How Madison Bumgarner's free agency fits into Giants' current rebuild

How Madison Bumgarner's free agency fits into Giants' current rebuild

SAN FRANCISCO -- Madison Bumgarner thought about the question for about 15 seconds, his face scrunching up as he prepared to give an answer. On the final weekend of the Giants season, he had been asked to pinpoint the one factor that would be most important to his decision as he hit free agency for the first time. 

Location? Average annual salary? Years? Coaching staff? An ability to compete in 2020? Finally, Bumgarner spoke. 

"What kind of question is that?" he said, laughing. 

It's the one that might define the offseason in San Francisco, but it somehow has flown under the radar. The Giants have to hire a manager and a general manager and rebuild a lineup that is allergic to scoring runs at Oracle Park, where they'll change the dimensions of the outfield, but at some point they'll have to confront the Bumgarner question, deciding whether they truly want him back and how far they're willing to go. On the other side, Bumgarner, free to talk to all 30 teams for the first time, will do the same. 

The assumption throughout much of the organization, at least at the start of the offseason, is that a fresh start is slightly more likely than a reunion. If that proves to be the case it will be remarkably jarring for a fan base that has grown accustomed to Forever Giants. Bumgarner is not just someone who was part of the championship era and wore orange and black for a long time. He dragged the franchise to a title in 2014 and was a big piece the previous two runs. 

In the five years since he came out of the bullpen at Kauffman Stadium, Bumgarner has watched Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Hunter Pence, Joe Panik and so many others depart. Buster Posey and the Brandons have slowed down. Bumgarner isn't the same pitcher he was at his peak, but he still has been the one the rest of the clubhouse lines up behind, and he still is the draw for much of the fan base. 

If there was any doubt about that for Farhan Zaidi and the rebuilt front office, the final weekend of the season provided a reminder. First came confusion and outrage from much of the fan base as the Giants decided Bumgarner would not start Game 162. Then came the ovation, one that had many who were there that day thinking they were watching a player say goodbye.

For his part, Bumgarner never framed it that way. He said repeatedly throughout the season that he would like to be back, but he's just as savvy off the mound as he is on it, and in informal conversations throughout the summer, Bumgarner explored his potential market. He knows there are contenders on the East Coast with pitching needs. He knows the young Padres lack a veteran ace. He knows the Braves, the team closest to his North Carolina home will call early. 

That last part is the greatest concern to any Giants officials looking for a reunion. Per league sources, the Braves have made Bumgarner a priority and planned to quickly communicate that to the left-hander. Atlanta sniffed around before the trade deadline and they are the clear favorite if Bumgarner does end up elsewhere. 

The Braves just watched the rival Nationals win the World Series with starting pitching, including Patrick Corbin, who got six years and $140 million last offseason. The left-hander should provide a nice target for Bumgarner and his representatives. Corbin was 29 when he signed, and while he had a good walk year, the rest of his career is not nearly as decorated.

Bumgarner had a 3.90 ERA in 2018, the highest of his career, but he threw 207 innings, led the NL in starts, and struck out nearly five times as many batters as he walked. Bumgarner's splits -- a 5.29 ERA on the road -- will be a concern for suitors, and he comes with a qualifying offer that would impact a team's draft picks, but he can put together a strong case as a free agent. He is durable, having missed time with just two freak injuries, and has shown an ability to change with the times. Bumgarner throws his curveball more than he used to and relies more heavily on a four-seamer that's velocity has remained consistent. It's been years since he was lighting up radar guns, but his four-seamer averaged 91.4 mph in 2019, a half-tick up from the year before. 

In assessing Bumgarner, ESPN's Jeff Passan compared him to Jon Lester, who signed a $155 million deal with the Cubs in 2014 -- the Giants famously "did not get a rose" -- and has lived up to it in his thirties despite diminished stuff. 

Speaking generally about starters past the age of 30, Zaidi said that he looks for that kind of adaptability. He pointed out that the Dodgers made a big offer to Zack Greinke in 2015, confident that his changeup and "pitchability" would allow him to succeed as he aged. Greinke, now 36, signed with the Diamondbacks instead, made three All-Star teams, and nearly won a Game 7 last month for the Astros. 

"I think with somebody like Madison, for us and for other teams, that's going to be the question," Zaidi said. "I do think he's shown the ability to adapt and pitch in different ways and pitch with different pitches. I think he's a guy who will continue to have success."

Zaidi's Dodgers reportedly offered Greinke nearly $160 million, and the ownership group Zaidi now works for in San Francisco had that beat. They'll now collectively have to decide how they value Bumgarner, who means much more to the organization and fan base than whatever statistics he might put up late in his career. Bumgarner has his own process to sort through. 

[RELATED: Krukow believes Giants, Zaidi aren't on five-year plan]

He pitched on a below-market deal for most of his time in San Francisco, but never once complained. Still, sources close to the pitcher say there will be no hometown discount, not after the Giants paid most of their core but never locked up their ace. 

The Giants didn't come particularly close to a long-term deal with Bumgarner after what he did in 2014, and he'll now get to figure out what's most important to him as he prepares for the rest of his career. Where does Bumgarner want to play? Regardless of what else happens, it's the most intriguing question of this Giants offseason.

Madison Bumgarner admits he has rodeo alias, competed while on Giants


Madison Bumgarner admits he has rodeo alias, competed while on Giants

Madison Bumgarner no longer is a Giant, but his legend keeps growing. 

