The San Francisco Giants had a lot of work to do this winter to improve a club that defended its 2012 championship by going 76-86 in 2013. In the end, general manager Brian Sabean spent $172 million to retain Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum, Javier Lopez, and Ryan Vogelsong, and to acquire free agents Tim Hudson and Michael Morse.
His first order of business was to re-sign the incumbent right fielder Pence to a five-year, $90 million deal before the 2013 season even ended. The Pence signing was entirely reasonable. Pence was arguably the best player on the Giants last year, and he’s the top power hitter on a club devoid of power. His contract compares favorably with recent contracts handed out to right fielders Jayson Werth (seven-years, $126 million), Andre Ethier (five-years, $85 million), and Nick Swisher (five-years, $70 million if his 2017 options vests).
Pence, who will turn 31 in April, has been an extremely durable player, never playing in fewer than 154 games since his first full season in 2008. The Giants could have slapped the one-year qualifying offer on him to try to get him back at a lower price, but that could’ve ultimately forced Pence out of town. The Giants headed into the winter needing a left fielder; had they lost Pence to free agency, they would’ve needed two corner outfielders in a barren market.
After re-signing Pence, Sabean turned his attention to another impending free agent, right-hander Tim Lincecum. Lincecum posted a cumulative 4.76 ERA over the life of his two-year, $40.5 million deal that covered his final two seasons of arbitration covering the 2012-13 seasons. However, his 3.95 FIP and 3.68 xFIP over that span provided some reason for optimism.
The Giants decided that the former two-time Cy Young award winner and fan favorite was worth retaining. Once that decision was made, the contract was going to have to come close to matching his last deal in order to keep him off the market and prevent his pride from being damaged. The two-year, $35 million deal was an overpay, but perhaps a necessary one given Lincecum’s past contributions to two championship clubs and his status as a rock star in San Francisco.
There are legitimate questions about how Lincecum will perform going forward. He still misses bats at an exceptional rate, but he struggles to throw strikes consistently and command the ball when it does get into the zone. Last year, he made strides towards improving his pitchability, focusing more on game-planning and attacking hitters’ weaknesses. His ERA dropped from 5.18 the year before down to 4.37. If Lincecum can continue to make strides in transitioning from a pure thrower to a pitcher, perhaps the Giants will get better value on this two-year deal with Timmy than they got the last time around.
After slotting in Lincecum behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner in the rotation, the Giants made perhaps their best move of the winter by signing free-agent starter Tim Hudson to a two-year, $23 million deal. The 38-year-old Hudson is coming off a severe ankle injury, but he should be ready to go when spring training rolls around. He posted a 3.97 ERA over 21 starts before the injury last season, which would make him a massive upgrade over the departed Barry Zito (5.74 ERA in 2013).
The Giants then retained left-handed specialist Javier Lopez via a three-year, $13 million deal. Lopez held lefties to a .156/.208/.222 slash line en route to a 1.83 ERA last season. He rejoins Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, and closer Sergio Romo as manager Bruce Bochy‘s late-inning relief cavalry. The rest of the bullpen remains unsettled, with Yusmeiro Petit possibly settling in as the long man and rookie Heath Hembree a strong candidate to assume more responsibility after his strong showing at the end of 2013.
The Giants rounded out their rotation by re-signing Ryan Vogelsong to a one-year, $5 million deal with incentives after declining a one-year, $6.5 million option on him after the World Series. The 36-year-old righty was pounded for a 5.73 ERA over 19 starts surrounding a hand injury last season as he lost two ticks off his heater.
The Giants are betting that Vogelsong’s demise was caused by fatigue from the 2012 World Series and the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Vogelsong went 27-16 with a 3.05 ERA over 61 appearances from 2011-12. As with Lincecum, the Giants are betting on a return to past glory for Vogelsong, which may or may not come to fruition.
The Giants finished their offseason shopping by signing left fielder Michael Morse to a one-year, $6 million deal. Looking for more thump after receiving a feckless .257/.314/.337 batting line with a league-worst five home runs from left field last year, the Giants turned to Morse, who posted an .861 OPS from 2010-12 in Washington. Morse battled a wrist injury en route to a tepid .215/.270/.381 batting line in 2013. As with Hudson, the Giants are betting on a healthy rebound for Morse. If he’s healthy, he should be an offensive upgrade, but according to the advanced defensive metrics, he won’t be much help to the Giants pitching staff in the outfield.
In the end, the Giants decided to bring back virtually the same team that nearly finished in last place in 2013. Morse replaces Blanco as the starting left fielder and Hudson replaces Zito in the rotation; other than those changes, the 2014 Giants are basically the 2013 Giants.
Thus, for the club to get back into postseason, they’ll need a lot that went wrong last year to go right next year. Hudson and Morse will have to stay healthy and perform up to their past capabilities. Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan will have to remain healthy and effective after injury-plagued 2013 campaigns. Lincecum, Vogelsong, and staff ace Matt Cain will have to improve upon their 2013 performances.
If all of that goes right, the Giants should contend with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers for the NL West crown. However, if Vogelsong is washed up, if Lincecum can’t rediscover some more of his former magic, if Hudson can’t stay on the mound as he approaches 40, if the lineup is besieged by injury or under-performance, well, this club has no margin for those errors.
The 2014 Giants are a lot like the 2013 Giants on paper. When the games start, they’ll have to perform significantly better to get back to where this franchise was two years ago.