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Kawakami: The Giants’ talent void and financial reserves, and more Kevin Durant talk

Some short-attention-span reading and writing:

The Giants are slow, old, injury-prone, shaky in the bullpen, short of rotation depth and remarkably less than competent on defense these days.

And those aren’t the worst parts of this situation! OK, that all actually adds up to a lot of dreariness so far, including five consecutive losses and a 40-38 record (already 9 1/2 games behind the Dodgers) heading into Tuesday’s game in Arizona. The Giants are the definition of middling right now — 21-20 at home, 19-18 on the road, 14th in MLB in OPS, 19th in ERA — though we’ll see if Gabe Kapler’s team can turn it around soon.

But there’s a worse part, in the big picture: The Giants also don’t have the roster or system depth to put together much of a meaningful trade offer if and when a difference-making player comes available (hello, Juan Soto) on the trade market before the Aug. 2 deadline or next offseason. And the Giants are looking like they really, really need to add a difference-making player or two whenever possible.

That has to be one of the great disappointments for Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris, in addition to the poor play of late, of course. In Zaidi’s fourth season running Giants’ baseball operations, the commitment and creativity has never flagged, and last year’s 107-win masterpiece was some strong proof of concept, but the overall talent in the system and into the big-league roster just isn’t adding up so far in 2022. To match up with the Dodgers and Padres now or to set up for a huge trade in the near future.

There are a lot of reasons for this, from Joey Bart’s fits and starts to the non-rapid progression through the system by former Zaidi first-round picks Patrick Bailey (now 23 years old and in High A ball) and Hunter Bishop (now 24 and also in High A) and to the fading of the 30-something stalwarts who produced so much in 2021 and not so much currently.

Zaidi and Harris have done amazing things picking up talented players who haven’t made it in other organizations, but at some point, you are led by premier talent that is rarely acquirable on the margins. You have to draft that kind of talent, make a blockbuster trade or have enough money to sign the elite talent in free agency (more on this later).

Practical conclusion: Other than Logan Webb, there’s nobody currently on the Giants’ roster who would be considered a major long-term piece in an offer for a young superstar. (Carlos Rodón is valuable, but he’s on a short-term deal. Camilo Doval is also valuable, but still relatively unproven.) And the Giants are not trading Webb, let’s just say that right here. Also, Marco Luciano, Kyle Harrison and Heliot Ramos are all excellent prospects in the system, but you probably need a lot more than that to start leveraging yourself into the biggest deals at deadline time.

Which brings us to the area where the Giants should have some leverage: cash, baby.

The Giants’ relative drop in payroll this season has been much noted, especially and rightfully by the fans who pay big money to attend the games. They’re a top-10 revenue team. They’ve spent a lot more recently. They can spend top-10 money whenever they want to. They are not top-10 right now, though. With tons of money coming off the books last offseason (and Buster Posey’s surprise retirement), Zaidi and Harris still mostly passed on the big-name crop of free-agent hitters.

That’s not a large problem when you consider that the teams that shelled out the big bucks probably are not loving the production so far from Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, Kris Bryant and others. Though, of course, some newly signed free agents have been just as good as always, including Freddie Freeman, Carlos Correa and Starling Marte.

It should be noted that Zaidi and Harris spent wisely on short-term deals for Joc Pederson and Rodón last offseason. And they made a typically wise pickup of Luis González. Two offseasons ago, it was LaMonte Wade Jr. They’re good at this.

But without the premium talent, it can fall apart all at once, either via decline or injury or both. And the Giants have a bunch of players who seem to be doing that. OK, yes, I’ll name names: Tommy La Stella, Brandon Belt, Darin Ruf, Anthony DeSclafani, Darin Ruf, Wilmer Flores and even Brandon Crawford. They might all jump back to normal career levels very soon. That’s possible. But given their ages and injury bouts, it’s more likely that several if not most of the players listed here will, in fact, not turn around anything.

Brandon Crawford

Brandon Crawford is hitting .224, his worst mark since his debut in 2011. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

All of the deals to acquire or bring back these guys were understandable. I’m not criticizing Zaidi for that. It’s not like he traded away great talent or pulled back from signing a great player just to add these guys. But I’ll bet that Zaidi himself knew that some or all of these deals were not destined to look great down the road. Or: right now.

Analytics-leaning executives often get criticized for taking the emotion out of decisions. Zaidi has been nicked for this at times. But interestingly, Zaidi has been a lot more responsive to sentimental appeals during his Giants’ tenure than he’s given credit for. For instance:

• Zaidi didn’t trade Madison Bumgarner at the deadline in 2019 partly because he wanted to give Bruce Bochy a run at it in his goodbye season. The Giants quickly fell out of the race and then Bumgarner signed with Arizona.

• Zaidi gave Crawford a two-year, $32 million extension in the middle of last season; some of that was deserved because Crawford was having a career year, but some of that was eyebrow-raising because it was always extremely unlikely that Crawford, now 35, could keep playing like that.

• Zaidi made the $18.4 million qualifying offer to Belt for this season, which Belt accepted.

I didn’t disagree with any of those deals. I could throw in the three-year, $18.7 million contract for La Stella before the 2021 season, which currently doesn’t look good. But the Giants have money to spend. Zaidi hasn’t gone crazy with it; I don’t think it’s in his or the franchise’s nature to do so, but he’s spent it in certain spots.

