If the San Francisco Giants Became Sellers

moneyBill James once said that most of sports writing boils down to saying what you would do if you were in charge. If I were in San Francisco Giants’ general manager Brian Sabean‘s shoes right now, I would start selling off parts.

The Giants are almost certainly not going to do that, not with a payroll that exceeds $130 million and an eager fan base that continues to sell out AT&T Park every game. They also have a championship that needs at least a cursory attempt at defending. Ownership might not be receptive to Sabean selling off parts.

However, part of an executive’s job is to convince the higher-ups to sign off on bold plans.

Sabean was very blunt and refreshingly honest in his assessment of the Giants in advance of the trade deadline. He told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:

If we don’t start playing better — the team at hand especially the lineup itself — there’s not enough help in the world that’s going to turn us around from this. It’s that simple…You can’t remake the whole lineup; you can’t remake the whole team. We’ve been miserable in scoring runs obviously; we’ve been miserable on the road. So there’s no possible way you can get as much help as you actually need from the outside world. It’s just not going to happen.

If the Giants don’t turn it around—and there’s no evidence they will—and thus decide to sell, they’ll have some interesting parts to make available.

Impending free-agent Javier Lopez would be a great get for a team in need of left-handed relief help. Lopez has a 1.71 ERA and lefties are hitting just .176 against him. The Giants might be able to get something useful for him. The Giants could also just keep Lopez and try to re-sign him during the winter.

Hunter Pence might be the best bat available in a pretty weak market for offense. Pence was having a very good season before going 1-for-27 to open July. He’s still hitting .265/.309/.458 with 13 home runs, 22 doubles and three triples. He’s also 13-for-13 on stolen base attempts this season.

If the Giants couldn’t get a worthwhile offer on Pence, they could extend him the one-year qualifying offer after the season. If Pence were to accept, the Giants would get him back on another one-year deal for around the $14 million he’s making this season. If he were to sign elsewhere, the Giants would at least get a relatively high draft pick out of the deal. Pence is a solid player, but he’s not someone I would want to be tied to on an expensive long-term deal. He’s a complimentary piece, not a star.

Tim Lincecum is suddenly throwing the ball very well. He struck out 11 over seven strong innings in his start on Monday night. Lincecum’s 4.61 ERA is misleading. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)—an ERA estimator based on walk, strikeout and home run rates—is 3.48, good for 29th best in the game. His strikeout rate of 24.1 percent is 18th among qualified starters. He doesn’t throw as hard as he once did, but he still misses bats. He walks too many hitters—his 9.5 percent walk rate ranks as the 11th worst—and he makes too many location mistakes. Still, if the Giants were willing to eat a good chunk of the remainder of the $22 million owed to Lincecum this season, I’d imagine they could get an interesting package of prospects in return for him. Lincecum is a better pitcher than Ricky Nolasco, and the Marlins could have gotten more for Nolasco had they not been so cheap and insistent upon the acquiring team taking on all of Nolasco’s salary.

Sergio Romo is under contract for another season after 2013, so I doubt the Giants would deal him. However, I think they should see if a team in need of late-inning relief help like the Detroit Tigers would overpay for him. Perhaps the Giants could package Romo and Lopez together to a contender desperate for relief pitching for a solid return.

The other route the Giants could go is to reload for 2014. They avoided acquiring Nolasco, who will be a free agent at season’s end. Instead of acquiring a rental, they can swing a deal or two for players who can help in 2014.

However, contending in 2014 assumes that under-performing (Matt Cain, Pablo Sandoval) and injured (Angel Pagan, Ryan Vogelsong) players can get back on track.

Cain was having an outstanding career before this season. The Giants signed him to a six-year, $127.5 million extension last spring and it looked like an excellent deal when he put up an ERA under 3.00 for the third time in four years. Unfortunately, he hasn’t looked right during 2013 in the second year of that deal.

He’s been pitching from a lower arm slot this year, which has caused him to hang sliders and curveballs far too often. He’s having a hard time getting the ball to his gloveside, which has made him more vulnerable to right-handed hitters than ever before. His fastball is continually leaking back out over the plate. He’s had a hard time pitching from the stretch, too. His velocity is the same as it was last season, but he just doesn’t have the same type of command. Is he hurt? Is he just fatigued? Why is he lowering his arm angle? Can he get back to being a top-of-the-rotation starter next year?

Sandoval is an even bigger problem going forward. After putting up an .861 OPS in April, his OPS dropped to .665 in May, .431 in June and .310 thus far in July. He’s in the midst of a brutal 6-for-51 (.118) slump since returning from the disabled list. His slash line is down to .257/.300/.373. Competing next year assumes that Sandoval—a key middle-of-the-order piece—can get back to hitting like he did in 2011. Given how badly he’s looked this year and how out of shape he is, that’s a lofty presumption.

Pagan was playing a disastrous center field and struggling at the plate before he blew out his hamstring. The Giants owe the 32-year-old Pagan $28 million over the next three seasons. His game is built around his speed, he’ll be 33 next year and he’ll be coming off of a major injury. Can he come close to replicating his 2012 season? Can he even play center field anymore?

Vogelsong came out of nowhere to give the Giants two tremendous seasons in 2011 and 2012. He was the team’s best starter last postseason. Then, he put up a 7.19 ERA over nine starts to open this season before going on the disabled list. He’ll be back in August. If he pitches well down the stretch, the Giants will likely pick up his $6.5 million option for 2014. If he pitches like he did to open the year, it’s hard to imagine the Giants paying that much money for a guy with an ERA over 7.00.

This is a team in flux. They were the champions last year, and now they’re suddenly one of the worst teams in baseball. It happened in an instant. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might not have even noticed it while it was happening. But it happened. Unless Cain, Sandoval, Pagan and Vogelsong can get back to being the players they were when the Giants won it all, it isn’t going to happen for this franchise in 2014, either.

If I were in Sabean’s shoes, I wouldn’t bet on those players or this team suddenly getting back on track. 2013 is a lost cause and 2014 is a great unknown. It’s time to put some assets on the trading market and see if the fish will bite. This team doesn’t need just a few decent parts to contend next season; they need a massive infusion of young talent.

The Giants will always have their run of two championships in three years. If Sabean makes the right moves at the deadline, the organization’s next run of success can come sooner than it did after the end of the Bonds Era.

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