2013 is turning into a tough season for the San Francisco Giants. With the season almost half over, they are struggling to stay at .500. Some may blame this on injuries, as key players like Ryan Vogelsong, Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan have spent significant time on the disabled list, but this explanation only goes so far. The Giants are also having problems because of a starting pitching staff that is no longer among the very best in baseball and an offense that while better than many think, still hits relatively few home runs.
This year, the Giants are a respectable 6th in the NL in runs scored, but 14th in home runs. It probably comes as a surprise to most fans to learn that the Giants ERA of 4.07 thus far in 2013 is only the 11th best in their league. The Giants play in a ballpark that favors pitching so they are probably an even better offensive team, and weaker pitching team than these numbers suggest.
The Giants are in an interesting position. They have won two of the last three World Series relying heavily on pitching, and particularly in 2012, a very under-appreciated offense. However, that pitching is no longer such an advantage. Even Madison Bumgarner, who most Giants fans would recognize as the team's best pitcher this year, is only 7-4 with a 3.20 ERA. In today's game playing in AT&T park as a home field, that is only good for an ERA+ of 105, meaning only slightly better than league average. Furthermore, while the difficulties confronting two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum have been the source of a good deal of public concern, it is not clear that Matt Cain, Barry Zito or the now injured Vogelsong have been much better this year.
The Giants are also a team that is very much built for the present. The decision to resign Pagan and Marco Scutaro, two valuable but aging players, makes this clear. The Giants have almost no top prospects poised to become big impact players or who could be swapped for a top flight late season addition. Instead, they have a core of under 30-year-old players developed by their farm system in recent years, who range from good to among the very best in the game, that their farm system has produced in recent years. Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, Sandoval, Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, and at 30, the old man of the group Sergio Romo, give the Giants a very solid base of talent. The problem the Giants have is that adding to that base, given their lack of top prospects and the changing nature of the free agent market, will be very difficult.
This creates problems for the Giants, but also reflects how the game has changed in recent years. Because many good young players, not least the Giants own Posey and Cain, have been signed to long-term contracts, free agency does not offer what it did even five years ago. Additionally, because of the expanded playoff system, with two wild cards, there are even fewer teams who are out of contention, and thus in positions to be sellers as the trading deadline approaches. With fully a third of all teams making the post-season, and a widespread sense that anything can happen in the post-season, not as many teams are willing to give up on the season in mid-July as was the case even five years ago.
In recent years contending teams, and even non-contending big market teams, went into the season with the understanding that their roster on the last day of the season would look substantially different from the roster with which they opened the season. This has become less accurate and will likely continue to become less true over the next few seasons. Five years ago, the New York Yankees, for example, a team that was hovering around contention but had ample holes to fill would easily pluck a few free agents to be or overpriced but still valuable veterans from teams during July. This year that probably will not happen.
Given the new structures and trends in baseball, player development may be more important than ever, but player development takes time. Between 2007-2011, the Giants had a very productive farm system, but have hit a bit of a downturn. That may change in the future, but is unlikely to change in the immediate future. Teams like the Giants who are looking to improve mid-season may look less to make big trades for name players and more towards adding international players or trying to bring players out of retirement, but as quick fixes these are less reliable and more difficult than simply trading for a player approaching free agency was in the past.