USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale discusses the MLB landscape following the non-waiver trade deadline.
USA TODAY Sports
After 2½ seasons of pretending to contend, the Oakland Athletics have committed to a full rebuild.
Some San Francisco Giants fans are starting to wish their club would take that step.
A four-game home-and-home set between the two Bay Area rivals will begin and end this week with the clubs in the same spot – last in their respective divisions. Never before since interleague play began in 1997 had they met as cellar-dwellers, and their prospects for climbing out in the final two months of the season appear dim.
But whereas the A’s are focused on building from the ground up – quite literally, with their plans tied to the construction of a new ballpark – the Giants are thinking in terms of remodeling, fixing some cracks here and there but leaving the foundation intact.
The success of those endeavors may determine whether the local baseball hierarchy undergoes a major shift once again.
When these teams met in the 1989 World Series, the A’s were clearly the more successful franchise, regularly drawing well over 2 million fans per season and playing for the championship three years in a row, while the Giants mostly languished at wind-swept Candlestick Park.
Now it’s the A’s who are stuck in an antiquated and unloved facility, the Oakland Coliseum, while the Giants have become a model franchise, winning three World Series this decade and routinely selling out picturesque AT&T Park.
The current season has unexpectedly thrust both clubs onto the same path. Whereas Oakland was coming off back-to-back last-place finishes and didn’t figure to make much noise in the American League West, San Francisco brought back much of the same group that made the playoffs in 2016, its fourth postseason appearance in seven years, and looked like a challenger in the National League West.
A combination of rampant underperformance, Madison Bumgarner’s prolonged absence and the malaise created by the persistent losing has sunk the Giants to unprecedented depths in the San Francisco era. They entered the A’s series 35 games behind first place, their largest deficit since 1946, or 12 years before moving west.
Only once in a franchise history that began in New York in 1883 have the Giants incurred triple-digit losses. The 1980 team went 62-100. This edition is on pace to go 61-101. Since last year’s All-Star break, when San Francisco had the majors’ best record, the team has gone 71-110.
“Culturally it’s been tough. Guys are used to being in contention and winning,’’ said Giants president and CEO Larry Baer, who points to a “cascading effect’’ from the losing as a contributing factor to the downfall. “There’s going to have to be some things done on the field, but we don’t believe we tear the whole thing down to the studs and do a five-year rebuild.’’
There has been some local clamor for a significant rejuvenation as the team has looked old and listless, with mainstays like Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt among the position players, and Johnny Cueto, Matt Moore and Jeff Samardzija among the starting pitchers, enduring sub-par years.
Even Buster Posey’s All-Star-caliber season has been lessened by his modest run production, as he went into Thursday night’s game with a mere 47 RBI. Bumgarner has pitched well since his July 15 return and sports a 2.92 ERA in eight starts but only one win.
San Francisco was off to a 6-10 start when the former World Series MVP injured his pitching shoulder and some ribs on April 20 in a dirt-bike accident outside of Denver. By the time he came back, the Giants were buried at 35-56.
“It’s hard to put a number on the value of an ace like him and what he brings,’’ Posey said. “Obviously there’s those days he’s out there, but also the psychological aspect of it that other teams know, ‘Hey, we don’t have to face Bumgarner.’ I think that plays into the equation as well.’’
On the offensive side, the Giants have been left behind by baseball’s power revolution. At a time when the game is headed for a record total of home runs, San Francisco is the only club yet to reach triple digits for the season, and it’s not even close at 85.
That can only be partially blamed on AT&T Park suppressing the longball. The Coliseum across the bay is not particularly friendly to hitters, yet Oakland ranks a respectable 11th in the majors with 148 homers.
“Power is really dominating the game now, especially teams that are winning,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “That’s something we have talked about. Do we need to tweak this offense a little bit? … It’s nice to have two or three guys in there who are power threats.’’
Baer acknowledges the Giants need more pop in the lineup and an influx of young talent, which has largely been missing this year as the farm system has failed to produce impact contributors. But he also notes the nucleus of the club should be in its prime. Pence, 34, and center fielder Denard Span, 33, are the only two regulars older than 30.
Moreover, Belt, Crawford, Samardzija and Cueto (provided he doesn’t opt out this offseason, which now looks unlikely) are tied to hefty long-term contracts that would be hard to move. The team is banking on bounce-back seasons from them as well as Pence and Span, who will be in the final year of their deals, instead of planning to engage in a massive makeover.
“The model is win and develop at the same time,’’ Baer said. “But there are no guarantees. If you do the tear-down model, there are guarantees. The only guarantee is you’re going to be bad for a few years.’’
The A’s have fit that description since breaking apart the 2014 club, which made the playoffs for a third year in a row. In trading away the likes of future MVP Josh Donaldson, plus fellow All-Stars Samardzija, Derek Norris, Brandon Moss and Scott Kazmir, the A’s attempted to remain relevant while keeping the payroll typically low. They only succeeded in the latter endeavor.
Oakland finished in last place in 2015 and ’16, losing more than 90 games each year for the first time since Billy Beane took over as general manager after the 1997 season, and finally embraced a full-fledged revamping by trading pitchers Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson in the second half of July. The A’s also have been promoting prospects like third baseman Matt Chapman, utilityman Chad Pinder, catcher Bruce Maxwell, outfielder Jaycob Brugman and pitchers Daniel Gossett and Paul Blackburn.
“I think we’re pretty clear about the direction we’ve been going the last couple of weeks,’’ Beane said. “We’re getting younger and hopefully the next cycle is one that we maintain these players, and I think that’s the goal here.’’
That goal is supposed to coincide with the opening of a long-desired new ballpark. The A’s have vowed to announce a location and timeline before the year is over, and they continue to explore sites in Oakland, where they intend to remain as the only major pro sports team in the next decade as the NFL’s Raiders and NBA’s Golden State Warriors fulfill plans to leave.
There’s lingering skepticism among fellow owners about John Fisher’s willingness to invest in a risky, costly venture like a ballpark, considering he has operated the A’s on the cheap since purchasing them in 2005. The club’s failure to retain its top players as they got more expensive has been a significant source of frustration among the fans.
Despite operating in the nation’s sixth-largest media market along with the Giants, the A’s have been recipients in Major League Baseball’s revenue-sharing plan because of their outmoded stadium. However, they’re getting phased out starting this year, with their share down to 75% – still in the neighborhood of $30 million – and dwindling to 50%, 25% and zero in the next three years.
That arrangement was built into the new collective bargaining agreement to induce the club to step up its pursuit of a new stadium.
Team president Dave Kaval, who joined the A’s in November as the point man for the ballpark search, said the efforts to pick from one of three sites are ongoing but would not specify a date for the announcement.
Kaval emphasized the stadium would be “100% privately financed,’’ and ideally it would open just as the team is peaking.
“Our on-field plan is completely consistent and congruent with our ballpark plan,’’ Kaval said, “where we’re working toward establishing a nucleus of good, young baseball players that we can take into the new building and that can be under contract, so people will know the players on the team. That’s something we haven’t done in the past.’’
But exactly when that might happen remains as elusive as first place for the A’s and Giants this season.
Ortiz reported from San Francisco and Oakland
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