The defending world champions will open the 2015 season without one of their best players. Giants rightfielder Hunter Pence suffered a non-displaced fracture of the ulna in his left forearm when he was hit by a pitch from Cubs minor leaguer Corey Black in the sixth inning of San Francisco’s 8-6 win over Chicago on Thursday afternoon. Pence, whose major league-leading streak of 383 consecutive games played will come to an end on Opening Day, is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks.
The good news for the Giants is that this injury happened so early in spring training that the first four weeks of Pence’s recuperation will take place during the remainder of the exhibition schedule. At the five-week point, the Giants will be playing just their fourth game of the regular season. Eight weeks from Thursday is April 30. Given Pence’s history of good health, the team can be optimistic about him returning at some point in April. Even if he misses the entire month, he’ll miss just 23 games, a mere 14 percent of the season, thanks to the regular season’s late start on April 6.
Better yet, the Giants have a replacement on hand in Nori Aoki, who was the starting rightfielder for the Royals last year and signed a one-year, $4.7 million deal with San Francisco in mid-January. Aoki isn’t nearly Pence’s equal, but he is a very similar player to the Giants’ intended starter in leftfield, Gregor Blanco, a lefthanded singles hitter with speed and on-base ability but little power.
The primary difference between the two is that Aoki makes more contact, while Blanco is a better fielder. Given that similarity, the Aoki signing was one that only made sense in light of centerfielder Angel Pagan’s struggles to stay healthy the last two seasons. With Pagan having played just 167 games over the last two years, Aoki represented important outfield depth and injury insurance. It’s ironic, then, that Aoki will be called to replace not be the fragile Pagan but instead Pence, who hasn’t missed a game since 2012 and hasn’t played in fewer than 154 games since his rookie season in '07. The Giants now have to hope that the 33-year-old Pagan, who had back surgery in September, can hold up at least until Pence’s return.
[daily_cut.MLB]As it is, having lost Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse to free agency over the winter, San Francisco will now enter the regular season without three of its top four home run hitters of a year ago and two of the 2014 team’s top three position players, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement. Only former league MVP Buster Posey was a more valuable everyday player for the Giants last year than Pence, who was worth 3.6 WAR in '14 and has averaged 3.8 bWAR over the last two seasons. Rival metrics present an even more favorable evaluation of Pence, largely due to more flattering evaluations of his play in the field. Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player credits him with 3.9 WARP last year and an average of 4.5 over the last two years, and FanGraphs pegs him at 4.7 WAR last year and an average of 5.1 WAR per season over the last two.
Aoki cannot replace that value over the long term, and the Giants' lineup will be woefully underpowered to start the season with Posey and Brandon Belt the only two projected starters to have reached double-digit home runs in each of the last two seasons. However, assuming Pence can return promptly and effectively, the Giants should benefit from having Aoki on hand as his replacement. Should the Giants fail to repeat as champions after Pence’s return, it would likely have far more to do with their poor offseason than what should ultimately prove to be a brief absence on Pence’s part.