Pablo Sandoval returned to the Giants lineup on Monday night after missing 15 days with a foot injury. He went 2-for-4 in a loss to the Dodgers, but only after the team took an even bigger hit. Angel Pagan, who was in the process of rehabbing his way back to the lineup after being sidelined since May 25 due to a left hamstring injury, underwent surgery on Tuesday that could sideline him for the remainder of the regular season — a significant blow to the defending world champions, who have fallen to 38-38, in fourth place in the NL West.
The Giants signed the 31-year-old Pagan to a four-year, $45 million deal last winter, after a strong season in which he hit .288/.338/.440 and was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement. In light of the pricier free agent deals for B.J. Upton and Michael Bourn — the latter of whom didn't sign until two months later — it appeared to be a shrewd move. But Pagan started slowly, hitting just .262/.314./.374 and stealing six bases in 10 attempts, compared to 29 in 36 attempts last year. Minor groin and hamstring injuries that knocked him out of the lineup in early May may have cut into his speed and caused problems with his swing; both left him day-to-day, but those were on the right side, not the left.
Pagan suffered the more serious injury in the Giants' May 25 game against the Rockies; he hurt it early in the game, yet managed to leg out a walk-off inside-the-park home run in the 10th inning — the majors' first such hit since 2004. The Giants treated his injury as a day-to-day one, a move that looks highly questionable in retrospect. He received a cortisone shot on May 29, was still considered a viable pinch-hitting option as of June 2, and didn't go on the disabled list until June 7, after he had missed 11 straight games. He resumed running and hitting as of June 13, received a platelet-rich plasma injection on June 16 when the pain hadn't subsided, and began a rehab assignment with High-A San Jose on June 20, but he was carted off the field in the ninth inning of his first game after limping to first base on an infield grounder.
Now Pagan needs surgery to repair the hamstring tendon behind his left knee, recovery from which generally takes 10 to 12 weeks. Via a best-case scenario, he could return in early September, but the 12-week mark of September 17 is well after the minor league season ends, meaning that his rehab would be limited to simulated or complex league games, or would be done at the major league level. Any further setback would probably knock him out for the remainder of the season.
In Pagan's absence, the Giants plan to stick with Gregor Blanco as the regular centerfielder and leadoff hitter, which isn't a bad option given that the 29-year-old is batting .302/.354/.401 at the moment and may be the better defender of the two players. But where Pagan's a switch-hitter, Blanco is a lefty in need of a platoon partner; he owns a career .272/.359/.355 line in 1,138 PA against righties, .229/.323/.306 in 394 PA against lefties. As a platoon partner, Bochy has recently taken to using righty Juan Perez, a 26-year-old rookie who didn't climb above Double-A until this year but hit .296/.331/.507 with nine homers in 57 games at Triple-A Fresno before being recalled.
The problem with moving Blanco to centerfield to cover for Pagan is the increased exposure of Andres Torres, Blanco's platoon partner in left. The 35-year-old Torres is a switch hitter who has struggled to the point of unplayability against righties (.195/.292/.310 in 226 PA last year, .217/.260/.348 in 100 PA this year). The team has yet to consider minor league options Roger Kieschnick, a 26-year-old lefty corner outfielder putting up numbers similar to Perez (.270/.327/.512 with 11 homers in 73 games) in Fresno, or 24-year-old righty centerfielder Gary Brown, who dropped out of Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list after a rough season at Double-A Richmond; he's hitting all of .241/.304/.418 with 10 homers in 73 games at Fresno after a recent hot streak.
Even with Pagan and Sandoval missing time, the Giants' offense has been surprisingly solid, averaging 4.20 runs per game, which ranks fifth in the league, but they were much stronger while their centerfielder was available (4.51 runs per game through May 25) than they've been since (3.63 runs per game). They've gone 11-16 in that latter stretch, and while they're only 3 1/2 games out of first place, they've got plenty of traffic around them, and they're even further back — 6 1/2 games — in the wild-card hunt.
Ultimately, Pagan's injury may be too much to bear, because it would be one thing if general manager Brian Sabean could look to the July 31 trade deadline focused on outfield help, but the team's bigger problem has been run prevention, where their 4.42 runs per game allowed ranks 12th. Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito all have ERAs of 4.40 or higher, Ryan Vogelsong was worse before being lost to a fractured hand that could keep him out through July, and fill-in Chad Gaudin just hit the disabled list with a bruised elbow. Not knowing what they might expect from Vogelsong — or for that matter any of their non-Madison Bumgarner starters — Sabean will have to prioritize rotation help ahead of offense. Filling both needs could be a tall order for a farm system that ranked 28th according to Baseball America coming into the season but if the Giants can't fix those glaring problems, they'll be hard pressed to return to the postseason.