Ask Giants General Manager Brian Sabean what needs his team has remaining, and he’s up front about it: “A left fielder. Good health. Depth.” Ask him how he’s going to fix those needs, though, and it gets a little more complicated. Maybe we can help identify some possible solutions.
A few problems have conspired to make this a difficult search for the Giants. For one, prices are rising — in dollars and years — for even the lower-end free agents. Rajai Davis, a wrong-side platoon corner outfielder without power or patience, got two years and $10 million from the Tigers. Discussion of those sort of market results prompted Sabean to blame the supply: “There aren’t enough players to go around.”
But Sabean insists the team isn’t done looking. The other difficulty in the search is the lack of trade assets. Or, rather, the lack of polished trade assets. “We don’t have that kind of upper-level top talent to trade… and that does take you out of the running of some opportunities,” Sabean admitted. The team is excited about Edwin Escobar — a “strike-thrower” who can throw 180+ innings this year and is fairly polished — and teams have been asking about him. But other than Yusmeiro Petit and perhaps Mike Kickham, the cupboard behind the five veteran starters at the big-league level is bare.
The in-house option is Gregor Blanco, and the GM admitted that he may have to mix and match around the lefty outfielder that has salvaged his career in the last two years. “He’ll face mostly right-handed pitching,” Sabean said. Against right-handed pitching last year, Blanco was above league average offensively if a little light on power (.269/.341/.355). Add in his defense, and you have ‘good enough’ from the big side of the plate.
With the payroll already over $130 million without adding in the arbitration-eligible players, Sabean also doesn’t have much money left to play with. The payroll hasn’t cracked $137 million over the last three years. That last difficulty helps set the market. The Giants are looking for a cheap right-handed left-fielder, maybe with a little pop.
There aren’t a ton of names that fulfill these requirements. Right-handed power — especially on the bench — is not the easiest thing to find. The Mets spent all of last spring searching for it, before getting lucky with Marlon Byrd.
Probably the cheapest option is also the most flawed. That’s just how the market works. So if the team really is done spending, maybe you’ll see 28-year-old Delmon Young paired with Gregor Blanco in the outfield in AT&T park this year. If only you could take the best parts of both players and smush them together, you’d have a guy with power, patience and defense and a tiny little salary. But put Young in only against lefties, and his offense jumps to 15% above league average, based mostly on above-average power that’s translated decently in different parks. Even his terrible defense could be mitigated by having Juan Perez and Blanco available as defensive replacements.
Perhaps a bit more expensive might be 32-year-old Jeff Baker, the lefty-masher formerly employed by the Texas Rangers. Problem is that he has a hernia, his defense might be as bad as Delmon Young‘s in the outfield, and though he was amazing against lefties in 2013, and has been 28% better than league average against southpaws over his career, that was at least in some part aided by his home park. His slugging numbers away from home last season matched his career norms, which had been around league average going into 2013.
Michael Morse is the expensive option, as he’s looking for a one-year deal around seven-to-eight million dollars. The Giants are rumored to be in on him. The arthroscopic surgery on his wrist is probably less worrisome than his poor defense, waning power and poor contact skills. At 32, he’s decidedly post-peak, and he’s only been worth more than a half win once in his career.
Maybe a smaller trade is the way to go? 31-year-old Justin Ruggiano is a veteran outfielder on a team full of outfielders. His team is fielding offers for the right-handed outfielder. He would have the best outfield defense in his crew, has been 27% better than league average against lefties in his career, has power and patience, and is projected to make only $1.8 million in arbitration this year. Limit him to only lefties, and his strikeout rate drops to near league average and his power surges. The only question is what sort of price the Marlins will require.
Ruggiano would cost less than other available cost-controlled talent. Rick Hahn admitted that he will continue to take calls on Dayan Viciedo, but the White Sox could keep the 25-year-old slugger and may want a better return. Jesus Guzman is on a team full of outfielders, but the 30-year-old doesn’t add much on defense and may have burned bridges against the team that developed him after some on-field posturing while with the Padres.
So that’s it for the bargain bin for right-handed outfield power. Depending on how frugal the team would like to be, the solution might range from Delmon Young to Michael Morse to Justin Ruggiano. There’s an answer in there, as long as you remember that their incumbent left-fielder has managed to put up five wins in the last two years and will be a big part of any solution at the position.