The Giants Should Pursue an Elite Free Agent Starting Pitcher

The San Francisco Giants enter the 2014-2015 offseason with more questions about their starting rotation than at any time in the last half decade. Ryan Vogelsong and Jake Peavy will be free agents, Matt Cain is coming off surgery to remove bone chips in his pitching elbow, Time Lincecum has pitched his way completely out of the picture, and the 39 year old Tim Hudson has imploded down the stretch, posting a 8.72 ERA in September. Only Madison Bumgarner anchoring the top of the rotation can really be counted on.

There is a glaring hole behind Bumgarner. There’s been a lot of talk about resigning Peavy, and I wouldn’t mind that at the right price, but is he going be your number two pitcher? Is Hudson? It would be an enormous boost if Cain can return to form and reclaim that role, but at this point you can’t count on that.1 Peavy, Hudson, and Vogelsong all looked good at points this season, but October showed why it’s dangerous to have three fifths of your rotation be 35 or older, by the World Series they were completely out of gas.

After winning their third world championship in five years, the Giants have money to spend this offseason. They ended the season with the sixth or seventh highest payroll in the baseball, so it’s not like they’ve been cheap up to this point, but that figure is deceptive, they are in really good shape with most of their contracts, and can actually keep this same core in place while decreasing the payroll if they wanted to.

The Giants are paying Tim Lincecum and Marco Scutaro a combined 25 million dollars next year, but after that they are off the payroll completely, leaving 25 million dollars annually to spent on players that you know, can actually play baseball. Bumgarner, Posey, and Pence are locked up on very friendly contracts for several more years, Bumgarner on arguably the most valuable contract in baseball. Crawford, Belt, Sousac, Panik, and several young bullpen arms are still under rookie contracts and are under team control for the foreseeable future. The bullpen will look different next year, with several pitchers, including Romo, being free agents, but the bullpen needs to be revamped anyway. Really the only position that needs to be addressed is third base, where I fully expect the Giants to resign Sandoval to a lucrative contract. Sabean rewards his guys.

The free agent market sets up nicely for the Giants this year, with three elite starting pitchers, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, and James Shields, all becoming unrestricted free agents. The Giants greatest need is also the deepest position in this year’s market, and really there is no one at any other position that makes sense for the Giants to pursue. Hanley Ramirez would be a slight upgrade on Sandoval at third, but he will also be more expensive, and comes with serious injury and douchebag concerns. The Giants need outfield depth, particularly in left field, and have been rumored to be interested in recently defected Cuban slugger Yasmany Tomas, but after him who is worth spending big money on in the outfield? They signed up for the Melky Cabrera experience three years ago and were not fans. Nelson Cruz can’t play in the outfield. Going down the list you pretty quickly find yourself looking at the Colby Rasmus’s and Nick Markasis’s of the world, and how much of an upgrade over Gregor Blanco would those players really be?2

The most cost effective way to improve the Giants roster is to sign one of the top free agent pitchers. They have traded some of their most promising young pitchers away on trade deadline deals (Hunter Pence, Carlos Beltran) during stretch runs the last several years, so they really have no minor leaguers ready to become big league starters. A starting rotation of Bumgarner, Peavy, Hudson, Vogelsong and Lincecum is old and mediocre. A starting rotation of Bumgarner, Scherzer, Peavy, Hudson, and Vogelsong is dynamic and formidable. One elite pitcher can make that much of a difference (see: Bumgarner, Madison) to a team’s rotation. The Giants have the money, and as crazy as this sounds, the smartest way to spend it is all in one place, a playoff-caliber starting pitcher.

1) I criticize Giants GM Brian Sabean a lot for overpaying to resign his own players, I think that’s his biggest fault as a GM, but I’ll still defend that Cain contract. He had been one of the most consistent, durable, and productive Giants ever since he was called up. If you aren’t going to spend big money to pay him, who are you going to spend it for?

2) The Giants do need to sign a starting left fielder, Gregor Blanco is a fourth outfielder, not an everyday player, but they’ve won World Championship’s three of the last five years with Pat Burrell (cut by the Ray’s and picked up by the Giants during the season), Gregor Blanco (filling in for suspended Melky) and Travis freaking Ishikawa (cut by the Pirates and picked up by the Giants during the season, also not even a left fielder), manning left, so I’m inclined to think they can find more value signing players from the scrap heap (more examples: Michael Morse, Cody Ross) than paying big money for a top free agent.

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