One of the great baseball quotes, one that has transcended the genre, was uttered by legendary innovator Branch Rickey, who said, “Luck is the residue of design.” It’s a shame that Rickey is no longer around to offer up a corollary for what’s going on with the San Francisco Giants.
The one thing that the Giants couldn’t afford to have happen happened Friday afternoon during San Francisco’s final game of the Cactus League season. During the third inning, the Kansas City Royals’ Whit Merrifield lined a screamer right at Madison Bumgarner, who reflexively reached up and deflected the ball with his pitching hand. The result: a broken bone and a prolonged stay on the disabled list.
Early word is that Bumgarner will have pins inserted into his left pinkie to aid the healing of a broken fifth metacarpal in his pitching hand. He’s expected to miss six to eight weeks, after which he’ll have to start his innings buildup from scratch.
The news comes on the heels of the pectoral strain that will keep fellow Giants rotation member Jeff Samardzija on the sidelines to begin the season. Samardzija is anticipated to miss three to four weeks, leaving San Francisco two key arms short in a rotation expected to be the foundation of the team.
The best-case scenario is that Samardzija misses a handful of starts and Bumgarner heals quickly and is back on the mound by, say, Memorial Day. In the meantime, the Giants will hope that they can patch together some innings from what looks like a replacement-level set of rotation options. Or worse.
It’s hard to overdramatize the impact these injuries would have on the Giants’ season if they linger. Over at fangraphs.com, the San Francisco rotation is projected for 12.0 WAR. More than half of those wins -- 3.5 for Bumgarner and 3.0 for Samardzija -- are attributed to these two pitchers.
Beyond that pair and No. 2 starter Johnny Cueto, no Giants starter is projected for an ERA of under 4.50. The replacements will come from a group that includes Derek Holland, who is well into the journeyman phase of his career, and Tyler Beede.
The overriding problem is that the 2018 Giants were not built on the depth model. The rotation is not deep, and the bullpen could be replacement level in the aggregate if closer Mark Melancon doesn’t bounce back from his injury-marred 2017 season. And the offense, which is counting on veterans Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria to boost a group that finished second to last in the National League in runs scored last season, has middling upside.
The rotation was the one position group that looked playoff caliber, if everything went according to plan and the other groups could at least play at a league-average level. That plan is quickly unraveling, with Opening Day less than a week away.
Compounding everything is the Giants’ wish to stay under the luxury tax threshold this season, making any kind of impactful addition from outside the organization unlikely, unless money can be moved or the plan to avoid the tax is abandoned. According to Cot’s Contracts, the Giants currently project to be about $187,000 over the threshold.
The Giants begin the season next week with a four-game series on the home field of their archrivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They return home to face the NL East champion Washington Nationals for three games, with the Dodgers paying a three-game visit to AT&T Park right after that.
Suffice to say, it’s not a good time for the Giants to face that kind of a schedule. But it’s hardly an aberration: The NL West is four-deep in playoff contenders. The competition is fierce.
If San Francisco gets off to a bad start, the clock will start ticking on what many will say should be a franchise reset. After all, this is a team that lost 98 games last season. And it will feature one of baseball’s oldest rosters in 2018 -- that is, if some of those veterans can actually stay on the field.
San Francisco’s attempt to reclaim its pre-2017 standing by staying aggressive during last winter’s generally passive market was refreshing, even if you can make an easy case that it was misguided. However, when you’re starting from a base of 98 losses, you need things to break your way. Bumgarner’s break is not the kind of break we had in mind.
The veteran moxie of the Giants will be tested and tested early. The upside is probably this: If San Francisco can navigate through these early setbacks, then perhaps this fading group will get its ace back in time to enjoy one more summer together by the bay.
But if not ... those summer winds can get awfully cold in Frisco.