After winning two World Series titles in three years from 2010-12, the San Francisco Giants collapsed in 2013. The club delivered an extremely tepid defense of their 2012 title by going 76-86 and finishing 16 games behind the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.
Giants general manager Brian Sabean pulled no punches in assessing the club during his state of the franchise address at season’s end. Sabean said:
I think its pretty simple, we didn’t have enough depth. Last year, we seemingly were able to overcome injury and lack of performance. We didn’t do that this year. We didn’t get any kind of life from the minor leagues, whether that was the fifth starter or what we went through in center and left field. Lack of depth became an issue, other than having our team on the field or the best team we could get on the field…It’s safe to say the window, with the group at hand, is closed. Now we’ve got to create a new window immediately. And that’s the task at hand.
Sabean told the media that the window had closed on the 2013 Giants, even though the roster was nearly identical to the one good enough to win it all the year before. The puzzling thing about Sabean’s comment is that his actions haven’t backed up his words so far this offseason. After saying the window had closed on the current roster, Sabean immediately spent $125 million to retain free-agent right field Hunter Pence (five-years, $90 million) and free-agent starter Tim Lincecum (two-years, $35 million).
While both contracts have widely been panned as overpays, the reality is no one knows how the free-agent market is going to play out this winter with each team flush with extra revenue from Major League Baseball’s new television deal. What we do know is that Sabean paid a lot of money early in the offseason for two players who clearly aren’t stars without ever using the leverage of the one-year qualifying offer.
Pence is an above-average regular who can hit, hit for power and run. He’s in great shape and he’s proven to be incredibly durable. His contract isn’t far from the five-year, $85 million deal the Dodgers gave Andre Ethier, though it is much steeper than the four-year, $56 million contract (with a club option) the Cleveland Indians gave to Nick Swisher last winter.
By ERA, Lincecum has been well below-average over the past two seasons. The advanced metrics are more kind to Lincecum, however. The Giants believe that he can continue to learn how to pitch without the blazing fastball he once possessed. The jury is still out on that, but Lincecum did cut his ERA from 5.18 in 2012 to 4.37 in 2013 as he increased his focus on studying opposing hitters.
The ultimate issue with Lincecum is the delivery. He’s only 5’11” and 170 pounds, so he uses unorthodox mechanics to get every ounce of his frame behind his pitches. He takes an enormous stride to the plate, which prevents him from driving the fastball downhill. His arm is late in getting out over his front side, and that causes him to pitch up in the zone with his fastball. That wasn’t a problem when Lincecum was throwing 93-98 mph. However, now that his fastball sits at 88-93 mph, location is much more important.
Lincecum took positive strides last year by cutting his walk rate by nearly two percent. If he can continue to limit the walks and improve his fastball command, the lack of velocity will become less of an issue. Lincecum isn’t exactly devoid of weapons out there even though his velocity has decreased. He still has a changeup that flashes plus-plus at times to compliment two breaking balls that will flash as above average.
After retaining Lincecum and Pence, the Giants will also likely try to retain free-agent reliever Javier Lopez. My guess is that they’ll also pick up the $6.5 million option on starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong. Even if the Giants bring back Lopez and Vogelsong, they will still have the funds available to add another starting pitcher and a new left fielder, though they won’t have the budget room to make a huge splash for a top tier free agent like Shin-Soo Choo. Thus, the remaining moves that Sabean makes this winter will likely be marginal in nature. Veteran free-agent starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo and free-agent outfielder Michael Morse are two players who would make sense given the voids the Giants have in the rotation and in left field.
Sabean said the window had closed on this group, but he’s spent the beginning of the offseason making sure the team stays intact. Perhaps he had a change of heart and decided that the group who brought him a championship in 2012 deserved another shot at glory in 2014.
Regardless of Sabean’s thinking, the Giants have plenty of holes to fill even after spending a great deal of money to retain Lincecum and Pence. Sabean will have to find creative ways to fill a roster that still has plenty of holes.
Healthy, effective seasons from Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan would certainly help the cause next year, as would a bounce-back season from Matt Cain and a better second half from Buster Posey. However, bringing the same team back and hoping for improved performances isn’t a strategy that will allow for the Giants to make up 16 games on the Dodgers. For San Francisco to improve by 16 games this winter, Sabean will have to do more than bring the same troops back, particularly after he watched the window slam shut on them last year.