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December 21, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Giants Among Men?

by Christina Kahrl

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Almost two months later and still basking in the afterglow of having gotten to the game's pinnacle, there isn't a lot of controversy or second-guessing—the Giants are world champs, after all. But now's the time to start dialing in on what, if anything, they should have done and should be doing. How has Brian Sabean responded to life on the other side of the ultimate? More importantly, what, if anything, has Sabean done to guarantee his team's future as a contender? No time to rest on one's laurels, after all—there ain't no rest for the wicked.

In this, unlike a lot of contenders, the Giants are in the strange and happy position where you can accept a certain amount of passivity, because so much of this team's key components were already locked in, and because so much did not work out entirely according to any nefarious master plan. Perhaps, just as the money spent on a moon laser might not generate quite the same kind of money as you'd expect to get a result, Sabean has spent the winter generally telling his peers, “don't answer me.” Why bother with the chit-chat, when you're already on top of the world?

Already armed with a veteran team, saying thanks for all the fish—or Rangers—wasn't really a choice. The team's single strongest asset, its rotation, was already nailed down, with Tim Lincecum under control through 2013, as well as former free agent Barry Zito, while Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez are Giants property for the next two seasons. And Madison Bumgarner only just got here, so he'll belong to the team beyond any of them. Closer Brian Wilson has already been inked to an extension through 2012, and set-up man Jeremy Affeldt's deal runs through this next season, while relievers Santiago Casilla, Ramon Ramirez, and Javier Lopez are all under club control. And with a staff-wide strikeout rate that led the majors with getting 21.6 percent of its outs at home plate, it isn't like pitching was a major source of concern anyway. Sabean can gun for a few depth-minded add-ons, perhaps a veteran swingman to issue a non-roster invite to, because the system's short on big league-ready upper-level options for starting ballgames. But that's what January is for.

In the meantime, Sabean did act with some celerity to nail down a few things in the department that needed the attention—his club's offense, which finished ninth in the NL and 18th overall in team True Average. The major action item was sorting out his lineup's power slots for 2011, but rather than go bargain hunting, the Giants' GM nailed most everything down before the Winter Meetings, and long before anyone might start shopping in earnest. Before turkey was served, he had already rewarded Aubrey Huff with a two-year, $20 million deal, with a $10 million club option for 2013 that can be bought out for $2 million. To some extent, you can consider this an over-reward for Huff's delivering a top-20 season in the National League in terms of WARP for just $3 million in 2010.

However, if you wanted to contrast the decision with market behavior, signing Huff for his age-34 and -35 seasons doesn't seem quite so terrible when it's happening at the same time that the Cubs were paying Carlos Pena with $10 million for his age-33 campaign after three straight less-valuable campaigns than Huff had just delivered. Lest you think that comparison's unfair, give Huff credit—he delivered a 4.6 WARP season in 2008, only slightly less valuable than Pena's 4.9 that year, his best in the last three, so just between those two 2010 free agents, Huff has had two of the three best seasons in the last three. Those were also better than any Adam Dunn or Adam LaRoche season in the last three, and only Paul Konerko's 2010 from among the last three rates ahead of Huff's 2008, while still being rooted behind Huff's 2010.

So, strangely enough, Sabean deserves some credit for thriftiness. Compared to Huff and his $22 million over two years or $30 million over three, keep in mind that Konerko is slightly older and getting $37.5 million guaranteed over three years, while Dunn is younger and getting $56 million over four. Compared to the way the rest of the market was acting, Sabean signed his man early for less and for less time, and while Huff's track record has zig-zagged back and forth between valuable and awful, you can understand a willingness to reward performance over, say, going to the open market and giving LaRoche or the like a few million less for certainty—and certain mediocrity, where Huff has done better than that in his finer seasons.

