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In with the old: Giants leaning on ex-Pirate Andrew McCutchen, other veterans

| Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, 8:05 p.m.
Former Pirates Andrew McCutchen poses on photo day Feb. 20, 2018 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
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Former Pirates Andrew McCutchen poses on photo day Feb. 20, 2018 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Shortly after the San Francisco Giants acquired Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates in mid-January, pitcher Jeff Samardzija set up a group chat to help him with the transition. Then the club gave McCutchen his old uniform No. 22, with the blessing of longtime fan favorite Will Clark. And at spring training, the newcomer was greeted by living legend Willie Mays.

Those gestures made McCutchen feel more comfortable in his new environment after nine seasons with the Pirates, but not as much as looking around the clubhouse and finding a number of familiar contemporaries.

Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Hunter Pence and former teammate Mark Melancon. All are in their 30s, just like McCutchen. All were his National League All-Star teammates at some point. Once McCutchen got over the shock of being traded by the Pirates, the only pro franchise he'd ever known, this felt like the right fit.

In trying to bounce back from a 64-98 season, their second-worst in the San Francisco era, the Giants defied the game's trend toward youth and added four players past their 31st birthday in McCutchen, third baseman Evan Longoria, outfielder Austin Jackson and reliever Tony Watson, another ex-Pirate.

“It's awesome. I like that they did that because I came from a team that was trending in the other direction,” McCutchen said. “I came to a team that had an even worse season than the Pirates, and instead of (the Giants) going, ‘Oh, we need to get rid of you,' they said, ‘No, let's make the team better.' That's pretty exciting.”

But is it wise?

The last three World Series champions — the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — captured the title after extensive revamping of their rosters, infusing young talent into the organization but enduring several losing seasons while those players developed.

That has become a widely copied model throughout the game, with about 10 teams in overhaul mode.

The worst place to be, many in the industry believe, is getting stuck between contending and rebuilding, loaded down by a bloated payroll, short on impact prospects and far from contending for the division crown.

That may well describe the Giants, who at 94-140 have the majors' worst record since the 2016 All-Star break.

When first baseman Brandon Belt turns 30 on April 20, the Giants will field seven regulars — all but second baseman Joe Panik — who have entered their fourth decade on earth.

The San Francisco brass, determined to continue filling out AT&T Park, resisted calls for a teardown, arguing the team's core was still in its prime. Other than Pence (34), none of the core position players is older than 32.

“You read about it a lot, people questioning why the team wasn't blown up after the horrendous season we had last year,” Posey said. “I'm grateful I'm with an organization that's still trying to get back to the pinnacle of baseball.”

The Giants reached that exalted level three times in the first five years of this decade, and not once did they have the league's best record or were regarded as the top team. In 2014 they claimed championship No. 3 as a wild card and had to beat the Pirates on the road to advance to the division series.

Along the way, those San Francisco clubs learned what it takes to win on the biggest stage, whether it's a Cody Ross here, a Marco Scutaro there or Madison Bumgarner's heroics elsewhere. A team-first mentality was forged.

Some influential figures from the trifecta remain — Posey, Bumgarner and, in a lesser capacity, Pablo Sandoval — as well as winners of two rings like Pence, Crawford and Belt.

McCutchen believes that pedigree makes a difference.

“This is a place where they understand winning culture,” he said. “You're not showing up here to get a paycheck. You're here to win. That's what it's all about here. I figured that out pretty quickly.”

But there are plenty of questions about whether that stretch of consistent winning is a thing of the past, and whether the Giants are just putting off a much-needed rejuvenation. Last year they failed to keep up with the big league-wide surge in power hitting, ranking last in home runs by a wide margin.

Pence, Crawford and Belt are coming off down seasons, the latter hampered by a concussion. Even Posey, who won a Silver Slugger award, hit only 12 home runs, his fewest ever in a full season.

And the pitching staff, the backbone of those championships, fell apart for reasons that went beyond the shoulder injury that sidelined Bumgarner for nearly three months. San Francisco's 4.50 ERA, which ranked eighth in the league, was nearly a run higher than the year before and its worst since 2006.

Manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged an attitude adjustment was necessary after the 2017 pratfall.

“It's going to be important we do some things different, and that's on the mental side or the attitude side,” he said. “When you get these (new) guys, they know they're going to impact our club, make us a better club. And our pitching staff, we're going to be better defensively. That's going to do a lot for their confidence. That's what the offseason can bring, a new hope when you add players like this.”

Their credentials are impressive, especially those of McCutchen — the 2013 NL MVP — and Longoria, a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Both come from clubs where they were known as the undisputed faces of the franchise, but they're happy — even eager — to yield that distinction in San Francisco to Posey. Longoria calls it “a good burden lifted.”

More important than any designations will be their production, which recently has not been on par with their prime years. Longoria has posted an on-base plus slugging percentage below .770 in three of the last four seasons, 2016 being the exception.

McCutchen, who has moved from center to right field, dropped to a career-low .766 OPS in 2016 before recovering with an .849 mark and 28 home runs last season.

Bumgarner said the new additions have reinvigorated the club, and the reverse is true as well.

Longoria, who played in front of the smallest average home crowds in the majors each of the last six seasons — typically under 16,000 — is looking forward to turnouts twice that size.

“It is energizing, definitely,” he said of the move to San Francisco. “Just from the fan base alone, being able to play in front of 35,000-plus a night, that brings energy itself. The excitement of the fans, the pace of the city, all of the other things that go along with playing in a big market, yeah, they're definitely energizing.”

The Giants believe smart management of playing time, along with the club's innovative approach toward sleep and the added days off this season, will help keep the mature squad fresh and energized.

They'll need those traits to present any kind of challenge in the NL West, likely baseball's toughest division after sending three teams to the playoffs in 2017. The Los Angeles Dodgers, winners of five consecutive division crowns, once again project as the favorites, and the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies also look like contenders.

In the face of that challenge, Bumgarner said he likes the Giants' offseason acquisitions. Bumgarner, who in 2010 became the fourth-youngest pitcher to win a World Series game at age 21, is now a convert to the notion that experience trumps youth.

“I'd rather have a guy that's been there, any time,” Bumgarner said. “I was a young player being on this stage for the first time, and I would have argued with you then. But I would much rather have a guy who's been there.”

The Giants have quite a few of those.

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