Like a chef constantly attempting to improve the recipe of a signature dish, Farhan Zaidi feels an immense pressure to select the ideal ingredients for the Giants’ roster.
A seasoned chef will go step-by-step, evaluating each element of a recipe to produce the best possible dining experience. Zaidi goes player-by-player and position group-by-position group searching for the optimal mix of talent.
In his first offseason as the Giants’ president of baseball operations, Zaidi executed 11 trades, made six waiver claims, signed three major league free agents and designated 12 players for assignment.
If you don’t know the names of Merandy Gonzalez and Tom Murphy, you’re not alone. Just know that for a brief moment in time, both players were San Francisco Giants.
For all the time Zaidi spent tinkering at the bottom of the roster, he’s drawn criticism for a lack of change where it matters most. Does it make a difference if you leave a tri-tip on the grill for 40 minutes instead of 45 if the beef is three weeks old?
The vast majority of core veterans who were on the roster in each of the last two seasons are still regular starters, so many fans aren’t surprised the Giants have stumbled to a terrible start.
Zaidi, though, walked into a kitchen where the cupboard was relatively barren. The Giants have one of the biggest budgets in baseball, but many of the team’s largest contracts are underwater. Few, if any, of the club’s highest-paid players are living up to expectations, which has forced the team’s top executive to come up with creative ways to try and make the roster palatable for the team’s fans.
The constant churn at the bottom of the roster, however, has raised questions about Zaidi’s early approach. Is the Giants’ talent acquisition strategy reckless or relentless?
“At some point, you want some stability and continuity on the roster,” Zaidi said this week.
So when is that continuity coming? After the early-season additions of center fielder Kevin Pillar and utility player Tyler Austin, it appears sooner rather than later.
“This was kind of the (roster) configuration we’ve been looking for for awhile so hopefully these guys can settle into their roles,” Zaidi said.
At the beginning of spring training, the Giants embraced a wide-open competition for jobs in the team’s outfield. Rule 5 draft choice Drew Ferguson and minor league free agent Cameron Maybin battled for a spot as a right-handed hitting fourth outfielder while an out-of-options player, Mac Williamson, worked to convince the front office he deserved playing time in one of the corners.
By Opening Day, all three had been designated for assignment or released and replaced by relative unknowns. Zaidi traded for utility players Connor Joe and Michael Reed, who both started the season in corner outfield spots.
Neither was ultimately given an extended opportunity to overcome early struggles. The duo combined for one hit before they were both designated for assignment as San Francisco jumped at the chance to acquire Pillar and Austin.
Were the decisions to cut inexperienced players like Joe and Reed easy? Zaidi argues they weren’t, especially so early in the season. But when presented with opportunities to upgrade the roster, Zaidi felt the trades “made too much sense.”
“I think (Joe) was very deserving of this opportunity,” Zaidi said. “I’ve seen people refer to this as the Connor Joe experiment, which sounds all well and good. But he’s not an experiment, he’s a real person.”
The path that led San Francisco from Ferguson, Maybin and Williamson to Pillar and Austin was rather circuitous, but no chef wins a Michelin star without a constant desire to innovate and improve. The current iteration of the Giants’ roster isn’t clearly superior to a version from April, 2018, either, but Zaidi and manager Bruce Bochy believe the club is better equipped to win than it was a month ago.
If the players on the fringes of the roster are concerned about their long-term futures, that may not be a negative byproduct of Zaidi’s approach.
“I can’t control that, they can control it, though,” Bochy said. “You just go out there and play the game. I’m hoping they don’t, but that’s never going to change in our game. That was there when I was there. You’re in the major leagues, you’ve got to produce. It’s all about results and it’s not development as much anymore.”
As Zaidi’s tenure progresses, he’ll have more opportunities to shape the middle and top parts of the roster as he sees fit. Contracts will expire, higher-profile trades may become easier to pull off and market inefficiencies will be exploitable.
For now, Zaidi has temporarily satisfied the club’s veterans by adding experienced talent in areas the team needed it most.
“I was surprised to see (Austin) in the starting lineup, but I’m glad he was,” said Madison Bumgarner after his Monday start. “He’s a good player and that’s a big pickup for us.”
If the veterans who spent the early portion of spring begging for new additions don’t step up their performances, more drastic changes could be on the way.
When the Giants hired Zaidi, neither ownership nor the new executive indicated improving the roster would require starting from scratch. It would instead take a watchful eye and a chef willing to exhaust himself in pursuit of upgrades.
To some, the turnover at the back end of the roster has appeared reckless or unnecessary. But if Zaidi eventually creates a successful mix, doubters will have no choice but to laud a strategy that relies on a relentless approach to finding even the smallest incremental improvements.