After a Third World Championship, Brian Sabean Still Has Work to Do

By: Ben Leonard 

Follow Ben on Twitter @BenLeonard1818

Despite winning three World Series titles in the last five years, the Giants are by no means infallible. Potential holes include left field, starting pitcher, right-handed relief, and third base.  Brian Sabean has shown a reluctance to dole out lucrative long-term contracts to newly-acquired players ever since the fiasco with Barry Zito, but is not afraid to re-sign his home-grown players. Fan-favorites like Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval, Michael Morse, Ryan Vogelsong, and Jake Peavy are all on the open market. Brian Sabean is left with some difficult personnel decisions to make before the winter is over, ones that could drastically change the shape of the team.

While Michael Morse would be a nice piece for an AL team as a designated hitter, his atrocious defense rendered him unusable at home in the World Series. Furthermore, he would command a more lucrative contract than the one year, six million dollar deal he signed this offseason.  Among outfielders with at least 400 plate appearances, Morse was the fourth worst in terms of Fangraph’s defensive WAR component, at a laughably awful -18.0. His total WAR in 131 games was 1.0, and in case you didn’t know, that’s not good. (Graph from FanGraphs) Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 8.13.19 PMTravis Ishikawa, his replacement and eventual NLCS hero, clearly didn’t do much better.

Screen-Shot-2014-10-16-at-20.38.37-610x328-1
Credits: http://houndsports.com/cardinals-score-first-run-giants-travis-ishikawa-error/

With Morse a free agent and Ishikawa ill-suited for a full-time role, the Giants are left with Gregor Blanco as their starting left fielder. Despite all of Giants fans bemoaning, Blanco, although not flashy, is one of the unsung heroes of this squad. He has been good for somewhere from 2.0-2.9 WAR since 2012, and was above league average offensively last year, with a 107 wRC+. Blanco is adequate in left; he can man the spacious outfield well and fill in for the oft-injured Angel Pagan in center if needed.

In addition, the market for free-agent outfielders is incredibly weak, especially after disregarding Nelson Cruz and Melky Cabrera because of their steroid history. Giants fans and Sabean alike would not welcome Cabrera back after his suspension stopped his run at the batting title in 2012 dead in its tracks. Cruz was also suspended, although involved in a different bust, the Biogenesis clinic scandal. With the tarnished legacy that Bonds left in San Francisco, the Giants are unlikely to sign anyone connected to the Steroid Era. With names like Norichika Aoki, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Markakis, Emilio Bonifacio and Alex Rios headlining the crop of outfielders, Blanco suddenly sounds much more appealing. The aforementioned outfielders would command much higher salaries than Blanco, only adding negligible value. 

Indeed, Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas is supposedly an option, but Sabean has not been the type to spend a lot internationally, and he is less refined than Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes were at the same time. He would need minor league seasoning to hone his skills, and wouldn’t be a certain option for the big league club in 2015.

Unless Sabean becomes infatuated with another veteran outfielder (See Derosa, Mark), there is no reason to believe that anyone but Gregor Blanco will be the Opening Day left fielder.

While left field may be almost set in stone, the Giants’ starting staff is still in limbo. Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, and Tim Hudson round out the starters guaranteed to make the rotation, barring injury. Postseason hero Yusmeiro Petit, who should have started in place of Vogelsong in the postseason, should fill in a spot in the rotation, but nothing’s for certain. Petit is better than Tim Hudson, and has earned his spot in the rotation. Moreover, his K% is fourth in the major leagues (Neat FanGraphs article linked) behind only Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Yu Darvish, despite having an average fastball velocity of 89 MPH. Petit and his quietly dominant 2.51 SIERA deserve more recognition than being forced into a long relief role. He is cheaper and better than any alternative on the market or in-house (Tim Lincecum).

