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A disastrous 2017 season could have the Giants looking for some big moves this winter to try and spur a quick return to contention.
- Buster Posey, C: $85.6MM through 2021 ($22MM club option for 2022 with $3MM buyout)
- Johnny Cueto, SP: $84MM through 2021 ($22MM club option for 2022 with $5MM buyout — Cueto can opt out of contract and receive buyout within three days after conclusion of 2017 World Series)
- Brandon Belt, 1B: $64MM through 2021
- Brandon Crawford, SS: $60MM through 2021
- Jeff Samardzija, SP: $54MM through 2020
- Mark Melancon, RP: $38MM through 2020 (can opt out of deal after 2018 season)
- Hunter Pence, OF: $18.5MM through 2018
- Denard Span, OF: $9MM through 2018 ($12MM mutual option for 2019 with $4MM buyout)
- Matt Moore, SP: $9MM through 2018 ($10MM club option for 2019 with $750K buyout)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Will Smith (4.155) – $2.5MM
- Cory Gearrin (4.136) – $1.6MM
- Sam Dyson (3.142) – $4.6MM
- Joe Panik (3.100) – $3.5MM
- Tim Federowicz (3.022) – $1.3MM
- Hunter Strickland (2.163) – $1.7MM
- Non-tender candidates: Federowicz
- Matt Cain, SP: $21MM club option for 2018, $7.5MM buyout (option will be bought out, with Cain heading into retirement)
- Madison Bumgarner, SP: $12MM club option for 2018 ($1.5MM buyout)
- Pablo Sandoval, 3B: Minimum salary club options for 2018 and 2019 if Sandoval is still on MLB roster at season’s end (the Red Sox will pay the prorated remainder of $41MM owed through 2019)
After investing heavily in free agent signings and lucrative extensions for homegrown players over the last two offseasons, the Giants watched in dismay as virtually all of those core pieces underachieved in 2017. It all added up to a shocking 64-98 record, the worst performance by a San Francisco team since the 1985 squad lost 100 games.
While it isn’t likely that another Murphy’s Law type of season will happen again, there are enough questions surrounding the club’s veteran core that standing pat isn’t an option. The Giants can be pretty confident that they’ll get more than 111 innings from Madison Bumgarner, though they can hardly be sure that all of Johnny Cueto, Mark Melancon and Brandon Belt will be healthy, or that Brandon Crawford and Matt Moore will both return to form.
Some changes are clearly necessary to upgrade a team that finished near the bottom of the league in most offensive categories, including last in homers and OPS and second-to-last in runs and on-base percentage. San Francisco was also one of the league’s worst defensive teams, and recent comments from GM Bobby Evans indicate that the front office is looking to re-establish itself as a pitching-and-defense team first, without selling out that core identity in a pursuit of power hitters.
The outfield is the clearest area of concern, as left field was a revolving door all season and Denard Span and Hunter Pence combined for just 1.9 fWAR as the regulars in center and right field. Defensive metrics haven’t been kind to Span’s center field glovework for years, while Pence’s work in right field has traditionally received above-average UZR/150 grades but below-average marks in terms of Defensive Runs Saved. Since neither player has a strong throwing arm, the Giants are in a tough spot of having two high-priced outfielders best suited for a move to left field.
A free agent like Lorenzo Cain would be a great fit for the Giants’ needs, as the long-time Royal brings a major defensive upgrade to center field and some right-handed balance to the lineup. Even if a big name like Cain is brought in to handle center field, however, simply going with Span and Pence in the corners may not be a recipe for success. The outfield mix could be shaken up entirely with a big trade or two.
As of late August, the Giants were the team with the most interest in Giancarlo Stanton, who is a logical trade candidate for a Marlins team that seems poised for another payroll cut. Stanton has clearly stated that he doesn’t want to be part of another Marlins rebuild, so his no-trade clause probably wouldn’t be an issue, especially since the California native is reportedly open to a move back to the west coast. It also stands to reason that the Giants would ask Miami about Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, with Yelich perhaps being the best fit since he can play center field (even if the defensive metrics weren’t enamored with his glovework in 2017).
All three outfielders would come with big asking prices, and given the Giants’ thin farm system, other teams are better equipped to sway the Marlins with a package of prospects. Stanton may cost the least in terms of players and prospects if a suitor is willing to absorb a significant chunk of the ten years and $295MM remaining on the slugger’s contract (provided Stanton doesn’t opt out after the 2020 season).
The lack of prospects won’t help the Giants in trade talks with the Marlins or other teams with outfielders for sale, and signing Cain or another expensive outfielder in free agency may also be tricky since the Giants have already made a number of long-term commitments. San Francisco has at least $100MM in payroll on the books through the 2020 season, and that isn’t counting the possibility of an extension with Bumgarner. Between guaranteed deals, projected arbitration payouts and the no-brainer pick-up of Bumgarner’s club option, the Giants have roughly $170MM committed to 16 players next year, putting them in danger of surpassing the $197MM luxury tax threshold.
While the Giants have slightly exceeded the tax limit in each of the past two seasons, they’ll face a larger penalty for repeated overages under the new collective bargaining agreement. Like every other team in the game, the Giants also surely want to be under the tax limit to clear their path for next winter and the star-laden 2018-19 free agent class.
(One big salary could still potentially come off the books if Cueto exercises his opt-out clause after the World Series. That said, it’s hard to fathom that Cueto would walk away from a four-year/$84MM guarantee after a season that saw him limited to 147 1/3 IP due to a minor flexor strain and blister issues.)
