When Madison Bumgarner took his last at-bat for Bruce Bochy and absorbed the cheers that rained upon him, savoring each moment before he stepped into the box, it felt like his goodbye to a fanbase, to a franchise, to an era.
What has transpired in Major League Baseball since has only made that possibility stronger.
Baseball is a copycat league, in which teams, say, load up on bullpen arms after the Royals ride their relievers to the 2015 title, a trend that has held up through this season.
And a trend that may take a turn this offseason, after the Astros and Nationals reached the World Series on the backs of ace-studded rotations that no staff could match.
At the trade deadline, the Yankees held pat, believing one ace’s and one bullpen arm’s returns (Luis Severino and Dellin Betances) would be enough to take down Houston.
At the trade deadline, Atlanta reloaded its relief corps, trading not for Bumgarner from San Francisco but for Mark Melancon, believing the pen to be its weak link and struggling starter Mike Foltynewicz would bounce back.
Both of these plans failed, notably with Foltynewicz crumpling in NLDS Game 5 against St. Louis. Guys like Bumgarner, Matthew Boyd and Noah Syndergaard were not moved. Even Trevor Bauer, who was, was traded to a non-contender in Cincinnati. The demand for difference-making starting pitchers had dissipated somewhat, games becoming easier to stitch together with relievers than handed to starters to iron down seven or eight innings.
The added emphasis on the rotation will make it more difficult for the starting pitching-needy Giants to navigate this offseason (and surely has driven up Gerrit Cole’s value, likely taking him off the Giants’ wish list). It also makes Bumgarner, not a sure thing but about as close to one as will exist in free agency (outside of Cole), all the more attractive to other teams.
The Giants will give a qualifying offer to Bumgarner, a one-year, $17.8 million deal that, if rejected and he signs elsewhere, will ensure draft-pick compensation. They likely will not offer the long-term deal the 30-year-old, postseason legend will seek. Finding a suitable comparison from last season is difficult because of Bumgarner’s resume — just 30, but with more than 1,800 innings worth of tread on his arm. Patrick Corbin, a fellow southpaw who was 29, less proven, coming off a better season, had less wear and tear and had the same qualifying-offer baggage, scored a six-year, $140 million deal from Washington. If Bumgarner can top $100 million on the market, he likely will be a goner.
If the Giants are willing to go beyond the qualifying offer, Clayton Kershaw, from Farhan Zaidi’s old Dodgers, is the forebearer, having been locked up for three years and $93 million last November. Bumgarner will not be looking at those riches, but would he accept three years at $75 million to remain with a franchise with whom he’s won three World Series?
After Bumgarner’s last at-bat, he disappeared, not talking to media after the game and catching a flight. For a player so averse to spectacle and theatrics, he allowed himself to indulge in the fans’ adoration, breathing it all in for possibly a last time. He’s a North Carolina native and the Braves — still — will need starting pitching, having learned their lesson from this trade deadline. Bruce Bochy is no longer managing the Giants, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether the time has come for both franchise and star to move on from each other.
Of course, this all hinges on how much he is valued by other organizations, too.
There is no need to question his October heroics, but there’s plenty of need to question how he projects as he ages. He’s seen a dip in velocity already, though he was never a flamethrower; his fastball averaged 91.4 mph this season, up from last year’s 90.9 and down from 2014 and ’15’s 92.1.
His back-of-the-baseball-card numbers were solid if not overwhelming, a 3.90 ERA in a major league-high 34 starts, with 203 strikeouts in 207 2/3 innings. His peripherals are less kind.
Bumgarner’s 43.8 hard-hit rate ranked as dead last in the majors among qualifying pitchers. His 41.6 percent flyball percentage was fifth worst. Oracle Park, the nightmare of his teammates, was Bumgarner’s saving grace, where so many of those drives into the outfield went as outs instead of home runs. He put up a 2.93 ERA in 19 home outings, a number that ballooned to 5.29 in 15 starts away from San Francisco.
This is cause for concern for any interested team — is the latter-era Bumgarner a product of his park as much as his arm?
For his part, the big lefty tried to pump up his value before the Giants’ finale, saying he felt as good as he did in spring training.
“Who knows what the future holds,” Bumgarner said last month. “I got a long career ahead of myself. Excited about free agency. I’m sure I’ll find my way back here one way or another. Whether it’s back in this uniform or not, I’m sure I’ll be back here.”
The Giants have so many rotation needs; even if they do bring back Bumgarner, they still would have holes to fill. Zaidi mentioned dealing from a resurgent farm system for reliable arms as a possibility. As stands, Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto are surrounded by question marks, potential all that Tyler Beede, Dereck Rodriguez, Logan Webb and Shaun Anderson can take pride in.
An offseason after another top-of-the-market 30-year-old lefty starter could not find a deal, Dallas Keuchel needing to wait until June to join Atlanta, Bumgarner’s free agency unknowns will not be known soon.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see any reason why it would be any different this offseason,” Zaidi said. “I think some of the top names in free agency may wind up being out there for a while because there’s just no incentive on either side to get something done sooner.”