Giants chairman Greg Johnson on this year’s upswing, Farhan Zaidi and that ‘break even’ comment

The San Francisco Giants will not break even financially this season. Wait, let me check the secret accounting, too: Yeah, they will not somewhat break even, either. The ownership group knew that when it approved a winter-and-spring spending spree that pushed the payroll into the luxury tax, and there’s no way around that now.

Which should probably be the most important thing for any analysis of chairman Greg Johnson’s actions, thoughts and words on this topic. But it’s all dwarfed by one loaded phrase uttered late last October. Nobody knows that more than Johnson, who infamously said during Bob Melvin’s otherwise celebratory introductory presser that the ownership group’s goal is to “somewhat break even” — and has been torched by Giants fans ever since.

I’ll point out here that I was in the room when Johnson said the words and knew it would cause a bit of a ruckus but also didn’t think it was much different than what any owner thinks at any time. Of course, people with a lot of money and power want to make more money. Of course, many sports owners exercise this inclination to the detriment of their team’s chances to win.

But the huge stumble in this situation was that Johnson — officially listed as the Giants’ “control person” in league matters — said it out loud at a time when Giants fans, after two non-playoff seasons and eyeing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ financial and competitive empire, were in no mood to hear even minor hesitations about expanding the payroll.

“I’ll say it was a naïve statement by a control person that learned a lesson not to use that word ever again,” Johnson said slightly ruefully but also without bitterness on my podcast earlier this week. “And I won’t use that word ever again. I was just making a point again that we represent a group of investors and we’d rather not lose money every year. But I think what we’ve shown is that this group’s mission is to win championships. And we will lose money to do that.

“And I made a comment: We’d like to break even. I said that’s pretty hard to do. Oh, I just said the word again, that was terrible.”

He was joking with that last comment, by the way. Which led me to add that “break even” is actually two words, not one.

“Yeah, two words, sorry,” Johnson said. “But you’ll never hear that out of me again. And I think we backed that up. I think the point I made is in the right situation, we will go (into the) luxury tax. And we … did that this year because we thought it was the appropriate thing to do to build a competitive team this year. And we’re going to continue to do that.”

The proof is that Giants ownership approved Farhan Zaidi spending over $300 million in long-term free-agent contracts last offseason for Jung Hoo Lee, Jordan Hicks, Jorge Soler and, in the middle of spring training, Matt Chapman and Blake Snell. That sent the Giants into the luxury tax and also into the top 10 of MLB payrolls. Which the Giants could do more nonchalantly in the past when they were getting sellouts every game at Oracle Park.

So there’s still some awkwardness between Johnson and the large, often cantankerous Giants fan base, and that goes beyond the “break even” comments. Some of this is happening because Giants fans don’t really know Johnson, who keeps a very low profile and is still mainly a mystery even among Giants fans more than four years after he moved into the control role.

Johnson isn’t exactly as gregarious. He has a dry and occasionally clipped conversational style and certainly doesn’t go out of his way to meet people too far outside of the Giants’ orbit. But Johson is also leading a group that very much wants to win, that has never shown evidence that it wants to run a cheap operation and skim profits, and that often approaches decision-making more like fans than cut-throat corporate barons.

So Greg, can you confirm that the Giants will definitely not make a profit this year?

“Well, you know, maybe (with) a World Series win,” Johnson said. “I don’t know, but it’s a fair statement to say we will not be making a profit this year.”

Is it possible that ownership would approve adding even more money at the trade deadline if the right player is available to fill the right spot?

“Yeah, I think you can always go up,” Johnson said. “I mean, I think to me, it’s really, where are we around that trade deadline? And health and injuries play into that. To me, one of the biggest issues we have is the 40-man roster and too many people that we could argue should be on that. … I think Farhan is very thoughtful and very careful about that.

“But if we see a need, a gap that we have to (fill) to be competitive, sure, you’ll step up.”

Fans don’t care about economic and paperwork details, of course. They just want to win. They want to watch entertaining baseball. They want reasons to care, which the Giants have given them in the past. And the Giants, as much as any team in the league, depend on home attendance to keep this thing going. As Johnson notes, the Giants’ average crowd dipped to 30,866 last season, long after the go-go days when they were perennially averaging more than 40,000 per game and always in the top five.

So far this season, the average crowd has ticked up to 33,512, helped by the team’s recent surge into a wild-card spot and some young players that fans have been waiting to see. That’s more money for the ownership group and more money, potentially, to spend at the deadline or in the future.

“I think that’s part of the reasons why we went out and made some aggressive moves in the offseason, to bring in the kind of people that draw fans,” Johnson said. “And I think it’s very unfortunate for somebody like Jung Hoo Lee, who I think the fans were just starting to really appreciate. He’s an exciting player. He’s got a personality. He’s just the kind of person that fans can get behind. And unfortunately, we lost him early (to a shoulder injury).

“But at the end of the day, the ballpark and the fan support is the major part of our revenue. So we’ve got to make sure that we keep fans engaged and have a competitive and interesting baseball team. And I think we put that together this year. And that was part of our thinking in the offseason.”

