The trade deadline came and went with the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants doing nothing. The 2013 season has been, to use a charitable word, disappointing for the Giants and their fans. The team wisely decided not to pretend they were in contention and deplete an already weak farm system to acquire a veteran who almost certainly would not lead them to the playoffs anyway. Interestingly, the team also decided not to trade any of their veterans in exchange for prospects who could help them in 2014 or beyond.
The two names around whom the most rumors circulated were pitcher Tim Lincecum and outfielder Hunter Pence. Both these players are fan favorites, free agents after this season ends and, at least for now, still valuable Giants. Keeping Lincecum and Pence makes sense if the Giants are planning to resign them both after the season, but there is no guarantee that another team will offer them enough money to go elsewhere. The Giants gave up the chance to bring in useful prospects for a shot at resigning these two players. Lincecum, in particular, is an interesting case because after a very poor 2012 and a rough start in 2013, he has settled down, in recent starts, and become a very good pitcher again.
The trade deadline is usually accompanied by a heated discussion of which teams should be buyers and sellers. The Giants ended up being neither. This may have been the right decision, particularly because off the field considerations cannot be ignored, and often the team on the field as well. The Giants management undoubtedly knows the team is not making the playoffs this year; while recognizing they have some valuable players who could have been moved. However, the Giants are also a team that has won two out of the last three World Series, is carefully building a successful national brand, and is in a battle with the Oakland A's concerning the future of big league baseball in the Bay Area. This clearly framed their thinking as well.
Because Lincecum and Pence are still contributors with no potential replacements from the farm system near to being ready, trading either of these two players, particularly Lincecum who is one of the faces of the franchise, would he have sent a message not only that the Giants were writing off 2013, but were probably doing the same for 2014 as well. This could create problems for a team that still sells out every game and has more fans around the country than in any time in their history. The Giants are seeking to become a team with a national following, like the Yankees or Red Sox, not a team like the Marlins that wins some years and then breaks up the team and is terrible in others.
The Timmy-Cain-Panda-Posey-Bumgarner Giants may never win another championship, but keeping that nucleus together is smart economic thinking and good for the Giants. If the Giants resign Lincecum and Pence, they will be poised to be a strong contending team in 2014, especially if they are able to add an above average hitting outfielder or a league average starting pitcher. It is unlikely that any trade of those two players would have left the team a similarly strong position for 2014.
This year, despite playing poorly on the field, there have been some bright spots for the Giants. Madison Bumgarner has emerged as an ace. Lincecum has been much better than he was in 2012. The Brandon Brothers, Belt and Crawford, have proven to be among the best in the league at their respective positions and, Buster Posey, has solidified his position as one of the best players in the game. There have also been disappointing developments. Pablo Sandoval has continued to be erratic. Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres have both shown they are overmatched as full-time players; and the starting pitching has been far from dominant.
In an era where player development and retaining young players through their best years are have become more important while high impact free agent signings and picking up star players for the stretch run have become more rare, teams have to view their position as the trade deadline approaches differently. Clearly going into both 2011 and 2013, the Giants overestimated their chances based on a strong post-season run, but significantly, by not giving up on the core of Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner,Sergio Romo, Posey and Sandoval after or during a disappointing 2011, they made the 2012 championship possible. A similar decision last month may lead to success in 2014 or 2015.