should have given the Giants pause, sure. But they couldn't have expected Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt to regress like they have. Nor were they foolish if they expected a healthy Joe Panik to hit in 2017 like he did in 2015.
Beside, what is San Francisco to do about a home ballpark that's incompatible with modern times?
Hitters have been hitting home runs in record bunches this season. Despite MLB's insistence to the contrary, the popular theory—notably fueled by studies by Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman at The Ringer and Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight—is that juiced balls are to blame.
But no matter the amount of juice in the ball, Baseball Savant reveals AT&T Park is sitting out the home run craze:
Because of the dimensions and marine layer that come with their territory, the Giants are used to being one of baseball's least powerful teams. But this is something else, as the slugging percentage gap between them and the norm is being pushed to an extreme.
Never mind an improved bullpen or an improved lineup. The best hope San Francisco had of overcoming this trend was another excellent season out of a starting rotation that has consistently reveled in excellence.
Naturally, that idea also fizzled.
Madison Bumgarner got into a dirt-bike mishap that did serious damage to his left shoulder back in April. His rotation mates have since struggled to pick up the slack. That includes two more for the unexpected regression bucket in $130 million man Johnny Cueto and the $90 million Jeff Samardzija.
In all, it's hard to trace the death of the 2017 Giants to a single cause. It's been more of a perfect storm of maladies—each one as destructive as the last.
In times when teams are either going for it now or going for it later, this season provides an excuse to utter the dreaded "r" word. Don't, however, expect San Francisco to even entertain a rebuild.
"This is not going to be a thing where we go underground for three years to five years," president and CEO Laurence M. Baer told Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area. "It's just not who we are."
After all, the sun isn't setting on the Giants core. Buster Posey (who, mercifully, remains awesome) is controlled through 2022. Crawford and Belt are controlled through 2021. Samardzija and Panik are controlled through 2020. Bumgarner is controlled through 2019.
San Francisco also has big money set to come off its books. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported in June that Cueto is expected to opt out of the $89 million remaining on his deal. Matt Cain has a $7.5 million buyout this winter. Pence's $90 million deal will be up after 2018.
This will allow the Giants to seek much-needed hired guns. They will be especially well positioned to do so if they wait until 2018, when the market is due to be teeming with talent. They're not dead yet.
Yet there's no shaking the notion we're hearing the Giants' death rattle.
The core they have is good but getting older every year. And as they're learning from experience, hired guns are always closer to the end of their primes than to the start.
Building from within won't be any easier. B/R's Joel Reuter ranked the San Francisco farm system No. 25 following the 2017 draft. There are some good pieces in there but no blue-chip talents.
Meanwhile, it doesn't help that the Giants' biggest rival couldn't be in better shape.
At 55-29, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the top juggernaut in the NL. They also have deeper pockets and even more upcoming payroll relief than the Giants. And a top-10 farm system to boot.
There's a reason "all good things must come to an end" is on the first page of Cliches for Dummies. It's true.
And even if this season doesn't mark the conclusion of the Giants' run of good things, it sure looks like the beginning of the end.