2013 Preview: San Francisco Giants

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

The Big Question: Can the Giants hold off the Dodgers in the National League West?

Fresh off a magical run which led to their second World Series title in the past three seasons, the Giants have mostly kept the band together. Giants general manager Brian Sabean pulled it off by retaining three key contributors from the 2012 team. Marco Scutaro, who batted .362 after coming over from the Rockies and played the role of hero during the postseason, is back on a three-year, $20 million contract. Angel Pagan, who thrived in his first season with the club, was re-signed for four years and $40 million. Jeremy Affeldt, who owns a 2.73 ERA over four seasons with the Giants, was brought back on a three-year, $18 million contract.

It’s a little much to ask Scutaro to replicate what he did down the stretch last season, as it was fueled by a .366 batting average on balls in play. He’s also 37 years old and has dealt with injuries in recent seasons. Hunter Pence batted just .219 with seven home runs in 59 games after coming over from the Phillies last season, so the Giants need him to bounce back in his walk year. 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey is the best bet in the lineup, but he plays the most demanding position in the sport. It would be nice if Pablo Sandoval managed to play a full season while staying in the Giants’ good graces from a conditioning perspective.

Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner have the potential to be one of the best 1-2 combos in the game, but getting a rebound season out of Tim Lincecum would provide a huge boost to the starting rotation. His 5.18 ERA last season was fourth-highest among qualified starters while his walk rate has jumped from 2.7 BB/9 to 4.4 BB/9 since 2009. The good news is that the strikeouts were still there last year. While Lincecum has received plenty of attention this spring for his new haircut, he’s hoping that an offseason strength and conditioning program will pay dividends on the mound. Don’t rule it out. He pitches in a great home park to facilitate a rebound.

It’s a little odd to see a team which won the World Series be overshadowed by a division rival, but that’s exactly what happened this winter with the high-spending Dodgers. On paper, they are a serious threat to take the division. But we have seen spending sprees backfire in baseball before, so it’s hardly a guarantee of success. Still, the margin for error figures to be smaller than last year, so Bruce Bochy’s squad needs a lot of things to go right to have a chance at a repeat.

What else is going on? 

  • With Brian Wilson out of the picture, the Giants are set to give Sergio Romo a chance at the closer role. The 30-year-old right-hander boasts a brilliant 2.20 ERA for his career and was dominant down the stretch last year and during the postseason, so it’s hard to find a more deserving candidate. However, the Giants have always been extra careful about his workload because he relies so heavily on his knockout slider. Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Affeldt also figure to get save chances.
  • The Giants never considered bringing Melky Cabrera back following his 50-game suspension for synthetic testosterone, so they are hoping that a combination of Gregor Blanco and a returning Andres Torres will be able to hold things down in left field. Defense shouldn’t be an issue, but they aren’t the most inspiring combination offensively. If there’s a spot where the Giants could look for an upgrade during the season, this is it.
  • Barry Zito is entering the final guaranteed year of his infamous seven-year, $126 million contract, as the Giants can buy out his 2014 option for $7 million. With a 58-69 record and a 4.47 ERA over six seasons with the club, there’s no disputing that he is one of the biggest free agent busts of all-time. But his surprising postseason heroics have at least assured him of a special place in franchise history.
  • Could this be the year that Brandon Belt breaks out? The 24-year-old has shown good patience and a penchant for spraying line drives, but he has just 16 home runs over his first 681 plate appearances in the majors. That’s quite a contrast to what he did in the minor leagues. The Giants will have to hope that his strong performance down the stretch last year and hot hitting this spring is a harbinger for things to come.

Prediction: It will be close, but I have the Giants repeating as the NL West winners.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.