The next several months are critical for the future of the San Francisco Giants. The moves the Giants' front office makes between now and Spring Training aren't simply about the 2014 season. This is about 2015 and 2016 and beyond.
The real question here is: does this franchise continue to do what it's done in the past or is the current management group capable of developing multi-year plans and identifying the strategies needed to get there?
Because up until now General Manager Brian Sabean and his brain trust have essentially seen their job as just putting together a new version of the team each season. Their tired basic recipe is well known to anyone who follows San Francisco: over-rely on pitching, then slap together just enough offense to compete.
The smoke-and-mirrors offenses of the last ten years often include inexpensive washed-up veterans and re-signing low-performing branded fan favorites. In the Giants front office, hoping and praying for an offense routinely substitutes for carefully identifying which potential hitters would actually complement each other to produce runs at AT&T Park.
We know that money is not an issue, even though it's only in the past year or so that San Francisco's upper management finally stopped trying to insist to fans and the media that the Giants are a small market team with a limited payroll budget. And next year Major League Baseball's new national TV contract kicks in which gives each team an additional $25 million a year for the next eight years.
Which increases every MLB team's total national media revenue package to about $75 million a season. And that doesn't count local TV and radio revenue (the Red Sox have an $18 million a year radio deal, the Texas Rangers pull in another $150 million a year from their local TV broadcasts).
Understand, nothing compels teams to spend that money on accquiring/developing players (or anything else). Every MLB franchise gets that money as long as the owners unlock the stadium doors in April and lock the gate behind them in October (see: Astros, Houston).
As the 2013 off-season moves on, time is running out. The NL West Champion Los Angeles Dodgers have already signed Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero– and remember that name. Guerrero's power bat could be a huge addition for the Dodgers and a nightmare for opposing NL West pitchers.
LA also has four starting outfielders (Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Yasiel Puig, and Carl Crawford) and a top minor league outfield prospect in Joc Pederson. So expect LA to get even stronger when they trade an outfielder or two this off-season.
How can we know exactly how the 2013 offseason is shaping up for the San Francisco Giants?
Easy– by which free agents they sign and (just as important) which ones they don't sign. And also by one other measure: can the San Francisco front office make the high profile trade the team needs to get back into contention, whether it's for a run-producing bat or a front line starting pitcher?
Three free agents that would absolutely transform the San Francisco Giants in 2014 and for years to come:
> Masahiro Tanaka, SP
Tanaka is not a free agent, but the twenty-five year old Japanese pitching star will soon join a Major League team.
It is estimated that the posting fee simply to negotiate with Tanaka's Japanese team will be in the area of $75 million. Whichever MLB team wins the bidding would then negotiate a multi-year contract with Tanaka. A number of teams are expected to put in a bid– including the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Signing Masahiro Tanaka would be, by far, the best and most significant signing the San Francisco Giants could make now and maybe for many years to come.
He will be a franchise changer for whichever team gets him and more than worth the posting fee and whatever the cost of his contract.
In his last three seasons with the Rakuten Golden Eagles Tanaka is 53-9; over his seven year career he is 99-35 with a 1.108 WHIP. He has 1,238 strikeouts and 275 walks. Tanaka has four quality pitches, including a world class splitter.
The Giants need to sign two quality starting pitchers this off-season. If they signed Tanaka he would immediately be the team's ace.
> Jesse Crain, RP
San Francisco's bullpen needs an upgrade. If they can't get a young, hard throwing arm via a trade, signing Jesse Crain comes in second. Crain's numbers have always been excellent and before he went down with shoulder problems last season he had a 0.74 ERA with the White Sox in 38 games, striking out 11.3 hitters per 9 innings.
Jesse Crain has been a rock throughout his 10 year career. His presence would immediately bolster the middle-end of the Giants bullpen and allow San Francisco room to experiment with rookie pitchers Heath Hembree and Edwin Escobar at the big league level.
> Shin-Soo Choo, OF
No other offensive player on the market matches up better for the Giants. Choo is a run producer with power, exactly what San Francisco needs. Last season with the Cincinnati Reds Choo scored 107 runs and hit 20 home runs and 34 doubles. His .423 OBP was 4th highest in baseball, and he is a more than decent outfielder.
Whoever signs Choo will have to give up their top draft pick in 2014, but there's always a price to pay for quality. And the potential worth of a 2014 draft pick five years from now doesn't compare to what Shin-Soo Choo would bring to San Francisco over those same five years.
Here are two free agents and a trade San Francisco should avoid at all costs:
> Denard Span, OF
To be clear, Denard Span is not a free agent. He's trade bait and the Washington Nationals are doing everything in their power to quietly get rid of him. Needy teams like the San Francisco Giants are exactly the kind of chumps who might bite at the bait and end up as the catch of the day.
At first glance Span seems like the quintessential lead-off man and a star center-fielder. But hold on, Jocko, and pull up those pants.
In 2014 Span will be on the down side of 30 years old. Last season in 610 at-bats Span had a .327 OBP, a .707 OPS, and stole only 20 bases. Sure, he can play center field, but that can't begin to make up for his diminishing offensive skills.
If Denard Span is so good, why do you think Washington is trying so hard to deal him? Danger, danger, danger…
> Nelson Cruz, OF
Heard about those pitchers called "brain-dead heavers"? One dimensional hard throwers who can't think beyond their knuckles? The offensive version of that is Nelson Cruz. Sure, he has power, but that's absolutely all he has.
It's like Dan Uggla married Adam Dunn and they had a kid who swings with his eyes closed (not, I would like to note, that there's anything wrong with that).
The team that eventually signs free agent Nelson Cruz is saying the following to its fanbase: most of you are either soccer fans or you have enjoyed a lifetime of unabated illegal drug use, because you think a hitter who only occasionally swats a home run is an excellent dude to have.
> Scott Feldman, SP
In many ways, a Giants signing of free agent starting pitcher Scott Feldman is the worst possible scenario other than the earth being overrun by giant 30 foot rats. Why?
a) Scott Feldman, who will be 31 next year, is the very definition of an older, slower, tired journeyman starting pitcher who contributes nothing and just marks time in any MLB rotation.
Hey, that's just what the San Francisco Giants need to jumpstart their 2014 campaign!
The best thing sports media commentators can say about guys like Scott Feldman is that they are "innings eaters". Kind of like a 1950s movie monster who roams across America, charging into ballparks chewing on innings.
And, b) although Scott Feldman is a ground ball thrower that doesn't play out as well in the very large AT&T Park. The usual numbers can try to lie but they just can't: 9 years, 1.370 WHIP, 5.6 SO per 9 innings, has never tossed 200 innings in any season.
So Giants fans, get out your note pads and your knee pads and cross your fingers and toes. This could either be a very good off-season for the Gigantes, or another step into the dreaded Andres Torres Zone…