The Giants have declined their club options over outfielders Nori Aoki and Marlon Byrd, according to tweets from Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News (link) and CSN Bay Area’s Alex Pavlovic (link). Aoki’s $5.5MM option will be bought out for $700K, while Byrd’s option did not come with a buyout.
San Francisco is open to re-signing Aoki, Baggarly notes, also adding in a second tweet that Aoki was completely cleared of the concussion symptoms that cut his 2015 season short. Pavlovic quotes Giants GM Bobby Evans as saying that right now, the club’s focus is on “keeping our options open in a number of areas.”
While the Giants can maintain interest in bringing Aoki back into the fold, that strikes me as an unlikely scenario, as it’s difficult to envision Aoki receiving a smaller guarantee than the $5.5MM base rejected by the team. Though the concussion symptoms are cause for concern, Aoki enjoyed a productive season with the Giants, batting .287/.353/.380 with five homers and 14 stolen bases in 93 games (392 plate appearances). Defensive Runs Saved pegged Aoki’s work in left field as roughly average, whereas Ultimate Zone Rating felt he saved between three and four runs with his glove. While that adds up to more of a useful regular than a star outfielder, Aoki certainly produced a good deal of value and would figure to be a candidate for either a multi-year deal or a one-year pact with a bigger guarantee, health permitting.
Admittedly, we saw last winter that the market didn’t necessarily place full value on Aoki’s low-power, high-contact skill set (hence the $4.7MM guarantee with the Giants), and perhaps that will be the case again this year. Even if that’s true to some extent, I’d imagine that the five homers hit by Aoki quieted at least some of the concerns over his dip in power after he homered just once in 132 games with the Royals in 2014.
Plus, the large amounts of success the Royals have experienced by deploying a contact-oriented lineup — of which Aoki was a part in 2014 — would seem to help the 33-year-old’s case. Among players with at least 350 plate appearances, Aoki’s 6.4 strikeout rate was easily the lowest in baseball, with Daniel Murphy checking in second-lowest at 7.1 percent. It’s probably not surprising, in light of that stat, to see that Aoki ranked third in contact percentage, connecting in some regard on 91.6 percent of his swings this past season.
In the end, though, Baggarly writes that the Giants simply weren’t comfortable committing to Aoki as their regular left fielder this early in the offseason. Evans explained to Baggarly: “The timing is bad because we have a lot of things to address this winter and a lot of things we want to look at, and it’s about keeping our options open. To predetermine left field today is just premature.” That’s a valid stance. Aoki is a nice player, but it’s not as if he cannot be upgraded upon, and with the team expected to pursue pitching upgrades, all the payroll space they can get is important. I can’t help but wonder if the option could’ve been exercised with the intention of trading Aoki, but the team didn’t have much time to explore that market before making the final call on the option, and Aoki’s concussion probably did make that more difficult.
Byrd, meanwhile, began the year in a huge slump with the Reds and found himself hitting just .169/.188/.273 at the end of April. The 38-year-old turned things around from that point on, however, batting .261/.308/.485 with 21 homers over his final 114 games. Byrd suffered a minor fracture in his wrist early this summer but returned quicker than expected and without a stint on the disabled list. To the surprise of many (myself included), Byrd showed little to no ill effect from the injury and continued producing at a solid clip.
Cincinnati traded Byrd to the Giants in an August waiver deal, receiving minor league right-hander Stephen Johnson in return. While the thought at the time of the acquisition was that Byrd would hold down the fort until Aoki and/or Hunter Pence were healthy enough to step into more regular roles, their injuries kept them on shelf longer than expected, leading to regular playing time for Byrd until the season’s final week.
That led to some drama surrounding the veteran Byrd, whose contract had an $8MM vesting option that came extraordinarily close to triggering. Byrd needed to reach 550 plate appearances in the 2015 season to lock in that $8MM payday, but he ultimately fell six plate appearances shy after the Giants decided not to start him in the final few games of the year. Evans was up-front with both Byrd and the media, explaining that as long as the team had a theoretical shot at the postseason, Byrd would continue to play. However, once the Dodgers eliminated the Giants from playoff contention, the Giants turned to younger options such as Jarrett Parker and Mac Williamson in order to get a look at the pair of prospects in game action.
San Francisco was said at the time to be open to bringing Byrd back next season, but I’d imagine that the rather uncomfortable end to the season will lead Byrd to explore his options on the open market, where he should draw plenty of interest as a platoon outfield bat, albeit probably at a guarantee that falls shy of the $8MM value of his option. Byrd fared quite well against left-handed pitching in 2015, as he typically does, posting a strong .271/.324/.476 line against southpaws.