The Giants Should Stop Prioritizing Outfield Help

The Giants have been one of the busier teams this offseason, wheeling and dealing their way to a markedly different roster in just a few months. Since December 15th alone, the club has traded away left-hander Matt Moore, a general disappointment in the 240 innings he had thrown for the Giants. They followed this up by acquiring two faces of their former franchises: Moore’s one-time Tampa Bay teammate Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. The most recent deal has the Giants signing Austin Jackson for two years and $6 million to round out their starting outfield.

Or so it seemed.

Giants president of baseball operations Brian Sabean seemed to suggest otherwise recently, according to reports by Alex Pavlovic and John Shea.

“He’s certainly a viable option,” Sabean said of Jackson. “Did we get him to be our everyday center fielder? Probably not. I don’t know that in his recent history, he’s been able to go out there in that fashion.”

Sabean might not be wrong about Jackson. Even though he was an effective player from 2010 to -15, he turns 31 in a week and hit the disabled list twice last season. Jackson might be best relied on as a part-time player, albeit a very good one.

So were does that leave the Giants? They seem to be keeping an eye on the market for outfielders, probably with a view towards acquiring a cheap option somewhere along the line. This search, combined with their financial position, seems to leave the team focused on a particular goal in mind, one that fails to address one of their most glaring needs.

There’s no doubt that the Giants were bad last season. Their .395 win percentage marked the franchise’s worst since 1985. But it’s also no secret that the team massively underperformed expectations, a point recently addressed by Jeff Sullivan. Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford both took huge steps back from the 2015 and 2016 campaigns, combining for half of their production in either of those two seasons. Joe Panik’s BABIP stabilized, but his defense seemed to regress. Hunter Pence continued his long slide to the worst season of his 11-year career. Not even Buster Posey being Buster Posey could keep this team’s offense from ending up as the worst in baseball.

All this is why the Giants could go into 2018 with a fairly positive outlook, as Carson Cistulli noted in his writeup of the club’s ZiPS projections. There is talent on the team; a lot of it just had a bad year all at once. A little positive regression by Belt, Crawford, and Panik, and suddenly the Giants look a lot better.

And those ZiPS projections were published two weeks, when it looked like San Francisco would be playing Gorkys Hernandez, Jarrett Parker, and Mac Williamson regularly in the outfield. The combination of the McCutchen trade and Jackson signing serves only to augment the offense further, leading to potentially a huge turnaround for the Giants in 2018. The projections at the time of the McCutchen trade had the Giants pegged for 85 wins, good enough for the second Wild Card.

So why the focus on the outfield market? Well, it’s not as if the outfield is flawless as presently constructed. For one, the defense out there isn’t inspiring. Pence, moving to left field for the first time next year, is 35 and has seen his fielding value decline recently. McCutchen’s defensive ability has been dissected over the years, and Jackson’s defense has also gone below average, too. For another thing, the trio of McCutchen, Jackson, and Pence –even add Gorkys Hernandez, if you want — are all right-handed batters. A left-handed bat to occasionally spell these three, especially Jackson, against righties would be a reasonable addition to the team.

Unfortunately, the market for lefty outfielders is a little sparse. You’re looking at Carlos Gonzalez, Andre Ethier, Jon Jay, Michael Saunders, and Ichiro. The addition of switch-hitters only tacks on Melky Cabrera. Complicating things further is the fact that the Giants don’t have much room to spend, sitting just $2.1 million shy of the luxury tax, which teams are actively trying to avoid in preparation for the free-agent bonanza of the 2018-19 offseason.

Their lefty outfielder could be filled by a trade for a pre-arbitration player (unlikely) or by an internal option. Chris Shaw is the organization’s second-best prospect according to Baseball America. He’s a first baseman who experimented with left field last year. Steven Duggar, meanwhile, possesses less power but more speed and better defense. Either could ostensibly fill the role. However, it’s a bit beside the point. All this focus on the outfield is obscuring the bigger problem for San Francisco in 2018.

The Giants seem to be building a team concerned specifically with winning in the playoffs. Once there, they can run the offense they’re building out behind a three-man rotation of Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija, and Johnny Cueto — probably to good effect. But to win in the playoffs they’ll have to get there first, and to get there they are counting on positive regression from several hitters. This is not necessarily unreasonable, but they are also relying on receiving major contributions from young players out of the fourth and fifth rotation spots and bullpen. The focus on bolstering their offense and outfield seems to have come at the expense of finding quality starting options.

The current candidates to fill the next two rotation spots are Ty Blach, Chris Stratton, and Tyler Beede. Blach made 24 starts in 2017 but lost his rotation spot in September after an August that saw him give up 23 earned runs in 37 innings. Stratton held a 2.98 ERA through 10 starts but also walked nearly 4.5 batters per 9 innings. Beede came into 2017 as a top-100 prospect according to MLB.com and Baseball America but struggled mightily, his strikeout rate backing up to previous levels and his home-run rate spiking in the homer-happy PCL.

Both Steamer and ZiPS are skeptical of the trio, projecting all three to put up ERAs and FIPs north of 4.

Giants Back-End Starters
Player Steamer
IP
Steamer
ERA
Steamer
FIP
Steamer
WAR
ZiPS
ERA
ZiPS
FIP
ZiPS
WAR
Chris Stratton 154 4.31 4.41 1.4 4.66 4.62 0.4
Ty Blach 115 4.58 4.65 0.7 4.59 4.48 0.6
Tyler Beede 55 4.28 4.45 0.5 4.69 4.71 0.3

Maybe there will ultimately be another option for the Giants. Maybe Andrew Suarez will surprise. Maybe this offseason’s historically slow free-agent market will yield some bargain. Maybe they find a reclamation project like Chris Tillman to fill the back of the rotation. But that’s a lot of a maybes for a team hoping to do damage in October.

All that said, I certainly believe the Giants will be better than last year. I also believe that they will be above .500. They may even contend for the postseason, but that’s far from guaranteed. They play in a division with three playoff teams from last year, none of which were the Giants themselves. Arizona is projected to finish only two games behind San Francisco, and Colorado will not go away quietly either, despite my own misgivings about them. By focusing on their offense and constructing a team that seems to be geared toward winning in the postseason, the Giants stand to miss out on the party altogether.





Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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shoheiotani
4 years ago

Keon Broxton appears to be odd man out in MIL after getting Cain and Yelich. Brewers wanna keep Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips unless they get a stud pitcher in return for them.

I see a lot of Giant fans in on Broxton.

Alan
4 years ago
Reply to  shoheiotani

If I ran the Brewers, I would not feel compelled to donate a center fielder to a team I may be competing with for a wild card spot. I am sure there is a home for someone in the American League or in Miami or San Diego.

sadtrombonemember
4 years ago
Reply to  Alan

This is an excellent point, and it reinforces the real issue…that despite Broxton’s stock falling, he’s going to be way more expensive than a half decent strong side platoon option.

RonnieDobbs
4 years ago
Reply to  shoheiotani

Please No! He should be K’ing in AAA. I don’t think it was ever smart of the Brewers to give him a starting job and I think their signings are evidence that they realize their mistake.