Simply asking whether the San Francisco Giants will be buyers or sellers at the July 31 MLB trade deadline indicates that this season hasn't quite gone as planned.
At the All-Star break, the Giants hold fourth place in the NL West. Yet they're only 6.5 games behind the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks in what could be the tightest division race in MLB. (San Francisco is 9.5 games back in the NL wild-card race, so winning the division will likely be its only route to the postseason.)
That's not an insurmountable deficit, especially when no one appears to be a clear favorite in the division.
Perhaps it's worth mentioning that the Giants were four games behind at the 2010 All-Star break and went on to win the World Series. Last year's championship team was a half-game out of first place at the midsummer hiatus. Both of those clubs were over .500, however, while these current Giants are 43-51.
But we're talking about the defending World Series champions. The Giants won't go away quietly, cede the NL West and begin looking toward next year. General manager Brian Sabean devoted his offseason to keeping the band together, bringing back everyone from last year's championship club.
Other clubs might have let players like center fielder Angel Pagan or left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt go via free agency, since they weren't necessarily key pieces and were in demand on the open market. Letting those sorts of players walk may have also freed up payroll that the team could have used on a top free-agent hitter such as Josh Hamilton or Nick Swisher. But Sabean clearly felt that all of his pieces fit together well — a World Series title makes that an obvious conclusion — and wanted to give this collection of players a shot at defending its championship.
With the second half of the season still to be played, it's too early to say whether or not Sabean's objective was successful. Right now, a second consecutive World Series title — and third in four years — doesn't appear a likely outcome for the season. But this team has plenty of time to rally, especially if the front office makes a key addition that could give a boost to the Giants' playoff chances.
So let's just get this out of the way: The Giants are going to be buyers at the trade deadline. The NL West is still very much within reach, though San Francisco should be worried about the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers making a splashy move before July 31. With their ability to add seemingly unlimited payroll, the Dodgers can consider moves other teams surely wouldn't. (Last year's blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox is a great example of that.)
Yet making the bigger move isn't necessarily making the right move.
Adding Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro may not have seemed as impressive as the Dodgers getting Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett (along with Carl Crawford and Nick Punto), but Sabean filled holes on his roster, rather than adding talent and leaving his manager to work it out. He'll likely take the same approach over the next couple of weeks.
The Giants could use a starting pitcher for the back end of their rotation. Ryan Vogelsong is probably at least a month away from returning to the team, as he's still working toward being ready for a rehab assignment. There have also been rumblings about Matt Cain possibly being injured, which might help explain his 5-6 record and 5.06 ERA this season.
San Francisco was one of the teams in pursuit of Ricky Nolasco before the Dodgers nabbed him. But Sabean will probably look elsewhere for an upgrade to his starting rotation. Matt Garza might cost too much, especially if the Giants are still sore about trading top prospect Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran in 2011, only to see Beltran sign elsewhere as a free agent after that season. But someone under team control for multiple seasons, like Yovani Gallardo or Bud Norris, could be on the Giants' radar.
Sabean may still be looking for a right-handed hitter for the Giants' outfield as well. The team signed Jeff Francoeur recently, but since he was hitting .208 with a .571 OPS when Kansas City released him, it's difficult to imagine that he'll make a meaningful contribution to any potential playoff run. If the Giants really only wanted a right-handed bat to platoon with Andres Torres in left, perhaps this could be an adequate move. But Sabean is probably trying to get something better. Could he make another run at Alfonso Soriano?
Deciding to become sellers at the trade deadline can't be completely discounted, however. The Giants are a fourth-place team with a record under .500 that just hasn't played well this season. Is a turnaround realistic? And even if this team does somehow make it back to the postseason, can they really make a run? (Of course, the MLB playoffs have become a circumstance in which any of the qualifying teams has a chance to win. The 2010 Giants are a good example of that.)
Sabean also has to consider that he has some players that other playoff contenders would love to get their hands on.
The current rumor with the most heat, as reported by FOX Sports' Jon Paul Morosi, is Tim Lincecum attracting interest as a reliever. During last year's postseason, he compiled an 0.69 ERA while striking out 17 batters in 13 innings. Lincecum also allowed an .073 opponents' batting average and 0.38 WHIP (walks and hits per nine innings).
If a team like the Tigers is truly interested in making a deal for Lincecum, doesn't Sabean have to at least listen and explore what he could get in return? Yet Lincecum is an enormously popular player with Giants fans and trading him away wouldn't go over well. Even if he returned to the team in 2014, he would still have been in another uniform for two months. Besides, can Sabean really afford to trade away a starting pitcher?
Other pieces Sabean could deal include reliever Javier Lopez, who could interest any contender seeking a left-handed specialist. If the Giants have concerns about signing Pence to a long-term contract extension or don't want to add that kind of contract to their payroll, perhaps the outfielder could be available as well. But the same question applies to the Giants' outfield as their starting rotation. Can the team really ship out a player of Pence's talents when they need a quality outfielder for the rest of this season and beyond?
If the Giants faced a possible rebuilding situation, Sabean might make those sorts of deals. But regardless of what happens this season, San Francisco will look to contend again next year. With cornerstone players like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Matt Cain on the team, the framework is in place to build around. Lincecum and Pence are far more likely to be a part of that core than shipped out for prospects that can't help the current team win.