Giants 2014: Second Base

Back to the Giants 2014 series, let’s take a look at second base. To be honest, there seem to be more questions here than answers going into next season… and that really has become a pattern for the position recently (aside from 2012). Can Marco Scutaro stay healthy? Is he too much of a defensive liability to play every day? Will Sabean find him a platoon partner? Another issue to consider here is the logjam of middle-infielders on the 40-man… how will the Giants sort that out?

Lots of questions; we’ll see how many we can answer.

Where it’s been: The story of 2nd base for the Giants in recent years is one that features a mixture of trades, aging vets, organizational fillers, injuries, and (most importantly) big-time performances in the postseason.  It’s been a mixed bag to say the least, and one that’s led to a pair of rings. But the organization has been searching for a long-term answer at the position for quite some time, and will likely continue to do so as it moves toward 2014.

The last player that I’d consider a mainstay at 2nd base in San Francisco was Ray Durham, who played his last year with the club in 2008. Durham was a Giant for roughly five and a half years, and he held his own pretty damn well for the majority of that time. The dude hit 26 home runs in 2006… 26! He was a consistent hitter, and did a pretty good job filling the hole left by Jeff Kent in the mid-2000’s. The Giants tried to replace Durham with homegrown cats Kevin Frandsen, Manny Burriss and Eugenio Velez. We all know how that turned out. Frandsen is really the only one who has had any kind of a decent career, but even he never turned into a true everyday player.

In 2009, Good Panda Pablo Sandoval and his buddies came out of the woodworks under Bruce Bochy, and Sabean set out to find a 2B (among other positions) at the trade deadline. I remember thinking at the time that Frandsen deserved a shot at the full-time gig… that he could hold the position down as well as anybody on the trade market. In my mind, I played Frandsen out to be a Dustin Pedroia grinder type who just needed an opportunity to shine. Now, I wonder what the hell I was thinking back then. Luckily, Sabean did not give the job to Frandsen, instead trading Tim Alderson to Pittsburgh for Freddy Sanchez. That’s right about the time that I was beginning my days as a prospect hound, and nobody excited me more in the organization than Bumgarner and Alderson. I didn’t know exactly how to feel about the deal at first, but it only took a couple Sanchez AB’s with runners on for me to shake any previous doubt. Honestly, I haven’t had a second thought about that trade since. The fact that Alderson never really did anything with the Pirates made it that much easier… but it’s astounding to me that there are people in this world who still question that deal. You’re kidding me, right?

As we’d find out, Freddy was a walking injury waiting to happen. But he (like Edgar Renteria) was healthy long enough in 2010 to help bring home a title, and that’s really all that mattered in the end. It was the injuries after the 2010 World Series that really hurt for Sanchez. Regardless, I’ll always remember him as a good Giant, and part of the band of misfits who shocked the world. Tim Alderson? I can’t say the same.

Freddy’s career as a Giant was effectively over after 58 games in 2011, and the rest of the season was spent trying out a number of different, mostly ineffective options to replace him. Mike Fontenot, Jeff Keppinger, more Burriss, even a Bill Hall sighting… again, 2011 turned into a trash can year in the final month and a half.

The 2012 season saw another vet enter the mix in Ryan Theriot, who played 91 games at 2B, providing somewhat of an improvement over Burriss (whose days with the club were becoming numbered). By the trade deadline, Theriot actually had a pretty good hold on the everyday job. That’s why, if you remember correctly, Scutaro was actually acquired to add depth to the infield, not necessarily to take the 2B job from Theriot. It was a bit of a head-scratcher move at the time, but Scooter sure put a quick stop to any doubt. A .387 average in 45 games…Hardest hitter in the league to strikeout… NLCS MVP… One day, you’re being traded for a minor league middle-infielder with a good-looking wife and almost no professional experience, the next you’re driving in the winning run in the World Series. In 3 months, Scutaro went from being infield depth to postseason hero in San Francisco. The Giants’ marketing team even created a “rain-globe” of him to commemorate Game 7 of the NLCS. Funny game, that baseball…

