SAN FRANCISCO — The loudest and angriest Giants fans are probably sure that the tandem of Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler is on extremely thin ice right now. The MLB’s deepest thinkers are probably sure that there’s no way Giants ownership can blow everything up on such a smart leadership group without a total free fall that has not occurred yet.
And I’ll guess that the real situation is somewhere in the middle: Chairman Greg Johnson and the rest of the team’s owners might be inching closer to making a sweeping change than smart industry people could’ve guessed just a few months ago, but it’s still likelier than not that Zaidi and Kapler will make it into 2024.
Things are tenuous, in other words, with just a few weeks left in the regular season and the Giants currently sitting just outside of the NL’s final wild-card spot. It should be a bit tenuous, at least generally. Zaidi and Kapler have accomplished many things in Zaidi’s five-year tenure and Kapler’s four seasons, and they’ve messed up a few. But what they haven’t proven is that they can build the Giants into a perpetual World Series contender, a regular playoff team or even a consistently interesting TV or ticket-selling product.
Bluntly stated: What Zaidi hasn’t proven is that he can attract stars, trade for them or draft them. And unless Zaidi can figure out how to get into that key deal flow, how else is this team going to stand alongside and compete with the Dodgers, Phillies and Braves for now and for the next five years?
More philosophically stated: Zaidi and Kapler don’t deserve ridicule or knee-jerk judgments. This has to be thought through. That 107-win season in 2021 can’t be tossed away. They could pull a season like that out of their sleeves again at some point. They’ve improved the structure of the franchise. They’ve made the most of the shaky parts they inherited. That’s all worth a lot. It would feel somewhat self-destructive to bail on all this unless things got a lot more problematic than they are right now.
Also, Wednesday’s come-from-behind 6-5 victory over the Guardians in 10 innings completed a very necessary and relevance-sustaining 5-1 homestand. Next up: A 10-game road trip to Colorado, Arizona and L.A. After J.D. Davis’ game-tying three-run homer in the eighth inning and LaMonte Wade Jr.’s walk-off sacrifice fly in the 10th, Kapler properly celebrated his team’s mental toughness and ability to close out games, even after the huge tumble in July and August.
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The Giants are now 75-71. They’ve put things back together for now. And every game is a new piece of evidence in the bigger picture.
If this whole thing had toppled over completely by July, instead of the current dribbles and droops through September, there would be more clarity, at least, about the prospective futures of Zaidi and Kapler. Because then it’d be pretty obvious that they hadn’t earned another year running the Giants and that ownership should let somebody else give it a try.
But even through these months of struggle, and the relatively sparse crowds at Oracle Park during the just-concluded series against the Guardians, the Giants still aren’t bad enough to make any swift decision. They’re not, by definition, bad — but they’ve been boring.
That’s not good, especially because we know that the Giants strictly avoid any idea of tanking for better draft position to make sure fans keep pouring into Oracle Park. They need fans pouring into Oracle. That’s the engine of this entire machine. But the attendance this year (about 30,600 average and down to the low-and-mid-20s for the three Guardians games) is almost exactly the same as last year’s attendance, which was the smallest non-pandemic total of the post-Candlestick era. On this current course, I can imagine some pretty lousy crowds in 2024 and beyond unless the Giants’ lineup perks up considerably.
Boring baseball is almost as bad as bad baseball. And the Giants need a jolt to get them out of this. Can Zaidi and Kapler supply it?
We can highlight the positives: Zaidi specializes in making incremental improvements to the roster in the most creative ways; Kapler has handled the mixed parts quite deftly; the structure is sound; the work ethic and brain power are not in question; the team continues to play hard; and the clubhouse seems to have cleanly absorbed the huge wave of rookies that have come through this season (or maybe it’s the other way around with the rookies absorbing the remaining veterans).
But with the exceptions of Logan Webb, Camilo Doval and maybe Patrick Bailey, no Giant has been near the top 15 at his position this season. They’re a collection of “B” and “C” players. They’re the opposite of dynamic. They get destroyed by good pitching and sometimes by mediocre pitching. They’ve got pitching depth, but it’s not blow-your-doors-down pitching.
