The Giants are “willing to engage” with rival organizations on trade scenarios involving star lefty Madison Bumgarner, according to a report from Jon Morosi of MLB.com. It’s not yet clear just how likely it is that the San Francisco organization will actually move one of its best-loved and most-accomplished players.
Bumgarner is a living baseball legend, owing less to his years of excellent regular-season service than to his incredible postseason feats. The version of the burly southpaw that owned the 2014 World Series will live on no matter the course of the remainder of his career. But after the two seasons he just endured, with a shoulder injury seeming to sap his strength, it’s at best questionable whether the Giants’ staff ace can still deliver a vintage performance.
While front office opinions on the matter no doubt vary, numerous teams figure at least to check in on the lefty. Three, at a minimum, have done so already, according to Morosi. The Brewers and Phillies “have had at least preliminary dialogue,” he writes, while the Braves “checked in” but do not appear to be engaged at the moment.
It’s said that newly installed Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is angling for young pitching in a deal, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be able to get any top-flight arms. After all, the upside here is limited by the fact that Bumgarner is one season away from free agency. His $12MM contract is plenty reasonable despite the questions, and the possibility of a qualifying offer (or even an extension) hold out hope for some future value. But the unanswered questions create significant downside, even on a single-season commitment.
At base, acquiring Bumgarner would mean buying a pitcher who has been a solid, not terribly durable performer over the past two seasons. He certainly did what he could to make it back from a shocking early-2017 dirt bike accident, and has somehow maintained a 3.29 ERA since the start of that ill-fated campaign, but it’s hard to look past the warning signs.
Before the injury, the now-29-year-old hurler had been good for about a strikeout per inning with two or fewer walks per nine innings, and a total of 200+ frames per season. He had run up four-straight sub-4.00 ERA campaigns, with peripherals that largely matched, all before his near-unimaginable playoff heroics. At his best, Bumgarner drew swings and misses at more than an 11 percent clip while allowing hard contact on less than a third of the balls put in play against him.
Operating at less than full capacity last year, Bumgarner’s swinging-strike rate fell to 9.2% and his K%-BB% dropped to 12.0%. (He had once sat at over a 10 percent K%-BB% for three-straight seasons.) And his hard-hit rate ballooned to 41.6% (per Fangraphs) — a massive rise for a pitcher who has averaged below 30 percent for his career.
The physical changes certainly appear to have had a role. While he was never a flamethrower, Bumgarner averaged as much as 93 mph with his fastball. It has now been three seasons since his heater average heater topped 92 mph. As the effectiveness of that table-setting offering declined, he increasingly went away from the four-seamer in 2018, throwing it just 34.2% of the time — well shy of his 45.6% career average. While the remainder of his arsenal was still effective, the heater had been the bread to his cutter’s butter.
Whether Bumgarner can regain some of the lost velocity, or find a way to make up for it, remains to be seen. There’s still reason to believe he’ll be at least a useful starting pitcher regardless, if for no other reasons than because of his undeniable competitive fire and remaining youth. While he gutted out the results last year, his 3.99 FIP, 4.32 xFIP, and 4.42 SIERA tell a different story — though it’s not a tale of an irredeemably lost pitcher. Even if he can’t regain much of his former luster, Bumgarner will bring the promise of some solid innings, at least so long as he’s able to remain healthy.
Of course, the allure of the Bumgarner of yore will no doubt play some role in negotiations. Clubs such as those rumored to have interest aren’t looking only for a useful, back-of-the-rotation piece. They all have designs on the postseason, and no doubt at least entertain dreams of Bumgarner not only helping to get there, but also rising to the occasion when the moment calls for it.
Perhaps, too, some teams’ scouts and analysts have sussed out some reasons to believe in a turnaround. It’s fair to guess that Zaidi is about as well-versed on the subject as anyone. His former club, the Dodgers, no doubt analyzed Bumgarner closely as a division rival. And he’s now privy to all that the Giants know about their own leading pitcher. Whether Bumgarner is dealt, and what he draws in return, will also tell us quite a bit about the San Francisco organization’s views — on the southpaw as well as the rest of the roster. After all, the club has the financial means to hold on to Bumgarner, whether to maintain fan interest and boost his value for the summer trade deadline or to pursue another extension.
The broader market is certainly a factor as well. Zaidi can only market one season of Bumgarner, but in some regards that’s a positive. There are plenty of intriguing lefty starters available in free agency — most notably, Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, J.A. Happ, and Yusei Kikuchi — but all figure to command significant guarantees over multiple seasons. Giving up some young talent, rather than taking on potentially damaging long-term contract commitments, will surely hold appeal. Of course, it’s also true that the presence of so many alternatives — remember that James Paxton (via trade) and CC Sabathia went off the board already, and there are other talented starters available in trade free agency — will tend to reduce demand.
All said, it’s far from clear that there’ll be sufficient interest to force Zaidi’s hand. But the mere fact that there’s a possibility of a pre-season swap is itself notable, especially given Bumgarner’s special status in franchise lore. It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this situation plays out.