Where it’s headed: Despite his age, the Giants gave Scutaro a 3-year deal worth $20 million last offseason. But 2013 became a lost season very quickly, and Scutaro battled injuries seemingly all year. With all the talk of the WBC and health issues, I’d have to throw Scutaro into the mix of guys whose seasons were screwed up by the early competition. Throw in the fact that the Giants had a very short offseason, and Scooter really didn’t appear to be in the healthiest condition this spring. He fought problems with his back all summer, and I’d be willing to bet that had a direct impact on his poor defense. Throw in the mallet finger case, and you’re talking about a very rough season. But Marco’s a gamer, and he did his best to play through it all. Despite the injuries, he was still one of the most consistent hitters on the team, flirting with .300 all year. Maybe he doesn’t show much pop anymore, but he still gives you a very solid AB every time out.

So, year one on the Scutaro contract didn’t go all that well. The Giants were short on middle-infield depth for most of the year as well. Tony Abreu was supposed to be the guy that provided that depth, but he spent a good portion of the season on the shelf with injuries. Nick Noonan got a shot out of spring training, and while I thought he was impressive at the plate early on, it became pretty obvious that he wasn’t the right fit. Joaquin Arias played a handful of games at 2nd too, but to me he’s needed more on the left side of the infield (although I’m sure he’d be happy to play anywhere at this point).

All of this leaves quite a few questions surrounding the position going into the offseason. Scutaro still has two years left on his deal, and we know he’s a capable hitter. But he missed 35 games last year, and really doesn’t have the range to play adequate defense on a nightly basis anymore. Even if he is fully healthy, at age 38 I can’t see him being a guy who plays more than 125 games next season. To me, it’s more important to keep him fresh (hopefully for another postseason run) than it is to run him out there every day with nagging injuries. The latter had a bigger impact on the Giants’ struggles this season than most people think. Ryan Theriot gave Bochy a nice infield option off the bench last fall, and I think his absence was felt this year.

It would be very wise of Sabean to find a reliable player this winter who can share time with Scutaro next season. Really, we’re talking about another Theriot-type guy here – someone who understands he’s probably not going to play every day, but who Bochy can trust to run out there if Scutaro struggles or goes down. Ideally, I see a 60-40 split, with Scooter playing roughly 100 games if he’s healthy… Depending on whether Sabes looks outside the organization for help, maybe Scutaro actually comes off the bench. I’m talking about trading for a guy like Brandon Phillips, who’s reportedly on the block in Cincinnati. Phillips would be an obvious upgrade, both offensively and defensively. It’s not out of the question that Scutaro could be unseated at this point, and he’d provide a solid late-game bat off the bench if so. Another trade candidate the Giants could take a look at is Daniel Murphy of the Mets, who would likely play a secondary role if he were acquired. I think Murphy would be a good fit, and Shankbone of “You Gotta Like These Kids” has a nice take on Murphy as a target over on his site (linked to the right).

On the free agent front, there’s really only one player I feel would be worthy of offering a contract to; Omar Infante. Infante’s game profiles pretty similarly to Scutaro’s, but he’s a few years younger, and likely would give you a little better defense. Infante can hit, and he’s got quite a bit of playoff experience. If the Giants were to make him a 2-year offer for $5-7 million a year, I wouldn’t be upset a bit. One other name to keep an eye on is Mark Ellis, who the Dodgers parted ways with recently. He’s another guy who seems to fit the Sabean mold of grinder-type middle infielders… and he’d probably come pretty cheap on a one year deal.

The other piece to consider here is that the Giants have a logjam of middle-infielders on the 40-man roster at the moment. Between Arias, Abreu, Noonan and Ehire Adrianza, you’ve got four guys who could all be vying for one utility infield spot next year. Add in Brett Pill as another potential bench option, and the front office has some personnel decisions to make. Who gets a contract, who doesn’t? Right now, that’s anybody’s guess. Personally, I’d give one of the positions to Arias… he’s been a very valuable player the past couple seasons, and he can play all over the infield. He is due for a slight salary bump though, as is Abreu… Neither one of them is set to make all that much money through arbitration, but the Giants might choose to go cheaper with Adrianza, who’s been a top prospect in the system for quite a while, and is out of minor league options. I’ll take my best guess and say the Giants give one of the backup spots to Arias, package Adrianza with a pitching prospect in a trade (possibly for a guy like Murphy, but maybe a LF as well), and fill the other infield spot with a free agent. Whatever they do, Sabean has made it pretty clear he will be looking for more depth this winter, so I’d definitely expect to see a new face platooning at 2B next season with Scutaro.

