The Giants are star
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The Giants are star

Aug 20, 2023

This week, the San Francisco Giants entered the third game of their series against the Philadelphia Phillies attempting to avoid a sweep. The Giants had swept the series the two teams played back in May, but the Phillies' season had transformed since then -- they have a 44-28 record since June 1 -- and they won the first two games of this series. By all accounts, the Giants should have lost that final game, too -- but instead, their 8-6 win in extra innings perfectly encapsulates their 2023 season.

Their starting center fielder was Wade Meckler, an eighth-round pick in last year's draft who started the season in High-A and was recently called up. Their All-Star closer, Camilo Doval, blew the save in the bottom of the ninth -- his fourth appearance in a row with a blown save. And yet Paul DeJong, playing shortstop in his first game for San Francisco since being released by the Toronto Blue Jays, where he went 3-for-44 with 18 strikeouts, matched that hit total in only five at-bats, including a home run and four RBIs. Two of those RBIs came on a single in the top of the 10th as the Giants scored three runs to take back the lead and held on for the victory, using two relievers to finish it out.

The victory helped keep the Giants in the thick of the wild-card race -- the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and Giants are separated by half a game for the final two spots, with the Miami Marlins a couple games behind and the Phillies a couple games ahead. Somehow, some way, despite a roster devoid of stars or even non-stars having surprise seasons, the Giants are in the hunt, baseball's Houdini act.

Okay, it's not quite as impressive as two years ago when they pulled an elephant out of a hat by winning 107 games, but this team has a chance to make the postseason. And when you look at the roster, it's hard not to think, "How is that even possible?"

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This is a team we predicted to win 80 games and ranked 22nd in baseball in our preseason rankings. Their top-ranked position player in Baseball-Reference wins above replacement is Wilmer Flores with 2.5 bWAR -- tied for 69th in the majors. Their next two best are LaMonte Wade and Thairo Estrada, ranked 81st and 98th. A decent enough trio of ballplayers, but not to be confused with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith.

At crucial up-the-middle positions, the Giants have started six different shortstops and nine different center fielders. They're one of just four teams in MLB without a 20-home run hitter. They've used 12 different starting pitchers, with only Logan Webb and Alex Cobb managing to stay in the rotation all season long. And their starting pitchers have thrown the fewest innings in the majors (to be fair, in part because they've used an opener more than any other team).

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This is not how you want to construct a team. But president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler are better at getting the most out of all 26 players on the roster than any other team. Flores is their top home run hitter with 18 -- tied for 68th in the majors, but on pace for a career high. J.D. Davis leads the club with 57 RBIs -- tied for 85th in the majors with, among others, Ezequiel Tovar and Whit Merrifield -- but, again, already tying his career-best mark.

As we've watched rosters full of superstars -- the San Diego Padres, New York Yankees and New York Mets -- disappoint this year, the Giants have proven how depth helps cover for a lack of stars. They platoon, pinch hit and mix-and-match, which has helped them scrape across just enough runs despite the lack of any big individual threats. While they're not really a good offensive team -- they're just 13th in the National League in runs scored, although Oracle Park decreases run scoring -- they've hit well in high-leverage situations, increasing their OPS more than 40 points, which is one reason they're 9-3 in extra-inning games.

This isn't the first time we've seen the Giants do this. San Francisco won a shocking NL West championship in 2021 deploying a similar depth-focused strategy. But that year, they did have some stars -- or at least players who had big years. Buster Posey went out in a blaze of glory in his final season. Brandon Crawford had his last good season, finishing fourth in the MVP voting. Brandon Belt had a .975 OPS and 29 home runs in just 97 games. The rotation featured two aces in Webb and Kevin Gausman, plus Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood had healthy seasons.

But this year has proven how tough it is to grind through a season this way -- and the lack of manpower is perhaps finally starting to show. The series loss to the Phillies was the Giants' sixth consecutive losing series after beginning the month with three straight wins over Arizona, and the schedule doesn't get much easier down the stretch. The Reds, San Diego Padres and Cubs are up next, and seven of San Francisco's final 10 games are against their division rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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If the Giants want to turn 2021's success and this year's surprise contention into long-term success, they know that eventually they'll need to add some star power to the roster; it's hard to keep winning with platoon players and waiver-wire castoffs. They certainly tried to add stars in the offseason, first pursuing Aaron Judge and then agreeing to a 13-year, $350 million contract with Carlos Correa, only to pull out at the last minute over concerns with Correa's physical. (Given Correa's subpar performance this season back with the Minnesota Twins, it looks like they escaped an albatross of a contract.)

The Giants will also need to get younger, which means the farm system needs to produce some talent. Patrick Bailey has impressed, especially on defense, and looks like the solution at catcher that Joey Bart wasn't. Luis Matos was called up and has shown some good contact ability but not much power, and his defensive metrics in center are poor. He might be more of a fourth outfielder. Highly-touted shortstop Marco Luciano has hit just .231 in the minors, losing some shine off his prospect luster. Lefty Kyle Harrison just made his debut a few days after turning 22 despite struggling with his control in Triple-A (48 walks in 67⅔ innings). Still, he has top-of-the-rotation potential. Meckler has come out of nowhere, although calling him up after such little time in the minors seems to be a sign of the team's problems in center field.

Throw in Casey Schmitt and Blake Sabol and the Giants are transitioning from one of the oldest teams in baseball the past couple of seasons to one suddenly relying on a slew of rookies as it battles for the wild card. I'd bet against the Giants this year, given their youth and remaining schedule, but they have already surprised us just being in this position.