BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
What defines success in the eyes of a baseball fan ?
There is a heated rivalry between the supporters of the Dodgers and the Giants. Their fan bases are imbued with a deep-rooted contempt for their counterparts. When these two teams and their partisans reflect on the decade that concludes with the 2019 season, which one will feel the greater sense of achievement ? Which franchise is better positioned for the decade to come ? The answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they might appear at first blush.
What is most important to the fans of any team ? Should success be measured only by championships won ? Is sustained excellence without a title as satisfying as short bursts of competitiveness that lead to trophies ? The owners of sports teams might be more attuned to the value of their property-and the profit that asset generates-than fans are, but they are still driven by the ultimate prize: a World Series victory, and the right to be identified as the best in the game for that year. For all eternity.
The Dodgers are a model baseball franchise, and have clinched the best record in the National League at 103-56, just two games off the pace for the best record in the major leagues. They have won the NL West for the seventh straight season this year, and have won 90 or more games in every year since 2013. Their current roster is populated with young superstars: SS Corey Seager, OF Cody Bellinger, OF Alex Verdugo, C Will Smith, OF Joc Pederson and 1B Max Muncy are all hitting at above league average levels, and only Muncy is older than 27 (he’s 28).
Aside from Muncy, each of those players were drafted and developed by the Dodgers franchise, and their combined salary is nearly $11 million (which is less than the Giants are paying 3B Evan Longoria, 33 this year). Infield prospect Gavin Lux (ranked as the sixth best prospect in baseball by Baseball America) was just recalled after laying waste to the top levels of the minors, and projects as an above average hitter who will likely slot in to the Dodgers lineup at 2B going forward.
Joining this young core of talented hitters is a veteran group that includes 3B Justin Turner, OF AJ Pollack, utility player Chris Taylor, and 1B David Freese, each of whom is producing at above league average rates at the plate in 2019. Their pitching staff is led by future Hall of Fame LHP Clayton Kershaw, indisputably the best starting pitcher of the decade, as well as LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu and RHP Walker Buehler, all of whom were drafted and developed by Los Angeles. Each of those starters rank in the top 12 in the NL in ERA, and Ryu currently features the top mark in all of baseball at 2.41. Of their starting lineup and top five starting pitchers, only Ryu will be a free agent following this season. The dynastic run the Dodgers have established as the kings of the NL West figures to continue into the next decade as well.
Despite drafting near the bottom of the first round for most of the decade, the Dodgers have built the fifth best minor league system in baseball (according to Baseball America rankings published in late August), and are poised to continue to populate their major league roster with talented, cost controlled players such as Bellinger, Seager, Verdugo, Smith and Lux.
For the 2020 season, this is the likely Dodgers lineup, with their ages and 2019 OPS listed.
C Smith (24) (867)
1B Muncy (28) (878)
2B Lux (21) (1028-AA/AAA)
SS Seager (25) (819)
3B Turner (34) (881)
LF Pederson (27) (877)
CF Bellinger (23) (1025)
RF Verdugo (23) (817)
During the decade, the Dodgers overall record is 915-701 (.567). They’ve made the playoffs the past six seasons, and will be in the postseason in 2019 after clinching their seventh straight NL West title. They are poised to sustain their winning ways with a young, inexpensive core of stars that are still improving, and their player development system has been outstanding, regularly augmenting the Dodger roster with a seeming never ending supply of impact talent.
Their postseason record, however, does not support the Dodgers claim as the best team of the decade despite their winning percentage being the second highest (Yankees) during the period from 2010-2019. The Dodgers have been beaten in the playoffs during each of their six appearances this decade, and have failed to win a World Series since 1988. They’ve advanced to postseason play 12 times since winning that championship, and have won the NL pennant just twice since 1988.
The Giants are 77-82, 12 games out of a playoff spot, and a whopping 26 games behind their NL West leading rivals to the south. Their current roster is comprised of players who are mostly on the wrong side of 30, and they lack a signature young franchise icon. Their best players, C Buster Posey, 32, and LHP Madison Bumgarner, 29, have been at the heart of the Giants success this decade, but Posey is finishing arguably his worst season as a professional. He’s seen a precipitous decline at the plate, where his current year .256/.320/.368 levels are below league average for the first time in his illustrious career. He is signed to continue his tenure with the Giants through at least 2021, making $22 million in each of the next two seasons.
