Tuesday November 18th, 2014

Thanks to his critical role in helping the Giants to another world championship and his unique physique, Pablo Sandoval is destined to be one of the winter’s most discussed free agents. While a return to San Francisco hasn’t been ruled out, the two sides were far apart on an extension last spring. The 28-year-old switch-hitting third baseman reportedly met with the Red Sox on Monday, and the Blue Jays, White Sox and Padres have expressed interest as well.

Besides the obvious curiosity of wondering where Kung Fu Panda will ultimately sign are these two pressing questions: Will he crack the $100 million barrier, and if so, is there any way he can be worth it?

Before running Sandoval through my “What’s He Really Worth?” exercise, as I did for Giancarlo Stanton on Monday and for other players such as Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Mike Trout over the past year, it’s worth a quick review of the ups and downs of his career.

Signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old in 2003, Sandoval split his time in the minors and in his 2008 major league debut season between catching, first base and third base. Given his offensive ability, surprising dexterity for his size and the presence of Buster Posey on the horizon, the Giants opted to settle him at the hot corner in 2009. The 22-year-old Sandoval responded by hitting a sizzling .330/.387/.556 — good for second in the NL in batting average — with 25 homers in 153 games. Only subpar fielding (-12 Defensive Runs Saved) could take the shine off his season, limiting him to 4.3 Wins Above Replacement.

Alas, Sandoval couldn’t maintain that performance. In 2010, he slumped to .268/.323/.409, while grounding into a league-high 26 double plays and drawing criticism for his conditioning. San Francisco marched to the World Series title, but he spent most of the postseason on the bench while Juan Uribe and Mike Fontenot handled third base. The message was sent, and Sandoval responded by losing a reported 38 pounds in the offseason. Not only did he rebound to hit 23 homers and post a .315/.357/.552 line in 2011, he was 15 runs above average via DRS en route to a career-best 6.1 WAR, a figure he reached despite missing 41 games due to in-season surgery for a broken hamate bone in his right wrist.

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Apparently eager for a matched set, Sandoval suffered a similar injury in his left wrist the following year and missed five weeks, with an additional disabled list stint for a hamstring strain also cutting into his time. His performance fell off to 2.1 WAR, but he caught fire in the postseason, hitting a combined .364/.386/.712 with six homers, including a record-tying three in Game 1 of the World Series against the Tigers. Sandoval won series MVP honors and the Giants swept their way to their second title in three years.

Sandoval's last two seasons have yielded relatively middle-of-the-road returns by comparison, performances worth 2.7 WAR in 2013 (.278/.341/.41, -5 DRS) and 3.3 in 2014 (.279/.324/.415, +4 DRS). He capped the latter with another excellent postseason, hitting .366/ .423/.465 -- including .400 in the NLCS and .429 in the World Series -- and making several standout defensive plays.

In all, we’ve seen quite a bit of variance in Sandoval’s performance and his conditioning during his six full seasons. He has played anywhere from 108 to 157 games, his OPS+ has ranged from 99 to 155, his DRS from -12 to +15 and his WAR from 1.5 to 6.1. Listed at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds, he’s reportedly ballooned past 275 at times, and his intermittent rededications to better nutrition and fitness have proved short-lived . He’s reported to camp in the best shape of his life in some years, and in the roundest shape of his life in others.

All of which makes it hard to consider him a perennial star and helps explain why San Francisco's front office has been more ambivalent about retaining him than it was with the likes of the homegrown Posey, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, as well as trade acquisition Hunter Pence. Last spring, Sandoval reportedly rejected a three-year, $40 million extension offer that was more than double his expiring three-year, $17.5 million deal, but well short of the Pence-like five-year, $90 million contract he sought. Only the one-year, $15.3 million qualifying offer he rejected two weeks ago even approached the level of annual salary that would apparently satiate him.

Via ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Sandoval has discussed five-year deals in the $80-90 million range with both the Red Sox and Giants, so it’s worth considering what his next half-decade could look like. To do so, I’ll dust off the model that I built to address such questions, one that incorporates past performance, a projection of future performance, the market cost of a marginal win, inflation and aging, building on the top research done by others in those areas.