Finally, I wanted to touch briefly on the position long-term. The Giants have tried and missed on a handful of players in the organization recently, most notably Frandsen, Velez and Burriss. Not all that long ago, Noonan was drafted very high as an 18 year-old, but his progression really hit a wall in AA. But he kept grinding, and eventually made it to San Francisco. As a guy who the organization once had very lofty expectations for, I’m sure he’ll get a few more chances before it’s all said and done, but I don’t see much of an upside from him anymore.

Another former 2B prospect the Giants had hopes for was Charlie Culberson, who gave the Giants the gift of an NLCS MVP when he was shipped to Colorado for Scutaro last summer.

A bit more recently, the Giants have taken middle infielders as their first round pick in two of the past three drafts. Both were drafted as shortstops, but known more for their bats than their gloves. Joe Panik was moved to 2B full-time this season in Richmond, and is no longer considered the future everyday stalwart that he was even a year ago by many in the scouting world. Personally, I think it’s much too early to write the guy off. No, his numbers in Richmond weren’t spectacular. But many hitters with lofty expectations have been absolutely defeated by the Eastern League. I wouldn’t put Panik among that group. To me, he did enough to earn a promotion to Fresno next year. He’s only 23, and I’d like to see the Giants put him on the 40-man eventually so he has a chance to learn from Scutaro at the highest level. Is Panik an elite prospect? No. He likely won’t ever hit for much power either. But he still showed above average plate discipline last season, and if he can have a bounce back season in Fresno, he could be looking at a potential call-up late next year.

The last player I want to note is Christian Arroyo. Arroyo was drafted as a SS, but like Panik, I’m sure he’ll eventually move to 2B. If he can stay at short, great, but that’s not what most of the scouting world tells us is going to happen. Again, Arroyo was drafted for the bat, not the glove. His pick was also mocked up and down by the baseball world, much like Panik’s. I think it’s safe to say the mocking has subsided for now, as a #2 ranking in the AZL Top 20 by Baseball America this fall has put Arroyo on the map, and likely near the top of most Giants’ prospect rankings. It’s going to take some time, for sure, but the Giants (and all of us) hope that Arroyo’s bat will help him get to the shores of McCovey Cove someday, putting an end to the exhaustive search for a long-term answer at second base.

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Giants 2014: Hot Corner

It’s been a while, but back to the state of the franchise series. Part 4 is dedicated to the hot corner, AKA the home of one Pablo Sandoval, hit machine. At this point, I can’t really call it a full-time home, as the Panda’s missed a significant amount of time to injuries, lack of conditioning, weight gains, etc. in the past few years. Pablo has all the talent in the world, and is one of the best pure hitters in the game. Don’t believe me? Ask Justin Verlander. Sandoval is also a fan favorite, and his career (and body type) has resulted in one of the longest-standing modern day Giants marketing schemes: the panda hat. But is he trustworthy anymore as the starting 3B? Will he even be on the team come next April? I’m not so sure, and neither are the Giants these days it seems.

Where it’s been: Admittedly, this post will mostly focus on the trials and tribulations of Sandoval, but there are a handful of others who’ve manned the corner in his absence – or benching, in the case of 2010 – over the past few years. The Giants signed Pablo, a 16 year-old catcher out of Venezuela in 2003. He debuted the next summer in Arizona, and had a breakout season at the plate as an 18 year-old in Salem-Keizer in his second season. By 2008, though, he entered his 5th year as a pro as mostly an afterthought to prospect watchers. But that summer saw one of the greatest offensive surges ever by a Giants farmhand (only Brandon Belt has put together a better campaign since), a .350 average and 20 HR between San Jose and Richmond. By September, Sandoval was a full-fledged major-leaguer, with his own nickname to boot. Few actually remember him by his original handle of Little Money (catcher Benji Molina was known as Big Money), but that’s the name that caught on early. Pablo hit everything in sight over the season’s final 40 games, and an unexpected star was born.

