As Memorial Day marks another milestone in the season, one of Major League Baseball’s biggest surprises is the play of the San Francisco Giants.
The franchise that won the World Series three times between 2010-14 was supposed to be a .500 team at best. It’s a long 162-game season, and it could still end up that way. But the Giants are playing way above their collective heads at the moment, and at 34-20, they are right there at the top of the National League West after taking three of four over the rival Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium this weekend and defeating the Los Angeles Angels in San Francisco on Monday night.
In what was supposed to be a rebuilding period, the Giants are relying on veteran strength—from the likes of catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford, two important cogs from their World Series era.
It’s created quite a dilemma for Farhan Zaidi, the president of baseball operations, who was brought in before the 2019 season to right a ship that hasn’t made the postseason the past four years.
As the season started, the Giants were looking at $94.1 million coming off the books in 2022, with Posey and Crawford accounting for $37.2 million of that. With a total payroll of $154.5 million—good for 11th highest in the league—the Giants would then be primed for an anticipated analytic rebuild. But their veterans have started to deliver.
Crawford, earning $15.2 million this season, is set to become a free agent and could be outside of San Francisco’s control. But he won’t be the best available at his position, considering Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Javier Baez are also expected to be on the market.
Brandon Belt, a first baseman and another World Series stalwart, is on the injured list right now with an oblique. He’s earning $16 million and will also likely reach free agency.
But the club has a $22 million option on Posey, with a $3 million buyout.
And that’s the big question.
Posey, at 34, is having a renaissance season and what was once unthinkable could happen: The Giants might exercise that option and keep the former All-Star and NL MVP backstop.
“Of course, of course,” second-year manager Gabe Kapler said. “That’s going to be a front office decision, but certainly Buster’s had a great start to the season. He’s capable of a lot and one of the most important pieces of our team. He’s been excellent on both sides of the ball, the glue in a lot of ways.”
It’s all further complicated by ongoing collective bargaining on a new Basic Agreement between the players and the owners and the possibility of a lockout happening if a new deal is not reached by Dec. 1, the end date of the current five-year contract.
Posey, Crawford and Belt were the glue on the championship teams, but only Posey played for all three.
The Giants made him the fifth overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft, and he was in the big leagues for good two years later.
Buster might be the top home-grown player in the San Francisco history of the franchise. Willie Mays was first a New York Giant, and Barry Bonds, though a San Francisco native, was signed as a free agent from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The NL’s Rookie of the Year in 2010, Posey also won the batting title, a league MVP and Comeback Player of the Year in 2012, a year after he had his left leg and ankle shattered during a home plate collision.
The last few years hadn’t been particularly kind. He had right hip surgery to repair a torn labrum in 2018, struggled to recuperate in 2019, and opted to sit out last year’s 60-game season abbreviated by the onset of the coronavirus.
It was generally felt that his best days were behind him, and the Giants wouldn’t even consider picking up the option for 2022.
But then he homered on Opening Day, and his 10 home runs thus far this season are only two short of his combined output for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
“It was awesome just to see that again,” Belt said of Posey’s rejuvenated bat. “Two years ago, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. It looks like his hip is a lot healthier now, and he’s able to turn on those pitches. You’re probably going to see a lot more of that from Buster this year.”
When Posey hit a three-run homer on Friday night to give the Giants a short-lived lead over the Dodgers, he had some fun with a few of the fans as he crossed home plate and jogged toward the Giants first-base side visitors’ dugout.
“Was I being heckled?” he said. “It’s Dodger Stadium. I’ll let you surmise.”
In a year when MLB’s cumulative batting average of .237 is lower than it has been since 1968, immediately before the mound was lowered, Posey is batting .323 and has already played in 36 games behind the plate.
With his improved hip, the torque in Posey’s swing and the missing power has returned.
“He’s produced a lot of power, and as he’s always done, has worked a lot of good at bats using the entire field to hit,” Kapler said. “And he’s been a great leader to our pitching staff.”
Posey’s always been a quarterback defensively, guiding veteran and younger pitchers to success.
“We feed off him and being the underdog team,” said right-handed starter Logan Webb. “We’ve got guys in this clubhouse who did it in 2010, ’12 and ’14. It seems like in 2014 after winning two championships they were still underdogs. I try to feed off those guys—Buster, Belt and Craw.”
Pitcher Johnny Cueto also was a big contributor to the 2015 World Series-winning Kansas City Royals before signing a six-year, $130 million deal as a free agent with the Giants. He’s only won 36 games for San Francisco and missed most of the 2019 and 2020 seasons after Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
The Giants have a $22 million option on Cueto, with a $5 million buyout, and he’s almost certainly out.
Kevin Gausman, their top starter with a 6-0 record and 1.40 ERA, took an $18.9 million qualifying offer after this past season and won’t be eligible for that process again. He’ll become an unencumbered free agent.
Veteran third baseman Evan Longoria is having a terrific season, with nine homers and 29 RBIs, and is locked in at $19.5 million next year— the last on his six-year, $100 million contract, signed with Tampa Bay. He almost certainly will be back. The Giants hold a $13 million option with a $3 million buyout for 2023.
The Giants traded for Longoria, now 35, and until now he’s been often-injured and underwhelming, hitting .253 in a Giants uniform. Emphasizing how tenuous this all is, Longoria and Gausman are suffering through some hip pain at the moment.
Finally, it comes down to what the Giants will do with Crawford and Posey.
Crawford, at 34, is also a product of the Giants system and in his 11th big-league season has 11 homers and 32 RBIs and still owns the range to pick it as an elite Major League shortstop.
He and Longoria seal up the left side of the infield.
“I don’t think we came into the season thinking we’d catch as many balls in the infield,” Kapler said. “It’s encouraging that Brandon’s gotten off to such a strong start, and Longoria has played awesome defense for us at third base. I don’t think it’s necessary to classify something as the biggest surprise. I just think it’s promising and encouraging to say some of our guys have played really well.”
There are four months to go in the season before all these decisions must crystallize.