On Oct. 1, 2017, the Giants were the Tigers and the Tigers were the Giants. They were both 64-98 and unwatchable, but it went deeper than that. The Giants had the 24th-ranked farm system, according to Baseball America; the Tigers had the 25th-ranked system. The Giants paid $ 172 million to watch all of those losses, which was the sixth-highest payroll in baseball; the Tigers paid just under $ 200 million for their losses, which was the fourth-highest payroll in baseball. Both rosters featured underperforming and expensive organizational legends. Five years after the franchises met in the World Series, there were no easy answers. There were only painful baseball games.
So when Pablo Sandoval stepped to the plate and hit a walk-off home run that day, giving the Tigers the first pick in the 2018 MLB Draft and pushing the Giants down to the second pick, it was hard not to laugh. Sandoval was on the roster because of nostalgia and vibes, which was the exact mentality the Giants needed to leave behind, and he’s the guy who prevented them from getting the best college pitcher in years? Truly funny stuff. You can picture the writers room cracking themselves up when they came up with it.
The comedy had its roots in the future. As in, there was only one possible way these two teams were going to get themselves out of the muck and the mire, and that first pick was a huge part of it. The blueprint was tried and true, and it was just about the only one available. Both teams were going to have to…
1. Tear down the entire roster, even if that meant getting rid of fan favorites.
2. Struggle for years, accumulating high draft picks along the way.
3. Turn those prospects into young, productive and low-salary major leaguers.
4. Use financial resources to sign All-Stars and expensive veterans to support those young, productive and low-salary players.
It’s what the Nationals, Astros and Cubs did to great effect, and it’s what the Tigers and Giants were going to have to do if they wanted to become relevant again.
That October 2017 fork in the road was almost perfectly placed between the 2012 World Series and the present day. It was five years after the World Series, and five years before the meeting between the two teams that will take place in San Francisco this week. The Tigers followed the blueprint perfectly. The Giants did not. One team is clearly in a better position, and it’s not the one we would have expected.
Fill the DeLorean up with garbage and take it back to 2017, then tell Giants fans that Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt are still in the lineup. Then tell them that the last homegrown first-round pick to earn a single Win Above Replacement for the Giants is still Joe Panik, whereas the Tigers opened the 2022 season with one first pick in the rotation and another first pick in the middle of the lineup . Ask them which team is contending.
The Tigers followed the familiar path. The Giants did the exact opposite, even after turning over the entire front office and coaching staff. This series might be the perfect way to remember that baseball rebuilds are never simple and predictable. Or it might be a way to appreciate that the Giants are one of the strangest baseball stories in recent memory.
Here are the highest-WAR players for the Tigers since the start of 2018:
WAR with Tigers, 2018-present
And here are the highest-WAR players for the Giants during that same period:
WAR with Giants, 2018-present
The Giants ’players have been far more valuable, on average, which you would expect from their recent records, but the Tigers absolutely mop the floor with the Giants when it comes to players who were acquired in the way that rebuilding teams typically acquire players. Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, Jeimer Candelario and Michael Fulmer were all acquired in deadline deals, with the Tigers trading their best players to contending teams. Spencer Turnbull and Tyler Alexander were both second-round picks. These are the kinds of players who were expected to turn the Tigers into contenders, along with some first picks and aggressive spending.
The closest the Giants came to that kind of success in a traditional rebuilding sense was with Mauricio Dubón, who was acquired in a deadline deal and would have ranked 25th on the list, had it extended that far. Even though the Tigers might have screwed up with the trades they didn’t make – they should have traded Boyd, who just happened to sign with the Giants this offseason – they’ve still done better than the Giants in terms of a traditional rebuild since the end of the 2018 season.
The Giants, meanwhile, had two very distinct, very different methods of returning a team to contention. They found undervalued players for free or close to it, and they did it all over the roster. And they took players the previous regime left behind and made them productive, whether it was again or for the first time. That’s it, that’s the secret sauce. It seems obvious now because we’ve had time to get used to it, but try to remember what it was like back in October 2017. Nobody was saying, “What this franchise needs is someone to come in here and make Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey better, dang it. They need someone who can recognize the value in Austin Slater and Evan Longoria, and then they need to scrounge around and find some minor-league free agents and broken pitchers to fix. ”
That would have sounded like madness, pure Lovecraftian madness. The Giants needed to lose for years, and they needed to develop superstars with the high draft picks they accumulated. They needed to trade the veterans away, even if it meant eating millions and millions of dollars in salary, and they needed to Play the Young Guys ™. And after they had diligently followed this blueprint, they were going to reward their fans by spending, spending, spending on All-Stars.
Which is exactly what the Tigers did.
You can’t blame Giants fans for thinking this was the way out, though. The golden era of Giants baseball happened because the team nailed three consecutive first-round picks in a way that baseball teams almost never do. And once they got to that point in the success cycle, they started spending money to support those homegrown players. There were twists and turns along the way, but the general blueprint was familiar. If the Giants were going to win again, they were going to have to lose enough to get high draft picks, which they could turn into the next Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt. They weren’t supposed to win years later with the current Posey, Crawford and Belt.
Monday, I wrote about the lack of player development on the pitching side and how that relates to the recent struggles from three-fifths of their rotation. I stand by it, but you can also read it and whittle it down to get a whiny thesis that starts with, “Sure, the Giants have been great at sourcing valuable players from inside and outside the organization, young and old, through trades, waiver claims and modest free-agent contracts, but have you noticed what they are haven’t done right yet? ”
Here’s a call to appreciate that stuff one last time before moving on, then. The symmetry between the Tigers and Giants at the end of the 2017 season was almost perfect. The asymmetric paths they’ve taken since then couldn’t be more different. One of them worked, and the other one didn’t. This isn’t to suggest that this series is a foregone conclusion – we just watched the Reds maul the Giants – but that these two franchises have mortally wounded the one-rebuild-fits-all philosophy.
The 2012 Giants and 2012 Tigers were at the top of the baseball world. The 2017 Giants and 2017 Tigers were at the bottom. Five years later, the two franchises have finally separated from each other, and I’m still in disbelief when it comes to how. You don’t have to feel guilty about it, but having at least a little guilt would be the polite thing to do. It just wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
(Photo of the Giants and Tigers from July 6, 2017: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)