In Farhan Zaidi’s eyes, it seems, there is one statistic that sums up the San Francisco Giants’ shortcomings in 2023 better than any other. You don’t need to know what WAR, wOBA or VORP stand for to understand it. But it’s something the club’s top baseball boss has cited multiple times.
“One thing that I don’t really think there are two sides of the coin in explaining,” Zaidi said most recently, to a scrum of reporters after introducing new manager Bob Melvin earlier this month, “is we were last in the league in stolen bases. That just can’t happen. To be that much of an outlier shows it was a real deficiency.”
It’s not just that they swiped 15 fewer bags than the next-closest team, fewer than two individual players, that after Thairo Estrada (23) they didn’t have a single player with more than four, a number equaled or eclipsed by 251 players league-wide — it’s what it said about team.
The league introduced new rules designed explicitly to encourage more activity on the base paths, and Zaidi failed to field a group capable of taking advantage. They lacked athleticism. They lacked pizzaz. The most exciting reason to come to the ballpark on most nights was in the opposing uniform, whether it be the star power of the Dodgers or the Padres or exhilarating young athletes on the Diamondbacks, helping them buck another league-wide trend.
Eighteen teams reported gains of 1,500 or more fans per game, with attendance up almost 10% across MLB. It’s been six and a half years since the Giants’ six-and-a-half year sellout streak ended. This year, they drew 2,500,153 fans through the gates of their waterfront ballpark, 17th in the majors, up only 216 per game.
“I’m hopeful for that feeling in the ballpark that we all love to be back,” Buster Posey, now a member of ownership, said recently on KNBR.
So, with the free agent market set to open Monday, consider Zaidi’s offseason shopping list a how-to guide to make their product more appealing: Star power, athletes and, as always, elite starting pitching.
1. Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH
Chairman Greg Johnson said that when it comes to the luxury tax threshold, set at $237 million next season, “I think it just depends a lot on who we target.” Well, Ohtani is set to break the bank, and his transcendent two-way talent is what you break the bank for, even with an elbow procedure ruling him out from pitching next season.
The Giants’ challenge, besides outbidding the Dodgers and every other big-market club, will be convincing a player who, in the words of former teammate Alex Cobb, “never been around somebody who wants to win more,” that they are capable of that after the way they finished last season, on a 106-loss pace over their final 52 games.
2. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, RHP
The three-time reigning winner of Nippon Pro Baseball’s Sawamura Award, their equivalent to the Cy Young, Yamamoto showcased his electric arsenal on the international stage for the first time this spring, helping Team Japan to the World Baseball Classic title.
Still only 25 years old, the Orix Buffaloes ace has combined to go 49-16 with a 1.44 ERA and 580 strikeouts over the past three seasons in NPB. He is expected to be posted and will immediately join Blake Snell and Aaron Nola atop the class of free agent starting pitchers. Top-ranking executives from half the league have been reported to have paid recent visits to watch him pitch, including Zaidi, who is seeking to supplement Logan Webb and Alex Cobb atop his rotation (and, perhaps, free up resources to trade from a stockpile of young arms for an impact bat, which are harder to come by in this year’s free agent class).
“Obviously we’re covering all the bases ahead of what might happen this offseason,” Zaidi said of his recent trip to Osaka’s Kyocera Dome to see one of Yamamoto’s playoff starts. (He surrendered five runs, not quite the showcase Yankees GM Brian Cashman got in September, when he witnessed Yamamoto throw a no-hitter.)
3. Jung-hoo Lee, OF
Zaidi wasn’t the Giants’ only executive spotted overseas. General manager Pete Putila paid a visit to Seoul’s Gocheok Sky Dome, where the reigning KBO MVP was playing what was expected to be his final game in Korea before being posted this offseason.
A career .340/.407/.491 hitter in seven KBO seasons, the 25-year-old left-handed hitter is also a five-time Gold Glove winner in center field and could help shore up the Giants’ outfield defense, which ranked 22nd in Defensive Runs Saved and 28th in Outs Above Average last season.
4. Cody Bellinger, OF
Imagine the Giants’ fortunes had they signed Bellinger last offseason instead of Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto.
The former Dodger instead signed with the Cubs, where he batted .307/.356/.525 while slugging 26 home runs in his best offensive season since he won the NL MVP in 2018, and now is in line for a major payday as arguably the next-best hitter on the market after Ohtani.
A source familiar with the situation said Bellinger was eager to get out of the NL West last offseason; it remains to be seen whether he’s open to a return.
5. Matt Chapman, 3B
On the surface, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to add another corner infielder — even a three-time Gold Glove winner — to a group that appears relatively settled, with LaMonte Wade Jr. and Wilmer Flores at first base, Thairo Estrada at second, Marco Luciano at shortstop and J.D. Davis and Casey Schmitt at third.
But, as the Giants have learned over the years, it’s not the easiest task to attract free agent hitters to their socked-in ballpark, and Chapman presents a unique opportunity. He spent his first five big league seasons playing for Bob Melvin in Oakland and would presumably be open to a reunion.
Zaidi also raised the question: “Were our players physically conditioned to get through six months and 162 games? Because we did battle fatigue, injuries, and some of our players who were in All-Star consideration in the first half of the season really struggled as we went through that downturn.”
Chapman has never played fewer than 140 games over five full-length major-league seasons.
Plus 5 more …
Sonny Gray, RHP: A third-time All-Star in 2023 who could reunite with Melvin, especially if Giants seek more starting pitching depth in wake of Alex Cobb’s hip surgery.
Rhys Hoskins, 1B/DH: Sacramento-born slugger missed all of 2023 with knee surgery but averaged 30 homers in four full-length seasons before that.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa, IF: A capable defender at multiple positions, including shortstop, where he could back up Marco Luciano.
Aaron Nola, RHP: The definition of dependability (five straight full-length seasons of at least 32 starts and 180 innings), with a clutch gene (a 2.35 ERA in four starts this postseason). And, one year removed from leading the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio, right up the Giants’ alley.
Yariel Rodríguez, RHP: 27-year-old with a 100-mph fastball defected from Cuba and played three seasons in Japan, posting a 3.03 ERA with 188 strikeouts in 175⅓ innings), before being granted his release in October to pursue an MLB career. Giants reportedly hosted a workout of his at their Dominican Republic facility.