Bumgarner, the subject of trade rumors all summer, is set to be a free agent at the end of the season, casting his future with the Giants in an uncertain light. Fan favorite 3B Pablo Sandoval, who returned to the Giants following a disastrous stint in the American League with Boston, has seen his career revitalized by the Bay. Sandoval has found his batting stroke, producing at a level that is his highest since 2013. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery in early September, so his season has ended. Given that he’s also a free agent, the Panda may have played his last game as a Giant.
The Giants pitching staff is still fronted by Bumgarner, though his future with the team is uncertain based on his upcoming free agency. The rest of the rotation, should he depart, could include 34 year old RHP Jeff Samardzija (11-12, 3.52), RHP Tyler Beede, 26 (5-10, 5.23), RHP Dereck Rodriguez, 27, (6-10, 5.27) and RHP Shaun Anderson, 24, (3-5, 5.10). Bumgarner’s role as staff ace and team leader makes re-signing him all the more critical. Given the current candidates to toe the slab for the Giants in 2020, his veteran leadership and example would be welcome attributes.
The Giants farm system is ranked 14th by Baseball America, and includes top 100 prospects C Joey Bart, OF Heliot Ramos, and SS Marco Luciano. Bart and Ramos both reached AA in 2019, and could factor into a San Francisco lineup late in the 2020 campaign should their development continue. Luciano is 18 as of September 10th, and is further away from a big league promotion.
Perhaps the Giants most important figure, manager Bruce Bochy, is retiring following this season. Bochy, 64, has a career record of 2002-2026, and he just became only the 11th manager ever to amass 2000 victories. Bochy, who took over as manager of the club in 2007, led the Giants to World Series victories in three of the four seasons his team made the playoffs. Given his stellar stewardship and longevity, he would appear to be a lock for Hall of Fame induction.
The Giants immediate future would appear to be far less clear, and arguably less promising, than their rivals to the south. Based on their current roster, their 2020 starting lineup might look like this (with ages and 2019 OPS listed)
C Posey (32) (688)
1B Belt (31) (744)
2B Dubon (24) (718-AAA)
SS Crawford (32) (657)
3B Longoria (33) (768)
LF Yastrzemski (28) (845)
CF Pillar (30) (730)
RF Slater (26) (781)
During the decade, the Giants have a 820-796 (.507) record, and they made the playoffs in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. They won the World Series in each of the first three of their postseason efforts, but were knocked out in the LDS in 2016. San Francisco can advance an indisputable claim as the best team of the decade, having won three titles during that span. Through 2018, only the Boston Red Sox have won more than a single title, taking the championship in 2013 and 2018. Regardless of who wins the World Series this year, nobody can best the Giants three title winning seasons.
The brightest development for the Giants in 2019 might be the unexpected breakout of OF Mike Yastrzemski. He was drafted in the 14th round in 2013 by the Orioles after his career at Vanderbilt University. After a relatively nondescript minor league career that saw him reach AAA at age 25, he was traded four years later in March to the Giants for minor leaguer RHP Tyler Herb. Yastrzemski, who had never hit more than 15 HR’s in a season in the minors, started 2019 at AAA Sacramento. In 136 at bats in the PCL, he hit .316/.414/.676 with 12 HRs, which earned him a promotion to the big leagues on May 25th. In 104 games with the Giants, he’s hit .274/.333/.511 with 21 HR’s, including an emotional blast to dead center field in historic Fenway Park last week.
Hours after walking across the green outfield grass with his grandfather, Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski, who patrolled left field in front of the Green Monster for the Red Sox for 23 years, the Yaz sent a Nathan Eovaldi fastball over the center field wall. In a rare show of support for an opponent, the Fenway faithful gave the younger Yastrzemski a standing ovation. “The crowd reactions, all night, were incredible,” he said after the game. “I can’t thank them enough for being supportive.” The Giants would go on to win that game in 15 innings, which was Bochy’s 1,999th win in the majors. He would get his 2,000th the following night.
Yastrzemski has likely evolved into a starting player around which the Giants can build their lineup in 2020 based both upon his productivity and meager salary. San Francisco has $110 million of payroll already on the books for next season, led by the $22 million owed to C Buster Posey, 33 next year. RHP Johnny Cueto, 34 next season, will earn $21 million, and RHP Jeff Samardzija, 35 in 2020, is on the books for nearly $20 million. All are outsized figures compared to the value those players return on the field. Add in 1B Brandon Belt, 32, SS Brandon Crawford, 33, and 3B Evan Longoria, 34, who will make $17, $15 and $13 million respectively in 2020, and the Giants will be paying over $100 million dollars to players who are all over the age of 32, and each of whom is past their most productive prime. Those obligations make it very unlikely that the Giants will go after a front line free agent this winter, which will allow players like Yastrzemski to have a chance to establish themselves as being part of the next generation of Giants heroes.
