For 98-loss Giants, enough change may not be coming

The tone around AT&T Park was serious at the season’s conclusion. All the organization’s most important representatives — especially Executive VP of Baseball Operations Brian Sabean — were stern in their assertion that big changes to the roster were to be made after a 98-loss season.

These aren’t going to be changes that would make Giants fans hurl in shock, though. This roster is built around keeping a core group of players on lock and together for the next few years — a noble commitment that is now coming back to bite the front office in the butt.

In other words, the organization embarks into free agency stuck in a stalemate, partially committed to players who underachieved and partially committed to “restarting” with new blood. So how can this team really evolve in 2018?

Coaching staff

All the drama started with major shifts to the coaching staff, where it seems the front office has the most leeway and can press that “restart” button hardest.

The additions of Alonzo Powell as hitting coach and Curt Young as pitching coach, along with Dave Righetti‘s demotion, indicate a stronger commitment to analytics as a driving force with the staff moving forward.

Great idea, but will analytics help the San Francisco offense hit more than a league-low 128 home runs next season?

It felt like the Astros hit more home runs in the postseason than the Giants hit all year. Relatively speaking, this feeling is valid — the Astros averaged 1.5 home runs per game in the postseason and regular season. The Giants came in at 0.7 per game, which may actually seem low for those who watched them play 162 times.

The Giants hired Houston’s assistant hitting coach, Powell, to get the club closer to 1.5 home runs per game. Logic checks out. Every other factor nullifies this.

According to Powell himself in a conference call, AT&T Park is a factor:

“You’re not just going to turn around and hit home runs. The biggest thing is, we have to find hits, we have to find walks, we have to find ways to get on base and keep the chain moving to the next guy.”

That may be what the team needs: a coach well-versed in the analytical future of baseball that is also rooted in his new team’s hitting mentality and ability. Forget about home runs. Powell spent a year with the Astros and, in that year, the team’s strikeout rate went down six percentage points (23 percent to 17 percent), and team on-base percentage (OBP) and weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) increased 50 points, according to FanGraphs.

Evolution: The Giants surprised demoting Righetti. It seems this is the place the team felt they could make the most substantial changes, quickly, and went for it.

Third base and infield

The infield is basically established, with Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik and Brandon Belt locking up stellar years defensively (despite some surprisingly low numbers for 2016 Gold Glove winner Panik). The discussion will revolve around third base, unless Panik ends up a trade casualty.

The Giants picked up Pablo Sandoval‘s option for the 2018 season. Why? Because it’s cheap.

The Dodgers were successful this year partly because all their young players are excellent and mostly because they have incredible depth.

Sandoval shouldn’t be the starting third baseman, but he provides some level of depth at that position that the team didn’t really have last year. The gap at third base will be a prime opportunity for the team to fill it with young, athletic talent.

Christian Arroyo always seemed to be the heir at third, but injury — he had another surgery on his hand — kept him away from the throne, for now. For this season, look for the Giants to trade for or pick up a third baseman. It may be Ryder Jones that is tabbed to take on the role.

It probably won’t be Mike Moustakas, since the Kansas City extended him a qualifying offer and the Giants need as many high draft and competitive balance picks they can grasp. The Giants, because they’re above the luxury tax, would lose their second and fifth-highest selections and $1 million in international bonus pool if they signed the longtime Royal, per the CBA.

If being young and athletic is the priority, draft picks are far more valuable than a long, expensive contract with an aging free agent.

Evolution:  An upgrade at third with Sandoval’s depth should elevate what is already the best part of this team.

Centerfield and the two flanks

The reason San Francisco will not pursue Moustakas matches that for Lorenzo Cain, even though he seems a perfect fit on paper.

Top rated defensive centerfielder (sixth-best defender in the American League SABR Defensive Index): Check.

Power (15 home runs): Check, kind of.

Ability to get on base (.336 wOBA): Check.

He’s a veteran player with a proven track record and postseason experience, but it is not to be. This kind of reality check is what the Giants are faced with as they hope to evolve center field and amp up the outfield as a whole this 2018.

The outfield should be largely re-arranged and, ideally, would push Denard Span and Hunter Pence out of primary roles. As it stands, though, Span is committed to the starting left field job and Pence the same in right with center field as the big question mark.

Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t really played center field, but if the Giants dig up enough low-level prospects and cash to seal the deal, the outfield could be re-scrambled to accommodate his bat.

The Giants could ignore home runs and trade for a speedy leadoff-hitting, center field-playing guy like Billy Hamilton. Or they could go back to Derek Jeter and the Marlins and ask for either of Stanton’s All-Star outfield mates Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna — who are, admittedly, much less likely to be traded.

Evolution: Center field could either see the most exciting or devastatingly boring move of the offseason. It also is the most important gap to fill — the best center fielder would prop up what was the worst defensive outfield in 2017.

Bullpen

General manager Bobby Evans said upgrades in the bullpen are needed. A healthy Mark Melancon and Will Smith returning to a late-inning core that includes Sam Dyson and Hunter Strickland is a major upgrade in itself. Ty Blach has transformed into a reliable long-inning arm — similar to a highly underrated Yusmeiro Petit.

The team’s brass said they liked what they saw from high-90s-throwing Reyes Moronta and Kyle Crick, who could both be essential swing-and-miss arms out of the ‘pen.

Any available money won’t be thrown at the Greg Hollands or Wade Davises of the offseason.

Evolution: Upgrades here will probably come in-house, as money will be better spent on the other side of the ball. 

Rotation

The Giants picked up Madison Bumgarner’s $12 million option, which lasts until 2020. As expected, they also picked up Matt Moore‘s $9 million option. After a mediocre, injury-riddled season, Johnny Cueto opted in to his $84 million, five-year contract.

The fourth and fifth spots are solid and … also kind of liquid. Jeff Samardzija seems to be the biggest trade chip the team has as they gun for talent on the offensive side.

Chris Stratton was a bright spot last year, collecting a 2.42 ERA in his last nine starts that were largely interrupted and dictated by odd weather delays and teammate injuries. He could pick up the fifth spot easily. The Giants also have the Popsicle stick-and-duct tape tandem of Blach and Albert Suarez, should a fifth starter be required following a Samardzija trade.

Evolution: Not much. Unless something wild happens.

San Francisco’s road to recovery from 98 losses back into postseason contention is a hazardous one. Unlike most last-place teams, the Giants boast a veteran nucleus, rather than a group of youngsters playing before proper seasoning.

Finding a way to circumvent an average age that, as it sits, would be a fair bit beyond the 30-year-old mark yet one of the game’s least-productive will require kid gloves. Add in one of the game’s thinnest farm systems and the Giants are left on the cusp of baseball purgatory — unless, of course, those players rebound from career-worst seasons and return to World Series contending form.


Shayna Rubin is SFBay’s San Francisco Giants beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShaynaRubin on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Giants baseball.