And now the most important thing the Giants can do with their financial clout is to make sure that the money they’ve committed to Belt, Crawford, Ruf, DeSclafani and others doesn’t get in the way of anything else they might do. It’s all a sunk cost right now. It’s gone. If Zaidi and Harris can find replacements for any of them, the money should be irrelevant.

The Giants are rich enough to make it irrelevant. If they need a roster spot for a young player or several young players, the Giants are rich enough to move on from one of those players. I won’t be mean and say which ones are the most likely future DFAs, but there are a few options.

I’m not going to write that they have to discard the veterans. There’s still time for some rallying. I’m not going to say there should be a selloff at the deadline (mostly because I really don’t think they could get much for any of those guys in a trade; I’m mean, I know). I’m just going to say the Giants don’t have to keep giving La Stella, Belt, Ruf and the others at-bats over the long haul this season.

A small-market team might get trapped into doing that. The Giants don’t have to do that at all in this season of increasingly narrow margins for success. They can get different players. They can take the hit on the salaries. And they can plan for the major financial move, whenever it’s presented, without a care in the world about the sunk costs of mid-season 2022.

On June 17, the day after the Warriors clinched in Boston, the Giants were 35-27 and were just a week removed from a stirring three-game sweep of the Dodgers at Oracle Park. All attention shifted to the Giants. And since that day, the Giants have gone 5-11 and looked drearier and drearier in each game.

As has been noted repeatedly, the Giants already have unique issues because attendance is such a huge part of the Giants’ economic model and the pandemic might’ve changed San Francisco behavioral and demographic patterns for many years into the future.

But the Warriors’ championships have earned them a hold on this market. The 49ers are the other dominant team because this is an NFL town through-and-through, and they start up training camp in a few weeks. In a media and fan universe that is ever telescoping onto one or two sports obsessions at a time, the Giants picked a horrendous time for this. When the focus is entirely on the Warriors and 49ers, there’s an attrition of attention for everybody else. And I can guarantee you that Larry Baer and the ownership group is noticing it.

Just take a look at the way the Sharks have dwindled. Or how nothing the A’s do, short of the Howard Terminal stadium updates, stirs much conversation. Stanford and Cal football and men’s basketball have mostly stagnated recently and there are consequences. USC and UCLA probably would’ve felt much more tied to the Bay Area universities if Stanford and Cal weren’t going through two of their most listless football periods in recent memory at exactly the same time. Instead, USC and UCLA bolted for the Big Ten last week and left Cal, Stanford and the rest of the Pac-12 to try to understand how it all happened.

That’s one harsh example. Thanks to that ballpark, KNBR and their powerful traditions, the Giants will never be dialed out of the Bay Area or overall sports universe as completely as the A’s and Sharks have been. Hey, there’s Will Clark Day coming up.

But the sports telescoping continues. And the Giants are in a daily battle to remain in the Bay Area conversation.

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant wants a trade out of Brooklyn … but don’t get too excited. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

Why are the Warriors still mentioned and still probably microscopically alive as a candidate to reacquire Kevin Durant, as first reported by Andscape’s Marc Spears? Well, as Marcus Thompson wrote, the stars of this team are not against the idea. And it seems likely that Durant himself has indicated that a reunion in San Francisco wouldn’t be out of the question in his mind.

But …

I don’t think anybody involved seriously believes it would actually happen. Or should happen. It’s just one of those fun things for old comrades to bat around, a whimsical “what if …” scenario that happens to involve one of the greatest players of all time and the memories of two championships. I believe Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and others on the Warriors like to be reminded that Durant mostly enjoyed his time here. I believe that Durant is flattered that Curry, Draymond and others mostly enjoyed that period, too.

It’s harmless because it’s mostly impossible, impractical and full of immense potential for massive implosion, which I’m sure all the main parties understand completely.

First off, Andrew Wiggins’ contract would almost certainly have to be included in any formula to get Durant traded to the Warriors, and due to CBA rules, Wiggins can’t be acquired by the Nets as long as they have Ben Simmons on the roster. So that would force this into a three-team deal, and that only makes things more complicated.

Wiggins is more valuable to the Warriors than to anybody else. He also only has one year left on his deal. What other team would consider that enough value to put into a Durant deal? Only the Warriors. But wait. They’d have to be the ones giving up Wiggins. This is a problem. Also: Who would want Simmons enough to give up whatever it would take to sweeten this deal for all sides?

Nobody would. And that’s just the start of the issues with any potential Durant reunion with the Warriors.

This theoretical trade would also almost certainly have to include the Warriors adding Jonathan Kuminga and maybe James Wiseman and Moses Moody and future first-round picks. But the Warriors won’t just toss all of that into one deal for one player. They’ve already won a title while having those recent lottery picks in reserve. Those guys are ready to play now. Why would the Warriors blow that all up for Durant, who might decide he wants to leave again in a matter of months?

Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody might all turn into mediocre players or worse. They might all hit large. It’s impossible to know. But the Warriors selected them and still value them more than anybody else in the league. They’re also not going to want to give up future first-round picks (they already don’t have their 2024 pick, which is owed to Memphis, protected 1-4, for taking Andre Iguodala’s contract in July 2019). As long as they have Curry, Draymond and Klay Thompson making upward of $110 million combined, they’re going to need to stock the back end of the roster with rookie deals every year.

The Durant conversation is light-hearted amusement. It’s nostalgia for a weirder time. Which is not now.

(Photo: John Hefti / USA Today)

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