After nearly claiming the National League batting title and leading the team with 25 HR in 2009, the Giants 23 year-old switch-hitter (who’d moved to 3B full-time) was becoming an icon. Kung Fu Panda was born, and he would lead the young, upstart Giants into a new era of NL West contention. But neither ownership nor the fan base could predict the letdown that would ensue for Sandoval in 2010. While the Giants were surging for the postseason, their former offensive leader was playing himself out of a job and into a bigger pant size. This was the first time any of us really saw the “Bad Panda” side of Pablo, who watched Juan Uribe take over as the starting 3B down the stretch. Sandoval rode the pine through October while teammates forever changed the city of San Francisco and the franchise.

Since then, it’s been quite the mixture of Good Panda and Bad Panda. His 2011 season could’ve been even better than 2009, but the first installment of the hamate bone saga sent him to the DL for weeks. In 2012, he’d play in only 108 games (a career low), thanks in large part to hamate bone, part two. This time, though, he’d come back with a resurgent final month of the season. He’d follow that up with a postseason performance for the ages. Three moon balls in a World Series game… the stuff of legends. Again, ask Verlander about it. After watching from the dugout during the 2010 go-around, there’s no way Pablo was missing the fun in 2012. That run, and the Game 1 heroics, were a nice reminder to the entire organization that the Panda could still be one of the top hitters in the game. I’ll be honest; I bought into it whole-heartedly, as many others probably did too. After the hamate bone saga and the Bad Panda episodes, Sandoval (26 years young) and Buster Posey were ready to tag-team the rest of National League on their way to a third title in four years. The Panda was back, and the Giants were primed for a long run of greatness.

Well…not exactly.

Where it’s headed: Bad Panda showed up early and often this year, and aside from a 6-week stretch in the early part of the season, he stuck around well into the summer. Yes, Pablo stabilized both in the field and at the plate a bit late in the year after coming back from his mid-season foot injury, but the damage was done, and the organization seemed fed up. A ridiculous thought as recent as a year ago, the Giants are now rumored to be listening to offers on their 3B, who is still only 27 years old. But will they trade him? And how do they replace him if they do?

The biggest factor to remember with any Sandoval trade talks is that he’s entering the final year of his contract. And he’ll do so at the age of 28, which is pretty rare in baseball these days. Most guys don’t hit the open market until at least age 30. With Pablo’s track record of success, he’s got every opportunity in the world to earn a massive payday next offseason. From the Giants? Right now, that seems unlikely, but if he can prove healthy and productive next season, there’s no reason Sabean won’t look at extending him a little longer. If he breaks out – say .300 with 25 HR (which we all know he is capable of) – he’ll certainly be in line to get a shiny new deal from a team who believes his conditioning issues are behind him. Either way, I really think this isn’t the time for the Giants to trade him. If they stand to acquire a top prospect or an upgrade in the starting rotation, then it might make sense. Otherwise, it makes more sense to hold onto him and see if he’s motivated in his contract year.

If the Giants don’t trade Pablo, they still would be wise to enter 2014 with a backup plan in place. The Panda has had at least one significant DL trip in three straight seasons… so there’s a definite pattern here. For the past couple years, Joaquin Arias has done a pretty nice job filling in, both as a temporary starter and late-game defensive replacement. Sabean found Arias and Gregor Blanco on the bargain shelf in 2012, and they’ve both been very valuable role players in their time with the club. But Arias is arbitration-eligible this year, and while he doesn’t stand to get a tremendous raise, the Giants will need to decide if they want to bring him back. They’ve got a logjam of reserve-infield types in the organization right now with guys like Tony Abreu, Nick Noonan and Ehire Adrianza, so there’s some sorting out that’ll need to take place this winter. Personally, I’d make sure there’s a spot for Arias, although that may mean Adrianza and his slick glove are headed for another organization.

