Winter Report Card: Giants do solid work in addressing rotation holes
With less than four weeks left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the San Francisco Giants. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
84–78 (.519), second place in National League West (Hot Stove Preview)
LHP Jeremy Affeldt^, OF Nori Aoki, IF Joaquin Arias, OF Marlon Byrd*, OF Alejandro De Aza, RHP Tim Hudson^, RHP Mike Leake, RHP Tim Lincecum*, RHP Yusmeiro Petit, C Hector Sanchez, 2B Marco Scutaro^, RHP Ryan Vogelsong
(*free agent, still unsigned; ^retired)
Off-season In Review
You know the drill: As with 2011 and '13, the Giants were unable to follow up their championship success from the previous season in an odd-numbered year. San Francisco did spend much of 2015 in contention but ultimately fell short of a playoff spot, with injuries—to rightfielder Hunter Pence, second baseman Joe Panik and starters Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy in particular—playing a large role in the team's downfall. With the Giants' in-season reinforcements in the rotation and outfield departing along with some long-time roster staples, the team had over $54 million coming off the books, giving San Francisco ample room to address its needs this winter.
Ace Madison Bumgarner and rookie Chris Heston were the only Giants pitchers to make more than 22 starts or qualify for the ERA title in 2015. That made rebuilding a rotation that ranked seventh in the league in ERA (3.95, for a 95 ERA+), eighth in FIP (4.04), ninth in innings (939 1/3) and 11th in strikeout rate (7.0 per nine) the top priority. The 40-year-old Hudson, who made 22 starts with a 4.44 ERA and just 0.3 Wins Above Replacement, retired after a lengthy and impressive career, and 28-year-old Mike Leake, who posted just a 4.07 ERA in nine starts after being acquired from the Reds in late July, signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Cardinals.
Also gone are 38-year-old righthander Ryan Vogelsong and 31-year-old Yusmeiro Petit, another righty. Vogelsong, pressed into 22 starts to go with his 11 relief appearances, finished last season with a 4.67 ERA and -0.4 WAR, the second time in three years he wound up below replacement level; he signed a one-year, $2 million deal to return to Pittsburgh. Petit made just one start in 2015 but 19 in the previous two seasons and gave the Giants 76 innings with a 3.67 ERA and 0.4 WAR; after being non-tendered, he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Nationals with a vesting option for a second year. Meanwhile, Tim Lincecum, who made 15 starts with a 4.13 ERA but missed the final two months of the season before undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left hip, remains a free agent and is due for a considerable pay cut from the $18 million he earned last year.
After nearly plucking Zack Greinke away from the Dodgers but ultimately losing him to the Diamondbacks, the Giants decided to invest $220 million in a pair of starters to join their rotation alongside Bumgarner, Peavy and either Matt Cain (who's managed just 151 innings and a 4.83 ERA over the past two seasons due to injuries) or Heston. One was Johnny Cueto, who split 2015 between the Reds and Royals and signed a six-year, $130 million deal with San Francisco. His new contract includes an opt-out after 2017, at which point he will have been paid only $46 million according to Cot's Contracts ($15 million for '16, $21 million for '17, a $5 million buyout if he opts out and a $5 million signing bonus with payments that will last through '21 whether he's still on the roster or not).
That's a hefty bet on a pitcher who has some minor questions about the state of his elbow and looked terrible at times during 2015. Still, Cueto is a decent bet to be worth the money in the short term. He has a few factors in his favor: a return to the NL, where he posted a career 3.21 ERA despite spending half his time in a hitter-friendly park; the pitcher-friendliness of AT&T Park; and the upgrade at catcher from the Royals' Salvador Perez (with whom he reportedly did not get along) to Buster Posey. In that, Cueto is going from one of the majors' worst-framing backstops (Perez was at -22 runs over the past two years, according to Baseball Prospectus) to one of the best (Posey was +36 runs over the same period).
The bigger question concerns Jeff Samardzija, who received a five-year, $90 million deal. Pitching for the White Sox last year, Samardzija had an ugly 4.96 ERA—not only a career worst but also the majors' third-highest among qualified starters—and yielded AL highs of 228 hits and 29 homers en route to 0.2 WAR. The Giants may have been better off keeping Leake at the lower price given his performance floor and his ties to manager Bruce Bochy, but the brass preferred Samardzija's greater velocity and his ability to miss bats (6.9 K/9 compared to Leake's 4.7). The bet is that pitching coach Dave Righetti can do what White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper could not and bring out the best in Samardzija, who was an All-Star with the Cubs in 2014. If nothing else, the switch in ballparks should help: He had a 5.35 ERA with 1.5 homers per nine at U.S. Cellular, and batters hit an MLB-low 109 homers at AT&T Park compared to 157 at the Cell last year.