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Drawing upon Tom Tango's overly simplified Marcel projection system (so simple even a monkey could calculate it), I’ll start with a 5/4/3 weighting of a Sandoval’s past three WAR totals — (5 x 2014 WAR) + (4 x 2013 WAR) + (3 x 2012 WAR), all divided by 12 (5 + 4 + 3) — to provide a baseline for what to expect for 2015. The good news for Sandoval under such a scenario is that it downplays his major wrist injury-related absences, capturing just one of the two and at the smallest weighting. The bad news is that it also captures his three straight years of declining OPS+, from 123 in 2012 (down from 155 in 2011, and matching his current career average) to 116 in '13, to 111 in '14, and it removes his best defensive season from consideration as well.  

Given all that, Sandoval comes in at a baseline of just 2.8 WAR, a figure that would be the same had I chosen to use the FanGraphs version instead of the Baseball-Reference one. He’s heading into his age-28 season, so if I use the aging curve suggested by Jeff Zimmerman's research, he should be able to maintain that level for the next two seasons before beginning a substantial decline. At a market cost of $6 million per marginal win with 5.4 percent annual inflation, here’s what his next five years could look like:

 
Year Age WAR Market ($/W) Value
2015 28 2.8 $6.32M $17.7M
2016 29 2.8 $6.67M $18.7M
2017 30 2.3 $7.03M $16.2M
2018 31 1.8 $7.40M $13.3M
2019 32 1.3 $7.80M $10.1M
Total   11.0   $76.0M

While that doesn’t seem great, it makes a whole lot more sense if Sandoval is seeking $80-90 million over five years rather than $100 million-plus over six, as previously reported. Add another year to that scenario under the same parameters and his totals come to 11.8 WAR and $82.2 million, a substantial shortfall.

Keeping the model to five years while projecting a slightly more gentle decline of 0.4 WAR per year only bumps the return to 11.6 WAR and $80.6 million. Using that decline and a 2015 baseline of 3.0 WAR — matching the average of his past two seasons — boosts the return to 12.6 WAR and $87.6 million. Given his physique and the possibility that he could move to first base or spend substantial time at DH before the end of his next contract, I’m not sure that a gentle decline scenario is justified, as such a shift would take a bite out of his WAR, but for the sake of argument, I’ll keep it in play.

Only if we presume that Sandoval can match this past year’s performance does his value approach $100 million. At a 3.3 WAR starting point with a 0.4 WAR per year decline, he’d produce 14.1 WAR and be worth $98.1 million; at that same level, with a more realistic 0.5 WAR per year decline, he’d come in at 13.5 WAR and $93.6 million:

 
Year Age WAr Market ($/W) Value
2015 28 3.3 $6.32M $20.9M
2016 29 3.3 $6.67M $22.0M
2017 30 2.8 $7.03M $19.7M
2018 31 2.3 $7.40M $17.0M
2019 32 1.8 $7.80M $14.0M
Total   13.5   $93.6M

In other words, it takes a rather optimistic — but not outrageous — projection of Sandoval’s future performance to justify a five-year deal above $90 million. Sandoval has met or exceeded that 3.3 WAR in three of his six seasons, no two of them back-to-back, and his rolling three-year averages (unweighted) have ranged from 4.0 WAR to his current 2.7. At his best, he’s an All-Star caliber player, but he’s hardly a model of consistency.

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MLB Trade Rumors recently estimated that Sandoval would receive a six-year, $114 million deal. I don’t see that happening, but given the number of teams said to be interested, the bet here is that he’ll find a deal above five years and $90 million. He’s said to have one with exactly those parameters on the table from the Giants, but it remains to be seen whether they would be willing to go higher given competition from other clubs.

Even at that price point, Sandoval presents considerable risk due to his year-to-year inconsistency, and he’s no guarantee to repeat the level of postseason performances he produced in 2012 and '14. Inevitably, somebody will fall into the trap of paying for his past performance, banking that his winning ways will be transferable to his new surroundings. If I were a general manager, though, it’s not a gamble I’d take unless I was in win-now, damn-the-consequences mode.

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