How Giants' improved minor-league system affects trade deadline decisions

How Giants' improved minor-league system affects trade deadline decisions

SAN FRANCISCO -- The biggest question for the Giants -- buy or sell -- wasn't even a question a month ago, or just about every day since Farhan Zaidi took over in November. 

The organization was in a world of hurt at all levels, and for about eight months, much of the talk at Oracle Park centered around how to make this team competitive in 2020 and good by 2021. But a couple of funny things happened along the way to the Great July Sale of 2019. 

The first one is obvious, and has been in front of your face for three weeks. The Giants are suddenly good. After sweeping the Rockies and taking three of four from the Mets, they're entering this week at .500, 2 1/2 games out in the Wild Card race. 

But the second factor is one you might have missed unless you really go deep with your fandom. Seemingly just as quickly, the Giants have built a farm system that looks respectable, and that will matter as Zaidi and Co. put together a deadline plan.

The Giants still need plenty of future help, but they're not quite as desperate as they were on Opening Day. Zaidi no longer should move anything that's not nailed down in order to bolster the system. Much of the next core already appears to be on the way. 

Joey Bart (ranked 19th) and Heliot Ramos (68) were joined by shortstop Marco Luciano (71) and outfielder Hunter Bishop (98) on Baseball America's most recent top 100 list, giving the Giants four top prospects on a rankings list that often has included just one player from the organization. 

Luciano, in particular, has changed the upside of the farm system. Just 17 years old, he's hitting .344 in rookie ball with eight homers in 96 at-bats. It's early, but if his development continues he could be a franchise-altering prospect, and he's part of a crowd coming from rookie ball and Salem-Keizer. The strength of this system is at the lower levels. 

The  Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, a short-season team, won the Northwest League's first-half title for the first time by going 25-12. Bishop, this year's first-rounder, is there already, along with other intriguing prospects like 21-year-old Franklin Labour (14 homers in 33 games) and 19-year-old Alexander Canario (eight homers in 27 minor league games this summer). 

Bart and Ramos lead a San Jose team that has some pitching starting to emerge with Sean Hjelle, Jake Wong and others. The Double-A roster is a bit barren, but Triple-A Sacramento -- a disaster in recent years -- is in first place and already has sent Shaun Anderson, Tyler Beede, Mike Yastrzemski, Conner Menez, Zach Green and others to the big league roster. 

If you take a step back, this is a farm system that's looking like a normal one again, and that certainly should change the math for Zaidi. 

For most of this season it seemed he needed to trade not just Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith and Sam Dyson, but also guys like Pablo Sandoval, Kevin Pillar and Reyes Moronta. When Zaidi traded Tom Murphy for a 20-year-old lottery ticket, that seemed like a good template, because the Giants came into this season needing as much minor league inventory as they could get. Things have changed quickly, and the system's rise has matched the big league club's surge.

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There certainly are still plenty of holes. The Giants need more young pitching (who is the future ace of this staff?), could use an outfielder or three much closer to the big league level and have a huge hole when it comes to middle infield prospects. 

But this front office has proven fully capable of finding contributors -- Alex Dickerson, Donovan Solano, etc. -- and pushing younger players, and it turns out the previous regime left the cupboard a bit fuller than we thought. Add it up and the Giants aren't nearly as desperate at the deadline as they once were. 

What Giants new manager Gabe Kapler learned from time in Philadelphia

What Giants new manager Gabe Kapler learned from time in Philadelphia

SAN FRANCISCO -- For most of an hour Wednesday, Gabe Kapler answered questions from the media about what he had learned in Los Angeles. Kapler may never outrun that incident in the eyes of many Giants fans, but at some point, the focus of his tenure will turn to another question. 

What did he learn in Philadelphia?

The Giants felt comfortable enough with Kapler and his past to hire him and give him a three-year deal. Will he last all three? That will be determined by his ability to handle a clubhouse, develop the next wave of Giants and actually win games between the lines.

Kapler went 161-163 in two seasons in Philadelphia, finishing third and then fourth in the NL East. The Phillies improved by 14 games in his first season, but they tailed off down the stretch both years, and 2019 certainly was a disappointment given how much ownership invested in the team over the offseason, led by the additions of Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto.

The front office wanted to keep Kapler around, and Farhan Zaidi got rave reviews from his counterparts. Members of the Giants ownership group spoke to members of the group in Philadelphia and heard similar reviews, with the caveat that Kapler’s time in Philadelphia had simply run its course. Those who were around him for two years say Kapler did a good job of managing up, but sometimes lost his ability to fully connect with the clubhouse. There were questions about the way he handled the pitching staff, in particular.

The Giants digested all that and decided Kapler would take Bruce Bochy’s place, and during the interview process, the two managers spoke about how much better you can be the second time around, as Bochy was. You can learn from your mistakes.

So, what did Kapler learn in Philadelphia?

“The thing that I learned most, and it was pretty abrupt, was in my first year as a Phillies manager in 2018 I thought a lot about every little strategic edge, every little strategic advantage, and sometimes at the expense of some of that confidence that we’ve talked about,” Kapler said. “My biggest learn was: Sometimes a confident player is a better baseball player, and that outweighs the strategic advantage you get of calling just the right pitch at just the right time.