The longtime San Francisco left-hander signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks in free agency this winter after a decade-long orange-and-black tenure defined by epic postseason performances, horseback rides into the Oracle Park outfield and the revelation he once dated a girl named Madison Bumgarner. His latest disclosure undoubtedly tops the list.

The Athletic's Zach Buchanan and Andrew Baggarly revealed Sunday that Bumgarner has competed in multiple rodeos under the alias "Mason Saunders," and "Saunders" confirmed it was all true in an interview with the outlet. 

“Oh boy,” Bumgarner told Buchanan and Baggarly when they showed Bumgarner a photo of him from a Dec. 3 rodeo where he won $26,560 in a team-roping competition. “This is ruining my alias.”

The photo was taken just under two weeks before Bumgarner signed with the Diamondbacks, and the ace also admitted he competed in an event in March 2019 while he was still with the Giants. That event, according to Buchanan and Baggarly, came two days before he made a start in Spring Training against the Oakland A's and just under two years after the Giants placed him on the disabled list following an off-day dirt-bike accident in Denver.

Bumgarner missed nearly three months that season, making just 17 starts. He did tell the Wrangler Network in 2014 that he ropes right-handed, however, and he told Buchanan and Baggarly that the alias was more about avoiding attention than keeping secrets from his former and current employers.

He used an alias, but this is still ultra-competitive Madison Bumgarner we're talking about. 

“No matter what hobbies I have, I take ‘em serious,” Bumgarner told Buchanan and Baggarly. “That’s just my personality. I don’t do anything just for fun, per se. I wish I did.”

[RELATED: Top Giants prospect Hjelle lights it up in his spring debut]

Bumgarner will make his first visit to Oracle Park since signing a five-year, $85 million contract with Arizona on April 6 when the Diamondbacks visit San Francisco for a four-game set. 

Some bitter Giants fans might relish the chance to address the 30-year-old and the horse he rode out on, but they probably didn't know how real the euphemism was until Buchanan and Baggarly got the scoop.

Giants prospect Sean Hjelle shines, lights up radar gun in spring debut

Giants prospect Sean Hjelle shines, lights up radar gun in spring debut

MESA, Ariz. -- With the Giants nursing a one-run lead in the eighth inning Sunday, manager Gabe Kapler called right-handed prospect Luis Madero into the game. As Madero faced the A's, Sean Hjelle started warming up in the bullpen. Kapler saw Hjelle getting loose and called down to make sure he knew he was getting the ninth, not part of the eighth. 

"He was the one pitcher today who got loose before we told him to get loose," Kapler said, smiling. 

The 22-year-old, picked one round after Joey Bart in the 2018 draft, was excited to make his spring debut for the big league club and hid any butterflies. Hjelle is known for standing 6-foot-11 and having uncanny command and body control for a pitcher that size. But he came out throwing 95 mph and bumped 96 in a perfect inning, closing out a 5-3 win that clinched Kapler's first handshake line in orange and black. 

"As much as we're excited by his stuff, we're also excited by him pounding the strike zone," Kapler said. "That's certainly encouraging to see him come out there in this situation, certainly a nerve-wracking situation, and fill up the zone with his fastball."

Hjelle, the organization's top pitching prospect, reached Double-A last season and could debut this year. It was one inning and he was amped up, but the ceiling certainly will get a bit higher if he's sitting 95 in the future instead of the low 90s. The Giants always have felt there was more velocity in that massive frame. 

Here are four more observations from the first 18 innings of the Kapler Era ... 

--- There was a new whiteboard up in the clubhouse this morning with a bunch of circles and a spot for each game this spring. A photo of a beaming Austin Slater was glued inside the first circle, making him the "baserunning BOSS" from Saturday's game. The Giants have put a heavy emphasis on leads and turns this spring and the new staff has identified that as one area they can gain an edge. One player will be recognized after every game. 

We'll see if it works. This isn't a roster with much speed, but guys were aggressive Sunday and it led to a couple runs. Kapler credited first base coach Antoan Richardson for his work thus far. 

"We really want them to push the envelope," he said. 

--- Kapler has been hesitant to offer many public criticisms, but when asked about Derek Rodriguez the other day, he immediately mentioned that the staff needed to see more velocity from the starter/reliever heading into his third season. Rodriguez's average fastball dropped from 91.6 to 90.7 year over year. Rodriguez pumped a few 93s in his first inning of the spring and generally sat at 92, a positive sign this early.

"The first day of the spring, I'm happy about that," he said. 

Rodriguez said he took just two weeks off in the offseason -- to plan for his wedding -- and then got to work on mechanical changes. He made three Winter League starts and was encouraged by how he felt there. 

--- When Max Muncy came up early in Saturday's game, Evan Longoria shifted over to the right side but he didn't stand where he would last year. Longoria played kind of behind the first baseman, with Donovan Solano playing up the middle behind the bag. Last year the Giants had Longoria shift over between the second baseman and shortstop; this year he's between the second baseman and first baseman. It makes a lot more sense this way, allowing the actual second baseman to stay close to the bag where he might have to make a turn.

[RELATED: How might the Giants use 26th roster spot?]

--- Some early standouts, aside from Mauricio Dubon and Joey Bart, who homered Saturday: Matt Carasiti, a non-roster invite who struck out the side in his lone inning and got A.J. Pollock and Kiké Hernandez ... Abiatal Avelino, who hit a laser onto the berm in left on Sunday ... Kean Wong, who had two hits and showed his speed ... Finally, Rob Brantly, who has brought constant energy to camp and capped Sunday's game by yelling "Never in doubt!" as the Giants celebrated a spring win. Every team needs a quirky backup catcher, right?