As for the outfield corners, the initial experiment with John Bowker and Nate Schierholtz and the like had long since failed, and Bowker has already banished to Piracy for his failures. Aaron Rowand makes for an unmovable expense on the bench, but with Andres Torres in center, that wasn't really a problem. However, Sabean sensibly sorted his in-season fixes, ditching the reliably unpleasant and unproductive Jose Guillen to the curb while retaining post-season hero Cody Ross as a reward for all sorts of things: five post-season homers, or because Ross can play a corner well where Guillen is a DH, or because the chances that the arbitration panel blows a decision with a guy making $4.45 million in 2010 are a lot less expensive than trying to set Guillen straight on why he isn't, wasn't, and won't be worth the $12 million per year Dayton Moore was paying him. Sabean also worked out a remarkably cheap, $1 million, friction-free happy deal with Pat Burrell to keep the slow slugger in-house in the role he was born for—top-shelf second fiddle. After last season's four-month spin with the Giants as a retreaded discard and producing a .304 TAv for the club, suddenly all of that quailing in Tampa Bay about everything that was wrong with him physically seems like a bollocks sammich with extra mustard, entirely unappetizing and somewhat implausible as scapegoating goes now that it's long since gone cold.

All told, that's fairly cheap as solutions go. Huff drew a $7 million raise, Torres seems likely to get a well-earned raise via arbitration, and Ross will cost much more than Schierholtz or Bowker did, but since Edgar Renteria's $10 million, Bengie Molina's $4.5 million, Juan Uribe's $3.25 million, and the cool mill chucked at Todd Wellemeyer were all coming off the payroll, Sabean could afford some reallocation of resources within a budget that isn't that different from last year's. But bringing up Uribe and Renteria does bring up the other major action item beyond the power slots of first base and the outfield corner—the left side of the infield.

To some extent, this problem was already going to get some benefit from Mark DeRosa's anticipated reappearance. Not that DeRosa can play short, but if Pablo Sandoval's transmogrification from animated action hero to flabby faded fad comes to a squalid end next year, somebody has to play third base, and DeRosa is the best available asset to apply to the problem. If he produces a .270-.280 TAv while proving much more mobile than the planted panda at the hot corner, the Giants might get something for their $6 million. Unfortunately, there's the problem of Freddy Sanchez's latest breakdown, a shoulder this time, so if his brand of league-average adequacy at second is MIA in March, the Giants may have to apply DeRosa toward that problem.

Sabean's other solution to his infield's left side needs seems to have taken its cue from a division rival. Last August, the Padres plugged Miguel Tejada in at short after trading for him, and found him entirely adequate (endorsed metrically by both nFRAA and Plus/Minus). Since the Pads, like the Giants, have a strikeout-dependent staff, they were able to risk an older man at short. The Giants, having already gotten by with thirtysomething shortstops in Renteria and Uribe, were willing to pay less for Tejada ($6.5 million) than Renteria's $10 million option or than Uribe got in a fit of Nedster largesse (three years and $21 million). However, among the three, Tejada's full-season TAv was the lowest last year, .254 to Uribe's .266 and Renteria's .261, and it's consistent with what he did in 2008 (.254), against his 2009 mark (.284). Given that Tejada will be in his age-37 season next year, it's safe to say he'll be closer to those .250 marks and his defense to trend back toward the performance level that got him moved to third base in the first place.

Happily, Tejada is only inked to the one season, but the only prophylactic against the kind of likely performance slump to come if he were going to have to play short regularly would be someone he could share time with there. Finding that somebody would free Tejada to also spot at third base, and ease up a decision-tree cascade, letting DeRosa play some second, and/or create a role for Sandoval (or even Mike Fontenot). But the plain need is for someone who can play shortstop. If that's a return engagement for Renteria, lovely, but if not, there aren't a lot of options left on the market—you're basically down to Orlando Cabrera or Nick Punto. In the abstract, this might be the place where Emmanuel Burriss fits in, but that requires more faith in Burriss than he's earned at any point of his career.

All in all, it has been a reasonable collection of moves. What's left undone as yet might be working out whatever details it takes to get Renteria to stick around, and finding the right non-roster veteran swing dude or two for the Fresno shuttle in case any of the rotation's front five break down. As laundry lists go this close to Christmas, that's fairly short. If Sabean did not take a page from Whitey Herzog or George Weiss and use victory as a free pass to remake the roster, you can credit him with leaving the major pieces in place, not getting silly and overpaying Uribe, and not exercising Renteria's option. You can fidget over whether he wouldn't have been better off taking arbitration out of the equation and simply negotiating with Ross directly, but that's a fairly minor quibble. Thanks mostly to the strength of that rotation, it should also make for a team still quite capable of 85 wins or more, enough to keep themselves in both the NL West and wild-card races.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Giants Outfield,  Reward

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