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Why Giants’ Jordan Hicks signing is latest proof the franchise is out of ideas

Once again, an offseason that began with big dreams has ended in a whole lot of wheel-spinning in San Francisco.

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Jordan Hicks (12) pitches the eighth inning as the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Boston Red Sox 3-0 at Rogers Centre in Toronto. September 15, 2023. Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

On the surface, it sounds sensible enough: The San Francisco Giants are signing hard-throwing righty Jordan Hicks to a four-year, $44 million deal, per a report from ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Friday afternoon. San Francisco needed to supplement its bullpen, and Hicks was one of the best options available — arguably the best behind Josh Hader. Both the years and money were a little aggressive maybe, sure, but given Hicks’ age (just 27) and late-inning track record (3.29 ERA with 12 saves across 65.2 innings with the Cardinals and Blue Jays last season), it’s hardly an egregious contract. This is the going rate for proven back-end relievers, and there weren’t many back-end relievers available this winter.

But then you get to the second sentence in Passan’s tweet, and things get awfully confusing. The Giants reportedly aren’t signing Hicks to be a reliever. They’re signing him to be a starter.

What makes this particularly puzzling is that Hicks — like many pitching prospects before and after him — only wound up in the bullpen in the first place after flaming out as a starter. He was drafted as a starter by St. Louis in the third round of the 2015 draft, and the Cardinals kept him there for his first couple of years in the Minors. As time went on, though, it became clear that his Major League future lied in the bullpen. Hicks made the team’s Opening Day roster as a 21-year-old back in 2018 and quickly became a sensation, with a fastball that routinely ran up as high as 105 mph. He appeared in 102 games across his first two seasons, pitching to a 3.47 ERA and racking up 20 saves before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2019.

Hicks opted out of the abbreviated 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, then had his 2021 campaign cut short after just 10 innings because of another elbow injury. When he came back in the spring of 2022, the Cardinals decided to give him one last crack at earning a rotation spot; Jack Flaherty’s injury problems left them in need of a starter, and Hicks won the No. 5 job out of camp. Almost immediately, everyone realized why he’d been moved to the bullpen in the first place: The righty posted a 5.84 ERA over seven starts, topping out at just 82 pitches and pitching into the fifth inning exactly once. When Hicks returned from a stint on the injured list, St. Louis moved him back to the ‘pen full-time, where he’s remained ever since — with excellent results in 2023, pitching big innings for the Blue Jays down the stretch and helping Toronto snag a Wild Card spot. At this point, the evidence as to where Hicks is best suited seems pretty clear-cut, right?

Apparently not, at least according to Giants president Farhan Zaidi. No one can deny that San Francisco is in need of a rotation upgrade — no team got less from its starters in 2023 than the Giants, with a league-low 729.1 innings pitched. With Alex Cobb (hip) and new trade acquisition Robbie Ray (Tommy John) both expected to miss the start of the 2024 season while rehabbing from injury, there’s precious little in the way of certainty behind stalwart Logan Webb. It’s the reason why the team was reportedly all-in on landing Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and why they were long considered the frontrunners for Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga.

But Yamamoto spurned them for the rival Dodgers. Then, at the last moment, Zaidi dropped out of the running for Imanaga, allowing him to sign with the Cubs instead. Marcus Stroman went to the Yankees for $37 million guaranteed — seven less than Hicks is set to get in San Francisco. The other two options left on the market, Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, seem all but certain to wind up elsewhere. All of which leaves the Giants ... basically right back where they started: Stuck in .500 purgatory, with a largely anonymous roster sorely lacking star power and a sketchy rotation that will need to be cobbled together all season long. (Ross Stripling, Keaton Winn and rookie Kyle Harrison are likely to line up behind Webb to start the year, which is Not Great, to put it mildly.)

With the temperature on his seat rising after a second straight disappointing season, Zaidi entered the winter vowing that this time would be different. San Francisco was done playing bridesmaid to the league’s impact talent; they were going to make a splash, whether that was Yamamoto or Shohei Ohtani or someone else. And yet, when push came to shove, the Giants were once again unable to close the deal. Some of that is undoubtedly bad luck: Zaidi appears to have done all he could to land Ohtani and Yamamoto, each of whom simply had their hearts set on playing in Los Angeles. But they had their hearts set on playing in Los Angeles rather than San Francisco, at least in part, because San Francisco keeps doing things like ... well, like paying Jordan Hicks $44 million to be a starter rather than signing an actual starter.

Maybe Zaidi will be vindicated with this deal, laughing at the rest of us as Hicks does in fact make it work in the rotation. As it stands right now, though, there’s very little reason to think that will happen. For starters, the righty lacks a third pitch to complement his power sinker and new sweeper. He’s also battled command issues throughout his career: Hicks ranks in the second percentile in strike percentage since breaking into the league in 2018; he ranked 14th in strike percentage in 2023, entirely as a reliever. These are the sorts of things that you can make work out of the bullpen, facing three or four batters per outing. They’re the sorts of things that cause real problems as a starter, trying to go deep into games and facing a lineup multiple times.

But beyond the failure of evaluation here is a failure of process. Zaidi’s time at the helm in San Francisco has been defined by an obsession with his own intelligence — and proving that intelligence to everyone around him. He’s like baseball’s embodiment of the galaxy-brain meme, convinced that he’s able to see bargains and value where no one else can. This defined the Giants’ offseason last year, when they came away with injury-plagued players like Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger that they were sure they could keep healthy ... only to watch them miss a combined 138 games, while other adds like Joc Pederson and Sean Manaea failed to move the needle.

Sometimes, the simplest answer is, in fact, the best answer. The Giants have no shortage of money to spend, but rather than spend it on proven commodities — confident they can fill the gaps around them by developing homegrown talent — Zaidi spreads it around, winding up with a product that is rarely bad but almost always mediocre. It would be one thing if, like the Rays and others, his dart throws had a habit of working out. But miraculous 2021 season aside, the players he brings in instead mostly perform exactly as they did elsewhere, and the result is some deeply uninspiring baseball. It seemed like two years of missing the playoffs may have served as a wake-up call, but instead San Francisco fans are in for more of the same.