The Giants and Pablo Sandoval are in the middle of another preseason battle. For once, though, it isn’t over his ever-fluctuating waistline. No, the two parties are having some trouble coming to an agreement on a contract extension for Sandoval, who has been the Giants’ primary third baseman since 2009 and who has made two All-Star teams and was the MVP of the 2012 World Series. Sandoval stands to become a free agent at the end of this season, so if the Giants fail to come to an agreement of some sort to retain their popular infielder, you can kiss all those panda hats that litter the AT&T Park stands goodbye.
The Giants have recently made it a practice to lock up their key players to long-term deals before they even sniff free agency. Just in the last few years, the team has signed Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Hunter Pence to contract extensions of five years or more. They tried to do the same thing for Tim Lincecum, but he notoriously rebuffed them and ended up settling for a couple of two-year deals instead. Now they’re attempting to hammer out a deal with Sandoval, but apparently the two sides are a ways away from agreeing on a figure. It’s appearing increasingly likely that, if a deal is made, it won’t be negotiated until after the season, a la Hunter Pence and his extension this past fall.
Sandoval has become an iconic figure in the Bay Area and is one of the most popular Giants players in recent memory. He burst upon the scene in 2009 with a .330/.387/.556 season and became a sensation as the Kung Fu Panda. He later made history by becoming just the fourth player in history to homer three times in a World Series game. I discussed his resume at greater length here, but in short, a Panda-less third base would leave a void in the hearts of many a Giants fan. Sandoval is reportedly seeking at least the five year, $90 million that Pence got, and with all of his accomplishments in his six big league seasons and the ever-escalating free agent dollar amounts being thrown around baseball these days, it’s easy to argue that he deserves it.
It’s also easy to see why the Giants have reservations about handing him that kind of money. For all his popularity, Sandoval has been a great hitter in just two of his five major league seasons, and he’s broken a .450 slugging percentage just once since 2009. He’s also missed time with injury in each of the past three years and there’s always the annual spat over his offseason conditioning (who can forget this gem?). The Giants are also already facing double digit salary commitments to six players in 2015, so they might consider the Panda not worth the risk if they want to tighten the wallet a little.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Giants just decide not to re-sign Sandoval and go another route to find a third baseman in 2015. If this happens, it gives the Giants three avenues to explore: promote someone within the organization, sign a free agent, or make a trade. This is where things get a bit sticky.
As it stands now, the Giants don’t have any obvious (read: appetizing) third base options in their system. Ehire Adrianza looks like a lock to make the team this year with Tony Abreu’s release, but he’s never played third base and his .697 career minor league OPS is pretty uninspiring. Chris Dominguez hit fairly well as Fresno’s regular third baseman last year, but he’s a 27-year-old non-prospect who can’t take a walk to save his life. Mark Minicozzi is a great story and we’re all rooting for him, but it’s hard to see the Giants taking him seriously as a regular. 2013 first rounder Christian Arroyo may eventually be moved from shortstop to third base, but he’s a few years away. Adam Duvall has power but is by all accounts a miserable fielder, and he didn’t hit all that great as a 24-year-old in AA, anyway. The cupboard is pretty bare in terms of immediate internal candidates.
As far as free agency goes, it’s pretty ugly as well. The list of potential free agent third basemen for 2015 offers Hanley Ramirez, Chase Headley, and a whole lot of yuck. Ramirez and Headley are certainly solid players, but they’re both over 30 and with big seasons they could command big money on the market. A lot more money than, say, Sandoval would command if the Giants simply agreed to sign him to an extension. Sandoval is 27 and would likely sign for cheaper than either of those two, so it hardly makes any sense to let Panda go just to go after one of Ramirez or Headley. So scratch free agents off the list, unless Brian Sabean wants to make a play for the remains of Kevin Youkilis.
Lastly, there’s the trade option, but it’s hard to imagine the Giants having the prospect oomph to acquire a true impact player who is under team control and makes sense financially. If trade is an option, it would potentially make sense to go after someone like Kyle Seager, a pre-free agency third baseman who plays on a bad team, to act as a relatively cheap stopgap until Arroyo (or somebody else with upside) is ready. Again, though, Seager (or someone like him) is probably going to cost more in prospects than the Giants can offer, and it’s not even clear that he (or someone like him) is available anyway. So unless the team wants to make a hilariously ill-advised deal with the Yankees for Alex Rodriguez and all of his baggage, we can probably scratch this one, too.
That brings us back to Sandoval, and why the Giants will in all likelihood end up agreeing to an extension with him at some point this year. Sandoval is just now entering his age-27 season, so the Giants are still going to get most of his (traditional) prime seasons even if they sign him to five or six more years. There’s always upside, and the chance that he’ll put up some more 2009-ish seasons. Even at a baseline of .280/.340/.440, that’s pretty good production (especially at hitter-immolating AT&T Park) considering the average National League third baseman hit .258/.325/.404 in 2013. $18 million or so per year seems like a lot of money at first glance, but when the alternative could be to hearken back to the bottom-scraping Jose Castillo days of yore, then suddenly just paying the Panda starts to seem like not so bad an idea.