The relative financial resources of the rival franchises do little to distinguish one from the other. The Dodgers have a payroll of $200 million in 2019, fourth in the majors. The Giants are at $172 million this year, which ranks fifth. During the decade, through 2019, Los Angeles has spent $2.02 billion on their players, while San Francisco has allotted $1.6 billion to theirs. Both teams have been in the top ten in payroll nearly every season during the decade, and the Dodgers have actually had the highest payroll in five of those years, sitting atop the list of franchise expenditures from 2013-2017.
It would be difficult to dispute that the Giants hold the current bragging rights over the Dodgers based strictly on their three World Series championships this decade. Going into a three game series at Oracle Park this weekend to conclude the regular season, the Giants have a 95-89 head-to-head edge over the Dodgers in the 2010’s. The experience of a fan is shaped by successful seasons that lead to playoff runs where franchise heroes and legends are born. Remarkable achievements that occur on thrilling October evenings can embed themselves forever in the psyche of the fervent supporters who witness those magical efforts. Giants fans will always be able to revel in the postseason brilliance of Bumgarner and Sandoval, even as the careers of those players crawl inexorably forward (and perhaps on other teams). The memories those players helped create, in the service of leading their franchise to glory, can never be erased, and will be lovingly and reverently shared as one generation passes fandom along to the next with stories of their determined exploits.
There are certainly merits to rooting for a team that is consistently competitive, for whom every season begins with the hope (and expectation) that a playoff berth could lead to the elusive championship that year. The Dodgers have demonstrated incredibly effective management of their resources, drafting and developing players to regularly promote fresh new young stars into a lineup and a rotation that are already packed with productive veterans. Their prolonged success in this capacity is reflected in their record during the decade and their run of seven consecutive division titles, each of which was achieved by winning 91 or more games.
No other major league franchise can make that claim this decade, and the fact that only Kershaw and Ryu were part of each of those teams speaks to the Dodgers’ ability to continually build playoff teams despite significant roster turnover. They haven’t suffered “rebuilding” seasons, consistently providing their fans with competitive baseball in Chavez Ravine. Since 1993, the Dodgers have finished below .500 only threetimes in those 27 seasons. Given the young talent that comprises their current roster, the leadership of the team, and the financial resources they boast, the immediate future of the franchise appears brilliantly promising. Even Giants fans will grudgingly concede that the outlook for the Dodgers is far more rosy than that of their own team, and that the decade to come will at least begin with Los Angeles featuring the more talented collection of ballplayers.
The betting odds in Las Vegas currently show the Dodgers as the favorite to win the NL pennant, and they’re second only to Houston to win the World Series. Those same formulas will almost surely establish the Dodgers as one of the favorites to win the 2020 World Series, while the Giants will be relegated to the middle of the pack of hopefuls depending on how their offseason plays out.
Historically, the Giants franchise (including the New York Giants) has won eight championships-five in New York, and three in San Francisco. The Dodgers franchise (which began in Brooklyn) has won six championships, all but one of them claimed since moving to Los Angeles. More recently, the Dodgers have made the playoffs 12 times in the past 30 seasons, and will make that figure 13 of 31 following this year’s NL West title. The Giants have made the playoffs nine times over that same stretch, but are all but assured of not adding to their postseason history in 2019. The athletic crucible of the 2019 baseball season has yet to reach its ultimate dénouement, so we are left to ponder what has already come to pass.
The current generation of fans, who have been indoctrinated into the legion of supporters of either the Giants or Dodgers, each has reason to feel a sense of pride about their heroes on the diamond. The Dodgers boast an unmatched run of sustained excellence over the decade 2010-2019 (and the past 30 years), and a current core of young stars that are poised to perpetuate their dominance in the NL West for the foreseeable future. The one maxim that undoubtedly provides solace for Giants fans who reflect on the relative achievements of their team against those of their hated rivals from Los Angeles: Flags Fly Forever. The Giants boast three such championship banners this decade, and despite having had more opportunities, the Dodgers have been unable to earn similar adornments to their palatial Los Angeles home.
By that final accounting, the San Francisco Giants and their partisans can justifiably lay claim to being the best team in California this decade, and, without hyperbole, the best team in North America as well. Regardless of what the future holds for each franchise, that statement will be forever accurate, at least by counting the rings.