The big youth movement this season has been important, and it’s better than banging their heads against the Mendoza Line with a series of older guys, but it’s still not exactly compelling.
It’s not as though Zaidi doesn’t know this. He tried to sign Aaron Judge and then Carlos Correa last offseason and actually landed Correa before the Giants exited the deal after the medical check found a big red flag. There’s every indication that the Giants will be ready to throw hundreds of millions at Shohei Ohtani this offseason. But they’re definitely not considered a leading option for Ohtani. And then what?
Last offseason was so important because Ohtani is the only superstar available on the upcoming free-agent market. If you strike out on him, it comes down to what the Giants can acquire in a trade. Could they get the Mets’ Pete Alonso? Maybe a package of three or four of their best young players, which almost certainly would have to include Kyle Harrison, would get the Giants deep into those potential discussions.
At the very least, the influx of young players has allowed the Giants to fully evaluate what they’ve got, which ones they want to keep and which ones might be most valuable in a trade.
I asked Kapler before the game if, in the middle of this, he could cite signs of progress from last year and through the beginning of this era.
“Yeah, I feel similarly to how we felt when we started graduating some of these younger players onto our major-league roster and finding out what type of major-league options they are,” Kapler said.
“I’ll speak for myself, but I’ll speak to just about anybody I talk about Luis Matos, he’s a guy that has a chance to be a really good major-league hitter for a long time. He’s 21 years old, he makes good swing decisions and solid contact pretty consistently. He’s going to get bigger and stronger and more physical. Kyle Harrison is now in our starting rotation, and I think we’re all pretty confident that he has a chance to be a good major-league pitcher for a long time. We have a catcher who, you know, is one of the better defensive catchers in baseball and may turn out to be a quality major-leaguer for a long time as well.
“So I think there’s reasons to believe that progress is happening, and there is reason for quite a bit of optimism as a result.”
I’ll add Marco Luciano, the best hitting prospect in the system, as another major positive heading into 2024, assuming he can stay healthy for a full season. Even with all the question marks, having a bunch of young players milling around .500 is far better than having a bunch of old players doing it. If it was up to me, I’d say that the youth movement is enough to keep this going into 2024, and if things aren’t going well by then, it would be time for a Zaidi/Kapler denouement. But I’d stick with them through the offseason because I think it’s more likely that things will be good and remain good with them than it would be for anybody else the Giants could hire to run things for them into 2024 and beyond.
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Zaidi has built a very broad bunch of supporting players — Wilmer Flores, Blake Sabol, Thairo Estrada, Alex Cobb and Wade. And this year, the Giants added Bailey, Ryan Walker and maybe Matos to that group. Sometimes Zaidi has outsmarted himself (not giving Kevin Gausman a long-term deal because he doesn’t believe in those kinds of deals for veteran pitchers) and sometimes he’s been just as smart as he needs to be (not giving Carlos Rodón a long-term deal).
But if I’m the Giants ownership group, I’d also need to believe that there was a good chance at a lightning strike happening very soon, the way Arizona found Corbin Carroll with the 16th pick of the 2019 draft, which happened to be nine picks after the Giants took Hunter Bishop. Or the way the Rangers signed Marcus Semien in December 2021. Or the way Brian Sabean’s drafting of Buster Posey in 2008 changed the course of the franchise.
There has been no such lightning strike in the Zaidi era. He’s tried. It hasn’t happened. I think it’s still possible, but I concede that five seasons is a long time without that kind of electricity. Unless the team collapses in these next few weeks, I think Zaidi and Kapler should get one more year to do this. But not because Giants ownership can’t imagine life without them. It’s because they’ve set this franchise up to do better things than what we’ve seen so far, and maybe it all happens in 2024. Or else it will be time for those massive changes.
“The TK Show”: Go to Tim Kawakami’s podcast page on Apple, Spotify and The Athletic app.
(Photo of Kapler and Zaidi in 2021: Jeff Chiu / AP)