Plans change. That’s the best thing about them. Inflexible thought is kindling, and only the adroit bully survives. Kawhi Leonard changed the topography of the NBA by winning a championship. Anthony Davis changed it by crushing New Orleans’s hope before the first national anthem was shrieked. And Madison Bumgarner ... well, it’s hard to tell exactly how much he is going to change, because he and his pals in San Francisco have decided at the last minute to interfere with their bosses’ grand plan for a name-your-price garage sale.
That’s what winning completely out of context and against long-range corporate planning will get you.
The Giants had been among the most tedious and difficult watches in the game for months March, April, May and June: old, slow, offensively inert and prospect-free. They’d overturned their baseball operations department, then they lost their CEO Larry Baer to permanent invisibility when a public altercation with his wife over his cellphone caused his suspension and replacement. They vomited up their first half with record-setting low scoring, batting average, and ancillary metrics, creating a team as dull and hopeless as the Tigers and Marlins and yes, even the Orioles.
Back then—I mean, the end of June as “back then” is a pretty ridiculous reference point, but that’s where we are—new baseball overlord Farhan Zaidi knew that Bumgarner and closer Will Smith were his tradable chips and he knew there would be a seller’s market for both. The truck would be backed up and the cleanout would begin; a new general manager’s happiest task for a franchise that had imprisoned itself in the trappings of three very old parades.
Then it happened. The Giants started scoring (they have the most runs in baseball in July, 6.8 per game), and they started winning close games (three extra-inning wins over the Mets this weekend, five in the month and seven one-run wins overall), winning (they have gone 14-3 since the first of the month), and Bumgarner’s so-so season became brilliant-ish. More to the point, he went from a sure trade piece to maybe kinda sorta keepable as his team has gone from a Miamiesque 14th to a tie for eighth today, only 2 1/2 games south of the National League’s modest wild card line.
And now Zaidi has nine days to figure out whether his team has earned the right to go for it, or just go.
Bumgarner is the key, clearly, because in the new world order, nothing in sports matters but the trade deadline, unless it’s the free agency period or the transfer window. The games are becoming a nuisance. It is one of the reasons why the asteroids and meteors should tag-team our asses sooner rather than later, but that’s a writing-for-money exercise for another day. We’re talking about Bumgarner, a weighty chip in an otherwise blah trade market on a team that needs every prospect he can fetch.
Consider, while you’re at it alphabetizing those empties by your night table, that Bumgarner has increased his desirability to the One-More-Pitcher crowd (Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Milwaukee, Minnesota, the newly rapacious Yankees) by lessening the chance that the Giants will hang him on the market. One team on the bubble could die there even if the Giants don’t make the postseason, and some general manager will be declared feckless and unambitious as a result. This presents Zaidi, whose job is new and therefore safe, with his first screwed-when-you-do/hosed-if-you-don’t moment, the non-mob equivalent of making one’s bones while dancing on someone else’s.
And to that we say, “Yes, please.” It’s not Kawhi-level chess, but it approaches socialist roulette, and we’ll take that as baseball’s first foray into the brave new world.
Zaidi began as a hyperkinetic seller. He treated the transaction wire like Tinder in search of anyone who could perform at replacement level for Bruce Bochy’s final season. At the same time, his reputation as a baseball thinker had been pre-formed based on how few years he needs to blow up and then revivify the franchise, and that includes moving the right field fences at iconic old What’s This Place Named This Week Park.
Against that dynamic, Baer’s replacement as the investors’ front man, Rob Dean, is getting a sense of a freshly energized fan base who only needed a seemingly hopeless team winning 40 percent of their games to win 83 percent of their games to remember how much fun baseball can be. Does he want to be a buzzkill, or at the very least approve of Zaidi being one, in his first seven months on the job? You only get to make one first impression, and in that way Dean is in as weird a place as Zaidi. Hurray potential reputational suicide! Let 5.4 million middle fingers bloom (one from each hand of the 2.7 million or so fans who watch the Giants come hell or more hell)!
In short, the Giants are winning at an unsustainable pace at the very worst time for their long-term plan, and with only nine days to figure out who, what and why they are before the voices in Zaidi’s head just start shouting at each other, Are you the dreamer or the killjoy? Are you buying the next round of throwable beers or are you calling the cops on the party? And is this a party you want to host?
And if THAT isn’t the kind of thing potential young baseball fans can get behind (“Why is that dude with the glasses pulling off his own head by the dugout? Is a cranial plasma shower just really cool marketing?”), then the game is beyond repair.
Zaidi has to watch his reluctant juggernaut play the Cubs this week before going to San Diego for the fading Padres and Philadelphia for whatever the Phillies are next week. Bumgarner pitches Tuesday and then next Tuesday with all the contenders drinking from his dog’s dish. If this is the new baseball—win today or blow it to bits—I think it can survive at least until the planet is bombarded into lifeless oblivion. Maybe even 10 years.
Ray Ratto likes it when grand long-term plans inspired and executed by people who work in offices go completely to hell before our eyes, and so do the rest of you.