But what if the Giants do bite on a trade offer for Sandoval this winter? What if the Yankees are willing to part ways with one of their outfield prospects and a starting pitcher? It wouldn’t be the first time the Evil Empire sold some kids to bolster their offense, and there’s a definite corner infield need in New York at the moment. Hey, stranger things have happened. In the event the Giants do find a trade partner for Sandoval, they’ll have an immediate hole at the hot corner. How will they get consistent production? If they aren’t confident that Arias can handle the starting job, they could look to free agency. How about a 2-3 year deal for Omar Infante? Infante is a professional hitter whose bat profiles very similarly to his fellow Venezuelan vet Marco Scutaro. Infante doesn’t strike out much, he’s a career .279 hitter, and he’s played all over the infield in the past. He won’t be too expensive, and he should be able to handle 3B. If you’d rather play him at 2B, you can move Scutaro to the left side. That way, you can lift Scooter late for Arias, much like Bochy has done with Pablo the last couple years. Personally, I’d make Infante an offer even if Pablo doesn’t get traded. Sabean said he needs more depth. Infante helps give you that in the infield.

What about Buster Posey? Would the Giants consider moving him to 3B in the future? It’s been talked about by the media quite a bit in the past year, and it makes sense. If Pablo plays 2014 in San Francisco and decides to walk for greener pastures next winter, it may be more reasonable to replace him with Posey, a proven hitter, than hoping you can find some production in free agency. 3B isn’t a deep position; the Evan Longoria’s and David Wright’s of the world are in short supply. Getting Buster out from behind the dish is something the Giants need to look at heavily, but that’s a topic we’ll cover later. With Belt holding down the 1B job these days, moving Posey to 3rd by 2015 could really bolster that offense. I’m not saying he’d be a Gold Glove infielder, but he did play some shortstop at Florida State (as a freshman), so it’s not like he’d be incompetent without his catcher’s gear. It’s definitely an intriguing idea, and one that the Giants would be wise to start talking about this winter.

There are a couple other in-house 3B who could play their way into some kind of role in the near future: the Louisville hackers, Chris Dominguez and Adam Duvall. Dominguez could be in line for a call-up if Sandoval is traded or misses significant time next season. He’s got as much power as anyone in the organization, but it seems like he sacrificed it a bit to make more contact this year in Fresno. Hey, whatever it takes to get to the dance, right? It worked in AAA, but will it work in the show? Dominguez is also pretty good defensively, and has a cannon for an arm. The defense gives him an edge over Duvall, in my book.

Everything I’ve read about Duvall says he’s pretty rough in the field, but he’s another guy with insane power. Again, he doesn’t make a lot of contact, which might be a red flag, but he actually held his own at the dish in the tough Eastern League this year. Had he stayed healthy all season, I think his offensive numbers would’ve been even better. I like Duvall as a nice sleeper in the org, but he’s not a fresh-faced baby anymore. Neither of these guys are the long-term answer (Sabean is hoping Ryder Jones can be that guy someday), but both might get an opportunity to provide some infield depth sooner than later.

Honestly, I don’t think Pablo is going anywhere this winter. Like Lincecum, Cain, and Posey, Sandoval played a major role in bringing the Giants back from the dark days of the late 2000’s. He’s a fan favorite, and he puts money in the organization’s pocket. Those players generally don’t get shipped off easily. If he can put together a solid season in his walk-year, maybe Sabean gives him the shiny new contract. At this point, who knows? But I’d like to see Good Panda get one more shot. He should have all the motivation in the world to perform. If he doesn’t, so long panda hats. If he does, however, the Giants could have a strong offense in the mediocre NL West. When healthy and in shape, Pablo’s a fun player to watch. He’s upbeat, goofy, and one of the best damn natural hitters in baseball. See-ball, hit-ball, Pablo. Giants Nation is counting on you… don’t let us down.

