SAN FRANCISCO -- Madison Bumgarner thought about the question for about 15 seconds, his face scrunching up as he prepared to give an answer. On the final weekend of the Giants season, he had been asked to pinpoint the one factor that would be most important to his decision as he hit free agency for the first time.
Location? Average annual salary? Years? Coaching staff? An ability to compete in 2020? Finally, Bumgarner spoke.
"What kind of question is that?" he said, laughing.
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It's the one that might define the offseason in San Francisco, but it somehow has flown under the radar. The Giants have to hire a manager and a general manager and rebuild a lineup that is allergic to scoring runs at Oracle Park, where they'll change the dimensions of the outfield, but at some point they'll have to confront the Bumgarner question, deciding whether they truly want him back and how far they're willing to go. On the other side, Bumgarner, free to talk to all 30 teams for the first time, will do the same.
The assumption throughout much of the organization, at least at the start of the offseason, is that a fresh start is slightly more likely than a reunion. If that proves to be the case it will be remarkably jarring for a fan base that has grown accustomed to Forever Giants. Bumgarner is not just someone who was part of the championship era and wore orange and black for a long time. He dragged the franchise to a title in 2014 and was a big piece the previous two runs.
In the five years since he came out of the bullpen at Kauffman Stadium, Bumgarner has watched Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik and so many others depart. Buster Posey and the Brandons have slowed down. Bumgarner isn't the same pitcher he was at his peak, but he still has been the one the rest of the clubhouse lines up behind, and he still is the draw for much of the fan base.
If there was any doubt about that for Farhan Zaidi and the rebuilt front office, the final weekend of the season provided a reminder. First came confusion and outrage from much of the fan base as the Giants decided Bumgarner would not start Game 162. Then came the ovation, one that had many who were there that day thinking they were watching a player say goodbye.
For his part, Bumgarner never framed it that way. He said repeatedly throughout the season that he would like to be back, but he's just as savvy off the mound as he is on it, and in informal conversations throughout the summer, Bumgarner explored his potential market. He knows there are contenders on the East Coast with pitching needs. He knows the young Padres lack a veteran ace. He knows the Braves, the team closest to his North Carolina home will call early.
That last part is the greatest concern to any Giants officials looking for a reunion. Per league sources, the Braves have made Bumgarner a priority and planned to quickly communicate that to the left-hander. Atlanta sniffed around before the trade deadline and they are the clear favorite if Bumgarner does end up elsewhere.
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The Braves just watched the rival Nationals win the World Series with starting pitching, including Patrick Corbin, who got six years and $140 million last offseason. The left-hander should provide a nice target for Bumgarner and his representatives. Corbin was 29 when he signed, and while he had a good walk year, the rest of his career is not nearly as decorated.
Bumgarner had a 3.90 ERA in 2018, the highest of his career, but he threw 207 innings, led the NL in starts, and struck out nearly five times as many batters as he walked. Bumgarner's splits -- a 5.29 ERA on the road -- will be a concern for suitors, and he comes with a qualifying offer that would impact a team's draft picks, but he can put together a strong case as a free agent. He is durable, having missed time with just two freak injuries, and has shown an ability to change with the times. Bumgarner throws his curveball more than he used to and relies more heavily on a four-seamer that's velocity has remained consistent. It's been years since he was lighting up radar guns, but his four-seamer averaged 91.4 mph in 2019, a half-tick up from the year before.
In assessing Bumgarner, ESPN's Jeff Passan compared him to Jon Lester, who signed a $155 million deal with the Cubs in 2014 -- the Giants famously "did not get a rose" -- and has lived up to it in his thirties despite diminished stuff.
Speaking generally about starters past the age of 30, Zaidi said that he looks for that kind of adaptability. He pointed out that the Dodgers made a big offer to Zack Greinke in 2015, confident that his changeup and "pitchability" would allow him to succeed as he aged. Greinke, now 36, signed with the Diamondbacks instead, made three All-Star teams, and nearly won a Game 7 last month for the Astros.
"I think with somebody like Madison, for us and for other teams, that's going to be the question," Zaidi said. "I do think he's shown the ability to adapt and pitch in different ways and pitch with different pitches. I think he's a guy who will continue to have success."
Zaidi's Dodgers reportedly offered Greinke nearly $160 million, and the ownership group Zaidi now works for in San Francisco had that beat. They'll now collectively have to decide how they value Bumgarner, who means much more to the organization and fan base than whatever statistics he might put up late in his career. Bumgarner has his own process to sort through.
He pitched on a below-market deal for most of his time in San Francisco, but never once complained. Still, sources close to the pitcher say there will be no hometown discount, not after the Giants paid most of their core but never locked up their ace.
The Giants didn't come particularly close to a long-term deal with Bumgarner after what he did in 2014, and he'll now get to figure out what's most important to him as he prepares for the rest of his career. Where does Bumgarner want to play? Regardless of what else happens, it's the most intriguing question of this Giants offseason.