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Giants CEO Baer preaches flexibility thanks to farm system

NBC Sports

Many of the faces have changed over time, but for years there has been one constant when the Giants meet with a marquee free agent. Whether chasing Zack Greinke or Bryce Harper, team president and CEO Larry Baer is in the room, first with Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans, and more recently with Farhan Zaidi, who joined Baer and Bruce Bochy on a flight to Las Vegas to court Harper in 2019.

Baer is no stranger to nine-figure deals or $200 million payrolls, but he also knows the good times at Oracle Park were built on homegrown talent. As he talked recently about the financial situation after 2020 and what's to come, Baer kept circling back to that theme. 

What kind of team will the Giants be next offseason? A lot will be determined by players not even in the big leagues yet.

"I think all of that depends on the progress of the farm system, and the progress of everybody around them," Baer said. "I think we really want to be disciplined. I think one of the real question marks is how are we going to be able to develop our players this year, players that might have been without two normal minor league seasons. That's a huge variable. Every team deals with it. It's probably more relevant for us, just because that's the stage that we are at."

The exact nature of that stage can be hard to pin down. The Giants have tried to stay moderately competitive while rebuilding, and from the outside, they now look like an organization that is waiting to explode, with more than $100 million coming off the books after the 2021 season and a star-studded free agent class waiting in the ensuing months. But ownership didn't pry Zaidi from the Dodgers because he dominates free agency. He is known for building from within and then making more subtle additions in the offseason. 

 

In three winters under Zaidi and now also Scott Harris -- who helped the Chicago Cubs develop their own contributors -- the Giants have handed out two multi-year deals and have yet to guarantee a player more than $20 million. It seems a stretch to think they'll immediately go back to the times of sending hundreds of millions out the door every winter, and, when asked about finances, Zaidi has said repeatedly that the only mandate from ownership is to make good baseball decisions. That probably won't be changing.

"There's obviously a lot more flexibility when we get to 2022, people know that," Baer said. "We see more flexibility, but we just want to keep adding to the team smartly with respect to the players that are coming in and the ones in the minor leagues. I think nothing has changed in terms of our fierce desire to remain competitive, but we want to do it smartly.

"We think there was a lot of progress made last year. I know there were expanded playoffs, but we came down to the last game of the season for a playoff spot. There's no pulling back on the drive to be competitive and get back to the World Series."

That timeline moving forward will be decided by the talented group coming through the minors, and when they're here and ready, the Giants should be in good shape to supplement the roster. They have paid off their ballpark and are deep into construction on Mission Rock, a 28-acre mixed-use development across the cove. While they played 2020 without fans, that should change this summer, and the front office was pleasantly surprised by the faith shown by season-ticket holders through the pandemic.

When the sport shut down, they were offered a chance to get a refund for their tickets or roll them over to future games, and about three-quarters of season-ticket holders decided to take the latter option. Team officials had initially thought less than half might take the rollover. 

"It's been much better than we forecasted," Baer said. 

Those who remained could be back at Oracle Park soon, although the Giants know they'll have to first watch other organizations move forward. San Francisco has been as restrictive as any city in the country, and the Giants will have to wait for the all-clear from city and county health officials. 

"It's going to be uneven around baseball. I don't know any other way to do it," Baer said. "You conform with your local officials' guidance and protocols. I don't know if any teams will have full ballparks, and as you've noticed in the NFL and the NBA, a few teams have had fans in some ways, but you've got to kind of ignore that. You can't do 'woe is me' and you can't think it's going to be any disadvantage. I don't think competitively it will be.

 

"The city has been good with us and I thought that (spring training) 2.0 last year and leading into games, it pretty much went off without a hitch. The city is very open to the protocols we've developed."

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The Giants believe the fans that return this year will see a competitive product, and ownership is pleased with the way Zaidi and Harris have built. The farm system is one of the best in the game, and at least a couple of top prospects -- Joey Bart and Heliot Ramos -- should fully arrive this season. The rest are on the way, and the Baer said the Giants will be ready to fill the remaining holes.

They'll need to do it well, because as the Giants have waited for their future to arrive, their division has changed. The Dodgers are now champions and the San Diego Padres have turned into a second NL West powerhouse. Baer said it's a "formidable" challenge, but one the Giants feel prepared for. 

"I think people kind of understand what we're doing," he said. "I hope we're giving a little bit of a roadmap to what we're doing and how we're trying to expose the players that are coming, and I think a lot of teams are going to have an eye on us, between some of the flexibility going forward and the young players."

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