Foreign Water

Jose Abreu will soon be playing his games at the cell phone field on Chicago’s south side, six years’ worth. The White Sox reportedly beat out Boston and Houston for the Cuban slugger, who got a $68 million deal. His contract was significantly greater than that of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, who have certainly set the bar high for Abreu. There are still plenty of questions for the hefty 1B/DH, though. Will he hit? Will he field? Is he worthy of that kind of money? 6 years too long? All fair questions, I’d say. But here’s one question that crossed my mind after hearing of the Abreu signing: What the heck happened to the Giants?

In his annual end-of-season press conference, Brian Sabean told us not to expect a “big splash” in the international free agent market, despite the fact that there are some potential impact players available again this offseason. Next thing you know, Sabean and his posse (Pat Burrell and Felipe Alou) are on a plane bound for the Dominican to get a better look at Abreu and fellow Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero (who was very close to signing with the Dodgers, but is still on the market). What did the posse learn about Abreu? They didn’t like his glove. That’s the message I took from a few of the Giants beat guys on twitter, anyway. I thought it a bit odd though… the dude wasn’t known for his glove in the first place!

So… if the Giants didn’t like Abreu’s talents, and don’t plan to make an international splash, then why did CSN release a post calling them (the Giants) favorites to land the guy? Why did Baggs’ say he expected Sabean and Co. to be “all in” on Abreu, fighting to the finish to sign him, when I asked about the conflicting reports? Now, only a week removed, the Giants weren’t even among the final three. Did the bopper want too much money? $60-70 million is a hefty price tag for a guy with no MLB experience, but not an unreasonable one in my opinion. He’s got 30-40 HR potential, and that doesn’t come cheap. But that’s the game of baseball these days, and somebody was going to pony up the money. The Giants knew what it would cost all along. Did they lowball him? I haven’t found any reports saying they even made him an offer.

If, in fact the Giants really were all in on Abreu, and they truly were not among his final three suitors, I think that’s a pretty big misfire on the organization’s part. If he really wasn’t ever a priority, and all the flights and reports were smokescreens, so be it. In that case, I would like to see them throw a dollar amount out there to Guerrero. To pluck him from the Dodgers would be a big statement for an organization that was left in the dust by its rival this year. Do I think it will happen? Honestly, I don’t. The Dodgers had a 5-year, $32 million offer on the table, according to MLB Trade Rumors. I don’t see the Giants giving an international free agent that kind of money to come in without a defined role… unless of course they are looking to move Pablo, but I really don’t find that likely either. Sabean did say that he wants to bring in more depth. He didn’t say that he wanted to bring in someone to unseat one of his everyday infielders. I’d say a smaller offer (say 2-3 years at $5-7 million per) to a utility guy like Omar Infante would be a much more likely play for Sabean.

Abreu and Guerrero are the top Cuban hitters on the market. They aren’t the top talent in the international water though. I’ll give that distinction to Masahiro Tanaka, Japanese sensation. Tanaka has a big fastball and a signature split as his out pitch. I’ve read a few reports calling him the next Yu Darvish, a few others saying his split won’t play in the bigs. How can scouts be that far apart on him? Doesn’t make much sense to me, but I do know this: Iwakuma is rocking the AL West out in Seattle with a nasty splitter. He doesn’t throw as hard as Tanaka, and he’s quite a few years older. I think whoever gets Tanaka will have a stud on their hands, but that’s just me. A lot of people sold Hyun-jin Ryu short last season (a few even gave him a middle-relief tag), and look what he did in LA.

If I’m Sabean, I’m throwing a decent offer at the righty. If you snag him, you’ve got 3 very good starters on your hands. Bumgarner, Cain, Tanaka… that’s a deep group. Problem is, the Yankees have their sights set on him as well, and it sounds like they’re serious. Maybe the pecking order in the American League has changed somewhat, but I still find the Yankees as a team who can bring in any player they want. If they’re serious about somebody, that’s bad news for the 29 other clubs. $300 million payroll next year? Give me a break! Personally, I don’t think the Giants have a chance on the Tanaka front, nor is it Sabean’s nature to get in a bidding war.

So, it would seem to me that Sabes was telling the truth (as he often does) about the international market. No big splashes, just a lot of evaluations. Barring some unforeseen development on the Guerrero front, I’d say the Giants are out of the foreign water at this point.

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