Gregor Blanco may not seem like the ideal fit, but as of now, he’s the best fit.
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With the New York Yankees agreeing to terms on a three-year, $45 million deal with Carlos Beltran on Friday, the San Francisco Giants can scratch off another potential left field option while adding another. Well, the Giants never had any reported interest in Beltran, with general manager Brian Sabean holding firm to his desire not to surrender a first-round draft pick for any free agent. That stance also rules out the best remaining free-agent outfielder, Shin-Soo Choo.
The Yankees signing of Beltran has created a rumor that the Giants could pursue a trade for Ichiro Suzuki, a player the club was interested in during free agency last winter and at the trading deadline two years ago. There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: incumbent left fielder Gregor Blanco was much better than the washed-up Suzuki in 2013. Blanco had a higher batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, defensive rating, and WAR (2.8 to 1.1). Surrendering talent and money to downgrade from Blanco to Suzuki—who will turn 41 next October—makes absolutely no sense.
In fact, with the exception of Choo, none of the remaining free-agent outfielders were better than Blanco in 2013 according to FanGraphs’ free-agent leaderboard. Compared to Nate McLouth (2-years, $10.75 million), David DeJesus (2-years, $10.5 million), Chris Young (1-year, $7.25 million), and Marlon Byrd (2-years, $16 million), the arbitration eligible Blanco looks like a bargain. He was more valuable than all of those players in 2013, yet he’s projected to make only $2.2 million in his second year of arbitration.
If the Giants were to replace Blanco with Suzuki, Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, or another available outfielder, they would be weakening the club while wasting resources. Thus, Blanco remains the Giants’ best option in left field.
Blanco isn’t the ideal left fielder because he doesn’t hit for power. He hit only three home runs and slugged .350 last year. He also strikes out more than he should given his lack of power, which suppresses his batting average and slugging percentage.
However, power isn’t the only way to create value. Blanco ranks as an above-average defender in left field according to the advanced metrics Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). He has above-average patience at the plate, leading to a 10.2 percent walk rate and a .341 on-base percentage last year. He also adds value with his speed on the bases.
In a more perfect universe, Blanco would be an excellent fourth outfielder—as he was in 2012 when the Giants won the World Series. He took over for Nate Schierholtz in right field at the beginning of 2012 before losing the job to Hunter Pence when the Giants acquired Pence via trade. Blanco then took over for Melky Cabrera in left field when the latter was suspended for performance enhancing drug use and the bizarre creation of a fake website designed to cover up his usage.
The Giants would be in better shape entering 2014 with Blanco as a fourth outfielder, but that doesn’t mean they should acquire a worse player for the sake of changing things. The club can only acquire available players, and none of the current options are better than Blanco. Signing Choo would be nice until one factors in the massive contract he’s likely to land as well as the first-round draft pick the Giants would lose.
Choo isn’t without his own warts as a player. He’ll turn 32 next July, he can’t hit lefties, and he’s rated poorly with the glove over the past two seasons. It’s important to note that advanced defensive metrics aren’t close to being one-hundred percent reliable, and thus WAR—which uses those metrics in its calculation—must be taken with a grain of salt. With strikeouts on the rise, there are fewer balls in play every year, which seems to make defense less important. Still, while defensive stats and WAR aren’t as accurate as offensive stats—like democracy—they’re the best tools we’ve got for now. Take those numbers with a grain of salt, accept that they may overrate a player with Blanco’s speed-patience-defense skill-set, but don’t dismiss them entirely.
Choo is a better player than Blanco, but is he worth $100+ million and a first-round pick? He very well may be, but Sabean doesn’t intend to lose that pick, and he doesn’t have $100 million left to spend after re-signing Pence, Tim Lincecum, Javier Lopez, and Ryan Vogelsong, and signing free-agent starter Tim Hudson.
If the Yankees decide to trade Brett Gardner instead of Suzuki, that would be a deal worth pursuing for the Giants. Gardner would be a real upgrade over Blanco, and he’d create much-needed depth in the outfield in case center fielder Angel Pagan went down with an injury again. Unlike Suzuki, Gardner is actually still a good baseball player.
The Giants need outfield depth, but that doesn’t mean they need to replace Blanco with an inferior option. They could find a lefty-masher like former Giants outfielder Rajai Davis—a lifetime .294/.354/.425 hitter against lefties—to platoon with Blanco in left. Signing the right-handed batting Davis to platoon with the left-handed hitting Blanco might not be as sexy as spending a ton of money on Choo, but it would certainly be more cost-effective and perhaps nearly as valuable.
With Blanco—as with much-maligned incumbent first baseman Brandon Belt—Giants fans are guilty of letting the perfect be the enemy of the perfectly adequate. Sure, it would be great to get a traditional slugger out there in left field, but Pat Burrell isn’t walking through that door for free as he did in 2010. Burrell is out on the road scouting for the Giants now, and I’m almost certain he and the rest of the Giants front office won’t be able to find a better player than Blanco for a reasonable cost.
Unless the Yankees trade Gardner or another solid outfielder becomes available in a trade, the Giants best bet in left field is Blanco. He isn’t a perfect option, but finding ideal choices is an impossible task in the unpredictable world of baseball.