While Pablo Sandoval was hitting singles and doubles and singles throughout the Giants' postseason run, the scuttlebutt had the Red Sox being interested, very interested, and very interested in the third baseman. Alex Speier did copious research and wrote a 1,700-word article that investigated the aging curve for fluffy players. That's not something every writer is going to do for every prospective free agent his or her team is rumored to be interested in.
Hey, look at this: a rumor suggesting that Sandoval was already close to an agreement with the Red Sox. There was conflicting information minutes later, but still. There's something about the Red Sox and Sandoval that appeals and/or makes sense to folks.
Hold on, though. Before we assign Sandoval to the Red Sox based on the hot-burning coals under a stove that hasn't even been turned on, yet, let's investigate Sandoval, the player. Why would teams want him? What's his story?
Sandoval didn't make the Baseball America top-30 Giants prospect list before the 2008 season. Those lists are based in no small part on the information the Giants provide to the author, so it's not like there was someone in the front office expecting his sudden rise. The Giants had gone 20 seasons without promoting a homegrown player who would eventually make the All-Star team, and it didn't look like they had any likely candidates before the '08 season.
Sandoval started his season in A-ball and ended it in the majors, where he hit .345/.357/.490 to end the season. The Giants moved him from catcher to third base, a position he hardly played in the minors, and it worked out brilliantly. This season, Sandoval was nominated for a Gold Glove for the second time. In his first full season, Sandoval hit .330 with a 144 OPS+. He was 22 and an almost certain future star. He bounced back from a subpar 2010 season to have his best overall season in 2011. He was just going to get better and better and ...
He plateaued. It's a fine plateau, don't get me wrong, but a team expecting a middle-of-the-order star will be disappointed.
That's remarkably consistent. Mixed in those seasons are wild swings of dizzying highs and disorienting lows. In the middle of May, Sandoval was hitting well under .200 and talk-radio callers were calling for his job. He rebounded just fine, and put up the numbers we expected. Nothing in the raw numbers makes you think "$100 million," though, even if he's a quality defender who might have been hurt by the only home park he's ever known.
There are ways to talk yourself into a big deal, though. The first is his relative youth. He just turned 28, which means a five-year deal wouldn't have to be an automatic dud after the third year. Most free agents are dragsters with a parachute of awful that pops open well before the finish line, slowing them down. There are several AL teams that wouldn't balk at Sandoval for five years, especially considering the safety net of the DH.
Panda Must Reads
Panda Must Reads
Another way to be optimistic about Sandoval is to note that AT&T Park really is a nightmare for offense, especially for left-handed hitters. That's Sandoval's stronger side, so it's possible that there's a latent 30-homer player buried beneath the layers and layers and layers of 15-homer player. Just ignore the fact that Sandoval has been much better at home over his career and get the administrative assistant started on printing the contract.
Yet another way to be optimistic about Sandoval is to pretend that 2010 didn't exist and believe that Sandoval has magical postseason powers that regular folks just wouldn't understand. If that's what you're into, hey ...
Sandoval missed time in 2011 and 2012 with broken hamate bones. Don't worry; there's one in each hand, and it's so useless that doctors remove it when it breaks. He has no hamate bones left to break. The only reason it exists is for people to make jokes about "ham" and "ate" when a large player breaks them. Other than that, though, Sandoval's been relatively healthy. And consistent. Don't forget that part.
He saw more pitches per plate appearance in the postseason than anyone on the Giants. It was remarkable in a way, but while his reputation as a hacker is deserved, considering that he regularly leads the league in swings at pitches out of the strike zone, his reputation as a walk-o-phobe is overblown. He's led his team in walks before (2009) and generally works enough free passes to make him something more than an average-dependent player.
Sandoval is a very good, well-rounded player. He hits for average, hits for a little power, fields well, throws the ball hard and accurately, and runs better than you might expect. He's a track coach away from being a five-tool player!
We've covered the Red Sox, and they make sense for a reason. They're so flush in cheap, young players, they can take a chance on a big contract like this for a younger player.
The Giants, though, are famous for retaining their own players, from Aubrey Huff to Jeremy Affeldt to Javier Lopez to Tim Lincecum to Hunter Pence to Marco Scutaro. There are counterexamples (Cody Ross), but they keep their big stars. Especially when they sell merchandise. Like panda hats. So many danged panda hats.
The Giants have substantial payroll commitments in the future, but they're also printing money. They have to be considered the favorites, regardless of how much Panda chatter is coming out of the Northeast.
As in, the team that could use Sandoval the most. If the Braves are looking for a quick offensive boost, they can hope Chris Johnson rebounds, or they could add a youngish Sandoval with players like Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman for the next few years. It's not likely. But it makes sense if you ignore financial considerations.
There will be a lot of interested parties. The Dodgers will be active, if only to troll the Giants and make them pay more. If you asked me last month where Sandoval was going, I would have said Boston. Now that the Giants get to make money selling World Series Champions: The Board Game! and other assorted marketing windfalls, I'll give them a 55-percent chance of retaining one of their homegrown fan favorites.
Pablo Sandoval, Giants: 6 years, $118 million