“I’ll use a pitcher analogy. If all of the information says that your curveball is your best pitch in a particular situation but that pitcher does not want to throw that pitch, you don’t force him to throw that pitch. You let him throw a different pitch with a lot of conviction, with a lot of energy, with a lot of confidence, and maybe that’s the best pitch in the moment. So probably my biggest learn is now to blend those two things.”

In an appearance on MLB Network a day later, Kapler gave a specific example. On Opening Day in 2018, he pulled starter Aaron Nola after just 68 pitches because he didn’t want him facing a lineup a third time. That has become a somewhat common strategy in recent years – but Nola had allowed just one run on three hits in 5 1/3 innings at the time. The Phillies bullpen gave up eight runs and the team lost, but it wasn’t the end result that stuck with Kapler.

“What we didn’t know is what an emotional impact that would have on the dugout. It had a pretty big, significant blow," Kapler said. "What I learned from that is learning how to trust Aaron Nola deeper into games and so we did that for the rest of the 2018 season and 2019 season as well, understanding that what we were seeing with our eyes was equally important to what we were seeing on paper.”

Nola wasn’t pulled that quickly again the rest of the year and went on to finish third in the Cy Young Award balloting. Kapler certainly will need a longer leash if Madison Bumgarner returns, but even for veterans like Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, he will need to continue to adjust. The Giants learned that in 2019 when they tried early on to limit Samardzija’s innings and exposure to opposing lineups, but instead they found that he was one of their most reliable pitchers. By the end of the year, Samardzija’s workload more closely resembled previous seasons.

[RELATED: Kapler shares his regrets from Dodgers assault controversy]

Kapler said he plans on going on a “listening tour” to find out the preferences of Giants veterans. The Phillies did that after his first season, inviting team leaders to their Florida facility to discuss things like when they would stretch before games and how they wanted pre-game work to be handled.

“Every good clubhouse that I’ve ever been a part of … players have to be part of that raising the bar, they have to be part of that accountability that takes place,” Kapler said. “They have to be active participants in that conversation, and so those are some of the things that I’ll focus on.”

How Gabe Kapler plans to accentuate strengths of Giants' veteran lineup

How Gabe Kapler plans to accentuate strengths of Giants' veteran lineup

SAN FRANCISCO — The game of baseball has changed, but if you sit with most big leaguers, particularly those who have been around a few years, you’ll hear them talk of how important traditional statistics still are. 

Hitters often point to runs and RBI, not OPS+ or WAR, and pitchers still prefer ERA and, yes, wins, to xFIP or spin rates. During the final week of the season, Giants outfielder Kevin Pillar summed it up while discussing a low on-base percentage that may impact the decision to bring him back.

“(For) as long as this game has been played, scoring runs and driving in runs is an important statistic,” Pillar said. “Last time I checked, that's how you win games, if you score more runs than the other team."

Pillar likely will play for Gabe Kapler next year, and while Kapler’s introduction largely consisted of discussing off-field issues, he did give several examples of things he has learned as a manager and executive. Kapler didn’t mention many current Giants, but at one point, asked about the ballpark, he brought up Brandon Belt, which was interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Belt is as likely as any longtime Giant to be traded before Kapler fills out his first lineup card. He has a limited no-trade clause, but it’ll be much more difficult for the new-look front office to deal other veterans if they truly want to shake it up. Belt still has plenty of fans in opposing front offices despite declining power numbers.

The second aspect was that Kapler was demonstrating how the new front office and staff might approach their evaluations of current Giants. 

"I've thought a lot about Brandon Belt and specifically what he brings -- how impressive it is to watch him take an at-bat, independent of the outcome of the at-bat. He tends to look over pitches and make really good swing-or-don't-swing decisions," Kapler said. "I know the power has dropped off a little bit but taking the things that he does very, very well and highlighting some of those things might lead to some more of that power production."

Kapler hit on what has always made Belt a polarizing player. His plate appearances are as controlled as anyone’s, and over the course of a game or series or season, there’s a lot of value in that. Every time Belt shakes his head at a pitch that was half an inch out of the zone, he’s adding to a starter’s workload and increasing his own odds of getting on base. 

Even in a disappointing season, Belt's .339 on-base percentage was the highest of any Giants regular. He ranked 15th in the National League by seeing 4.09 pitches per plate appearance, something Zaidi and Kapler's old clubs excel at. The Dodgers and Phillies ranked third and fourth in the NL, respectively, seeing 4.00 pitches per plate appearance. The Giants were ninth at 3.89. In 2018, Kapler's first year, the Phillies finished behind only the league-leading Dodgers, while the Giants ranked ninth in the league. 

[RELATED: Watch Kapler laugh at Belt for trying to bunt]

The ability to have consistently good plate appearances is something that was a focus throughout the organization in Zaidi's first year, and Kapler sure seems to be a fan. If the new staff can get some more power out of Belt, great, but if not, they still plan to focus on his strengths as a hitter. 

Kapler said that will be an emphasis with all of his players and the minor leaguers who come up. The Giants still lack in overall talent, but they believe there are ways to squeeze more juice out of this roster, regardless of what the ballpark's dimensions might do to hitters. 

"It's about instilling confidence in players for the things they do really well, and then reminding them how those positive steps forward can play in the environment that they play in specifically here in San Francisco," Kapler said.