In terms of the fifth spot, it is anyone’s guess. Ryan Vogelsong is too old and ineffective to be trusted, and Jake Peavy is not a great postseason pitcher (7.98 ERA). However, he pitched very well ever since coming over from Boston, and essentially became a different pitcher. He can’t go deep into games, and despite all of his fire and passion for the team in October, is rumored to be looking at a Chicago or a return to Boston in a package deal with long-time friend Jon Lester. The Giants wouldn’t mind adding Lester to their rotation, but he would come at too high of a cost for too long. Sabean will look at Peavy, but only if Lester isn’t requisite for the righty to sign.

Kenta Maeda, a twenty-six year old righty from Japan’s Hiroshima Carp, could be an option. Like Tomas, his tools aren’t flashy as the likes of Yu Darvish, but he possesses great command of his pitches. The Giants haven’t been very involved in the international market, but could be with Maeda. Any player who hasn’t pitched in the majors is an uncertainty, and Maeda certainly would not be a safe fifth starter.

 Tim Lincecum is better suited for longish-relief, as he has demonstrated in the past two postseasons. He is not the answer at fifth starter, other than in the case of an injury.

If Sabean cannot re-sign Peavy, he will be forced to sign a starter to a stop-gap deal, as he did with Hudson’s two-year contract last year. Names like Brandon McCarthy, Ervin Santana, Hiroki Kuroda, and Brett Anderson come to mind in a top-heavy market.

If Pablo Sandoval bolts, the Giants are left with a big hole at third base and in the clubhouseIn this scenario, Sabean would likely push hard to sign defensive whiz Chase Headley. The former Yankee and Padre is an above average hitter who draws walks and has some pop, although his thirty homer season in 2012 is looking more and more like a mirage. He was first in defensive WAR among third baseman last year, and figures to keep that up next year. He would be an attractive option, although the Giants would have to dish out a four-year deal somewhere in the vicinity of ten to fifteen million per year to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox. In the unlikely scenario that both Headley and Sandoval fall through the cracks, the Giants would be forced to explore the trade market or play the “AAAA” Adam Duvall at third. However, in all likelihood, the Giants will re-sign Sandoval and be willing to pay top dollar to do so. 

Sergio Romo is the Giants’ only significant free agent not mentioned so far, and he is, by all means, one of the least likely to re-sign with San Francisco. As you can see, he has been in steady decline every year since his breakout 2011 campaign. His slider has not been as omnipotent as it once was; it is not as sharp, and the league has adjusted to his predictable style.

Year xFIP WAR

2011

1.49

2.0

2012

2.61

1.0

2013

3.20

1.1

2014

3.40

-0.3

Pat Neshek would be a dream addition. He could replace Romo in the setup role, and also in the “funky righty” role. With Javier Lopez for lefties, Neshek for righties, and Santiago Casilla in the ninth, the Giants’ bullpen would be well-balanced and dominant. Neshek’s minuscule 1.87 ERA from 2014 is backed up by a 2.55 SIERA, and he figures to improve further pitching in spacious AT&T Park. Neshek in all his funkiness below:

Romo would be missed for his personality and spunk, but further regression is imminent, something the Giants cannot afford to stomach, especially at a higher cost. At this point in his career, Romo is below replacement level; hence, the Giants need to replace him.

In sum, Sabean does not need to waste money on a replacement for Blanco in left field. In addition, Sabean will not prodigally sign Morse, Vogelsong or Romo and denigrate the team’s future and present. He should re-sign Sandoval, but not at a price, as he said, that would “blow up the budget.” Peavy would be a nice option for the Giants, if he is willing to play for San Francisco without Lester. Sabean will not spend lavishly on free agents that have not been an integral part of these three titles, only leaving this pattern for necessary replacements and Band-Aids, such as Neshek or McCarthy. 

Stats and info via FanGraphs, ESPN, Baseball Reference, and MLB.com if not specifically linked

Cover Image: By Brian_Sabean_2010.jpg: btwashburn derivative work: Delaywaves (Brian_Sabean_2010.jpg) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons