Even before the season began, Pablo Sandoval's offseason fate was a topic of hot discussion—and rightfully so.
As the majors' top hitter with an expiring contract, Sandoval will find himself on several needy teams' wishlists, and the offers should start rolling in as soon as the Giants extend their third baseman the qualifying offer that everyone knows is coming.
No matter how many seasons Sandoval has spent in San Francisco, how many World Series he ends up with or what type of camaraderie he has developed with the Giants, baseball is a business, and teams will be more than willing to cough up millions—perhaps more than the Giants want to spend—to acquire Sandoval's services.
Both sides are still far apart both monetarily and in contract length. General manager Brian Sabean broke off extension talks with his third baseman in early April, weeks after Sandoval's agent, Gustavo Vasquez, told the Chronicle's Henry Schulman that his client wanted a five-year deal worth no less than Hunter Pence's $90 million contract.
After a somewhat productive 2014 campaign (.279/.324/.415), followed by another breakout postseason, Sandoval should earn at least that amount, whether it's with San Francisco or elsewhere. The question, then, is which one it will be. At this point, it's more like to be the latter, but playing devil's advocate, let's look at why the Giants could end up bringing Sandoval back. More importantly, should they even bother?
Throughout the regular season, it seemed almost foregone that the Giants would extend a qualifying offer to Sandoval and he would simply kiss them goodbye in favor of free agency. Though it appears they'll still go through with the offer, the Giants' World Series run increases their chances of re-signing Sandoval.
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Players want to go where they can win, and even if the Giants lose their next two games in Kansas City, Sandoval would likely think twice about leaving a team with three World Series appearances in the last five seasons. As was the case with the Royals and James Shields in rumors earlier this postseason, a deep playoff run also changes the situation financially, even if a good deal of the revenue generated from postseason games goes directly to the players and commissioner's office.
Also not to be overlooked is Sabean's tendency to re-sign his key players. On top of bringing back Pence last offseason, the Giants general manager has extended core players like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain in recent years. Posey was 26 years old at the time of his extension; Pence was 30 while Cain was 27. Right on par, Sandoval is 28.
Giants president Larry Baer is likely a strong proponent of an extension as well. Losing Sandoval would be a marketing hit for the Giants, and while exact figures aren't readily available, the team's executives would probably prefer to keep "Panda" merchandise on the shelves. Sandoval is so popular in San Francisco that the loss of his merchandise sales could be enough to have a slight impact on the team's decision. (It's a stretch, but Baer is the one who writes the checks, and he stands to benefit from Sandoval's popularity in the team stores.)
Most importantly, however, Sandoval is the Giants' best option at the hot corner going into 2015, and it really isn't close.
In terms of in-house options, rookie Matt Duffy would likely be the best replacement option. After back-to-back seasons of steady production in the minors (.832 and .842 OPS totals in 2013 and 2014, respectively) combined with strong plate discipline that speaks well for his future in the majors, Duffy could fill in reasonably for Sandoval. But even including the postseason, Duffy has just 70 plate appearances of experience in the majors, making it a huge leap of faith to rely on him for a full season.
The Giants could also turn to cheaper options on the free agent market, like Yankees third baseman Chase Headley. But Headley is an undeniable downgrade from Sandoval, especially with his proven inability to hit in pitcher-friendly parks. (The former Padres third baseman is a career .243/.331/.372 hitter at Petco Park.) Given Headley's hefty price tag, the Giants would likely be better off dropping more money for Sandoval instead—if that option proves feasible.
They might not have the payroll to do so, however, otherwise they likely would have given Sandoval a better offer during regular season negotiations.
"It’s gonna be hard for us to compete against an American League team in terms of years," Sabean said earlier this week, via the New York Daily News' Bill Madden. "We’ll just have to wait and see what his offers are."
Maybe the Giants would be better off in the long run not re-signing Sandoval. It's one thing to wonder if they have the financial capacity to do so; it's another to consider whether it's a smart move in the first place. Sure, he's consistent. But over the last three years, Sandoval's wRC+ has been as follows: 118, 116, 111. Above average, yes, but numbers that also might not be worth the potential nine-figure deal he'll command.
Sandoval's power outage is also somewhat of a concern. Since the start of 2012, he has just 42 homers in 1,509 at-bats, a number nearly matched by Baltimore's Nelson Cruz (40 homers this year) in 896 fewer at-bats.
It's not really a matter of whether the Giants want Sandoval. Rather, the issue is whether he's actually worth the price tag—which will be dictated by whatever the Giants' competitors see fit to offer. But if Sandoval ends up elsewhere next season, the team could find themselves with a situation similar to the second base and left field woes of 2014 and 2013, respectively.
Either way, in an offseason severely lacking in offensive talent, the Pablo Sandoval saga figures to be the most interesting story to follow.