A great deal of sports writing boils down to the desire to express what we would have done or would do if we were put in control of a club. Obviously, general managers are working with a great deal more information at their disposal than writers are. With that written, there are certainly things I would have tried to do differently this winter if I had been put in the shoes of San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean.
Lincecum was coming off a season in which he posted a 4.37 ERA. His velocity has declined and his cumulative ERA over the past two seasons is 4.76. Like Kyle Lohse last season, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana remain on the free-agent market without much reported interest in large because of the qualifying offer. Few teams are eager to sacrifice first-round draft choices for non-elite free agents. Had the Giants slapped the one-year qualifying offer on Lincecum, they almost certainly could have had him back for less than the two-year, $35 million they gave him early in the winter.
Pence would’ve been a trickier case. The Giants headed into the winter thinking they needed a left fielder as well as a right fielder if they couldn’t re-sign Pence, who was coming off a career year. Pence almost certainly would’ve had a market regardless of whether or not he was tied to a draft-pick tariff. Still, it’s possible that draft-pick compensation might have lowered his demands from the five-year, $90 million deal he received down to the four-year, $56 million deal with a fifth-year option that Nick Swisher settled for last year.
In both cases, I would’ve exercised more patience than Sabean did. Pence had a very good season last year, but he’ll turn 31 next year, and he’s not an elite player. He’s had a very good career, but for how much longer will he be an above-average regular? Lincecum showed signs of figuring things out last year, but in a market flush with starting pitching options, he was entirely replaceable when you remove the nostalgia for his Cy Young days from the equation.
In addition to using the leverage of the one-year qualifying offer on Pence and Lincecum, there’s absolutely no way I’d have brought Ryan Vogelsong back on anything other than a minor league deal. When you lose two ticks off your heater and post a 5.73 ERA at age 36, the burden of proof is on you to show that you can be a member of a championship rotation again.
After all, that’s the goal in San Francisco: to win championships. After you’ve had a taste of winning two in three years, anything less just won’t suffice.
I also wouldn’t have brought back left-handed specialist Javier Lopez via the three-year deal the Giants gave him. Lopez is arguably the best in the business at what he does, which is to get left-handed hitters out. However, I would build a bullpen differently than the modern platoon-based, one-inning setup that the other 29 teams employ. I’d prefer to acquire former starters to use as relievers. I would want to have a bullpen made up predominantly of guys who can get hitters from both sides of the plate out and who could throw more than one inning at a time.
That means I’d also have aggressively shopped closer Sergio Romo. He’s been outstanding for the Giants, but he showed signs of decline last year and durability has always been an issue given his small stature and heavy reliance on a plus-plus slider that’s hard on the elbow. Flipping Romo and a pitching prospect from the Giants deep stable of young arms to the Detroit Tigers for Doug Fister would’ve made sense for both sides. That deal would’ve been better than the one the Tigers got for Fister from Washington, and it would’ve prevented them from spending big money on closer Joe Nathan, as Romo is employed on a cheap one-year deal.
Putting Fister, who has been one of the 10 best arms in the game over the past three seasons, behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner and in front of Tim Hudson (a signing I strongly endorse) and perhaps Lincecum in the rotation would give the Giants a starting five to compete with any in the game. If I couldn’t get Lincecum back on a cheaper deal, I’d happily take the draft pick for losing him and hand his rotation spot to Scott Kazmir, who ultimately signed with Oakland on a two-year, $22 million deal.
In the bullpen, I’d hand the closer job to rookie Heath Hembree. His set-up corps would include incumbents Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Jean Machi, and Yusmeiro Petit. Mike Kickham would be a strong candidate to convert to relief, as his four-pitch arsenal would play up in a shorter roll. George Kontos is a decent bounce-back candidate. He was exceptional in 2012, but lefties pounded him for a 1.024 OPS in 2013, compared to just .468 the year before. Minor league free agents like last year’s stealth acquisition, Chad Gaudin, would round out the pen.
As for the position players, I don’t take issue with anything Sabean did this winter. The Pence deal ultimately compares favorably with some recent free-agent outfield contracts like Jayson Werth (seven-years, $126 million), Andre Ethier (five-years, $85 million), and Shin-Soo Choo (seven-years, $130 million). One thing I’d have done differently, however, is put more of an emphasis on defense.
Michael Morse is an offensive upgrade in left field, but he’s a disaster with the glove. A platoon of Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez wouldn’t have hit much, but it would’ve made the Giants a better defensive club. Morse should hit if he’s healthy, but that’s no guarantee for a 32-year-old coming off a wrist injury and a season in which he slashed just .215/.270/.381. Additionally, if Angel Pagan doesn’t prove he can still play center field early next year, a Blanco-Perez platoon in center with Pagan shifting to left would be a nice option to have for a team that finished 19th in defensive efficiency in 2013.
Additionally, back-up catcher Hector Sanchez is a catcher in name only. Still only 24 years old, I’d give him the year at Triple-A he’s always needed but never been given by the Giants. Until he proves to be a competent defender, he doesn’t belong in the big leagues at such a premium defensive spot. Instead, I’d have reacquired defensive specialist Chris Stewart to back up Buster Posey. Stewart ranked as the second-best catcher in baseball at framing pitches last season, while Posey ranked ninth. Supporting the pitching staff with better defense would help the club improve upon a 4.00 ERA that ranked 22nd in the game last year, as would have adding a front-line starter like Fister and a solid back-end option in Hudson.
All of this is a long way of saying that the Giants had a decent winter that would’ve been made a lot better with the acquisition of another good starter. The Giants are hoping for continued improvement from Lincecum and a drastic rebound from Vogelsong. If they don’t get both, it’s going to be really tough for them to compete with the Los Angeles Dodgers and their loaded rotation in 2014.