Three weeks into the season, noticing the San Francisco Giants were sneaking up on the Dodgers, I sent a text message to Farhan Zaidi.
“Dude,” I asked, “are you guys actually good?”
Zaidi responded, “You just want a good Dodger-trolling story, leave me alone.”
I imagined him giggling as he typed that. Because Zaidi is a giggler.
The MIT graduate was a giggler when he was second in line to Andrew Friedman with the Dodgers. He remains a giggler as the third-year president of baseball operations of the overachieving San Francisco Giants, who dropped back into a dead heat for first place in the National League West after a 6-1 defeat to his former team on Saturday night at Oracle Park.
Predictably, Zaidi giggled on his team’s bench at Oracle Park when I showed him our text exchange from April. He giggled when I told him he wouldn’t be taking a victory lap in this column, since the Dodgers were bound to overtake his team down the final stretch of the regular season.
His trademark laughter is why the Dodgers should be nervous, maybe not about this year, but about next year and several years after that.
The giggle is him not feeling threatened by what others say, do, or write. The giggle is confidence.
“The Dodgers have a great team,” Zaidi said. “It’s a team that has a lot of great talent. By the way, that’s the product of good scouting, good player development, good coaching, good management, good work by the front office. So anybody that tries to diminish what they’ve done because of payroll or anything else, that’s total nonsense. So, look, I have a ton of respect for them as an organization and as a team. You know, we can have respect for them and say these nice things about them but also try to compete with them, which is what we trying to do.”
He shifted his focus to his own team.
“We’ve exceeded expectations, even our own internal expectations, to this point,” Zaidi said, “but we thought we were going to be competitive.”
What does that mean? That he expected them to be a .500 team?
“No, be in a position to be competing for a playoff spot even at this point, whether it was a wild card or the division or whatever,” he said. “We talk a lot about playing meaningful games as late in the season as possible. So, we expected to do that.”
The industry also expected it, just not this quickly, not in the third year of a complete rebuild of one of baseball’s last old-school franchises.
The season before Zaidi was hired by the Giants, they were fourth in the NL West. The season before that, they were last.
Zaidi has transformed them into a team threatening to prevent the Dodgers from capturing their ninth consecutive division championship and he has done it without signing or trading for any superstars.
“They’re just balanced,” Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts said.
The Giants entered Saturday as the NL leaders in home runs with 201, but without any player with more than 21. They have 10 players with 10 or more homers. Their roster is made up of resurgent veterans such as Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford, and former castoffs such as Mike Yastrzemski and Darin Ruf, who are to the Giants what Max Muncy and Chris Taylor are to the Dodgers.
The team’s opening day payroll was around $150 million, of which more than $90 million was earmarked for five players whom Zaidi inherited from the previous regime. The Giants have less than $40 million in salary commitments for next season, giving them the financial flexibility necessary to shop in the high end of a free-agent market that will include Corey Seager, Freddie Freeman, Carlos Correa, Javy Baez, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien and Max Scherzer.
Right now, the Dodgers still have an edge over the Giants in high-end talent; Zaidi will be able to close that gap over the winter.
“One way that I think the success we’ve had this season is going to impact us in the positive way is, I think, players around the game are seeing what’s happening in your team, reading about [manager Gabe Kapler] and the coaching staff, and reading our players comments on how they feel like they’ve helped them become better players in some cases,” Zaidi said. “That’s really attractive to free agents. They don’t want to just sign some somewhere where they want to be geographically. They want to sign with a competitive team and they want to sign to the team that they think is going to help them be the best version of themselves. And that’s become a much bigger part of the recruiting process than it was even five, 10 years ago.”
Which doesn’t mean the Giants are expecting to overhaul their roster entirely in the coming years. As part of a Dodgers front office that constructed teams that reached the World Series in 2017 and 2018, Zaidi said he gained an appreciation for the value of continuity.
Pointing to what players such as Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner have meant to the Dodgers, Zaidi said, “I think it just creates the stability for the organization, it creates an identity in the clubhouse, and it actually makes it easier to incorporate new players, whether coming up from the minor leagues or coming from outside the organization when they feel like there’s a stable group.”
The final month of the regular season won’t mark the end in the race between the Dodgers and Giants. The competition is just starting, with Zaidi promising to be giggling architect of the team that scares his former employers.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.