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On the “break even” comment: “I think the point I made is in the right situation, we will go (into the) luxury tax. And we … did that.” (Suzanna Mitchell / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)

Things didn’t start out well this season, of course. The low point came when the Giants were swept in Philadelphia early in May, which knocked them down to 15-21, and, even worse, was full evidence of a team that looked just as slow and non-dynamic as last year’s team. But through a tough wave of injuries, the Giants got a burst from several young players and have gone 14-7 since then — and 10-3 since May 14.

They’re still several steps below the Dodgers, but the Giants are back in a very competitive race with the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks for NL West positioning, with the chance to go higher when and if injured starting pitchers Robbie Ray and Alex Cobb make it into the rotation and Snell can put together some solid starts.

“I think, like most fans, I’m feeling a lot better right now,” Johnson said. “You know, I think it was a little bit frustrating at the start of the season … a lot of new bodies in there, and probably pressing a little bit more than they need to. And I think, at the end of the day, is that the team remained confident and, you know, BoMel (Melvin) kept things positive.”

Does he consider it mandatory that the Giants make the playoffs this year?

“I think it’s mandatory every year for us to be hopeful of making the playoffs. I think we’ve got a team that should make the playoffs,” Johnson said. “It’s very competitive in the National League West. There’s a lot of good teams vying for those wild-card spots, so it’s going to be a good race. But I think we should make the playoffs this year. And I think if we do make the playoffs, and we get some pitching back and get a Robbie Ray back in the second half and Cobb back, we could have one of the most formidable pitching staffs in baseball.”

Some other highlights from our 29-minute conversation …

• I asked Johnson to elaborate on the discussions he and Zaidi had at the end of last season, when they fired Gabe Kapler, were preparing to hire Melvin but also wanted to make sure future teams were more competitive and entertaining and had more stable lineups and pitching rotations than the 2022 and 2023 Giants.

“I think it was a discussion we all had,” Johnson said. “I do think the team we had to put out there and how we approached it over the last few years was just a result of the kind of mix of players we had. And having platoon (players), having to bring people up and down and switching people around, we know that’s not great for fan engagement.

“And I think part of it, having Bob Melvin in there, who has a little bit (of preference) for putting pitchers in there a little bit longer, putting position players in and then going out and getting position players that can be the ones playing, regardless if it’s a righty or lefty, and be out there more. It’s just better for the fans.

“We listened to the fans and we heard the criticism. And we saw the drop in attendance. We dropped down to 17th last year. We’re up to (eighth) this year. So I think it’s working. And the fans seem excited. And we’re just thrilled to have people back in the park. And all that helps the decisions in the offseason.”

Bob Melvin

On the change from Gabe Kapler to Bob Melvin: “We heard the criticism. And we saw the drop in attendance. … We’re up to (eighth) this year. So I think it’s working.” (Eric Risberg / AP)

• After those talks with Zaidi last October, the Giants extended Zaidi’s contract two more years through the 2026 season, matching Melvin’s three-year deal. Zaidi built the 2021 team that won 107 games, but the Giants missed the playoffs the past two seasons. How does Johnson evaluate Zaidi’s performance so far?

“It really goes back to the farm system and what he inherited — just didn’t have a lot coming up,” Johnson said of Zaidi taking over in November 2018. “And we had to make a lot of smaller moves, continue to move people around. And again, that’s not great for player engagement. But if you look at the kind of players, you know, the Lamonte Wades, the Thairo Estradas. … He was criticized for drafting Patrick Bailey at the time (in 2020). People forget that and said, why are you drafting a catcher? You know, we already have a No. 1 pick (Joey Bart, selected No. 2 overall in 2018).

“And I think he is going to make decisions that may not be popular at times but ones that are right for the organization. And I think going out and getting Patrick Bailey was an example of him finding the best talent that he saw out there and bringing that into the organization. And I think we’ve been well served.

“And I would say, looking at the minor-league depth we have and how these players are moving up and looking at the depth of pitching we have, I think we’re among the best right now in baseball. So I think a lot of that should be attributed to Farhan. And the fact that we stayed competitive with a team that didn’t have that lift from the farm system, I think is a testament to Farhan as well.”

• The Giants have famously tried and failed to land a long list of big-name hitters over the last few years, from Bryce Harper to Aaron Judge to Shohei Ohtani. Johnson volunteered one potential common reason.

“I don’t think it’s any negative on Farhan or any negative on the team’s approach,” Johnson said. “We were aggressive in going after them. We didn’t get them. And remember that our park is not viewed as one of the easy parks to hit home runs in. So to go get a Bryce Harper or a Ohtani, or a Judge for that matter, I think we’re the fifth-hardest park to hit home runs in Major League Baseball. So that makes it a little bit more difficult to go out there and get a home-run hitter. We’re pleased with where we are. We were aggressive in going after them and that’s all we can really do.”

• Does Johnson think the negative perception of the city of San Francisco in some viewpoints has been part of the difficulty in landing a big free agent?

