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The Giants’ trade of Mauricio Dubón makes sense, but it doesn’t have to feel good

The Giants have repeatedly made it clear, from the front office down to every member of the coaching staff, that they value the humanity of everyone in the organization. They resent the outdated, Moneyball-era stereotypes that baseball players are widgets or cogs, and that was apparent from the start. Remember his quote about the so-called “Connor Joe experiment.” The front office knows that smart teams and happy teams aren’t mutually exclusive. Heck, they might both be synonyms for “successful teams.” It’s a business, yes, but it’s much more than that.

To be very clear, however, it is still most definitely a business. The Giants traded Mauricio Dubón to the Astros for catcher/1B Michael Papierski, a move that might not have been expected on the morning of May 14, but definitely didn’t come out of nowhere. It makes business sense, so start there.

Before there was a temporary 28-man roster to make up for the time lost to the lockout, there was a 26-man roster, and there was no amount of Rummikub-tile shuffling that could get the Giants to a roster that had both Thairo Estrada and Dubón on it. Back in January, Andrew Baggarly was asked to pick the most likeliest trade candidate on the Giants, and he chose Dubón.

Dubón’s overaggressiveness cost him his place on the big-league roster in 2021, and while he did impress with his growth as a defender in center field, he’s not nearly as flexible as he once was. That’s because he’ll be out of minor league options in 2022. So will Thairo Estrada, who is less athletic but offers an offensive profile that better fits what the Giants value. It’s setting up for a spring roster competition between the two players to platoon with second baseman Tommy La Stella and back up shortstop Brandon Crawford. Estrada probably has the advantage from the outset, which would make Dubón the better bet to be dealt at some point. 

Dubón was out of options, just like Estrada. The 28-man roster allowed the Giants to delay the inevitable, but it was always one or the other. If there was an on-paper difference between the two, it’s that Dubón could play center field, but that became less urgent on a roster with Mike Yastrzemski, Austin Slater and Luis González. He’d started just three games in center this season, and just 17 balls had come his way there all year. It was nice to have him out there, but it was rarely essential.

And if that part of Dubón’s skill set wasn’t helping the Giants that much, it forced them to calibrate their microscope on his abilities as a middle infielder and hitter. Defensively, he was strong. Offensively, his … defense was strong. While Dubón has hit well enough in May (.333/.348/.619) to nearly double his OPS, that OPS is still at .636 for the season. He’d walked just once in 49 plate appearances, albeit with a shockingly low strikeout percentage. He is, in every facet of his offensive game, still figuring things out.

The Giants are all for letting players figure things out, but there’s a catch: They have to make the roster more flexible, not less. Dubón’s lack of options meant that he’d have to figure it out at the major-league level, and that proposition was just too risky for a team that doesn’t have a big margin for error. Forget the Dodgers for a second, and note that as of this writing, there isn’t a single team in the NL West with a losing record. The difference between the division title and a wild-card spot last year was paper thin. The difference between a postseason spot and an empty October could be just as thin.

Once the Giants traded for Donovan Walton, a right-handed middle infielder with the kind of bat control and offensive profile they seek out, there was a business decision to make. The question went something like this: Can Walton and other players in the organization produce more baseball value than Dubón?

But the Giants didn’t want to lose Dubón on waivers, necessarily, because they still believed he was a major-leaguer. He just had to be with a team that needed his specific skill set more right now, and that was apparently the Astros. In return, the Giants got catching depth with Papierski, which is no small detail, considering the current Triple-A starter is Ricardo Genovés, a raw prospect who skipped over Double A, and the current major-league starter is leading the world in strikeouts and hitting .167.

That doesn’t mean the answer is Papierski, though. The 26-year-old is a switch-hitter (good) with a high walk rate and excellent plate discipline (very good) who has a career .220 minor-league batting average (bad) and unexciting power metrics (also bad). He struggled greatly to throw runners out at every level of the minors, even if his pitcher-whispering and defensive acumen is held in high regard. He is catching depth, not a catching get-rich-quick scheme.

If you accept the business explanation of Dubón’s departure, though, catching depth is a solid return. Better than getting nothing for him.

Of course, as a fan, you think about the business side of things a lot less often. And it’s possible that this one stings, even if you process the logic behind. Dubón was one of the easiest Giants to root for in recent memory, a player who never took a single second of his baseball journey for granted. He played like someone who loved baseball more than almost anyone else on the field, probably because he was.

His personal story would have made you root for him without the Giants ties, but it’s impossible to ignore those ties, and it never got old to see pictures of a teenaged Dubón in the shadow of the Coke bottle slide, fully decked out in Giants gear, right down to the foam finger. Bless switch-hitting catchers with plate discipline, but good luck finding one with that story.

It wasn’t just the unidirectional fan-to-player relationship that felt different. Dubón was a member of a clubhouse that seemed to enjoy each other. On the Baggs and Brisbee podcast, we’ve coined this dynamic as a No Turds™ philosophy. Dubón was … less discreet.

Dubón came over as a deadline deal in the dark times, the rebuilding patch, and he’s been around so long that the headline about his debut read, ” Managing a transition: Why the Giants moved on from Scooter Gennett and introduced Mauricio Dubón.” Everyone has had years and years to get used to the idea of a gregarious, smiling, effervescent player with Giants roots blossoming into a regular in front of our eyes. They’d already seen the hometown angle play out before, with Brandon Crawford’s “pwwease don’t take the Giants” picture in the San Francisco Chronicle an all-time classic of the genre, and it almost felt like that Dubón’s story was destined to happen again.

But baseball isn’t always destiny. Baseball isn’t even usually destiny. It’s only occasionally destiny, and usually the destiny is just another way of describing a happy accident.

Baseball is a business. And it’s likelier for the Giants to squeeze out an extra win over the long, long season with a different roster permutation that allows them more flexibility. That extra win could be the difference between a deep postseason run and a woulda-coulda-shoulda season to rival any other.

You understand all of this, but you don’t have to like it. That’s not just the one-sentence fan reaction, but probably what everyone in the front office and clubhouse is feeling, too. There was no room on the 2022 Giants for a light-hitting infielder without options who had trouble avoiding outs; Mauricio Dubón should have had a longer chance to become an indispensable part of the Giants. Both of those statements are true.

The only problem was that they couldn’t be true at the same time, and it’s how a sensible, practical trade can come with so many emotions.

(Photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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