An existing contract could be moved as part of a trade, either as partial salary relief for someone like Stanton or simply to dump some money on a team willing to absorb a large contract in exchange for some young talent. Complicating this strategy, of course, is that so many of the highest-paid Giants have either full (Melancon, Pence, Crawford, Buster Posey) or partial (Belt, Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija) no-trade clauses, and the club obviously isn’t going to deal cornerstones like Posey or Bumgarner. The likes of Span or Joe Panik could become viable trade candidates almost by default since they’re two of the few notable Giants that can be freely dealt.
Span’s trade value is questionable, with a $9MM salary due in 2018 and so-so numbers last year. If he was traded and the Giants acquired an established center fielder, they could go with internal options in left field (Jarrett Parker, Austin Slater, Mac Williamson and Gorkys Hernandez, plus top prospect Chris Shaw). While Slater and Shaw are promising youngsters, it could be a tough call to entrust the position to unproven players, especially since San Francisco got so little out of its left fielders in 2017.
Moving Panik would open a hole at second base, though there is some question as to whether Panik is a long-term answer for the Giants at the keystone (Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News recently examined the idea of Panik as a trade chip). The second baseman is entering arbitration eligibility for the first time and has posted solid numbers when healthy, though Panik’s history of concussions is a big concern, particularly for a Giants club that has already invested in a first baseman with similar health problems.
Speaking of Belt, he hit well when he was able to play in 2017, but his season was cut short in early August after he suffered the fourth documented concussion of his career. There have been rumblings that manager Bruce Bochy would be open to a change at first base, though Belt’s health issues and the $64MM owed to him through 2021 don’t help his trade value. (Plus, as noted earlier, Belt has partial no-trade protection in the form of a ten-team no-trade list.)
Elsewhere around the infield, Crawford is hoping for a rebound after a down season at the plate (which could possibly have been influenced by much more serious off-the-field concerns). Third base is wide open, with Pablo Sandoval on hand as a veteran option and top prospect Christian Arroyo battling to win the job or at least earn a platoon role.
With this much uncertainty, a multi-positional infielder would be a good fit, and old friend Eduardo Nunez seems like a logical target in free agency. Assuming the Giants don’t make the bold move of shopping Arroyo, Nunez’s versatility doesn’t outright block Arroyo at third base, whereas signing a Mike Moustakas would lock up the position over the long term (and, again, further muddy the luxury tax outlook). A player like Nunez would get the bulk of third base time and, if Arroyo did break out, Nunez could be shifted all around the diamond rather than create a logjam at the position.
Todd Frazier would also make sense as a third base signing, as he wouldn’t require too long a deal and he could also shift over to first in the event that Belt again misses time. (Acquiring an outfielder who can play first base would also help in this regard.) Posey will also get his usual share of time at first in order to keep him fresh, though he is firmly ensconced behind the plate for the foreseeable future. Nick Hundley is a free agent, and there is mutual interest in a reunion between the two sides, so he’s probably the favorite for the backup catching job in 2018 unless he gets offered more playing time elsewhere.
Turning to the rotation, San Francisco has one of baseball’s best one-two punches (when healthy) in Bumgarner and Cueto. Samardzija still hasn’t taken the step forward to become a true front-of-the-rotation pitcher, though he has been durable and generally solid in his two years with the team. The Giants already exercised their $9MM club option on Moore for next season, hoping the southpaw can return to his 2016 form after a rough 2017 season.
Ty Blach and Chris Stratton are the top choices for the fifth starter’s job, and with such inexperienced options in the mix and Moore coming off such a shaky year, the Giants could stand to bolster the back end of their pitching staff. Like every other team in the game, the Giants have an interest in Shohei Otani, though they’ll be limited to offering him a $300K deal (due to exceeding international signing bonus limits in the past) and they don’t have a DH spot to offer the two-way star.
Barring a win in the Otani sweepstakes, the Giants could turn to the free agent market for veterans willing to sign a short-term deal, perhaps to rebuild their value pitching at AT&T Park. Jeremy Hellickson, Chris Tillman, Doug Fister, or Ubaldo Jimenez fit this description, or perhaps Bartolo Colon would like to spend what is probably his final season playing for a potential contender. CC Sabathia is already in the midst of a career renaissance, though the Bay Area native stands out as an intriguing target if he wants to make a homecoming. On the trade front, San Francisco could again look for short-term veteran arms or perhaps go bigger by asking about a controllable young starter (i.e. Julio Teheran, Jake Odorizzi). The latter option, of course, could again by limited by the Giants’ relative lack of available young talent.
The Giants’ bullpen was a problem area last year, thanks in large part to Melancon’s injury-plagued season and Will Smith missing the whole year recovering from Tommy John surgery. The pen will improve simply by dint of those two relievers being back in the mix (Smith is tentatively expected to return in May), joining the right-handed trio of Cory Gearrin, Hunter Strickland and Sam Dyson atop the bullpen depth chart. I’d expect San Francisco to target at least one more left-handed reliever given Smith’s status. The team could shop on the free-agent market for one southpaw (e.g. Tony Watson, Brian Duensing, Jake McGee) and then turn to internal options (such as Josh Osich, Steven Okert or Blach) for further left-handed depth.
With so much talent on hand and big contracts on the books, the Giants don’t really have any choice but to try and compete in 2018. As the Tigers or the pre-rebuild Phillies could tell you, this can be a dangerous spot for a team, though a teardown would also seem awfully hasty. The Giants’ front office faces a challenge in fixing a roster that they didn’t at all think was broken heading into 2017, and it remains to be seen if the team is just one or two additions away from contending or if a more thorough roster shuffle is coming.