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.

Gabe Kapler's relationship with Giants' clubhouse must be focal point

Gabe Kapler's relationship with Giants' clubhouse must be focal point

Gabe Kapler’s tenure in Philadelphia wasn’t met with much in the way of brotherly love.

Kapler was fired after just two seasons in Philadelphia, both of which saw the Phillies fail to reach the postseason.

Now officially minted as the newest manager of the Giants, NBC Sports Philadelphia Phillies Insider Jim Salisbury spoke about Kapler’s tenure and how it ended for the 44-year-old.

“I’m sure Gabe learned a lot, because a lot of things went wrong,” Phillies Insider Jim Salisbury said on SportsNet Central on Tuesday night. “Failure can be a great teacher.”

An overall record just below .500 (161-163) doesn’t necessarily evoke abject failure, but Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi made sure to cover all his bases (I’m sorry, it’s late) in learning about Kapler’s time in eastern Pennsylvania. 

One thing the front office liked, in particular, was the reviews from players who had operated under Kapler.

“Players like Gabe a lot,” Salisbury said. “ And I think the reason they do is he lets them do whatever they want.” 

Although Kapler’s leadership style resonated with his roster in Philadelphia, he had a much stronger connection to Phillies’ management than he did with his own dugout. 

“I always thought in Philadelphia, he bonded a lot better with the front office than he did with the clubhouse,” Salisbury said. “I didn’t think they always played for him, but I think he always responded to what the front office wanted.”

[RELATED: Zaidi addresses Kapler controversy after Giants hire him]

Joining an old co-worker in Zaidi likely will make that transition a lot smoother for Kapler, but it remains to be seen how players in the Giants’ clubhouse respond to a very different style of manager from three-time World Series champion Bruce Bochy.

More on Kapler from NBC Sports Philadelphia

Leadership issues led to Kapler's firing
Kapler's reactions on final day of Phillies season
Bryce Harper's thoughts on Kapler's future
Kapler and Velasquez have miscommunication

Why Farhan Zaidi tied his, Giants' fortunes to new manager Gabe Kapler

Why Farhan Zaidi tied his, Giants' fortunes to new manager Gabe Kapler

SAN FRANCISCO -- The best way to get through life on social media is to never check the mentions, but a lot of Giants employees couldn't help themselves over the past month.

The franchise's search for a new manager was mostly quiet outside of the building, but occasionally a scrap of information would leak out, and Giants fans were not shy about making their opinions known about one particular candidate. Team employees found themselves gravitating toward Twitter, reading some of the reaction.

Gabe Kapler was the favorite when the Giants started this process more than a month ago, and in the end, he was Farhan Zaidi's choice.

Zaidi and Andrew Friedman nearly hired Kapler as the manager in Los Angeles before settling on Dave Roberts, but given a second chance, the Giants' president of baseball operations is tying a large part of his own future to Kapler, whom the Phillies fired last month after two seasons.

This perhaps is the biggest decision Zaidi will make over the course of his initial five-year contract with the Giants, and it's one he did not at all take lightly.

The Giants knew Kapler would be a controversial choice, and sources say there was division at the upper levels of the organization about which way they should go. As the finish line neared, Kapler came back to San Francisco.

"He has met with everybody we have," one Giants person said Monday.

There are team employees who preferred Astros bench coach Joe Espada and a path with less baggage, but in the end, this was Zaidi's choice, and it needed to be.

When the Giants brought Zaidi up from LA a year ago, they handed him the keys to the baseball operations department. You can't do that, and then keep him from making his own decision with his most important hire.

Zaidi was deliberate, interviewing two internal candidates and a handful of rising coaches from other organizations. As of Monday afternoon, some of his coworkers believed Zaidi truly had not made up his mind, but the search kept coming back to Kapler.

The reasons for optimism are clear. Kapler is known as a good communicator, and he was a rising star while with the Dodgers. The Giants believe they need changes across all levels, and Kapler helped modernize the Dodgers while serving as director of player development. While he went 161-163 as the manager in Philadelphia, Kapler does have two years of experience and hopefully has learned from his mistakes. Zaidi has publicly talked of the boost a manager can get the second time around.

Kapler certainly has the résumé that can help overhaul a Giants clubhouse that had become stale. He played a dozen years in the big leagues, and that carries significant weight. His time working in the minors should serve him well, as he takes over a team that used 64 players in 2019 and expects to bring in plenty of prospects over the next two years.

But there also are reasons why you'd be ratioed with the mere mention of Kapler as a front-runner. There are questions about the way he handled assault allegations against Dodgers prospects while in LA, and Kapler and his bosses will have to answer those as he's introduced Wednesday. Zaidi gave his initial thoughts Tuesday night, but he'll likely have to address it again. Kapler will, too.

[RELATED: Krukow explains why he likes Kapler's hiring]

Ultimately, this decision will be judged on wins and losses, and Kapler is coming off a rough finish in Philadelphia. The Phillies had plenty of injuries, but they went 81-81 and finished fourth in the NL East after adding Bryce Harper.

The Giants have been worse than that in recent years, of course. That's why they brought in Zaidi and tasked him with overhauling the organization. They gave him the keys and trusted him to make the right decisions.

The first year was mostly positive, with the big league roster showing strides and the farm system hinting that it might get this team back to contention sooner than expected. This is the start of Zaidi's second year with the Giants, so he took a big swing, giving Kapler a three-year contract. Starting Wednesday, when they'll stand side by side at Oracle Park, they'll try to prove it was the right decision.

The easiest way to do that is one that worked for the previous regime. Win, and win big.

More on Kapler from NBC Sports Philadelphia

Leadership issues led to Kapler's firing by Phillies 
Kapler's reactions on final day of Phillies season
Bryce Harper's thoughts on Kapler's future
Kapler, Velasquez have miscommunication