“It’s hard to say,” Johnson said, “but at the end of the day, I think it’s really more about the ballpark and just home runs and ease of hitting home runs going after those big players, the big home-run hitters.”

• Johnson repeated that the farm system inherited by Zaidi in 2018 was near rock bottom. Though Zaidi hasn’t been able to produce a steady line of potential stars in his tenure, Johnson notes that the recent performances by Bailey, Kyle Harrison, Luis Matos, Heliot Ramos and others, plus the prospects moving up the system now, are signs of better times to come.

“I just think it speaks to the depth of the organization and really the farm system, which has been a weakness, really, for us,” Johnson said. “And we’ve really tried to Band-Aid a team together through free agency to stay competitive. And we haven’t had that lift from the farm system.

“I think hardcore fans, we’re more familiar with maybe Matos and Ramos and (Marco) Luciano than we are with some of our starters, because we’ve watched these guys. We’ve been watching their development. We knew they were very close. They’re still very young. And you don’t want to push guys up too quickly. But I think we always felt confident that these players could be the players for our future. And I think it just bodes well. I think anytime you bring youth up and bring that energy up, it just lifts the whole team. And I think that’s what we’re seeing right now.”

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On Farhan Zaidi: “The fact that we stayed competitive with (little help) from the farm system, I think is a testament to Farhan.” (Suzanna Mitchell / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)

• Johnson didn’t shed much light on the Giants’ extremely controversial parting last March with longtime beloved PA announcer Renel Brooks-Moon, but he knew I was going to ask the question and didn’t ask me not to. So I’ll give him that. Here’s his answer:

“I think, for first of all, I have a lot of confidence in our management team, and I think anytime somebody who is such a high-profile part of the Giants, and she certainly has been a huge part of the Giants, and we hope she continues to be, I support that decision. And that’s really all I can say on that. And I would say that we are going to celebrate Renel’s incredible career, 24 years in that booth. Name the booth after her. My understanding is she’s going to go to the Rickwood game (on June 20, when the Giants play the Cardinals in Birmingham, Ala., as part of a tribute to the Negro Leagues and the park in which Willie Mays began his professional career) as well, and we still hope that she’s very much a part of the Giants in our future. And just thank her for all she’s done in the 24 years she served the Giants.”

I asked: Was there any conflict between your father Charles Johnson’s politics and Brooks-Moon, who has taken strong stances on social justice?

“Absolutely not,” Greg Johnson said. “The ownership does not get involved in those kind of decisions, and that would be inappropriate to do that.”

• Charles Johnson, who remains the Giants’ principal owner, continues to make donations to far-right political candidates and causes. I don’t consider this a major issue for the Giants because people are free to believe in and support whatever they want and because I don’t think there’s any overlap between Charles Johnson’s political views and the way the Giants do business. I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that. But I understand that Giants fans can wonder about this or choose not to support the team owned by somebody who seems extremely out of touch with Bay Area sensibilities and values.

“My view is that baseball and sports brings people together of all views,” Greg Johnson said. “And the more we try to go red vs. blue to divide orange vs. black, is a huge mistake. And I would say that we should focus on the Giants and baseball and not get into political views.”

• Another PR problem: Also in March, after much outrage, the Giants had to reverse course and announce that the commemorative bricks next to the Willie McCovey statue alongside McCovey Cove would be physically replaced, not simply turned into a digital kiosk, as had been the original plan once the bricks were destroyed during new development. Many fans had purchased the bricks when they were installed in 2002 in memory of loved ones, with messages inscribed.

“It’s my understanding that when they did the park there, the China Basin Park, the tiles could not be removed in a way to keep them,” Johnson said. “I think we didn’t handle it in the best way to make sure that those that donated for those tiles understood that there would be another solution to that. And I know we’re working towards that, where each of the names will be visible for those that had those tiles. So I think it could’ve been handled better and we’re doing our best to fix it.”

• There’s one towering figure who vouches for Johnson’s credibility: Buster Posey, who has been brought in by Johnson as an investor and advisor. I talked to Posey recently about their friendship. This week, I asked Johson about how this all developed.

“Obviously Buster, with his reputation, I think he’s such a level-headed, reasonable person to go in there and just open up the lines of communication,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of issues during COVID (when Posey was playing) with how we were going to handle the payrolls and things. And I think he’s just a very thoughtful person and a very candid and open person. And that’s what I really appreciate. The more I’ve been around him, the more impressed I’ve been with him, that he adds so much value to our team. He cares so much about the Giants.”

Posey moved back to the Bay Area with his family this year. Could Johnson see Posey taking on a larger leadership role in management?

“I think we could,” Johnson said. “I think he’s doing what he wants to do right now, which is spending more time with his young children and finishing his degree, which I certainly applaud, for now. I think he’s still very much learning the business side of baseball. And it’s really up to him what role he would take in the future. But we’d love to see him take a bigger role.”



Giants farm director Kyle Haines on Bishop, Bednar, Eldridge, McCray, Martin, and more

(Photo of Greg Johnson in 2022: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

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