We’ll kick the “state of the franchise” series off with the most secure position in the Giants organization right now: right field. You may know this area as the Pence Territory, and for good reason, as it’s hard to see anyone unseating Hunter as the everyday RF at AT&T Park for the foreseeable future. Pence is the most recent Giant to earn a major contract, as he was locked up last week for $90 million over the next 5 years. Odds are, he’ll spend most if not all of those 5 years as the Giants’ everyday right fielder.
I call right field the most secure position in the organization for a few reasons, and we’ll address some of them in future posts. But I think the biggest proof I have is the fact that Pence started EVERY game this year. All 162, good times or bad. I think he played all but something like 16 innings this season. In this generation, that kind of durability is incredible. It’s also invaluable. There are certainly a few positions on this team that are unsettled going into the offseason (more than you’d think, actually), but right field is not one of them. Barring an unforeseen injury, you can pencil Pence’s name in the middle of the lineup card and the #9 on the scoresheet for the long haul.
There’s really no debate here, and that is a very good thing for an organization facing a difficult offseason. Pence was priority #1, and the Giants locked him up before he could test the waters of free agency. A little rich, maybe, but it’s a deal the Giants had to get done. You can’t go into the offseason with holes at both corners of your outfield… you just can’t. Pence banked on his torrid September, and he really had all the leverage in negotiations. He would have gotten his money somewhere, and it’s a good thing he got it in-house.
The Pence deal gives the Giants another centerpiece to build around, but right field hasn’t always been a strength for this team. In fact, it had been quite a carousel prior to Pence arriving last summer. AT&T Park is a difficult right field to play; it’s one that definitely takes some getting used to. But other than Nate the Great, the Giants really haven’t had much consistency in front of the Levi’s Splash Landing wall (or whoever the hell sponsors it now) in recent years.
Where it’s been: We’ll start in 2009, the beginning of the 4-year stretch of winning seasons. That was Randy Winn’s last year… seems like yesterday, right? Winn wasn’t cutting it, so the Giants gave their homegrown kid Schierholtz a shot. That was Nate’s first significant playing time, and really the job was his to lose for the better part of 3 years. Unfortunately for him, he managed to lose it just about every year! But Nate played RF in San Francisco like nobody else, with a cannon for an arm. He just couldn’t ever get the bat to play on an everyday basis, and in 2010 we saw guys like Bowker, Huff, Cody Ross and the memorable brief stint from Jose Guillen. Of course, we all know how that season ended. History, folks.
In the first title defense year, RF was Nate’s job again, with Ross platooning from time to time. Then came the Posey injury, and eventually the move that thousands still cannot get over to this day: Wheeler for Beltran. The Giants were one of the top teams in the NL at that point, even without Posey. Lights out pitching from some guy named Vogelsong, but a miserable offense. They had to do something, so they gave Nate’s job to Beltran. I thought it was a solid move at the time. If I remember correctly, Wheeler wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire at that point. Injuries, wildness, inconsistency… but yes, the upside was there. We all knew it, the Giants knew it. The Mets knew it too. In my book, if you can use a minor league talent to acquire a perennial all-star in a contending season, you do it. Every time. Of course, you’d like to re-sign that player in the offseason in a perfect world. Alas, it didn’t work out, Beltran got hurt, took some heat and signed with St. Louis on a bargain of a deal in the offseason, where he’s got one ring and is working on another. He looks good in red, while Wheeler looks good in blue. That’s the one people will never let Sabean live down, but it’s water under the bridge to me. Sorry if that offends you.
Sabean spent that offseason making his outfield over. Savvy trades, new faces in center and left. Nate the Great patrolling right again, and showing spurts. New guy Gregor Blanco got a little time out there too. Nate wasn’t too happy with his role, and this time he didn’t just lose his job at the deadline; he lost his uniform as well. For the second year in a row, the Giants used July 31 to upgrade in right field. This time, they got a player who fans could rally around, a guy who would be a clubhouse leader. I don’t think season-saving motivational speeches were written into Pence’s contract. Even though he wasn’t sporting the .285 lifetime average he’d brought to the Bay Area, he always seemed to be in the middle of the big moments.
The Giants wanted Pence back for title defense, part II, but they weren’t willing to lock him up long term. Nobody had been willing during his consistent, productive career. He took the qualifying offer and returned for another year to the city that embraced him. It certainly wasn’t a guarantee that he’d get another new deal with the Giants this year, however. Remember the trade deadline? There were many teams knocking on the door, but the Giants didn’t budge. Personally, I think they wanted him back all along. If there were doubters out there, he put them to bed with a September for the ages. In 99 AB, he went .293 with 11 HR and 32 RBI… and it earned him $90 million and a permanent place to call home for the first time in his career.
Where it’s going: There are people who certainly will look at Pence’s contract and scoff. Yes, when the team was scuffling in July, he was a .242 hitter with only 1 HR. But he always finds a way to get his production in. Is he incredibly streaky? Yes. Is he the greatest defender? No. Does he lose his plate discipline entirely at times? Yup. But Pence is the type of player whose game can’t be summed up by one statistic. He does a little bit of everything. He hits for average, he owns some of the most raw power in all of baseball, he makes athletic plays in the outfield, and he steals bases at a very high percentage. For the first time in his career, he’s a 20-20 player. He hit .293 with runners in scoring position this year. He hit .309 against lefties. He hit 18 of his 27 HR versus divisional opponents. At 30 years old, his line of .283/.339/.822 is nearly identical to his career mark. Consistency is so important in baseball. Yes, he has his flaws. He’s not an elite hitter, and never will be. But he is a 5-tool player, and I’ll take the upside any day. You know what you’re going to get when you put him on the field… hard work 24/7.
So, Pence is a Giant until he’s 35, with a full no-trade clause. In a different time, maybe his talents are worth $40 million instead of 90. But that’s not how baseball operates anymore. The Giants needed Pence. Had he left, I just don’t see a realistic way where they could have made up for his production. We’ll talk more about some of the outfield options on the market this year when we get to LF in the series. Having Pence locked up now also means one less position the Giants need to plan for in the immediate future. Big Mac Williamson is the top corner outfielder in the system, and could be in the bigs by 2015 if he can pass the big Eastern League test next year. If he does, he’ll almost definitely be in left field, with the other OF spots locked up. That bodes well for the Giants.
So, the Giants enter 2014 and beyond with an every day RF, and it’s likely that you will see him out there every single day. You can also likely pencil him in for 20 HR and 80-90 RBI while you’re at it. Five more years of Hunter Pence, and finally some stability in right for the Giants. It’s about time.