With Pence playing just 52 games due to forearm, wrist and oblique injuries and Nori Aoki limited to 93 games due to a fractured fibula and a concussion, San Francisco had to add both Marlon Byrd (who played 39 games for them) and Alejandro De Aza (24 games) via August deals. All but Pence are gone from that group. Aoki (.287/.353/.380 with 1.0 WAR) signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Mariners that includes incentives and a vesting option. De Aza (.262/.333/.422 with 1.0 WAR for the Orioles, Red Sox and Giants) signed a one-year, $5.75 million-plus-incentives deal with the Mets. Byrd, whose $8 million club option was declined, is still looking for a home.
In place of that trio, the Giants signed 31-year-old Denard Span to a three-year, $31 million contract that includes incentives, performance bonuses, escalator clauses and a mutual option plus a side of french fries (or garlic, rather) and a large soda. Span hit .301/.365/.431 for a 114 OPS+ with the Nationals last year, but he was limited to 61 games due to a trio of trips to the disabled list, the last before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair his left hip labrum. He should be ready for spring training, but the question is whether he'll take over centerfield, with Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco covering leftfield, or vice versa. Span was 10 runs below average in center last year, according to Defensive Runs Saved, but he's been basically average in that spot over the course of his career (+9 in 809 games). He does have nearly 200 games played in the outfield corners, where he's 21 runs above average, so either way, he should be an asset for a team whose left and centerfielders combined for -23 DRS in 2015, with Pagan accounting for 20 of those runs in the red.
Also potentially joining the roster is 29-year-old behemoth Kyle Blanks, who has hit a combined .311/.380/.484 over the past two seasons in cups of coffee with the Padres, Athletics and Rangers totaling all of 137 plate appearances. Blanks underwent September surgery on both Achilles tendons, but if his body permits, he could provide a righthanded alternative to Brandon Belt at first base and spot in the outfield corners. Around to provide infield depth and versatility via minor-league deals are 28-year-old Grant Green (.249/.283/.335 in 300 career PA, most recently in 21 games with the Angels in 2015) and 30-year-old Ramiro Pena (.244/.288/.330 in 610 career PA, most recently with the Braves in '14). They're likely behind Panik fill-in Kelby Tomlinson on the depth chart, though holdover Ehire Adrianza could be on the bubble.
Gone, meanwhile, is catcher Hector Sanchez, who slipped below Andrew Susac on the depth chart last year to the point of making just 59 plate appearances for the big club; he signed a minor-league deal with the White Sox. Replacing him as the organization's third backstop is the well-traveled George Kottaras, a 32-year-old who is a career .215/.326/.411 hitter and spent 2015 toiling with the White Sox' and Blue Jays' Triple A affiliates. Also departed are Joaquin Arias and Marco Scutaro. Arias, who hit just .207/.207/.276 in 59 PA, signed a minor-league deal with Arizona, and Scutaro retired after playing just five games over the past two seasons due to back problems that culminated in spinal fusion surgery in December 2014.
Unfinished Business: Bullpen
Aside from Petit, the only key pitcher gone from a bullpen that ranked third in the league in ERA (3.33) but last in strikeout rate (7.7 per nine) is lefty Jeremy Affeldt, who retired. Affeldt scuffled to a 5.86 ERA in 35 1/3 innings last year but allowed just two runs in 26 innings during the Giants' three championship runs. Rookie Josh Osich pitched reasonably well in his absences (2.20 ERA in 28 2/3 innings with a .222/.279/.349 line in 68 plate appearances versus lefties) and should be able to pair with holdover Javier Lopez as Bochy's matchup lefty options.
With Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, George Kontos and Hunter Strickland all coming off solid-or-better seasons, there's no glaring need for a late-inning righty either, which isn't to say the additional depth wouldn't be welcome. So long as he remains unsigned, there’s temptation to bring back the 32-year-old Lincecum, who has remained a fan favorite despite being cuffed for a combined 4.68 ERA and -2.7 WAR over the past four seasons. Given his health and his recent performance, it doesn't make sense to hold a rotation spot open for him, but his success out of the bullpen in October 2012 continues to resonate as a possible pathway for a return. Much will depend on how he looks once he's recovered from surgery, but at the very least, somebody has to throw the low-leverage innings that the likes of Petit and Vogelsong absorbed.
If Lincecum can reinvent himself in shorter stints, great, and if he somehow rediscovers his form to the point of meriting a starting spot, even better. If not, whatever deal he signs will be an incentive-based one with a low guarantee. Salvatore Tessio may not have merited another chance for old times' sake, but a sentiment-based flyer for a franchise icon isn't an extravagance for a team that’s gotten its shopping done.
Preliminary Grade: A-
Though they didn't land Greinke, San Francisco has done as good a job as any team of filling its needs this winter. The main knock is the amount of risk the Giants have assumed when it comes to Samardzija's bounceback and Cueto's opt-out, but that's the price of doing business.