In his first year as president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi found himself facing a brutal decision at the trade deadline.
Should he trust what the statistics and standings said and hold a massive sale, one that included franchise icon Madison Bumgarner and All-Star closer Will Smith? Or should he honor the shocking run the Giants went on in July and the preferences of the clubhouse, giving Bruce Bochy one last shot to try to sneak into the postseason?
Ultimately, Zaidi mostly chose the latter. He was active at the deadline, particularly in dismantling much of his bullpen, but he held his two biggest pieces and instead took the draft pick compensation that brought the Giants two players in June after Bumgarner and Smith walked in the offseason. The team, somewhat predictably, tanked after the deadline.
That July run was a mirage, but Zaidi never has expressed regret. He wanted Bochy to have a shot down the stretch, and months later the Giants ended up with essentially two additional second-round picks.
It was a nerve-wracking first deadline for Zaidi. A year later, Scott Harris could be faced with a much tougher decision in his first season as a general manager. Zaidi and Harris will have just 36 games to evaluate the Giants before the August 31 deadline. It sounds like a nightmare for front offices. Harris prefers to view it as a positive.
"Stepping back from a 10,000-foot view here, I think in an alternative universe, if you offered any GM the choice of playing out the first 102 games of the season and seeing where the team is on July 23, or fast-forwarding to July 23 with a guarantee that the team would be tied for first place, I think 30 of 30 GMs would choose the latter," Harris said on the Giants Insider Podcast. "In some ways, from a competitive standpoint, that's where we're at here. It's paramount that we get off to a fast start, because if we get off to a fast start the trade deadline is only a few weeks away and we have the opportunity through transactions to turn some of our weaknesses into strengths. Farhan and I are certainly going to be eager to do that if the opportunity presents itself."
[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]
San Francisco Giants
The Giants have a tough "first half" schedule, but in an odd way that could help Zaidi and Harris. They believe they have put together a roster that's capable of being more competitive than outsiders think, and they'll have a very good idea on August 31 of whether or not that's true.
Of the 36 games before the deadline, 10 are against the Los Angeles Dodgers, three are against the Houston Astros and three are against the A's. Those could be three of the five or six best teams in baseball. The schedule also includes 10 games against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels in the final two weeks before the deadline, and both of them teams figure to be in the race. Those Diamondbacks games in particular could be swing games. They loom as a likely wild-card contender after a busy offseason.
If the Giants can survive that August gauntlet and stay within striking distance in the NL West or wild-card races, the September schedule is much, much softer.
Over 60 games, it might not be hard to be in it on August 31, either. The PECOTA projection system is down on the Giants, predicting that they'll finish as the worst team in the National League. But even their latest projections have the Giants finishing just four games out of second in the NL West and six games out of a postseason spot. It's not a huge gap to be made up:
There's a second benefit to that August schedule. Let's say the Giants can't handle it and can't realistically view themselves as contenders on August 31. With so many teams having a shot, there figure to be few true sellers. Zaidi and Harris would have some pieces to offer, particularly on the pitching side, with Jeff Samardzija, Tony Watson, Kevin Gausman and Drew Smyly all headed for free agency.
Buying or selling will be complicated by MLB's short-season rules. Only players in the 60-man player pools can be traded, which will be a significant change given that most teams are only carrying 5-10 prospects right now and most of those are in the "untouchable" category, particularly in exchange for a one-month rental. But the rules do seem to allow teams to add players to their pool in late August specifically to trade them; they just need to stay in the new team's pool for the rest of the year. There's little doubt that front offices will find workarounds.
Last year's deadline also provides a blueprint of sorts. The Giants took advantage of a strong week in the bullpen from Drew Pomeranz and dealt him for Mauricio Dubon. The sample sizes this year will be just as small as Pomeranz's was, and plenty of upper-minors prospects like Dubon are in player pools right now.
Harris said that one of the first steps for the front office during the restart will be evaluating the new rosters, especially if the Giants are looking to add.
"I think it's going to be really important for our scouts and analysts to pay close attention to players who might be available at the trade deadline and make sure we refresh our looks at those players," he said.
This is a year unlike any other, and that extends to the trade deadline. It's coming just five weeks into Harris' first season as general manager, which seems complicated. But for now, he's viewing that as an opportunity.
"I hope that as a competitor we can look at the standings and realize that we have a shot to win the division," he said. "I know that our players are coming in determined to prove a lot of people wrong out there, and we're excited to do that, too. I always object to the underlying assumption that certain GMs want to be in a position to make transactions at the deadline. That's certainly not us."