What happens when you attempt to put together a playoff contender by using super glue and duct tape? The San Francisco Giants want to find out.
After making a deal earlier this winter for veteran Evan Longoria, the Giants took it even further on Monday, when they acquired former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen from the (now rebuilding) Pittsburgh Pirates for a package of two players: pitcher Kyle Crick and outfielder Bryan Reynolds. It is a bold strategy by the Giants, coming off of an abysmal 64-98 season that left them 40 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and 23 games back from the second Wild Card. For the Pirates, the writing was on the wall the moment they dealt away Gerrit Cole: This is not a team that is expected to contend in 2018. Their fall from potential World Series contender (their struggles in the playoffs recently are well-known) to a team already back on the rebuild has to be concerning for a fan base that went through two decades of losing not that long ago.
From the Giants perspective:
If you are going to make a trade for Evan Longoria, you have no choice but to attempt to make the team as strong as possible for a playoff push. The Giants’ awful outfield in 2017 is well documented, and McCutchen will certainly help in turning that around. After declining significantly both offensively and defensively in 2016, McCutchen bounced back nicely in 2017 on the offensive side of the ball, hitting .279/.363/.486 (121 OPS+). His defensive work still left a lot to be desired, and the Giants may be best served to shift him over to an outfield corner. If he continues to prove that 2016 was simply an outlier, his bat will translate well to a corner outfield spot.
Even with McCutchen, the outfield is unsettled, at best. Hunter Pence is coming off one of his worst seasons in the big leagues (.260/.315/.385, 86 OPS+), while Jarrett Parker‘s 51-game stint in left field wasn’t any better (.247/.294/.416, 86 OPS+). They traded away their best offensive outfielder from 2017 in the Longoria trade, but Denard Span was so awful defensively that his mediocre 100 OPS+ was of zero use to the Giants’ cause.
The Giants have a bloated payroll, which limits their flexibility to further add pieces to their outfield. Unless they have a change of heart about going over the luxury tax threshold, they won’t be in on any of the remaining top free agent outfielders (IE, Jarrod Dyson). They either have to get creative to sign a useful free agent, or hope a player like 24-year old Alex Slater can build on his 2017 campaign. Slater hit .282/.339/.402 in his injury plagued 2017 season, which is not an earth-shattering statistical line for a corner outfielder, though he may as well be Barry Bonds compared to some of the other options the Giants have to throw out there.
With McCutchen and Longoria being added to a lineup that includes Brandon Belt and Buster Posey, the Giants have the makings of a solid middle of the lineup. Joe Panik is also fine offensively for a second baseman (104 OPS+), but the rest of the lineup is still rather mundane at best. The goal for the Giants is obviously make a run at being a middle-of-the-pack offense after spending most of 2017 as one of baseball’s worst offenses. They may still need another piece to make that a reality, but the lineup is certainly harder to pitch to now than it was a few months ago.
As for making up all that ground in the standings, we all know that what happened in one season may not happen in the next. The Twins went from a 59-103 squad to a 85-77 playoff squad in the span of one year, though they did it with more of a youth movement than what the Giants are attempting to do.
From the Pirates perspective:
The Pirates have now put together two trades over the past several days that netted them a lot of youth. The question will remain whether or not it is the type of youth that will allow them to build themselves back up into a contender over the next few seasons.
The key to this move is Reynolds, a 22-year old outfielder who has yet to advance above A-ball. Last season, he hit .312/.364/.462 in 540 at-bats for High-A San Jose, which should be more than enough to earn him a shot at Double-A in 2018. According to MLB.com’s rankings, Reynolds ranked fourth in a mediocre Giants’ system. He is a switch-hitter with a quality stroke from both sides of the plate, and may even grow into more power as he develops. In 2017, he hit .295/.356/.449 in 421 plate appearances as a left-handed hitter and .365/.392/.504 in 120 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter. He has speed, though it has yet to translate into a running game on the basepaths, as evidenced by his 8-for-11 stolen base rate in 177 career minor league games.
There are questions about what position he will ultimately play, though the Giants were bullish on him remaining in center field, where he can use his above-average speed (his arm grades out as below average). While he is not a Top 100 prospect in the game, Reynolds is a legitimate MLB prospect. He has the tools to become a big league regular, and we will certainly find out a lot more about him when he tries to pass the crucial Double-A test.
It is hard to get too excited about Crick, though he pitched fine in a 30-game audition for the Giants in 2017. He compiled a 3.06 ERA (3.90 FIP), but his walk ratio (4.7/9 IP) was less than ideal. The 25-year old was once one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, ranking 33rd on Baseball America’s Top 100 list before the 2014 season. He was still appearing on Top 100 lists for MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus in 2015, but his prospect status was beginning to wane. While repeating Double-A in 2016, he compiled a 4-11 record with a 5.04 ERA in 109 innings, striking out 86 while walking 67 (In 2015, he actually walked more than a batter per inning). The move to the bullpen was wise, but it is hard to envision a Dellin Betances type of turnaround from wild minor league starting prospect to dominating reliever in the majors. He is fine as a throw-in piece, but he is not going to make or break this trade.
We can look at the total return the Pirates have received for two of their biggest trade chips and feel a bit underwhelmed. They added potentially useful parts in the Cole deal, but none of the players acquired will likely become All-Star caliber MLB contributors. In the McCutchen deal, they went for one quality prospect over a quantity of players, and Reynolds certainly has the highest ceiling of every player they have acquired over the past few days. I like this approach better, because if I am a fan of a team that is going into a rebuild mode, I want to take chances on potentially high impact players over acquiring safe players who don’t have the upside. We won’t know the true value of this deal until 2019 at the earliest, when Reynolds may be able to make his MLB debut.
For the Giants, as stated at the beginning of this post, they couldn’t trade for Longoria and stop there. They needed to add more punch to their lineup, and McCutchen will provide that. If Madison Bumgarner can come back and be the ace he has always been, the Giants have a foundation for a team that could rise back up into playoff contention in 2018. I am not sure if I love the approach, because if it fails, they are going to have a hard time recovering. The franchise’s history over the past decade suggests we shouldn’t question them too much, but this is the riskiest Giants’ strategy during their run.