As Gausman departs, SF Giants receive a reminder of sky-high expectations

SAN FRANCISCO — When the Giants arrived at spring training in Scottsdale in February, it was impossible to miss the chip on their collective shoulder.

They’d spent the entire winter hearing how the Dodgers and Padres were engaged in an arms race atop the National League West. They read that a third-place finish was likely the best possible outcome. They were told it would be at least another year before they would be seen as a contender.

One hundred and seven wins later, the Giants changed hearts and minds and forced the baseball industry to recalibrate expectations. And with All-Star starter Kevin Gausman reportedly headed to the Toronto Blue Jays on a five-year, $110 million contract the Giants undoubtedly could have matched, it’s time to revisit those expectations.

Over the course of the 2021 season, the Giants’ leadership triumvirate of Farhan Zaidi, Scott Harris and Gabe Kapler earned an extraordinary level of trust from the team’s fan base and now operate in a rare position of comfort for high-profile decision-makers.

Fans give this trio the benefit of the doubt.

That wasn’t necessarily the case when the Padres traded for Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove last winter, but it is now that a team that acquired Anthony DeSclafani, LaMonte Wade Jr. and Tommy La Stella finished 28.0 games ahead of San Diego in the standings.

Zaidi, the Giants president of baseball operations, has won over fans with a roster-building approach that contrasts the one used by his predecessors, Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans. The former Dodgers general manager combs the waiver wire, is reluctant to hand out long-term deals and prioritizes pitchers with minor league options to provide the Giants with maximum daily roster flexibility.

Under Zaidi’s lead, the Giants don’t see a problem and immediately attempt to fix it with massive sums of cash. Deals like the ones Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Mark Melancon signed in San Francisco are the way of the past, not the present nor the future.

Zaidi’s pragmatic approach coupled with the Giants’ marvelous results have conditioned fans to believe the team’s top baseball executive is smarter than his peers, which is probably true.

If Zaidi isn’t keen on giving Gausman, who finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting, a five-year contract, then surely the Blue Jays made a bad investment, right?

It’s realistic to think Zaidi has a better idea of how to allocate $110 million in resources over the next five years, but it’s also important to remember that expectations have changed. No, 107 wins won’t be the new standard for the Giants, but competing for division titles and World Series championships on an annual basis is once again part of the equation.

In allowing Gausman, an incredibly popular figure in the clubhouse and with fans, to depart for Toronto, Zaidi and the rest of the front office are taking a gamble. The Giants are allowing an All-Star pitcher to walk with no clear indication they plan to replace him with another high-profile, highly successful starter.

It’s entirely possible the Giants sign American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray or coveted free-agent right-hander Marcus Stroman, but it’s also realistic to think Zaidi and Co. will instead save some money and search for the next Gausman.

Given Kapler’s background in player development and the Giants’ coaching staff’s ability to help players maximize their potential at the major league level, the organization believes a significant component of its future success is helping transform players who have yet to reach their peak.

Gausman loved his time in San Francisco and was clearly open to a reunion, but the Giants have determined they’ll try to reach the mountain top with a slightly different crew moving forward. Giants fans trust Zaidi and Harris to acquire players that will make that possibility more realistic, but they don’t have the luxury of being able to swing and miss.

Since Zaidi assumed his role in November 2018, expectations have gradually increased. It no longer matters what moves the Dodgers or Padres make, because Giants fans have seen a team that was predicted to struggle redefine what’s possible.

Gausman is headed elsewhere, but regardless of who Zaidi tabs to take his place in the Giants’ rotation, fans expect the team will remain a contender.

Anything less will be a major disappointment.

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