Sabean facing a winter of tough decisions
Giants GM will try to address questions surrounding offense, rotation
SAN FRANCISCO -- If the Giants experience a successful 2014 season, perhaps the next statue placed outside AT&T Park ought to be Rodin's "The Thinker," with general manager Brian Sabean's face on it.
Unlike last year, when the Giants almost reflexively brought back nearly their entire World Series-winning roster -- and who could argue? -- Sabean faces issues and decisions at virtually every position. He knows that Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner will be the club's top two starting pitchers, that Brandon Crawford and Pablo Sandoval will form the infield's left side, that catcher Buster Posey and center fielder Angel Pagan will lend strength up the middle and that left-hander Jeremy Affeldt and right-hander Santiago Casilla will provide help for closer Sergio Romo.
Addressing the club's top free agents likely will be Sabean's first order of business. Given the club's relative lack of offense, re-signing right fielder Hunter Pence to a five-year extension prior to the end of the regular season was a good first step. The pool of free-agent outfielders is shallow, so having to fill both corner-outfield spots instead of just one would have been an arduous challenge.
The Giants' efforts to bring back Tim Lincecum will be intriguing to monitor. The right-hander lacks the dominance of his Cy Young Award-winning years, but spent much of 2013 attempting to gain polish and subtlety. Maybe Lincecum won't metamorphose into Greg Maddux, but he could resume being a winning pitcher. The Giants have only an extremely slim chance of keeping Lincecum with the one-year qualifying offer (estimated to be $14 million). It's more likely that a handful of suitors will materialize who are willing to pay Lincecum close to a No. 1 starter's salary but less annually than the $22 million he earned this year.
As one of the Major Leagues' top situational left-handers, Javier Lopez has become an essential component of a winning team. But he'll command more than the $4.25 million he earned this year. The Giants must determine whether they want to -- or can -- keep Lopez, whose preference is to stay in San Francisco. They might be able to create salary space for Lopez by declining Ryan Vogelsong's $6.5 million option and signing the right-hander for a lower figure, then non-tendering left-handed reliever Jose Mijares.
Brandon Belt will be in the starting lineup. Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy must ponder where he fits. Moving Belt to left field is a viable option. That would fill the offensive void there and enable the Giants to obtain a productive hitter to play first base, which probably will be an easier task than finding another outfielder. The Giants might decide that using Posey more frequently at first base might be one of their best options, since that would bolster the 2012 National League Most Valuable Player's stamina and might help him avoid the batting slump he endured in this season's final weeks.
The Giants didn't seem overly concerned about second baseman Marco Scutaro, who was scheduled to spend a month and a half with a pin inserted in his left pinkie to straighten it. Scutaro will also turn 38 on Oct. 30. His status illustrated San Francisco's need for more depth among position players, as well as on the pitching staff. The Giants' bid to return to the postseason ended almost as soon as it began, due to their lack of a deep bench -- since they had few alternatives to rely upon when significant injuries befell not just Scutaro but also Pagan, Affeldt, Casilla, Sandoval and Vogelsong.
"We're a championship team," Pagan insisted. "This year happened to be a tough one. Injuries, more downs than ups -- but that happens to every team. I think the most important thing is to reflect on the year and use it as motivation."
Arbitration-eligible: INF Tony Abreu, 1B Belt, INF Joaquin Arias, OF Gregor Blanco, LHP Mijares, RHP Yusmeiro Petit.
Free agents: RHP Chad Gaudin, RHP Lincecum, LHP Lopez, OF Andres Torres, RHP Vogelsong ($6.5 million club option with $300,000 buyout), LHP Barry Zito ($18 million club option with $7.5 million buyout).
Rotation: The Giants could be faced with replacing as many as three starters if Lincecum departs via free agency and they decline to pick up Vogelsong's option, since Zito surely won't return. With the possible exception of Eric Surkamp, the organization has no Major League-ready starters in the Minors. So the Giants might have to make a serious attempt to retain Lincecum and keep Vogelsong in the hopes that he'll bounce back. Petit will definitely receive a legitimate chance to secure a rotation berth. Expect the Giants to scour the lists of six-year Minor League free agents and starters cast off by other clubs in the hopes of finding somebody who can make a surprise contribution, as Vogelsong did in 2011. Pay attention to Edwin Escobar and Martin Agosta, who excelled at Double-A Richmond and Class A Augusta, respectively.
Bullpen: Aside from the roles held by the aforementioned Romo, Affeldt and Casilla, this could be a free-for-all for jobs. Right-handers Jake Dunning and Heath Hembree have earned an early jump on the competition. George Kontos, Jean Machi and Sandy Rosario can be expected to make serious bids to claim roles. Guillermo Moscoso ended the season as the long man, and could begin next year with the same responsibility. Formerly a starter, Michael Kickham could find a niche with his excellent stuff as the first lefty out of the bullpen. The Giants might take a look at another lefty, Minor Leaguer Josh Osich, who was in Spring Training camp last year. Of course, much depends on whether the Giants retain Lopez.
Catcher: This remains Posey's domain, though it's up to management whether they want to begin playing him more frequently at first base to preserve his offensive skills. Hector Sanchez's strong finish might prompt the Giants' decision-makers to think more seriously about alternatives for Posey. Sanchez probably still needs to be pushed, and hard-hitting Johnny Monell is exactly the guy to do it. Depth could be a problem if Monell becomes a six-year Minor League free agent and departs, though Andrew Susac could be ready to provide competition.
First base: Belt not only has upgraded his offensive production, but has also remained a capable defender. Should he maintain his progress, he could contribute 20 or so homers and a .300 batting average annually. If Belt moves to left field, Brett Pill would compete with the yet-to-be-identified acquisition the Giants bring in. Don't fit Angel Villalona for a San Francisco uniform yet, though the Giants likely will bring him to Spring Training to drool over his power.
Second base: The Giants can assume that Scutaro's left pinkie will be in better shape following the temporary insertion of a pin to straighten the finger. Bear in mind that, at 38, his skills can diminish markedly at any time. Keeping Scutaro fresh will be a priority for the Giants, who could give 30 to 50 starts to Arias or, if he returns, Abreu. Nick Noonan will also be in the mix.
Shortstop: Given the usually solid defense Crawford provides, the Giants are happy with his level of offensive contributions. The Giants might keep September callup Ehire Adrianza around to insure that Crawford stays hungry. Arias can also play here, if necessary.
Third base: It's almost a given that Sandoval will thrive. His three-year, $17.15 million contract expires after next season, so he'll be playing for an even bigger deal. He took a step in the right direction this year by playing more games than he had since 2010. But Sandoval's mediocre run production totals and slugging percentage arouse concern. At least he has room for improvement. Arias remains a solid backup, but the Giants would prefer not to rely on him extensively.
Outfield: Signing Pence simplified matters considerably for the Giants. With Pagan entrenched in center, filling the hole in left is San Francisco's lone outfield concern. Gary Brown, the organization's No. 1 selection in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, hit .231 in 137 games at Triple-A Fresno and, obviously, needs more seasoning. The Giants evidently don't feel comfortable trying Pill or Francisco Peguero there full-time, and Blanco's offensive production is too erratic. So if the Giants don't move Belt to left, they might have to try their luck in free agency, where the best available outfielders are expected to be Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Beltran.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.